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The Most Hated Airline Fees and What We’re Doing About Them

hated airline fees keep going up

It’s getting harder each year to find an airline that doesn’t reach into your pocket over and over again for extra handouts when you’re buying a flight ticket. Naturally, that makes people angry and we start looking for ways around the problem. There are different tiers of anger though: some of the most hated airline fees get people more worked up than others.

This year United Airlines has been busy pissing off as many people as possible again. First they made it much harder for normal mortals to ever achieve elite status no matter how much they fly. You have to spend at least $4,000 on tickets or pay to upgrade to business class a lot. Then since making a billion dollars a year by charging people extra fees wasn’t enough, they raised their fee to check a bag up to $35 each way.

They weren’t the first: JetBlue announced the highest bag fee in the USA a bit earlier. (Remember when JetBlue was the cool airline everyone loved? Now they’re another Spirit Air wannabee.)

This bag fee is just one of many, of course, since these days you can get squeezed for everything from seat selection to when you board the plane.

The Airline Fees We Hate the Most

A recent survey from FinanceBuzz shed some light on which airline fees really get passengers riled up the most.

While a majority have paid some kind of bag fee, this is also the type of airline fee that people hate the most. It’s also a big driver behind Southwest’s continual success and why most savvy flyers will pick an international carrier over a U.S. one when they get the chance. Here are the fees that survey respondents dislike the most:

1) Carry-on bag fee

2) Checked bag fee

3) Seat selection fee

4) Onboard WiFi fee

5) Priority boarding fee

I have to say #4 doesn’t bother me in the slightest since I hardly ever use it. It’s kind of nice to be offline for hours and ignore the chatter. I read a book, watch a movie, or do some photo/video editing. (If there’s room to, I write, but that’s getting tougher and tougher with the lack of legroom in economy.)

I can often get around three of these five with the right credit card in hand, but that’s because I also avoid “Basic Economy” tickets like the plague. These fake-out tickets are basically Spirit Air tickets on a legacy airline. All they get you is a cramped seat in the worst part of the plane and you will pay for everything else. On Kayak and some other online agencies, go to “Filters” and then “Cabin” to uncheck a box and avoid even seeing those.

Which Airlines Are the Worst for Baggage Fees?

In the survey, fliers called out American Airlines, Spirit, and United as the worst for fees. Indeed, American made more than any other carrier last year by reaching into your pocket again if you dared to not travel light. They raked in $1.2 billion last year just from baggage fees.

When you take passenger volume into account though, the fees leader Spirit Airlines is ahead by miles, with the other budget carriers racing behind them. “Spirit Airlines, the patron saint of baggage fees, takes the top spot with an average of almost $25 in baggage fees per passenger. Following closely behind are Sun Country ($20/passenger), Frontier ($19/passenger), and Allegiant ($18/passenger),” says FinanceBuzz.


What Are We Doing About All These Airline Fees?

The survey asked passengers what steps they are taking to get around all these hated airline fees that just keep coming and keep going up.

As any economist will tell you, increase the economic penalties and you impact spending behavior. As any behavioral psychologist will tell you, increase the pain and people will start taking steps to avoid it. We see both in play when travelers are confronted by increased fees.

The most obvious step—if you’re not on a super budget airline or buying a dreaded Basic Economy fake-out fare, is to pack lighter. I’ve got my own strategies to accomplish this and I have even flown on Allegiant Airlines without paying any baggage fees. It’s not easy, but it can be done. If you don’t have to check a bag, most of the time you can avoid baggage fees. If you do have to check one, flying on Southwest is almost always the best choice. More than 1/3 of respondents said, “I try to avoid airlines that charge for carry-on bags.”

Also, as you’ve probably seen from the mayhem these days during the boarding process, the airlines’ decision to charge for checked bags means nearly every passenger is bringing a carry-on now. So overhead luggage bin space is crammed full on every non-Southwest flight. As the survey revealed, this is a popular reaction to the fees. Nearly 40% said, “I carry on a bag that I would have checked if it were free.”

luggage fees U.S. airlines

If you also make them pay for that carry-on, they’re really going to hate you. More than 42% said, “I try to avoid airlines that charge for carry-on bags.”

People also resort to all kinds of other tactics though, including some underhanded ones. One question asked, “Have you ever lied or engaged in deceitful behavior to try to avoid airline fees?” Around 24% said yes, they had, while another 8.5% said, “I’d be open to it.” 

A Few Ways to Ease the Airline Fees Pain

If you only fly a couple times a year, the only viable solution to this pick-pocketing are to fight it or to give in. If you fight it, then you pack light, fly a better carrier, or find a different way to get to where you’re going. Otherwise, you suck it up and assume the real price of your flight is going to be $70 to $150 more than what the airline first shows you. Assume every price you see is a bait-and-switch and be ready for it.

If you fly more often, you have more options. I have four different airline credit cards, which the average person would think is nuts I’m sure. I easily get more in benefits than what I pay for the annual fee though. That’s because the ones from the three main legacy carriers all give you one checked bag on your flights if you pay with that card, plus they give you priority boarding so you’ll always find overhead bin space. Some also let you check a companion’s bag, so it doesn’t take long to make up for that annual fee.

In addition, the sign-up bonuses they give in mileage can be enough to get you to the other side of the world and back. See details here on several premium cards or follow these links to see the sign-up bonuses from United, Delta, or Southwest (for the points, not the bags).

Some of the premium credit cards will give you a flight credit back you can use for bags. So essentially you’re handing them $450 and they’re handing you back $200. Obviously you want to make sure you’re using the other perks enough to justify the difference.

If you are going to spend four grand or so with one airline, then your loyalty will actually be rewarded. Even then though, you probably won’t get a free checked bag. You have to spend double or triple to get that kind of status. Meanwhile, the hated airline fees will keep coming.

For the most part, loyalty doesn’t pay anymore. Have a calculator ready and figure out the best deal after all fees. Factor in the seat selection scam if you’re a family traveling together. This is the new normal now, unfortunately, so every flight is a fight—between you and the airlines doing everything they can to keep charging you and charging you as you move through the booking process.

How about you? How have you avoided paying hundreds of dollars in extra hated airline fees?


Wednesday 4th of March 2020

Both the baggage and seat fee really piss me off. Some people need the aisle seat for heath reasons on long flights, especially if your older or have knee problems or a family. Effectively, some of us are being charged for a physiological issue or family reasons and must pay the fee. While some bloggers suggest waiting until check in to reserve your seat, more airlines, especially the budget ones, don't allow you to select a seat no matter what and demand payment for a specific seat. The check in staff usually or can't bend this rule, even if you have a legitimate reason. Effectively, this is cruelty used to make a profit and should be illegal everywhere. While I feel the seat (and luggage) fees should be banned, for sure, anyone over 60 or with a family should not have to pay these fees.

Swarup Mondal

Tuesday 3rd of March 2020

Hello Such a great and informative article. Thanks for sharing

Bidyut Jana

Tuesday 3rd of March 2020

I loved this post very informative and useful! Thanks for sharing such kind of useful stuff.

Kevin Donnelly

Wednesday 26th of February 2020

I am currently on a two month plus adventure trip in Europe and doing it comfortably with just a carry-0n and a small day pack (which I use a great deal on day hikes). Here are some of the techniques I used to get here. 1. I shopped and shopped prices of different airline deals including different dates and different initial Europe arrival counties and airports (once in Europe you have a wide selection. of little known discount airlines) and too, there are the trains and buses - lots of options. My best deal getting here this trip required three change of planes and three different airlines. 2. I avoid, if possible, airlines that charge carry-on fees which I did. 3. I watched a great video on how to pack and followed it. I have eight changes of underwear, sweaters and, besides other items, a tie, slacks, jacket and dress shoes. I still have some room for gifts on me return flights. 4. I get to the airport early to increase my boarding number and to get a good seat in the waiting area. I have lots of books on Kindle to keep me occupied. Be sure to bring two or three adapters with you. Also, I never travel without a three plug six foot extension cord. It take-up very little space and has proven invaluable. 5. I have everything I need on the flight in my daypack (including computers) so, when I enter the plane, I put my carry-on in the very first open overhead bin. Two reasons: I am now assured it has a spot and too, I won’t have to lug it down and back so far in that narrow isle after all, I am 81.


Tuesday 25th of February 2020

Other than packing light Tim hasn't given us much to work with here, it's just like a well-deserved rant/rage against the machine. What we need are some 'sneeky ways' to avoid the fees. Here are a couple, With the airlines that put tags on on your carry-on luggage that you had to pay for, save that tag you can use it the next time you fly with those greedy tight-wads. The ones that actually weigh your carry-on at check-in you can have someone hold some or your items for you and after they weigh your luggage and give you the tag you can retrieve your items from them and maybe hold some of their items when it is their turn! I don't know if any airline weighs your carry-ons at the gate yet, some put up a cage that your luggage is suppose to fit in to be a carry-on size. At the gate they mostly want to get you on the plane as fast as possible....

Tim Leffel

Friday 28th of February 2020

Those are what are referred to in the survey as deceptive ways to get around. I covered many of the above-board tips in the linked articles about Allegiant and Spirit. But yes, many airlines do weigh your carry-on, especially the budget ones. They will often use the sizer at the gate rather than at check-in, charging you a very hefty fee to gate-check it if it doesn't fit. Spirit is known for doing this on nearly every flight, as I've heard Ryanair does too (haven't ever flown with them.) Allegiant has backed off a bit as long as what you're carrying is in the ballpark.