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Nickels & Dimes: The Newest New Airline Fees

On a recent flight from St. Lucia back to New York, it was the alcohol that did me in. Two bottles of island rum pushed my checked bag 0.5 pounds over JetBlue’s 50-pound limit. Prepared to thwart the $50 overweight bag fee, I promptly sorted a few things out into a separate, soft duffle — and got hit with an unexpected second-bag fee of $35.

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I take full blame: JetBlue has charged for a second bag on international flights since 2008. But international fliers should be aware: United Continental, Delta and American have all added fees for checking a second bag on some international flights this year. All three have also increased fees on other routes; Jet Blue also raised its checked-bag fees from $30 to $35.

It’s a major shift in international travel, which has largely been fee-free due to a combination of high fares and carriers’ ability to easily tack on fuel surcharges, says Basili Alukos, an equity analyst for Morningstar. Just a few years ago, even economy travelers on international flights could count on two free checked bags weighing up to 70 pounds each. But now the free second bag has all but disappeared, and now costs $35 to $75. Weight limits have dropped, too, with overweight fees of $100 and up kicking in at 50 pounds. Some routes won’t even accept bags weighing more than 70 pounds, forcing consumers into even pricier airline cargo arrangements.

“Airlines are trying to get another source of revenue, and they must think international travelers are more elastic on pricing,” Alukos says. After all, if you’re shelling out $1,200 for airfare to Paris or London this summer, what’s another $70 to check a second bag?

Instead of paying $50 to check a second bag to or from Europe, travelers now pay $60 on American, $70 on United Continental and $75 on Delta ($60 if you check in online). All three have added $30 charges to check a second bag on routes to or from Central or South America. United Continental and Delta spokespeople said the fees were changed to match international partners. A spokesman for American says the changes were made to stay competitive with partner British Airways, “to make sure our joint customers have the same charge regardless of which airline does the flying.”

Most consumers — like me — are relatively unaware, says George Hobica, the founder of AirfareWatchdog.com. The average jet-setter takes just two international trips each year, according to the government’s Office of Travel & Tourism Industries, an average that’s likely skewed on the high side from business travelers. “Fee increases on international flights don’t affect as many people [as domestic hikes], but when one affects you, it really hurts,” he says.

Travelers planning a trip need to keep a close watch on policies, especially if they’re traveling around the time of a fee change, Hobica says. Consumers who bought before the change was announced can usually travel under the old, cheaper set of rules. But fees can be more than expected if there’s a domestic leg attached to your flight, or you’re switching carriers. There may also be discounts available for paying the bag fee before heading to the airport.

More extreme solutions might be in order, too. Most European airlines charge by the pound, so heavy packers might be better off traveling by train instead of hopping on a short-haul flight once they arrive on the continent, Hobica says. And those souvenirs? Consider shipping them home instead. Many merchants will do it for you, and even DIY solutions are likely to be cheaper than the pricey overweight or second-bag fees.

Nickels and Dimes will keep tabs on new and rising fees and surcharges eating into your bottom line. Have one to share? Email kelli.grant@dowjones.com.

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About Pay Dirt

  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to quentin.fottrell@dowjones.com or tweet @SMPayDirt.

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