17 tips to help you avoid airline fees

Don't let airline fees dampen your mood or your trip
Don’t let airline fees dampen your mood or your trip

Unless you have been living under a rock, then you are likely aware of all of the fees that come along with flying. A fee to pick your seat, a fee to check your luggage, a fee to pay with your credit card. When will this madness end?

Unfortunately, these fees aren’t going away anytime soon. Airlines are making billions off of them.

What I have witnessed so many times is the traveler who booked a ticket with a discount airline, only to find out they had to pay an additional $200 to check their bags on the day of departure.

So what can you do?

What you can do is be aware of the rules set for the airline you are flying along with any extra fees they might try to charge. Each airline is different. Just because you scored a cheap ticket doesn’t mean it won’t come back to bite you in the end.

I have come up with a list of 17 tips that will help you avoid paying those lousy, annoying, frustrating, and unfair airline fees.

1. The 24 hour airline cancellation policy is your friend

A lot of people might not be aware of this, but with most airlines and 3rd party booking sites (Orbiz, Priceline, Expedia, etc), you can cancel a non-refundable ticket for free within 24 hours of the booking.

This policy is a lifesaver for those who made mistakes while booking a flight, need to make a change, or just changed their mind and need to cancel

What I love about the 24 hour cancellation policy is that it gives me the freedom to lock in a great airfare deal and then do more research or look for a cheaper fare. If I have buyer’s remorse, I know I have the option to cancel without penalty for 24 hours.

When you cancel a ticket within 24 hours, be aware that it may take your refund a few days, or weeks, to appear on your credit card statement.

2. Be aware of all mandatory and optional fees that your airline charges

If you want to save money and avoid surprises, then you should be aware of all the fees your airline might charge.

This requires a little bit of research, but it will save you a lot of money in the end.

If you want to check bags for free, then you might want to fly Southwest Airlines. If your travel plans might change, then you might want to fly Alaska Airlines which allows you to cancel for free up to 60 days prior. If you want the cheapest airfare possible and don’t plan to check luggage then maybe Spirit Airlines is right for you.

All airlines are different. Some, all, or none might charge you extra fees for checked luggage, carry-on luggage, seat selections, cancel and change fees, upgrades, meals, and drinks. Know what you are getting yourself into beforehand.

3. Do the math with baggage fees

If you are planning to check luggage, then do the math before.

The last thing you want to do is show up at the airport on the day of your departure and have to overpay to check your luggage

Here is a great example:

Say you want to fly round trip from Los Angles to New York City.

You find a cheap deal on Spirit Airlines for $200 while Southwest Airlines is charging $250. Most would select the cheaper flight right?

Now say you want to check a bag. That will cost you anywhere from $35 to $100 per way on Spirit, depending on when you pay for your luggage. That means you will pay $70 to $200 extra in baggage fees to fly on Sprit. Southwest charges you nothing to check your luggage.

That $50 savings to fly on Spirit doesn’t seem so great in the end.

4. Pay for checked luggage at booking or prior to departure

If you have to pay for checked luggage then sometimes it is cheaper to pay for your luggage at booking or prior to your departure date instead of paying at the airport or at the gate.

If you arrive at the airport on the day of your flight, you might be surprised that certain airlines will charge you a lot more to check your bag than was listed at booking.

With Spirit Airlines, the price you pay for your checked luggage depends on whether you pay at booking ($35), before online check-in ($40), during online check-in ($45), at the airport ($55), or at the gate ($100).

That is confusing, and unfair, to say the least.

5. Don’t pay for your seat in advance, have it assigned at check-in

More and more airlines these days (Norwegian Air and WOW air to name a few) are charging travelers a hefty fee to select a seat prior to traveling.

So what happens if you don’t pick a seat? Your seat will be assigned a seat at check-in.

Since I usually travel alone, when I’m offered the chance to pay for a seat, I always roll the dice and wait to see what I can get at check-in. This might work to your advantage but if you are traveling with a companion or in a group, you might have to sit separately or have to sit in one of the dreaded middle seats.

6. Avoid paying for premium seats

If you want to pay extra for a seat with a few extra inches of legroom, and you can afford it, then go right ahead.

What I do have a problem with is when airlines charge passengers extra for standard legroom seats in favorable locations throughout the cabin. Is $50 worth it to you to sit closer to the front of the plane with the same legroom? In my opinion, no.

You will save a lot of money if you avoid paying for premium seats.

7. Fly on airlines that don’t charge you for carry-on luggage

I consider airlines who charge passengers for carry-on luggage to be thieves.

Luckily, at this point in time, most airlines do not charge for carry-on bags.

Allegiant Air, Frontier Airlines, and Spirit Airlines all charge carry-on baggage fees which vary from $10 to $100 depending on the route.

I try to avoid these airlines at all costs, even if the airfare is more.

8. Checking one large bag will save you money

If you find yourself on another airline that isn’t named Southwest Airlines, and you need to check luggage, then odds are you will have to pay.

A great way to save money is to check one large bag per group instead of checking one bag per person. This idea works great for couples or small groups. Just throw everything in one bag, check it in, and you only have to pay one fee.

Of course, be mindful of any weight or size restrictions that vary by airline.

9. Book with airlines that have forgiving change and cancellation policies

Alaska Airlines allows travelers to change or cancel their tickets for free up as long as the change or cancel occurs at least 60 days prior to the ticketed flight departure.

If you need to modify a flight reservation with Southwest Airlines, you only pay the fare difference. There is no separate change fee.

The Southwest Airline cancellation policy is just as great. For non-refundable tickets, within 24 hours of departure, passengers who cancel a ticket will receive the full amount of travel credit that can be used toward future travel. Some fares can be fully refunded and returned to the original form of payment

Unfortunately, not many other airlines exist with flexible polices. If you will be booking a flight where there is the slightest chance you may need to change or cancel, then you might have to shell out more money for a ticket in a higher fare class or a ticket that allows great flexibility. For example, JetBlue offers Blue Flex which allows free changes or cancellation, but you will pay extra.

10. Use a credit card that offers additional travel benefits

Certain credit cards feature built-in travel benefits.

The United MileagePlus Explorer Visa Card, which I use, allows one free checked bag for the cardholder and one companion on the same United Airlines reservation (up to $25 per person, per way). If you fly round trip with a companion, you can potentially save $100 in checked luggage fees.

Another credit card that I own, the American Express Delta Gold Card SkyMiles, offers the same great benefits of the United MileagePlus Explorer Visa Card. What makes this card even better is that Delta allows one free checked bag for the cardholder along with 8 companions on the same reservation.

Each credit card varies, so do your research on which card offers the best travel benefits that suits your needs.

11. Gain status on an airline for your loyalty

It pays to be a loyal frequent flyer of an airline.

If you fly enough or spend enough money with a certain airline, then you might be able to gain “status” with that airline. With status, you might be able to receive certain benefits that normal flyers do not get. Some of these benefits include cheaper or waived cancellation and change fees, complimentary upgrades, priority baggage and boarding, and more.

Just remember that each airline program is different, so do your research before you start racking up the frequent flyer miles.

12. Know which airlines offer WiFi and what they charge

If you are like me, then you probably need to be connected all the time.

Luckily, more and more flights offer WiFi, some for free. Norwegian Airlines offers free Wifi on their international flights. JetBlue offers their basic WiFi, known as Fly-Fi, for free. Users who need more speed can upgrade to Fly-Fi+ for $9 per hour.

If you are on a flight that charges for WiFi, then odds are it will be operated by Gogo. Often, you can save a decent amount of money by purchasing an all day-pass prior to departure.

Before you purchase WiFi, be sure to check out RetailMeNot which post current Gogo promo codes.

13. Know what travel insurance includes before purchasing

As you know by now, most tickets are non-refundable unless you shell out a ton of cash.

Travel insurance can be great for those who get sick, have a medical emergency, or get injured and can’t fly. If you want to protect yourself with extra insurance, go right ahead.

If you do pay for travel insurance at booking, know what is covered and what is not. Travel insurance may or may not cover changes or cancellation.

I have never paid for travel insurance in all of my years traveling and luckily I have never had an issue where I had to miss a flight. I always take the chance and travel without insurance which has saved me a lot of money over the years.

Also, check with your credit card company to see if your card has its own included travel insurance. My credit card, the United MileagePlus Explorer Card, includes travel insurance which allows me to get reimbursed if I can’t fly because of sickness or injury.

Also note that most airlines will refund your airfare, even without travel insurance, in the case of severe weather or an outbreak of some kind.

14. Avoid paying for food or drinks

$7 for a Coca-Cola? $12 for a turkey sandwich?

No, thank you.

I will never pay for expensive food or drinks while on a flight. I always bring my own on board with me.

If you really want to save money and avoid paying for drinks at expensive airport shops, bring an empty bottle through airport security and fill it up with water before takeoff.

15. Sometimes same-day changes are cheaper

It might seem strange, but same-day ticket changes are often cheaper than modifying a reservation weeks, or even months, prior to departure.

Depending on your flight and airline, you might be able to change a reservation on the day of your departure for less than you were thinking.

With United for example, MileagePlus non–Premier members can change their reservation on the day of their departure for $75 instead of paying $200 anytime before.

Just note that in most situations, you will still have to pay the difference in fare.

16. Sometimes it’s cheaper to pull a no-show

Often, a cancellation fee or change fee can cost more than the flight itself, especially if you used miles or points to book. In these situations, you are better off skipping the flight altogether.

There is no point paying $150 to cancel a one-way ticket from Los Angeles to Las Vegas when the flight cost $75 in the first place.

17. When you have no other options, pick up the phone

Before you cancel or change a non-refundable ticket online, pick up the phone and get a real person on the line.

It may be rare, but on a few occasions I somehow managed to convince a agent on the phone to waive a fee.

Give it a try, you never know.


Airlines love to charge passengers extra fees. This is how they make their billions of dollars in profits.

Always remember to do some research on any flight you book. Know what fees they may or may not charge. Just because you find a cheap fare doesn’t mean you won’t pay more in the long run.

Use this list to better educate yourself about booking and traveling on flights.

Become a better traveler. Become a smarter traveler.

Last Updated on April 4, 2024