Airline tickets have never been this expensive. Or confusing.
The price of airline tickets has soared by 25% in the last year, the biggest jump since the Federal Reserve of St. Louis began tracking prices.
Fares are mind-bogglingly complex, too. You have your base price. Then you have taxes and mandatory fees. And then you have extras like luggage and seat selection fees and insurance. (And if you think booking a ticket is bad in the U.S., try it for overseas.)
“There’s nothing worse than thinking you’ve scored a great deal, only to be blindsided by fees,” says Anne Sutherland, who publishes a site about travel to Japan. “It’s a bit like going to a restaurant, ordering a meal — and then finding out that the veggies are extra.”
Chances are, you’ll be asking yourself how much it costs to fly this summer. According to Generali Global Assistance’s 2023 Holiday Barometer, 44% percent of Americans plan to fly to their summer vacation destination, up 1% from the same period a year ago.
Determining the true cost of flying is harder than ever. There are the usual surcharges and fees — I’ll get to those in a minute — and clever booking sites built by airlines that are designed to confuse you. But with a few insider strategies, you can still figure out how much it will cost to fly this summer.
Airfares are a “complex and opaque” matter
OK, here’s a secret: Airlines offer barebones service at low prices on purpose. They want you to think you’re getting a deal; then they start to pile on the extras. I have details in my ultimate buying guide for airline tickets. Even the professionals sometimes don’t know the actual cost of their ticket.
“The cost of air travel can be a complex and opaque matter, often leading to frustration and confusion among travelers,” explains Maria Atanasova, a travel advisor with OvationNetwork.
“One of the key concerns for travelers is the discrepancy between the price quoted at the time of booking and the final amount paid.”
Why do airlines charge for everything?
Because they can no longer earn a profit by selling tickets. Internet search engines have become so good at finding the lowest fares — and air travelers have become experts at finding deals — that airlines have to look elsewhere for profits.
They use a two-pronged strategy to sell you these extras.
1. Unbundle airfares
Airlines stripped away items that you know you’ll need, such as a checked bag or a seat assignment, from the base fare. Then they try to sell it back to you.
2. Confuse the customers
Next, they made the buying process as confusing as possible. They offer a low fare but then pile on the offers with pop-ups and up-sells. They make you believe you got a deal and then hit you with more fees. Mostly, they make it difficult to know how much the flight will really cost until you actually pay for the ticket.
Bottom line: Airfares are intentionally confusing and designed to extract even more money from you.
What are the worst airline fees?
To understand how to calculate the true cost of air travel, you first have to know specific fees and charges. Here are some of the most irritating airline fees:
Airlines add charges for booking a ticket, either online or in person. Some low-fare carriers will charge fees ranging from $15 to $20 per segment or per ticket. Airlines often bury the disclosure and explanation of these fees deep within their website.
Boarding pass printing fee
If you need to print your boarding pass, it’ll cost you anywhere from $3 to $25 on some airlines.
Checked baggage fees
Most domestic airlines (except Southwest) charge a fee for checked baggage. Some low-fare airlines, such as Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit, also charge for carry-on bags. Be prepared to pay extra unless unless your ticket explicitly includes baggage.
Seat assignment charges
Your airline ticket buys you a seat these days — but not necessarily an assigned seat. Airlines now demand an additional fee if you want a particular seat, or if you want to sit next to your travel companion. Whether you prefer an aisle seat, a window seat, or extra legroom, expect to pay for the privilege. You’ll find this fee during the online check-in process or when buying your tickets.
How do you avoid airline fees?
You don’t have to pay all of these fees. There’s a way to avoid almost every one of them.
You can avoid many booking fees by switching your payment or booking method. For example, some airlines charge a fee to book by phone, which you can avoid if you book online.
Know the rules
Find out if you need a printed boarding pass before you show up at the airport. Chances are, you can download an app for your boarding pass, saving the boarding pass printing fee.
Avoid checking a bag, and use techniques like rolling instead of folding to save space.
Don’t reserve a seat
You can usually get a seat 24 hours before your departure at no extra charge.
Here are some tools and techniques to help you determine the true cost of flying
I interviewed numerous travelers and travel experts about how they figure out the cost of flying. Topping their list of recommendations: Google Flights and Skyscanner.
These sites work similarly. They allow you to search flights and then refer you to either an airline or online travel agency to make a reservation.
But at best, these sites will only help you find a base fare. After that, it starts to get a little confusing.
Remember how I said it gets confusing when you book airline tickets overseas? Let’s go there.
Here’s a one-way fare from Bali to Bangkok, Thailand, on Google Flights. First, there’s a little currency confusion. My location is New Zealand, so the fare is showing in New Zealand dollars.
That’s about $91 in U.S. currency for the highlighted June 12 flight.
But when I select the fare, what’s this? A credit card fee of $3?
AirAsia also pre-selects a luggage option for my “convenience.” I suppose it also switched currency again for my convenience.
Total price: $121.
And that’s just the beginning. AirAsia will also try to sell you bundles with luggage, meals, seat selections and more flexibility. Is your head spinning yet?
Even with the best online tools, you won’t know the cost of flying until the final booking screen.
Will I have to pay more for my flight even after I’ve booked a ticket?
Unfortunately, the ticket purchase is not the last opportunity for an airline to pry open the wallets of its passengers.
Your airline will start to email you after your purchase, asking if you want to buy more — an upgrade, a seat assignment, a meal. If you say “no” they’ll try to get you at the airport with a boarding pass printing fee or an excess luggage charge. Frontier Airlines recently admitted to paying its gate agents a $10 commission on baggage fees. It is likely not the only airline to incentivize its agents to collect more money.
If you want to control the cost of your airline ticket, you have to turn down these upsells and pack light.
But airlines are a step ahead and are constantly looking for ways to outsmart you. I predict they’ll build a better mousetrap to capture more of your travel dollars before long.
The solution may be government regulation requiring airlines to disclose the entire cost of your ticket before you click the “book” button.
“The government has a role in ensuring that consumers have access to accurate and transparent information about airfare pricing,” says Pallavi Sadekar, head of operations at VisitorGuard.com.
The U.S. Department of Transportation already requires airlines to prominently reveal all fees and charges associated with air travel, including baggage, cancellation, and other ancillary charges. But the airlines can do better; and outside the U.S., it’s almost impossible to know how much it will cost to fly this summer.