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Avoid crazy air travel fees this holiday season

  • apexcessbaggage.jpg

    Avoid excess baggage fees on certain airlines. (AP)

  • reuterspet.jpg

    Traveling with pets? Check with your airline about weight restrictions and hidden costs. (Reuters)

  • airlinekids.jpg

    Unaccompanied minors may cost parents more. (Etihad Airways)

  • airlinefood.jpg

    Stop paying for bad airline food you don't really want. (iStock)

The thought of traveling during the holidays can be conjure a mixture of fear and excitement.  Sure, it's great to see friends and relatives, but getting there can be stressful and costly, especially when traveling by air.

Airlines are imposing an increasing amount of fees on everything from bags to water, and savvy travelers are finding it harder to find real deals on total ticket costs.  According to a recent report by consulting firm IdeaWorks Company, 53 of the world's airlines reported $27.1 billion in ancillary revenues--or a la carte fees. This week, low-cost Spirit Airlines announced that they're considering instituting fees based on high traffic times--not just the services themselves.   

But there are some tried and true tricks that will help savvy potential passengers avoid paying through the nose this holiday travel season. Check out our favorite money-saving tips.

Baggage fees

Imagine a time when you didn’t have to pay extra for wanting to bring a few changes of clothes along. Most airlines now charge for checked baggage and some even charge for carry-ons. Southwest and JetBlue are the last two major carriers that still offer free checked bags and carry-ons. Southwest even allows a second checked bag free of charge, although the carrier's CEO this week hinted that that it may start charging for checked baggage in the future. United, American and Delta all offer free carry-on, so try to keep clothes to a minimum. If you can’t fly an airline that offers free checked luggage, make sure to check your bag’s weight before leaving the house. Some airlines charge as much as $600 for oversized luggage round trip.

Ticket fees

With the exception of Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air, U.S. airlines typically do not charge travelers for booking tickets online. Booking online will help you avoid phone-booking fees, which range from $15 up to $45, depending on the airline. If you are booking a short flight, these fees can constitute a significant percentage of the total cost.

The best way to avoid a fee for changing a ticket is to stick to your original plan. Some airlines, however, offer more flexible options for flyers. Southwest does not charge a change fee on top of the fare difference when a traveler’s itinerary must be adjusted.  According to FareCompare.com, United, Delta and US Airways have the highest change fees at $200.

Surprisingly, some airlines charge an additional fee if you need to change a ticket booked through a third party, such as a travel agent or sites like Expedia or Orbitz. United, Frontier, and Delta have ticket-change agency fees, which range from $25 to $50. Delta, however, makes an exception and waives the fee if the change is made online.

Flying with (or without) kids

Children are more independent than ever these days but that doesn’t stop airlines from trying to overcharge for their tickets.  Delta, United and even Southwest charge between $50 and $100 for unaccompanied minors (children under 12), so it might be cheaper to travel as a family. Children under two years of age may sit in a parent’s lap free of charge on most domestic flights but international travelers beware. Different flying fees may apply to longer international trips.  

Food and beverage cost

Carry snacks such as almonds, apples and high-protein bars while you travel. These healthy, affordable snacks can help you avoid charges for in-flight food, satisfy your hunger during a long layover and are great treats if you are traveling with kids.

In-flight entertainment

Longer flights can be tedious but there is no need to pay extra for in-flight movies. We recommend downloading a book or movie beforehand. While many planes are now equipped with Wi-Fi, it might not be the most cost effective solution to cross-country boredom. On planes offering Internet access, expect to pay around $15 for a day pass. If you’re a frequent flier, you might want to consider a monthly connection from GoGo Inflight, starting at $39.95 a month.

Premium seating

Concerned that you won’t be able to get a seat next to a family member?  You’re not alone. Airlines are increasingly charging extra to pick a seat when they buy their ticket.  But you don’t have to pay extra for that.  Just make sure you check in online as soon as you can (usually 24 hours prior to your flight), and you can choose – for free – among any seats that haven’t been assigned.   And if you’re a premium customer you may even see more available seats. 

Bringing the pets

Sometimes it’s hard to leave Fluffy at home for the holidays. While many airlines charge between $75 -$150 for pets, there are a few tips that will help you save when travelling with your extended furry family. Try to book non-stop flights when possible. Many airlines will charge a separate pet boarding fee per each leg of the journey. Air Canada has the cheapest pet carry-on policy at $50 per flight. Be sure your pet weighs at or under the weight requirement for in cabin travel (usually about 20 pounds) –an in cargo booking will be more expensive.

Weird international travel fees

Three percent of U.S. holiday travel is international and that brings a host of unusual fees you might not have to consider when flying domestically. First, some airlines charge more if you need to charge your ticket on an international flight. Delta, for example, charges up to $450 on some international fares. Also there is usually a departure tax for international flights typically included in your ticket price. However, countries like in the Caribbean and Central and South America don't include it, and if that is the case, you'll have to pay an exit fee at the airport on your way back to the U.S.  That could be somewhere in the ballpark of  $30-$40 per person. Finally, your international ticket might seem pricey as is but avoid paying extra fees by booking with a card that won’t charge you extra for the foreign transaction. If you belong to a global airline network (for example, Star Alliance) consider booking through a domestic partner airline for a better deal.