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Aroiund the World: Managing the Extra Costs of Holiday Travel

Jennifer Merin on

Whether you holiday agenda includes visiting family and friends or escaping from them, make your reservations as far in advance as possible to optimum schedules and routing -- and to score better prices.

But, if you’re traveling on a budget, beware of hidden charges for services and amenities that are not covered in your airfare. These are small fees
that airlines now charge for items that used to be gratis, whether you paid full price or booked a discounted fare. The amounts charged for amenities may be relatively small -- ranging from about $15 to $100 -- but they add up quickly and can cause budget excesses that give you sticker shock and a holiday headache. Be prepared. Here’s a list of extra costs that you should
plan for – or, better yet, figure out a way to avoid them.

Seat selection – Once upon a time, you simply asked for your preferred seat and if you were the first passenger requesting that row and number, you’d be the passenger sitting in the seat. Now, on most airlines, you must be a premium frequent flyer to qualify for seats towards the front of the plane, and even if your frequent flyer status qualifies you, you have to may have to pay a fee for bulkhead seat or one in a row towards the front of the plane. Be prepared to shell out $25 to $180 for your preferred seat – and quadruple that amount if you’re a family of four.

Of course you can settle for the seat they assign you at the gate, but it’s likely to be a middle seat towards the back of the plane that probably won’t be comfortable. So, if you’re traveling long distance, budget for and buy a good seat assignment.

Seat assignment policies vary from airline to airline. Beware American Airlines, which now charges economy class passengers for pre-check in seat assignments. And, if you’ve purchased a ‘basic fare’ ticket – which averages $100 less than an economy ticket --,you can’t get any seat assignment until check in, even if you’re willing to pay for it. American Airlines extracts every penny from passengers, and the seating situation is just one example of extra charges.

Checked bags – Be prepared to pay for checking your luggage. If you’re flying coach or on a discounted fare, you’ll be charged from $15 to $30 for your first checked bag, and higher amounts per bag for second, third and fourth checked bags.

You can avoid baggage charges by using only carryon luggage, which is a good idea at any time of year. But, holiday travelers are not likely to pack light, especially if they’re carrying gifts for family and friends. One solution would be to buy gifts small enough to fit into your carryon, or send them by parcel post.

Wrapped gifts should be in checked luggage to avoid airport security hand checks that result in the gift wrap being removed. With lots of wrapped gifts, don’t even think about saving the checked bag fee. Automatically add the first checked bag fee to the cost of your ticket – unless you’re an elite status frequent flyer or use the airline’s credit card, both of which entitle you to one free checked bag.

You may not be able to avoid baggage charges, but you can minimize them. When traveling with family members, consolidate your belongings into one checked bag instead of having one checked bag per person. If you’ve got too much stuff to fit into one bag, let a second person in your party check the second bag as his or her first bag because the fee for first checked bag is less than the fee for a second checked bag.

If you have to check more than two bags per person, you’re getting into expensive territory. For third and fourth checked bags, airlines charge from $50 to $250 per bag, depending upon the total number of bags. Unless you’re moving house, you can avoid these extra charges.

Overweight bags - Checked bags are limited to 50 pounds in weight. If your checked bag weighs 51 to 100 pounds, you’ll have to pay an additional $39 to $300, depending on the actual weight of your bag and your destination. Anyway, if you’re carrying a lot of heavy stuff, you’re better off dividing it into two checked bags, each of which weighs, if possible, under 50 pounds. In that case, paying $25 for your second checked bag is the less expensive option.

Oversized bags --Checked bags that measure more than a total of 62 linear inches cost more, too. These are expensive, but sometimes cannot be avoided. Calculate $50 to $175 for each, depending on the total linear inches of the bag up to 160 linear inches.

One way bags – If you’re carrying a lot of stuff to give to others, you might consider packing it in a sturdy cardboard box that’s well sealed with tape and secured with rope to which a baggage tag can be safely and securely attached. The idea is to leave this extemporaneous suitcase at your destination, and avoid paying a checked bag fee for an empty suitcase on your return trip.

Curbside check in - Once provided for free by the airlines, the convenience of dropping your bags with curbside porters now costs you a fee. It varies from airline to airline, ranging from a couple of dollars per bag and up. On top of that, the porter expects a tip. During holiday season, airports are particularly crowded and chaotic, so you might want to spring for the cost of curbside bag check and bypass the long lines at the check in counters. Or get there early, and wait in line to check your bags at the counter.

Sustenance – For domestic flights, once you’re on board the plane, you’ll find that charges for snacks and drinks can add up, too. Few airlines hand out free snacks in coach except for the occasional wee bag of pretzels or ginger snaps. They will, however, sell you small munchables for a few dollars per item. The prices are actually exorbitant for what you’re
getting. A rather meager sandwich and chips will cost you $15 to $25.

Some airlines now offer you the option of pre-ordering your meals and snacks before you board the plane and as early as when you book your flight. This may seem to be an appealing solution to keep you from starvation aboard, but the airline food usually isn’t as good as victuals brought from home or purchased in an airport eatery.

The usual collection of airport eateries includes McDonald’s, Wolfgang Puck, Pret A Manger and others. Check your departure airport’s website for the list. Be prepared to pay higher prices at the airport than at the same eateries near your home. Add at least $25 to the price of your ticket to cover inflight food.

Coffee and tea are free, as are juice and soft drinks. You can get a cup of water--which they say is bottled--but a small individual bottle of water will cost you $2 or more. You can buy bottled water from an airport vendor, but that, too, costs more than it would in your local super market. This is a charge that you can’t avoid. Add $10 to the cost of your ticket for water--you should drink a lot of water to prevent inflight dehydration.

Inflight wines and cocktails have also gone up in price, and will now cost you from $8 to $10 for each little bottle. Mixers are free. Do yourself a favor--and save money--by restricting your alcoholic intake while you’re in flight. Alcohol is dehydrating and its effect is much stronger at flight altitudes. So use a little liquor and a lot of mixer, if you want an alcoholic drink with your inflight meal or snack.

Creature comforts - The most surprising charge of all is the fee you’ll pay for the use of a pillow and blanket. You can bring your own, but that takes up space in your carry on. Purchase inflatable neck supports and compact silk travel sheets or fleece coveralls available from online travel outfitters or buy them from airport kiosks. If you buy your own, hold on to them for multiple trips.

The bottom line is that no matter how low a fare you find, plan on spending about $150 to $200 more, each way, to get you and your stuff on board and to your destination in comfort.


Copyright 2019 Jennifer Merin


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