Pay for a better airline seat or hotel Wi-Fi? No thanks.
Most travelers steer clear of optional fees to make their trip more comfortable, according to new data from reward platform Switchfly. Roughly half of the 9,996 travelers surveyed said they "have no intention of purchasing" extras including priority boarding access, upgraded seating or in-flight Wi-Fi. (See chart below for what services travelers are, and aren't, willing to pay for.)
It's getting harder to avoid some fees as major carriers segment their cabins to introduce no-frills economy fares that come without many of the trappings travelers have gotten used to, like the ability to select a seat or change their travel plans.
"You're going to have a world tomorrow where you'll pay for where you think there's value," said Jami Counter, a vice president with TripAdvisor Flights.
But for many fees, it's not a matter of not wanting the service — it's just that there's little need to pull out your wallet. Here's how to sidestep, or at least reduce, the bill:
Join the loyalty program
On the hotel front at least, joining the free rewards program can be an easy way to avoid certain fees, said Jason Clampet, a co-founder of hotel site Skift.com.
Kimpton, for example, provides a $10 to $15 credit per stay to use toward the minibar, while MGM Resorts members get a 5 percent discount at on-site shops and preferred pricing at on-property shows. Marriott, Starwood, Omni and Hilton are among the brands that offer free basic Wi-Fi to guests who sign up for their loyalty program.
"The base tier will get you web surfing and being able to check your email," he said.
But travelers should be aware of a few issues, Clampet said. Some chains restrict program freebies to members who book their room directly through the hotel (instead of a third-party travel site); guests hoping to do more than check their email may also find themselves paying up for high-speed internet.
Compare airlines – and aircraft
Before you book, scrutinize the amenities available through that airline, and the specific aircraft, Counter said. You may find that a slightly pricier fare is the better value overall, once fees for your must-have extras are factored in.
Travelers concerned about legroom will find that some carriers and aircraft offer more space on their basic seats, letting you avoid the fee for a premium seat just to get a few extra inches. JetBlue has the roomiest standard seats, averaging 32 inches, he said.
"That's a good inch above everyone else," he said — and several inches more than some budget carriers offer.
Travelers who want in-flight entertainment or Wi-Fi will find a plane-to-plane comparison especially important, Counter said. As airlines update their fleets, fliers could easily find themselves on an older aircraft without even seatback screens rather than a top-of-the-line plane loaded with options.
Pay with points
Look to see if you can tap your loyalty program balance, said Dara Continenza, a travel editor for Hopper.com. United lets travelers use miles to cover the cost of in-flight Wi-Fi, while Marriott lets guests request instant redemption to cover charges for spa services, cocktails and other on-site charges.
"Frequent-flier miles are great for cabin upgrades," she said. "Sometimes, it's a better value than even cash."
Look, but don’t touch
It's possible to inadvertently incur minibar charges, Clampet said. Some minibars are equipped with sensors that trigger a charge if you simply move an item. Read any signage on or near in-room amenities like bottled water or snack bowl before you dig in.
"Inspect the bottle of water they have on your bedside table," Clampet said. "It might say, 'Enjoy this for $6.'"
Assess fee bundles
If you travel frequently, Wi-Fi subscriptions may help you reduce fees, Counter said. GoGo, for example, offers monthly domestic plans for $50 on one airline, and $60 on multiple airlines. Purchased a la carte, the service costs $5 for an hour or $16 for a 24-hour pass.
Airlines may also offer subscriptions or fee bundles worth assessing. United offers an annual Economy Plus subscription for as little as $499, allowing users to book available premium seats at no additional charge. American's higher-level fare bundles include a free checked bag and priority boarding.
Use the right credit card
If you routinely shell out for extras, the annual fee on an airline-branded credit card may quickly pay for itself, said Continenza. The Delta Skymiles card comes with the first checked bag free (worth $25), priority boarding ($15), discounted lounge access and a 20 percent discount on in-flight purchases. (There's an annual fee of $95, waived for the first year.)
If the cost for extra legroom or cabin upgrade seems steep, there can be value in waiting. It's not unusual to see better seats open up in the days ahead of departure, or see prices shift. Continenza recently snagged an extra-legroom seat for no extra charge by waiting to pick her seat until the last minute.
But waiting is a gamble, Counter said. You might find that the premium seats sell out, or that you're left with the dreaded middle seat.
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