When it comes to airfare and airline fees, there are several myths that can cost you serious cash if you aren’t careful. Think booking as early as possible will guarantee the lowest fare? That’s just not true. Have you accepted checked bag fees as a part of flying? Actually, there are several ways around them.
Before you book your next flight and overpay on airfare and airline fees, use these little-known tips for big savings.
1. Know the Fees Before You Buy
With so many different airline fees, it makes sense to include fees when comparing ticket prices.
Bag fees are all over the place now. Spirit airlines charges $35 for a carry-on bag with standard tickets, and that’s if you pay when you book your flight. Wait and you’ll pay even more. Frontier Airlines has started charging for carry-ons now, too.
Southwest and JetBlue don’t charge fees for carry-on or your first checked bag. (Southwest allows a second free checked bag, too)
Change fees differ as well. Southwest still lets you change flights for free at almost any time. Meanwhile, larger carriers like United, Delta and US Airways, charge up to $200 for changes on domestic flights.
For up-to-date bag and change fees, see SmarterTravel.com’s fee guide that shows both for domestic carriers.
2. Book at the Right Time
Several factors related to when you book your flight can affect the price. While I often make plans to travel months in advance, I don’t always book my flights right away. I’ve purchased tickets just weeks out and found some of the lowest prices.
Experts confirm this. A few studies suggest that about six to eight weeks out is the optimal time to book domestic flights. For international flights, it’s more like 11 to 12 weeks ahead.
FareCompare says you shouldn’t book more than 3 1/2 months before you plan to travel. But don’t wait too long. Fares can increase dramatically within 14 days of departure.
FareCompare also says the best time to search for and book flights is Tuesday at 3 p.m. eastern time.
While these general tips help, the next one will help you monitor fares continuously and buy at just the right time.
3. Use Alternative Fare Comparison Sites
You’ve likely heard of the big-name flight comparison sites like Travelocity, Priceline, Orbitz and others that advertise heavily on TV. From my experience, these sites are good but often return similar results. Instead, I prefer alternate sites that can save me more money.
Airfare Watchdog is a handy free service that regularly checks fares and emails regular updates when it finds cheap fares. I get a few emails from this site a week (because I fly cross-country often), and I see prices fluctuate quite a bit. When I see a good fare in my inbox, I buy.
Bing Travel search also provides interesting insights with its travel Price Predictor. You can set your route and dates, and Bing will tell you if now is the time to buy, along with how much the fare could change and how confident it is that this will happen. This feature has saved me more than $50 several times just by letting me know whether I should buy now or wait.
Don’t forget to check airline websites, too. Southwest flights won’t show up on any other website. Other times you may find a better deal booking directly from the airline.
4. Lock in Rates
There are a few different ways you can save on flights even if you’ve already booked.
By law you have 24 hours to cancel your flight after you’ve booked as long as it’s at least a week before the flight. If you’ve found a lower price within that time frame and want to book that fare instead, just cancel the original flight.
If you want to hold the fare longer, United Airlines offers FareLock. For a fee that’s usually $5-$20, you can hold a United fare for three or seven days and decide to buy later. There’s no guarantee you’ll save money, but at least you won’t regret letting prices creep up by waiting a few hours too long.
5. Save on Fees with Frequent Flyer Credit Cards
Frequent flyer cards aren’t just for earning miles. Many come with free perks that can end up saving you some money.
Nearly all of these cards offer free checked bags. The best deal is with Delta SkyMiles credit card, which offers a free bag for up to nine people in your party, which can save $450 round-trip.
The United Mileage Plus Explorer credit card offers two free lounge passes a year worth $50 each.
Extra perks like priority boarding make your flight a little more enjoyable, especially when they guarantee overhead bin space.
6. Push Carry-on Limits
There are several ways to get around checked bag fees. I like to carry everything on — within the guidelines — so I don’t pay more. This means a bag in the overhead bin (sized at exactly the maximum dimensions allowed) and a small backpack to put under the seat in front of mine.
To save space, I use rollable compression bags that cut the volume of my clothing by up to 80 percent.
If your carry-on bags are close to the limit and might not fit in the overhead bin, many times airlines will allow you to check bags at the gate free of charge.
If you’re traveling in a group, there’s no need for everyone to pay to check a bag, even if you’re carrying liquids. A family of five could consolidate and fill up one or two checked bags. Then pack the rest in carry-on approved sizes.
7. Slim Down and Save on In-Flight Entertainment
Carrying multiple books, magazines, computers and other devices will fill up carry-on bags quickly. While an e-reader or tablet like the iPad might have an upfront cost, you can recoup that if it’s the difference between having to check bags or not.
In flight entertainment isn’t always free, either. United’s new entertainment system costs $7.99 per seat on flights over two hours. Load movies and shows onto your tablet or smartphone and avoid these extra costs. Rent movies from iTunes (which you can download then watch without an Internet connection) at prices starting at $0.99.