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?


  1. Dean 02/25/2020
    • Tim Leffel 02/28/2020
  2. Kevin Donnelly 02/26/2020
  3. Bidyut Jana 03/03/2020
  4. Swarup Mondal 03/03/2020
  5. Jay 03/04/2020

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