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13 Best & Worst Airlines When Traveling in the U.S.

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Last October, the members of my large family made their way back to Toronto, Ontario for Thanksgiving. After the week’s festivities, we all said goodbye and headed back to the airport. My family headed home, but one of my brothers was completely stonewalled when he went to check into his flight. The airline agent told him that his suitcase was not only going to cost him an extra fee, but new weight restrictions meant that his 45-pound suitcase was now considered “oversize.”

You can imagine his surprise as he tried to figure out how to redistribute his stuff among his checked bag and carry-ons so that he only had to pay the checked bag fee without the oversize bag fee as well. The oversize baggage fee brought his ticket price up to the same amount I paid – so that major discount he scored? It ended up being more of a hassle than anything, especially since he had to pay to have some of his things shipped to his home.

What seemed like a great deal on airline tickets quickly became an expensive mistake as his savings were quickly eaten up by nickel-and-dime fees imposed by the airline. Soon, any money saved by booking a cheap airline ticket deal was gone, and I learned a lot more about airline fees and how they can add up.

Fees of Major Airlines

I will admit that I felt a little smug when I heard about my brother’s ordeal. When something is too good to be true – such as half-price airline fare – it probably is. But as I started researching the various fees that airlines charge, I was flabbergasted.

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An annual report for Spirit Airlines noted that it has grown its non-ticket revenue per passenger flight segment from just $5 in 2006 to $59 in 2021. All-told, the company brought in more than $1.8 billion in non-ticket revenue, much of which came from fees it tacked on to flights.

Spirit isn’t the only airline cashing in on high fees – many airlines are charging extra for things such as perks, baggage, and even extra legroom.

So what can you do when looking for airline ticket deals? If you want to avoid cracking open your suitcase in the check-in line or finding unexpected charges along the way, your best bet is to educate yourself on which airlines are the worst offenders for fees, and how to spot a fare sale from a hidden-fee nightmare. Knowing the most common fees for domestic flights can help you decide which airlines are giving you the real deal, and which are nickel-and-diming you to recoup the discount.

1. Carry-on Luggage

Many domestic airlines allow passengers two carry-on pieces of luggage: a carry-on bag (that meets certain size requirements) and a personal item, such as a laptop, purse, or briefcase. 

The thought process is that since the airline never has to handle the bag, they don’t need to charge extra fees for that handling. Unfortunately, some airlines are charging a premium for you to carry your own bag onto the plane, as well as adding fees if you want to use the overhead compartment.

Luckily, only budget airlines currently charge for a carry-on, including Allegiant, Frontier, and Spirit. Currently, major domestic airlines allow you to bring your own bag for free. But be aware – they might be more stringent about size rules, causing you to check your bag if it doesn’t fit in the overhead storage, adding fees to your expenses.

Airline Fees

  • Alaska: Free
  • Allegiant: $20 – $35 if bought at booking, $45 if bought pre-departure, $50 if bought at the airport
  • American: Free
  • Delta: Free
  • Frontier: Up to $55 if bought before boarding, $60 if bought at the airport
  • Hawaiian: Free
  • JetBlue: Free
  • Southwest: Free
  • Spirit: Up to $55, less if you’re a member of the Spirit Saver$ club
  • United: Free
  • Virgin America: Free

2. Checked Bags

There’s a huge range of how much is considered to be a normal price for checked bags. In the past, the norm was that your first checked bag was free, with fees only occasionally being charged for additional bags.

Today, a free checked bag is the exception rather than the rule, and can really make a dent in that airfare discount. Always read the fine print and know what the airline charges for first and second checked bags (along with size and weight requirements) before you ever confirm your airline reservations.

Keep in mind that many airlines offer free checked bags to people with loyalty status or flying first class, so if you’re loyal to a specific airline, you may have even more incentive to stick with that company.

Airline Fees (First Checked Bag)

  • Alaska: $30
  • Allegiant: $14 to $35 if purchased online, $50 at the airport
  • American: $30
  • Delta: $30
  • Frontier: Up to $65 if booked before departure, $79 at the airport counter, $89 at the gate
  • Hawaiian: $25 to neighbor island, $30 to North America
  • JetBlue: $35 (free with Blue Plus fares)
  • Southwest: Free
  • Spirit: Up to $50
  • United: Varies by destination, free to $35
  • Virgin America: $75 for Economy Light fares, otherwise free

Airline Fees (Second Checked Bag):

  • Alaska: $40
  • Allegiant: $14 to $35 if purchased online, $50 at the airport
  • American: $40
  • Delta: $40
  • Frontier: Up to $70 if booked before departure, $89 at the airport counter
  • Hawaiian: $35 to neighbor island, $40 to North America
  • JetBlue: $45
  • Southwest: Free
  • Spirit: Up to $60
  • United: Varies by destination, free to $100
  • Virgin America: $100 for Economy Light, Classic, and Delight, otherwise free

3. Overweight and Oversize Baggage

Here is where it’s imperative that you read an airline’s FAQs before you purchase that ticket, as what airlines consider to be “overweight” or “oversize” baggage varies greatly. It’s up to you, the consumer, to take the time to get to know the requirements.

While many airlines use the standard of 50 pounds for your baggage weight limit, some are up to 10 pounds less, such as Spirit and Allegiant. This discrepancy can make a huge difference in your packing decisions. Therefore, it’s crucial that you know the limits of the airline before you go to the airport. That way, if you’re a heavy packer, you can choose an airline that won’t penalize you.

Airline Fees: 

  • Alaska: $100 for baggage weighing more than 51 pounds
  • Allegiant: $50 for bags 41 to 70 pounds, $75 for bags up to 100 pounds
  • American: $100 for baggage 51 to 70 pounds, $200 for bags up to 100 pounds
  • Delta: $100 for baggage 51 to 70 pounds, $200 for bags up to 100 pounds
  • Frontier: $50 for bags 41 to 50 pounds, $100 for bags up to 100 pounds
  • Hawaiian:  $35 to neighbor island and $50 to North America for bags 51 to 70 pounds, $70 for neighbor island and $200 to North American for bags up to 100 pounds
  • JetBlue: $150 for baggage weighing more than 51 pounds
  • Southwest: $75 for baggage weighing more than 51 pounds
  • Spirit: Up to $75 over 41 pounds
  • United: Up to $200 for bags over 50 and up to 70 pounds, up to $400 for bags up to 100 pounds
  • Virgin America: $100 for baggage weighing more than 51 pounds

4. Snacks and Drinks

While free food was once standard on flights, today you can count yourself lucky if you score a bag of peanuts. Not only do most airlines now offer some type of food for sale, many don’t even offer any complimentary snacks or drinks. 

Keeping this in mind, you can decide whether to carry aboard your own food and beverages, or to pay the extra expense for a soft drink and some snacks. Just remember that many airlines no longer accept cash, so you may have to use a credit or debit card.

Airline Fees (Food):

  • Alaska: $2 to $9.50 snacks and meals
  • Allegiant: $3 to $14 snacks and meals
  • American: Free cookies/pretzels, $4+ snacks and meals
  • Delta: Free snacks, paid meals
  • Frontier: $3 to $7 snacks and meals
  • Hawaiian: $6 to $12 snacks and meals
  • JetBlue: Free snacks, paid meals
  • Southwest: Free snacks
  • Spirit: $3.50 to $8.50 for snacks and meals
  • United: Free snacks, paid meals
  • Virgin America: $3 to $9 snacks and meals

Airline Fees (Soft Drinks/Alcoholic and Specialty Drinks)

  • Alaska: Free/$9
  • Allegiant: $2 to $7 for drinks, including alcoholic beverages and soft drinks
  • American: Free/$9
  • Delta: Free/$6 to $8
  • Frontier: Free/$5 to $12
  • Hawaiian: Free/$6.50 to $12
  • JetBlue: Free/$6 to $9
  • Southwest: Free/$6 to $7
  • Spirit: $2.50 to $12 for drinks, including alcoholic beverages and soft drinks
  • United: Free/$9 to $10
  • Virgin America: Free/$6 to $8

5. Priority Seating and Seat Selection

First class and coach: Those used to be the only two classifications for seating types. Of course, in their endless quest to lower fares and make their money back in fees, some airlines have taken to labeling some of the seats throughout the coach cabin as the more desirable spots. Whether it’s a coveted window spot, the extra legroom available in the exit row, or some other characteristic, you might find yourself paying extra for the privilege of choosing a specific seat. Some airlines have also allowed for more legroom throughout the cabin to charge a premium for more breathing space as well.

When factoring in pricing for legroom or preferred seating, keep in mind that most airline websites list the price per segment. That means that if you have a return ticket and you have one connection, you should multiply the number by four, since there are four “segments” to your travel. This can seriously inflate the pricing of an otherwise cheap ticket.

Airlines price preferred seating (extra legroom, sitting in the emergency exit, or near the front of the plane) based on the length of each leg, so your price will vary based on route. The airlines will show you the price for your leg during the checkout process, so you can decide whether the extra cost is worth it based on seat availability, location, and length of flight.

Airline Fees:

  • Alaska: n/a
  • Allegiant: $0 to $80 to choose your seat
  • American: $20 to $100+ for preferred seats
  • Delta $9 to $180 for preferred seats
  • Frontier: $11+ for preferred seats, $15 to $100 for extra leg room
  • Hawaiian: $5 to $49 for neighbor island, $9 to $399 elsewhere
  • JetBlue: $10 to $99 for extra legroom
  • Southwest: n/a
  • Spirit: $5 to $50 to choose your seat, $12 to $199 for extra legroom
  • United: $9 to $299 for preferred seats
  • Virgin America: $29 to $129 for preferred seats

6. Priority Boarding

Hoping to get onboard before the other passengers? You’ll pay for the privilege. Priority boarding means you get to your seat before everyone else, which can be a major benefit for people traveling with kids or those hoping to avoid the race to the gate. But almost all airlines charge for that priority boarding, unless you have special needs and require assistance to get on and off the plane.

Airline Fees

  • Alaska: n/a
  • Allegiant: $4 to $12 priority boarding
  • American: $9 to $75 priority boarding
  • Delta: $15 priority boarding
  • Frontier: $5.99 to $12
  • Hawaiian: n/a
  • JetBlue: $10+
  • Southwest: Up to $40 priority boarding
  • Spirit: $5.99+
  • United: $15+
  • Virgin America: n/a

7. Ticket Booking, Changes, and Cancellations

Looking to save time by managing your entire air reservation online? You might unwittingly end up paying more. It’s ludicrous, especially when you factor in the savings in resources by big airlines when users avoid calling customer service in favor of using the airline website to book. Still, even if you get to book for free, keep in mind that making changes to your reservation or canceling it altogether can rack up some serious fees along the way.

Airline Fees (Booking):

  • Alaska: Free to book in person or online, $15 over the phone
  • Allegiant: $14.99 per segment call center booking fee
  • American: Free to book online, $25 over the phone, $35 in person
  • Delta: Free to book online, $25 over the phone, $35 in person
  • Frontier: $35 for call center booking
  • Hawaiian: Free to book online, $25 over the phone or in person
  • JetBlue: Free to book online, $25 over the phone or in person
  • Southwest: Free to book online, over the phone, or in person
  • Spirit: Free to book online, $10 over the phone, $16.99 in person
  • United: Free to book online, $25 over the phone, $35 to $50 in person
  • Virgin America: Free to book in person or online, $20 over the phone

Airline Fees (for Reservation Changes or Cancellations on Refundable Flights Only):

  • Alaska: Free for non-Saver fares $25 or $50 same-day
  • Allegiant: $25 per segment
  • American: $75 to $200, plus $50 fee if ticket issued by outside agency (such as an online booking website other than American Airlines)
  • Delta: $0 to $500
  • Frontier: $0 60+ days to departure, $49 per passenger per direction 59 to 7 days to departure, $99 6 days to departure or same-day
  • Hawaiian: None
  • JetBlue: $100 to $200
  • Southwest: Free, but will receive difference or refund in future credits
  • Spirit: Free 60+ days to departure, $49 59 to 7 days to departure, $99 6 days to departure or same day
  • United: $15 for cancellations,no change fee
  • Virgin America: No change fees

If you’ve booked a nonrefundable flight, you may be able to make changes for a fee without losing the cost of the entire ticket. However, cancellations on a nonrefundable flight are – you guessed it – nonrefundable.

8. WiFi

While it’s pretty common for flights to offer complimentary WiFi, don’t count on free Internet to help you pass the time. Complimentary WiFi is usually offered during the first leg of a trip and is sometimes restricted to certain sites and services, so you can’t rely on getting a free connection. Instead, if you must travel with WiFi, factor it into your final ticket price. You should also remember that since you’ll need to reconnect on each aircraft, pricing is usually per leg and that the connection is often throttled, so you may not get fast download or surfing speeds.

Typically, larger airlines are your best bet for actually scoring WiFi, but you can always check the carrier website to see if your particular aircraft has WiFi. In my experience, the carriers most likely to have WiFi onboard are Southwest(around 70% of flights), Delta (almost all domestic flights), American (available on all 767-200 and 737 aircraft), and Virgin America (all planes). The worst airlines for reliable WiFi are Frontier (only on Embraer 190s), and JetBlue (very limited aircraft, but promises more in the future).

Of course, as WiFi popularity increases, you can expect more airlines to offer it on more aircraft – for a fee, of course. Keep in mind that WiFi costs are often per leg, so you could end up paying several times throughout the duration of your air travel.

Airline Fees

  • Alaska: $8
  • Allegiant: n/a
  • American: $10
  • Delta: $8
  • Frontier: N/A
  • Hawaiian: N/A
  • JetBlue: Free, but limited access and throttling
  • Southwest: $8
  • Spirit: $2.99+ for browsing, $5.99+ for streaming
  • United: $8 for MileagePlus members, $10 for non-members
  • Virgin America: $5+

9. Traveling with Pets

If you’re planning on bringing Fido along with you, then you need to factor in the extra cost of traveling with your pet. If you have a small dog or cat that can travel in a crate that meets size requirements to fit under the seat in front of you, your pet may be able to stay with you in the cabin. Larger dogs need to fly in the kennels in cargo storage, but only some airlines have the capability to store live animals in the cargo area, so you’ll need to choose an airline with the capacity when bringing your Great Dane along for the ride. Either way, you must pay extra since airlines see flying with an animal as extra work and handling for their employees. Typically, you have to pay more to have your pet fly cargo.

Airline Fees (Cabin):

  • Alaska: $100
  • Allegiant: $50
  • American: $125
  • Delta: $95
  • Frontier: $99
  • Hawaiian: $35 for neighbor island or $125 to North America for pet in-cabin. 
  • JetBlue: $125
  • Southwest: $95
  • Spirit: $110
  • United: $125
  • Virgin America:  $100

Airline Fees (Cargo): 

  • Alaska: $100
  • Allegiant: n/a
  • American: $150 to $175
  • Delta: $200
  • Frontier: n/a
  • Hawaiian: $60 for neighbor island or $225 to North America
  • JetBlue: n/a
  • Southwest: n/a
  • Spirit: n/a
  • United: Rates vary, check with reservations
  • Virgin America: n/a

Final Word

Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to pay the exact price advertised on the airfare booking website. By the time your trip is over, you will have spent extra cash on everything from baggage to pretzels. The only way to avoid being nickel-and-dimed during your experience is to know which fees will be in place and which will apply to your circumstances.

In some cases, you can plan ahead to avoid the fees, such as by packing your own lunch instead of eating the food offered on the plane. Still, some fees – such as check-in and reservation fees, for example – are charged no matter what you do. Knowing which airlines charge extra fees can help you see past that bargain-basement fare and choose the schedule and price that is the most transparent.

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