Maximize Monday: Avoiding Airline Fees

May 6, 2013

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As airline fees continue to rise on everything from ticket changes/cancellations to carry-on bags, to lounge memberships to on-board snacks, now is the time to pay more attention than ever to how much you’ll be paying to fly and how you can get out of some of these fees so you can maximize your travel dollars.

Buying Choice Essential or Plus fares means waived ticket change fees.
Buying American Airlines’ Choice Essential or Choice Plus fares means waived ticket change fees.

Ticket Change/Cancellation Fees: Unfortunately, the major US legacy carriers including first United, then US Airways, Delta and American all raised their change/cancellation fees from $150 to $200 last week, and we’re all going to end up footing the bill for it. However, there are some ways to get around these fees. Elite status won’t help you, but at least American Airlines still offers its new Choice Fares, where you can pay $68 more on a non-refundable ticket and have your change fees waived if you think your plans are going to be in flux. You also get a 50% mileage bonus with Choice Plus fares ($88 roundtrip), so I end up buying them most of the time and have saved hundreds on change fees, while banking more miles.

If you’re not in a high-pressure situation, another way you can try to save on change or cancellation fees is to take a little risk by seeing if the airline makes a schedule change, which most airlines do. Even if the change is only a few minutes, you might be able to get out of your ticket. It never hurts to call and ask for a refund. I once booked a flight 7 months out, and it had 5 schedule changes before the departure date. If you see your itinerary has changed – even by an insignificant amount of time – call up the airline and see if they will switch you to another flight you want, or if there are no options that work, then see if they will cancel and refund your fare. Most are willing to do so. Southwest doesn’t charge any change fees, but they do charge the fare difference and will not issue a refund if you don’t cancel prior to your flight anymore, but that’s another option to keep in mind.

Delta recently announced some new same day confirm policies.
Delta recently announced some changes to their same day confirm policy.

Same Day Confirmed/Standby: Using same day confirmed or standby is a great way to increase your mileage and score some elite upgrades. However, many airlines including Delta most recently, have made their same day confirmed/standby policies much stricter. Whereas Diamond or Platinum Medallions used to be able to do this for free, now they are restricted to a 3-hour window of within their original departure, only if there is availability in the same fare class, otherwise they’re subject to a $50 fee for each confirmed ticketing change. American charges $75 for a confirmed change for everyone no matter their elite level. The alternate flights must be for your same itinerary and your flight change can only be confirmed within 12 hours of departure of the desired flight and subject to availability that only phone agents can see and does not correspond to any available fare classes. At least with United, SDC’s are free for 1k, Platinum and Gold elites, and $75 for non-elite/Silver members. However, the same-day flight change option is available within a full 24 hours before your originally scheduled flight and the requested flight can be in any fare class and be departing within 24 hours from the time the request is made. The only requirement is that changes must be made prior to your original scheduled flight, so if you can make your plan changes even a little ahead of time your elite status can save you a ton in fees.

Most airlines will charge $25 for the first checked bag.
Most airlines will charge $25 for the first checked bag, but having an airline credit card should get you out of it.

Checked Baggage Fees: These are probably the easiest to avoid and although they’re not onerously expensive, they’re still annoying. However, a little elite status, or a single credit card can go a long way toward avoiding them. Most of the legacy airlines and Virgin American charge around $25 for the first checked bag. However, elite status (even the lowest tier) will waive the first checked bag fee, and then higher-level elites will get two or even three checked bags free, so if you can get to at least the lowest rung on the ladder, you’re already safe. If you don’t fly enough, though, there are other ways. Many airline co-branded credit cards will waive the first checked bag fee as well. On Delta, the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express, Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express, and Delta Reserve Card allow cardmembers to check their first bag for free on all Delta and Delta Connection flights and the benefit applies to up to 9 people traveling in the cardmember’s reservation. Having the United MileagePlus Explorer Card means your first checked bag is free for you and a companion when you fly United, and if you opt for the United MileagePlus Club Card, you get two free checked bags. The Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage card provides a free checked bag on American Airlines for the cardholder and up to four travel companions.

Without a credit card or elite status, Southwest allows all passengers to check 2 free checked bags, and JetBlue gives each passenger their first bag free, so if this is a primary concern for you when traveling, be sure to check fares on those two carriers in particular.

Virgin America A320 interior
While onboard entertainment is nice, most airlines are going to make you pay for it.

Food/Beverage and Entertainment: In light of the fact that Frontier Airlines will start charging for carry-on bags for certain passengers as well as on-board beverages, on-board expenses might just be the next set of fees we all have to look out for. While not all the airline cards offer it, Delta and American provide onboard discounts to cardholders. Delta offers Gold, Platinum and Reserve cardholders a 20% credit on their statement when they use their Delta SkyMiles Credit Card to purchase food, alcoholic beverages, movies, TV shows, video games, and audio headsets on Delta-operated flights. American Airlines also offers this perk to their Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage cardmembers, who receive a 25% savings (as a statement credit) on in-flight purchases of food, beverages, and headsets on flights operated by American Airlines when purchased with their card.

United's Economy Plus
United’s charges for Economy Plus, but waives the fee for Global Services, Premier Platinum and Premier Gold members.

Premium Seating Fees: Most airlines have started charging for “preferred seats” – basically those at the front or windows and aisles – and have started demanding up to $100 for them depending on the distance of the flight! Even just choosing seats in advance so your entire travel party can end up sitting together has gotten costlier. There are two types of preferred seats, the standard ones such at the exit rows, or aisle and window seats toward the front, and there are also seats that offer more recline or legroom like Delta’s Economy Comfort Seats and United’s Economy Plus seats.

Again, having elite status on certain airlines will make these seating options available for you at no charge. On Delta, Gold, Platinum and Diamond Medallion members can choose Economy Comfort seats domestically when booking, and Silvers can choose them for free at check-in. United offers Economy Plus to Premier Platinum, 1K’s and Global Services members for themselves and up to eight companions, Premier Gold members may have one companion, and Premier Silver members are eligible to choose these seats at check-in. If you have elite status, and are traveling with a companion who doesn’t, if you call up the airline, they will usually move your companion into a preferred seat, so you can sit together. I’ve even called the elite line at Delta and asked them to put a friend in the exit row and they did so free of charge as a courtesy to me and to thank me for my business. As usual, it never hurts to ask.

Members of Virgin America’s new elite status program will be able to select “Main Cabin Express” seats in the front rows of coach instead of paying the $20 fee other flyers are subject to. However, for those without elite status who hoping for a better seat, one option is not to choose any seat when you make the reservation. If you book a flight and all that’s left are middle seats but there are preferred seats are open, when it comes down to it, the gate agent at the airport will be filling all those seats with passengers, so there is a very good chance, you will be assigned a preferred seat. Other airlines open up premium seats 24 hours before a flight and remember – elite members are often upgrading in the final minutes of boarding and when they get the upgrade, their premium seat becomes available. So be patient, be friendly and get familiar with the seating chart.

Better mark you calendar for 21 days out, otherwise you could be faced with a close in booking fee.
Better mark you calendar for 21 days out, otherwise you could be faced with a close-in booking fee.

Close-in Booking Fees: One of the major conundrums of award travel these days is the fact that while airlines are releasing more and more award space closer and closer to the departure date, they charge fees for booking awards close in – so you might be able to score that award seat you want, but you’ll be paying extra for it if you book it within 21 days of departure. Both United and US Airways charge a $75 fee if booking an award within 21 days of travel. But here’s where elite status will save you again. US Airways will waive the award-processing fee and the quick-ticketing fee for tickets booked using miles from Gold, Platinum and Chairman’s Preferred accounts, while on United, although general members are charged $75 to book an award within 21 days, the fee goes down to $50 for Premier Silver and $25 for Premier Gold. There is no fee for United Premier Platinum, Premier 1K or Global Services customers. American charges $75 for awards booked within 21 days but waives it for AAdvantage Executive Platinum, AAdvantage Platinum and AAdvantage Gold members using miles from their account. Delta is the only legacy airline that has done away with this fee completely, so you need to book an award within three weeks, search Delta first since you won’t be charged a last-minute booking fee regardless of whether you are a Medallion member or not. British Airways does not charge close-in booking fees, either, which makes its mileage program another great one to consider, so if you want a Oneworld flight at the last minute, it may make more sense to use BA Avios than American AAdvantage miles, even if the award does require more Avios vs. American miles.

Most airlines charge a phone booking fee, unless you have high tier elite status.
Most airlines charge a phone booking fee, unless you have high-tier elite status.

Phone Ticketing Fees: Airlines have also jacked up the cost of calling in to book tickets, so we’re all stuck using their outdated websites to try to find the flights we want. Having elite status will usually waive the phone booking fees or direct booking fee, but not all airlines are the same. United will waive these fees for Platinum and 1K members while Delta waives it for Gold, Platinum and Diamond Medallions, and American only waives it for Executive Platinums while even mid-tier elites still have to pay. Take a look to see which level of elite status your airline waives these fees for before committing to another year of elite qualification.

Another tactic to waive the phone booking fee is when you can’t book what you want online. Let’s say you try to book an award ticket on a partner airline online, and the website isn’t displaying any of the partner airline’s inventory. Call the airline and tell the agent that you are unable to book online and they will usually waive the fee. If the first agent refuses, hang up and call again until you find an agent who will. Another way to get around it is by speaking to online support when you have booking problems. Often these agents can make the reservation for you and won’t charge you the booking fee because it is classified as an IT error.

Delta Platinum and Diamond Medallions get unlimited award redeposit without fees as long as they are made 72 hours before departure.
Delta Platinum and Diamond Medallions get unlimited award redeposit without fees as long as they are made 72 hours before departure.

Award Redeposit/Change Fees: Similar to ticket change/cancellation fees, many airlines will charge you if you decide you want to change or cancel an award ticket and redeposit your miles. These fees can range upwards of $100 in some cases! Both American and United allow changes to an award as long as the origin and destination are the same. However, Delta and US Airways do not, and will ding you with a hefty $150 redeposit fee in most cases. Much like with revenue tickets that you want to change or cancel, if you’re not in a hurry to get those miles back in your account immediately, you can wait to see if there are any schedule changes that you can cite to ask the airline to waive the fee.

As with most of these fees, having elite status can make a huge difference as well. Delta Platinum and Diamond Medallions get unlimited award redeposit without fees as long as they are made 72 hours before departure. United waives the fee for Premier Platinums, 1K’s and Global Service customers while Premier Silvers and Gold receive a discounted award redeposit fee of $125 and $100 respectively. American waives AAdvantage award change and reinstatement charges for Executive Platinums only (all others are charged $150 for redeposit and $75 for close-in changes) while US Airways will waive the mileage redeposit fee of $150 for totally unused award tickets for Chairman’s Preferred-level members. Even you have an American or United award, try changing your flight to a time that’s known for terrible weather – if a weather waiver is issued, your miles will be given back for free.

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