If You Want That Pillow, You're Gonna Have to Pay
Facing steep fuel prices and tough competition, airlines aren't cutting costs so much as passing them on.
All it took was a few decades of bankruptcies, mergers, fare wars, and government bailouts for the message to finally sink in: The old airline business model just doesn't work.
Throughout the industry, carriers are concentrating on efficiency, and that often means free meals, magazines, and pillows are goners. Travelers today are greeted with all-new costs--$2 for curbside check-in, $5 for a sandwich, $25 to fly standby, and more. "If the airlines could get away with it, they'd charge us for the air we breathe," says Christopher Elliott, a consumer travel expert and editor of Tripso.com. "The planes would probably have coin-operated toilets."
Food and drink
A complimentary hot meal used to be standard on long-haul domestic flights, but now it's the exception. In 2003, US Airways started asking $7 for breakfast and $10 for lunch or dinner. The move proved unpopular enough for the airline to drop prices by a couple bucks, but most competitors eventually followed suit. These days, expect to pay for anything more than a teeny bag of chips. And sometimes, you don't even get that without forking over some cash--Northwest yanked its free half-ounce bags of pretzels last June, saving (according to the airline) $2 million a year. Its passengers now pay $1 for a bag of raisins and mixed nuts; $3 for a snack box with a granola bar, cookies, crackers, and cheese; and $5 for a sandwich. Menus and prices are similar on many American, America West, and United flights. Obviously, bringing your own food or eating before boarding eliminates the expense, and you get to control the menu. With all other factors equal, consider flying Continental. At this point, it's the lone holdout among major carriers, still serving full meals on the longer domestic routes and charging passengers nothing--though some people say that's what the food is worth.
Most international flights still include meals and drinks, even booze, but who knows how long it'll last? Air Jamaica used to serve free beer and wine, but as of last July those in coach have to pay $2 for a Red Stripe and $3 for a tiny bottle of wine (though everyone receives a complimentary glass of champagne).
Over the past two years, most airlines quietly lowered their free weight allowance on checked bags from 70 pounds to 50 pounds apiece, and agents are enforcing the rules like never before. The standard fee is $25 for bags that weigh 51--70 pounds, and $50 for those weighing 71-100 pounds. (Many carriers won't accept anything over 100 pounds.) "The airlines say they had to change the weight limits because the heavier bags were a danger to their employees," says Joe Brancatelli, an industry watchdog and editor of joesentme.com. "But I guess if you give them $25, they're willing to put their workers at risk."
The restrictions are notoriously tough on Europe's low-fare carriers. EasyJet, for example, allows free checked luggage up to 44 pounds per passenger (not per bag) and charges almost $4 for each additional pound. Ryanair and others regularly enforce carry-on weight limits, too. What's most frustrating about the baggage allowance is that there's little consistency, even within a single airline. On transatlantic connections, British Airways, Alitalia, Iberia, Aer Lingus, and a few other European carriers allow bags weighing up to 70 pounds, free of charge. But if you buy a ticket flying only within Europe, the baggage rules are different. For instance, if you purchased a British Airways flight from London to Rome (but not a transatlantic leg to go along with it), you'd have to pay extra for bags weighing more than 51 pounds. Then again, the days of European airlines allowing 70-pound bags on transatlantic flights seem to be numbered: Lufthansa and Air France lowered their baggage limits to 50 pounds in November, matching the restrictions set by most U.S. carriers.
To get around the new rules, check two lighter bags rather than one heavy one, to make sure you don't get hit with a fee. If you'd rather pack a single bag, here's a safety valve: Stick an empty duffel bag in your suitcase; if the airline tries to charge you extra, redistribute weight to the duffel and check it as your second piece of luggage. Inquire ahead of time about bringing anything large or unusual on a flight--you're usually charged for scuba gear and bikes, but not for golf bags or ski equipment. Two airlines offer considerably more leeway. Southwest may have started charging for bags over 50 pounds a year ago, but it continues to allow passengers to check three bags. (Most carriers require $80 for the privilege.) And JetBlue doesn't charge unless a bag weighs more than 70 pounds.
Budget Travel Real Deals
- From $909
- From $449
- From $849
- From $99
- From $179
- From $1,285
- From $1,155
- From $1,075
- From $728