Airline Fees Taking Off on Services Formerly Included in Ticket Price

Four and a half years after the events of Sept. 11 changed nearly everything about air travel, airlines have not only eliminated free meals but are charging for dozens of services that once were included in ticket prices.

"Peanuts and pretzels - other than that, you pay for everything," said Arlene Blosch, president of the regional chapter of the American Society of Travel Agents and owner of Travel Wizards in Bensalem, referring to just about the only freebie left on planes.

This week, Northwest Airlines added a wrinkle to the pattern by offering to guarantee a coach seat in an emergency row or on the aisle near the front of the cabin for an extra $15. The charge is aimed at business travelers who could wind up in less-desirable middle or window seats if they have to book at the last minute.

Here is a rundown of things that travelers pay extra for. The information was compiled with the help of Blosch and Joe Brancatelli, a consultant, writer and frequent traveler who has his own Web site, www.joesentme.com.

The booking process. For most airlines, the only way to obtain a ticket without paying a fee is to do it yourself online at a carrier's Web site. Buying on the phone or at the airport costs $5 to $15, depending on the airline. Online travel services, including Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity, charge at least $5.

Travel agents, who normally do not get commissions from airlines, charge $20 and up for each ticket issued. Blosch said the standard fee these days was $35, but some agents, including her, do not charge the fee on bereavement or military fares. You may also get a discount on an agent's fees if booking a vacation package that includes other services, such as hotel reservations, she said.

US Airways, Philadelphia's largest airline, charges $10 for a ticket at an airport ticket counter.

Another recent change that could cost money came after America West Airlines bought US Airways last year. The airline no longer has a 24-hour grace period for canceling a reservation; now you pay as soon as you make the reservation.

Paper tickets now can cost as much as $75. At US Airways, the charge is $50 per paper ticket if an electronic ticket is available. Paper tickets shipped by express courier service can cost an additional $15.

Changing a ticket. On some carriers, including American Airlines and US Airways, passengers with nonrefundable tickets may go standby on the same itinerary and the same day for a $25 fee for U.S. flights, and $100 for international flights, including to Puerto Rico. United Airlines will confirm a seat on another flight, four hours or less before its scheduled departure, for $25.

To use the ticket on a different day or to change to a different route, most airlines charge a $100 fee plus any additional airfare for the flights selected.

U.S. discount airlines are more lenient with changes, although you may have to pay more if seats are not available at the original fare. Southwest Airlines does not charge anything; AirTran Airways charges $50; and JetBlue Airways, $30. The value of the original ticket can be applied to the cost of a new one for up to a year.

For frequent fliers. Even for their best customers, "there is no such thing as a free ticket anymore," Brancatelli said.

All U.S. carriers pass on taxes and fees, which range from $5 for a US Airways domestic ticket to $125 for some international tickets.

Most airlines charge $25 to $75 for issuing frequent-flier-award tickets within 21 days of travel. And if you call the airline to claim a free ticket, you will pay the same booking fee as on paid tickets.

Paying for baggage. Airlines have mostly reduced the free checked-bag limit to 100 pounds from 140 pounds. Passengers are limited to two checked bags, each weighing no more than 50 pounds and with linear dimensions (length plus width plus depth) of no more than 62 inches. You are allowed one carry-on bag of no more than 40 pounds. Go over the limit, and it will cost $25 for an overweight bag and $80 for an extra or oversize bag. The fees go up the heavier the bags or the more extra pieces you have.

"I'm getting a lot of flak about overweight bags," Blosch said. "People are used to bringing everything but the kitchen sink on vacation. We tell clients about weight limits, but sometimes they don't believe it."

The major carriers are more flexible for their first-class or business-class passengers, generally allowing a first bag to weigh up to 70 pounds.

Some airlines - but not US Airways - are experimenting with charging $1 or $2 for curbside check-in. American charges $2 per bag at many airports but not Philadelphia's.

Outside the United States, some airlines have stricter limits on the weight of luggage than U.S. carriers do, so make sure to check before getting to the airport.

While you're flying. Free meals have been eliminated on domestic flights, except for Continental Airlines and Alaska Airlines.

Blosch said clients complained when airlines cut free meals, but complaints had diminished. "People are resigned to the fact you have to pay for it or bring it on," she said.

US Airways charges $7 for a boxed breakfast or a light, cold lunch or dinner, and $5 for a snack box. Meals are still served on flights to Europe - after all, the trip takes a minimum of six hours each way.

Most carriers still offer special meals, including diabetic, gluten-free, vegan, kosher and Muslim, on long international flights. Policies vary, but it is a good idea to order a special meal 24 hours ahead.

Among major carriers, American charges $3 to $4 for snack boxes and $5 for sandwiches, and United sells $5 snack boxes. US Airways has free pretzels and peanuts, but Northwest Airlines has eliminated snacks, and now charges $1 for trail mix and $3 for other snacks.

Soft drinks and juices are largely still free, but do not count on them for short flights. American Eagle, American's commuter service, is experimenting with charging $1 for beverages on some flights. Alcoholic beverages that once were free on most international flights now cost $5.

Continental still serves free meals, anything from a cold snack on shorter flights to a hot sandwich basket on flights over 31/2 hours. On Midwest Airlines, chocolate-chip cookies are still baked on board after 10:30 a.m. and are free. Other snacks and meals cost $5 to $10.

Southwest Airlines serves no meals but has free peanuts or pretzels on all flights and free snack boxes on flights of two hours or more.

As for other in-flight amenities, pillows and blankets have been removed by some airlines but not by US Airways. Air Canada charges $2 for a packet with an inflatable pillow and small blanket on North American flights.

Finally, Brancatelli said, the days are over when flight attendants had freebies for children, like plastic wings and playing cards. But, he noted, on United's discount Ted service, you can buy a deck of cards.

Philadelphia Inquirer


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