While higher airfares are grabbing travelers' attention, airlines have also quietly been raising their fees for checked bags.
Some airlines have added a $30 fee for a second checked bag on international flights, or raised existing fees by $5 to $10. Others are charging significantly more — sometimes double — for overweight or oversized bags.
The reason: higher fuel costs. Oil has risen 25 percent in just four months and now tops $100 a barrel. U.S. airlines have collectively raised fares eight times in that period, but have warned that might not be enough. Consider that while the cost of filling up your car has risen 17 percent so far this year, the cost of filling up a plane has gone up 25 percent.
American is now charging $30 for a second bag on flights to Central America and the Caribbean. United added a similar fee for travel between the U.S. and Canada, as well as Central and South America. Also, American's second-bag fee for trips to Europe is now the industry's most expensive at $60; it was $50.
JetBlue just raised its second-bag fee to $35, in line with most large U.S. airlines.
While you may be tempted to jam two bags worth of clothing into one, beware of overweight charges. As they expand, it's becoming more important to weigh your luggage before heading to the airport.
US Airways recently raised to $90 from $70 its fee for bags weighing more than 50 pounds. That's the standard starting weight for oversized bags, but Spirit Airlines recently began charging a $25 fee for bags between 41 and 50 pounds — and even more for heavier bags. United's fee for extra heavy bags — those between 71 and 99 pounds — has doubled to $400.
It's not just weight that matters, though. Fees for big suitcases — generally with a combined height, length and width measuring over 62 inches — are also going up. US Airways raised its fee to $175 from $100.
Airline passengers know the story: baggage fees first appeared in early 2008 and have been expanding ever since. U.S. airlines raked in $2.57 billion in bag fees for the first nine months of 2010, the latest statistics from the Transportation Department show. That nearly topped the $2.73 billion collected for all of 2009.
Raising fees for additional bags or extra weight risks less of a backlash than charging more for a first bag, which would impact more people. At US Airways, only 12 percent of the total bags it carries are second checked bags.
"I think they're just looking for some icing on their fee cake at this point," says George Hobica, founder of the travel website airfarewatchdog.com. "Passengers won't be appearing at the airport with pitchforks."
Travelzoo Senior Editor Gabe Saglie agrees. He doesn't expect new fees — or higher fares — to stop Americans from flying. After being forced by the recession to embrace the 'staycation' or drive somewhere instead, he expects many people will choose to fly this summer.
Because airlines know passengers dislike bag fees (and many can be avoided), they've also been trying to get more money for certain privileges.
As passengers bring more luggage onboard to avoid fees, the airlines have started charging for the luxury of getting first dibs on the overhead bins. Priority boarding, starting at $10, allows passengers to get to their seats first. American Airlines now charges $19-$39 for "Express Seats" — those in the first few rows of coach.
Starting this summer, Delta will offer a premium economy section on international flights. Passengers get more legroom and room to recline — for an extra $80 to $160 each way. This could not only lure coach passengers who feel cramped, but attract business travelers who've been sitting in coach to save money.
Fees have become a critical piece of airlines' profits. Delta had operating income of about $3 billion last year. It made about $1.3 billion from baggage fees alone from January to September.
The Air Transport Association estimates that for every $1 increase in the price of oil, U.S. airlines' costs go up by $400 million. Oil is up $13 per barrel from the start of the year. Jet fuel has jumped to $3.15 per gallon. At these levels, airline analyst Robert Herbst forecasts the eight largest U.S. airlines will pay about $9 billion more for fuel this year than last.
Many experts — and the airlines themselves — insist there are more ways to charge travelers.
Hobica could also impose fees for babies sitting on parents' laps on domestic flights (as they already do internationally) or provide more opportunities to shop onboard. They also could expand service charges like those for seats with more legroom, he says.
But rest assured, you still get that can of soda for free. At least for now.