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Air and Rail Travel Fee Rip-Offs (AAL, ALGT)

Author: Michael Harris

Anyone who has flown commercially in recent years knows those pesky fees the airlines love charging can add up to much more than just nickels and dimes. Consumers comparing the cost of flights these days need to consider the total price – including fees – to discover What's the Cheapest Airfare Really?

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, U.S. airlines collected $3.5 billion in baggage fees in 2014, and another $3.0 billion in cancellation and change fees last year. The bigger picture on what the airline industry terms ancillary revenue is even more stunning. A Wisconsin-based marketing firm called IdeaWorksCompany recently reported that 130 leading airlines worldwide posted $38.1 billion in such revenue last year.

Planes or Trains?

For some travelers, other modes of transportation have provided a respite from airline charges That is, until last month, when media reports noted Amtrak was jumping into the baggage-fee game. Effective Oct. 1, a new policy took effect: Rail passengers with more than two carry-on bags and two personal items must pay $20 for each excess piece of luggage.

Amtrak stated the new rule wasn't about generating more revenue, but came in response to riders complaining that excessive baggage was inconveniencing, and even endangering, others. Its instruction – Do not store your items in empty seats, aisles, vestibules, or other areas where they may cause annoyance to other passengers or present a safety hazard – suggests the degree to which some passengers were taking advantage of its lenient baggage policies.

So, now that it's jumped into the surcharge fray, how does Amtrak stack up against 11 U.S. airlines? We've examined the fees for carry-on bags, checked bags, booking and itinerary changes, from Alaska (ALK), Allegiant (ALGT), American (AAL), Delta (DAL), Frontier, Hawaiian (HA), JetBlue (JBLU), Southwest (LUV), Spirit (SAVE), United (UAL), and Virgin America (VA). Here's how they compare.

Carry-On Baggage Fees

No airline in the U.S. allows a passenger more than one personal item and one carry-on, but Amtrak allows two of each. When coupled with Amtrak's checked bag policy (below), it seems unlikely that many riders will be paying Amtrak's new fee for exceeding two personal items, two carry-ons and two checked bags – all for free.

Most domestic airlines allow both one personal item (such as a purse, briefcase, diaper bag, etc.) and one carry-on item, which must adhere to specific size restrictions and often is dictated by bag sizer equipment at the check-in and/or boarding areas. However, the three airlines that bill themselves as ultra-low cost carriers do charge for carry-ons. Assistive devices are free, though.

Here's how they stack up for one carry-on bag:

  • Alaska: free
  • Allegiant: $10-$75
  • American: free
  • Delta: free
  • Frontier: $30-$60 [depending on when/where check-in is]
  • Hawaiian: free
  • JetBlue: free
  • Southwest: free
  • Spirit: $26-$100
  • United: free
  • Virgin America: free
First-Checked-Bag Fees

As noted, Amtrak not only allows two free carry-ons, but also two free checked bags. The rail line is matched by Southwest, the only U.S. airline that doesn't charge for the first AND second checked bags.

All the others charge for checking, with some exceptions. First checked bags usually are free for those traveling in business or first classes; elite members of frequent flyer programs; cardholders of specific airline-branded charge cards; and active-duty U.S. military personnel. In addition, first checked bags are sometimes free on long-haul international flights; however, fees may vary if an itinerary involves multiple carriers. Fees often apply on a one-way basis, so it's important to calculate total costs. What's more, there are fees for oversized and/or overweight baggage. Some fees aren't easy to find online. For example, United Airlines doesn't post checked-baggage fees on its site, but instead requires consumers to insert specific flight information first.

The list of who charges what for checked bags, and when:

  • Alaska: $25; free within state of Alaska
  • Allegiant: $14.99 to $75
  • American: $25 (domestic/Mexico/Caribbean/Central America)
  • Delta: $25 (domestic/Canada/Mexico/Caribbean/Central America)
  • Frontier: $25 to $60
  • Hawaiian: $25 (domestic)
  • JetBlue: $20-$25 (certain fares) [depending on when/where check-in is]
  • Southwest: Free (second checked bag free as well)
  • Spirit: $21 to $100
  • United: Varies by flight; $25
  • Virgin America: $25 (domestic and international)
Booking Fees

Amtrak offers a variety of ways to buy a ticket: online (computer, mobile apps and devices); telephone; station ticket agents and kiosks; and on board the trains (which usually results in higher fares). But none of these options incur fees.

By contrast, airline booking fees can vary wildly – not just by carrier, but also by the method used to make the reservation. Except for Allegiant and Spirit, domestic airlines don't charge for booking online, but they do for telephoning their reservations centers, buying at their ticket offices or at the airport – anything that involves human interaction. Only Southwest allows passengers to make phone reservations for free.

What you'll pay to reserve a flight [note: some charges are per entire itinerary, some per flight]:

  • Alaska: online: free; phone: $15
  • Allegiant: online: $13; phone: $14:99
  • American: online: free; phone: $25-$35; ticket office: $35; airport: $35-$45
  • Delta: online: free; phone: $25-$35; ticket office: $25-$35
  • Frontier: online: free; phone: $10
  • Hawaiian: online: free; phone: $25; airport: $35
  • JetBlue: online: free; phone: $25; ticket office: $25; airport: $25
  • Southwest: online: free; phone: free
  • Spirit: online: $8.99-$17.99; phone: $8.99-$17.99 (passenger usage charge)
  • United: online: free; phone: $25; ticket office: $30; airport: $35
  • Virgin America: online: free; phone: $20
Ticket-Changing Fees

Amtrak does not charge to change your ticket, but notes that other fees may apply if itineraries are altered. Policies regarding ticket changes vary; limitations and exclusions apply. As for the airlines, Southwest once again stands alone in not charging a fee on a service for which all other domestic carriers impose an extra charge.

Making a change to your airline itinerary can be quite tricky, particularly because some low-cost tickets are marketed as being non-changeable and nonrefundable. Note that fees do not include any difference in fares. Some airlines charge lower fees for same-day changes and/or to stand by on other flights on the day of travel.

Here's how much you'll get dinged for changing a ticket:

  • Alaska: $125
  • Allegiant: $75
  • American: $200 (domestic); up to $750 (international)
  • Delta: $200 (domestic); $200-$450 (international); plus $50 for tickets not purchased through Delta
  • Frontier: $99
  • Hawaiian: $30
  • JetBlue: $75-$135, depending on price
  • Southwest: Free
  • Spirit: online modification: $110; call center/ airport modification: $120
  • United: $200 (domestic); up to $400 (international)
  • Virgin America: $100-$150
The Bottom Line

Amtrak's new baggage-fee policy has generated negative reactions, but in reality the railway's rules are quite generous. In fact, consumers are much more likely to pay baggage fees on any domestic airline (other than Southwest) than they are on Amtrak.

For those choosing to fly, Southwest stands out from all other airlines in the United States by allowing two free checked bags, free itinerary changes and free calls to reservations centers. Conversely, the three airlines that offer some of the lowest fares – Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit – also charge the most in fees.

The best advice? Never assume you've budgeted for a trip until you add up not just the fares, but the fees. (For related reading, see 5 Hidden Fees To Watch For On Vacation.)

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