Navigating airfare can be a challenge during trip planning and we field many questions around airfare – which airlines, using loyalty programs, how to find the best deal, to name a few. To answer briefly – we pick the cheapest airline with the best travel times for our needs, we do not use loyalty programs because of the prior answer (though we know lots of people who enroll for some swanky benefits – see post on best travel credit cards), and the best deal is coming to you below.
We do a lot of flying but I can assure you, we only fly it the price is right. We are not luxury travelers. I do not pay for any added “perks” or “benefits” – just the cost to sit on the plane. Carry-on packing certainly helps keep the price down but even add on’s like meals, choosing the seat, getting on the plane early, are all added “fees” that quickly turn a cheap flight into a moderately priced one.
Let’s break down the cost / benefit all the added fees.
The temporary fee that became permanent as soon as the airlines got the chance (thanks to the gas prices of 2007-2008). This fee has become very specific to the airline you are flying. Some charge only for a checked bag and the carry on and personal item is included in the price of the ticket. In these cases, read my 5 Reasons to Pack in a Carry On. The next tier is charging for checked bag and carry on bag (thanks for making this a thing, United) and only permitted a personal item to go under the seat in front of you at no additional cost. This is also the framework for budget airlines as well such as Frontier and Spirit. These budget airlines charge for both checked bag and carry on but charge more for the carry on bag than the checked bag (dumb). Very few airlines include checked bags – Southwest is one of the few that do but I find their prices to be more expensive average so the cost of that carry on is built into the ticket cost. Whichever fits your needs, just remember to incorporate the round trip cost of your luggage into the total cost of your ticket.
On Board Meals
Snacks and meals are a thing of the past on many airlines. While many airlines offer on board snacks and meals, they are quite pricey and this goes for airport food as well. Make sure to evaluate when you will last have access to food and then time you expect to reach your final destination to determine your meal planning strategy. Remember, as long as it is not a liquid (or a liquid over 3oz), you can take food with you through security. For shorter flights, I always pack a snack like granola bars or nuts. Longer flights I will grab something with more substance such as a sandwich or wrap. While many international flights have meals included, there are some budget airlines like Norwegian where the meal is an extra fee. Most of the time, our international flights are flying red eye / overnight so we would not be eating anyway. And do not forget that refillable water bottle! Empty it out before security then fill it up before you get on the plane.
The newest fad to penetrate many airlines is the fee to pick your seat which can add over $30 to a round trip ticket. While I was nervous for our first couple flights as I refused to pay for such a “service”, we have yet to experience an issue with this. PRO TIP: If you check in exactly at the 24 hour mark, you are more likely to get seated together. Kevin and I have yet to be seated apart when we did not pay to choose our seats (though we are prepared to as the airline has no obligation to sit us together). We are often in the back of the plane but once again, gets us to the same destinations as those who paid more for their ticket. Also, if you are traveling as a family, the airlines are required by law to seat an adult with a child so you do not need to be concerned about a child being seated alone. Know though that the larger the party, the more difficult it is to stay together. If being seated on a plane together is very important, then pay for the security.
Ahh paying to get on the plane sooner. Look I will be honest – I am the first to admit I want to get on the plane to ensure I have overhead space for our carry on life and if the majority of people respected the overhead space rules, this would not be a concern. However, we are frequently in the final board group and (knock on wood or something) have yet to have an issue when we board early in the final boarding group. We do have a benefit that our carry on bag fits under the seat but it is very snug and gives us no leg room (our worst case scenario). This fee is a strange one to monetize on but if people are willing to pay, then the airlines will profit.
What about airline loyalty programs?
Airline loyalty programs may mitigate many of these fees in exchange for perks such as free baggage, early boarding access, upgrade options, discounts and more. Make sure to evaluate if one is right for you – we know many people that a have great success with their airline cards (just make sure you read the super fine print!). Since we fly out of numerous airports and airlines, this strategy does not work for us.
So far, I do not see the benefit of the added fees and being able to work around them consistently pulls us into cheaper flight prices.