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Southwest Is Slowly Adding Fees....But Still Cheaper Than The Others

Most U.S. airlines have been in an add-on fee frenzy in recent years, but Southwest Airlines has stood apart from the crowd.

We’ve seen the airlines add fees for many things that used to be free like checked bags, meals and some seat assignments and we’ve seen fees skyrocket for changing tickets and unaccompanied minors.

On Southwest, you still get two checked bags for free and the airline still doesn’t charge fees for cancelling or changing your flight, but the airline has been quietly adding new fees. The newest fee from Southwest is a $40 fee to be one of the first 15 passengers to board a flight. Southwest still doesn’t offer seat assignments, so this fee gives you a shot at the best seats on the plane. The $40 early boarding pass is only available 45 minutes before the flight is scheduled to depart and customers will hear an announcement about it from the gate agent if this option is available.

Customers who purchase more expensive Business Select fares will have a guarantee of getting one of these boarding numbers and if there are less than 15 Business Select travelers on the flight, these $40 early boarding passes will be available. Southwest also has a $10 EarlyBird Check-In fee that will automatically check you in 36 hours in advance, which is 12 hours earlier than online general boarding check-in is available.

This option will get you in the A boarding group if space is available and the A group makes you one of the first 60 people to board the flight. The EarlyBird fee is scheduled to increase to $12.50 on February 13. Southwest didn’t allow pets to travel on flights for most of its history, but a few years ago it began allowing small cats and dogs to travel in the passenger cabin. These pets must be able to fit in a kennel that goes under the seat.

The fee to bring a small animal on board is $75 each way on Southwest, while most major U.S. carriers charge $125 on domestic flights. Southwest does not allow animals to travel in the cargo hold. Southwest was one of the last airlines to charge a fee for kids traveling without an adult. The unaccompanied minor fee is $50 each way and it is required for children ages five-11 who are traveling alone.

Many other major airlines charge much higher fees, like $99 each way on United and $100 each way on American, Delta, JetBlue and US Airways, and some require you to pay for kids up to age 14. Alaska Airlines charges $25 one-way for direct or nonstop flights and $50 one-way for connecting flights for unaccompanied minors ages five-12, so it can be cheaper than Southwest. Please note that Southwest does not allow unaccompanied minors on flights with a change of planes. Southwest doesn’t charge a change fee or a cancellation fee, but the airline will begin charging a fee if you don’t make your flight and you fail to contact the airline in advance of departure. This no show fee will go into effect sometime in 2013, so keep checking for details.

If you cancel flight prior to departure you won’t have issues on Southwest, but if you cancel after your flight departs, you will have to pay as of yet undetermined fee. On other airlines you could lose the whole value of your ticket if you fail to cancel in advance, making your ticket worthless on those carriers. If you have to change your ticket because you’re an expecting grandma or you’ve had a change in plans, you can change the ticket in advance without a fee on Southwest, but you can’t do that on other carriers.

If you paid $140 for a roundtrip flight between Dallas and New Orleans and you had to change or cancel your ticket, you would have a $140 credit on Southwest, but most of the major U.S. airlines would charge a $150 change fee. Your $140 ticket would be worth less than the change fee on other carriers. You should consider tickets that cost less than $150 on most other airlines to be throw away tickets if you have to change or cancel your flight. One of the most common and hated fees that travelers pay for are checked baggage fees. Southwest currently offers two checked bags free of charge, but that may not last forever.

The question that is asked at almost every Southwest press conference is, “Are you going to start charging for checked bags?” What I get a kick out of is watching CEO Gary Kelly do a little tap dance around this question every time he’s asked. He recently said he had no plans to charge for bags in 2013, but the magic words are no plans, which means those plans could change. Travelers should note that the fees for extra bags, overweight bags from 51-100 pounds and oversize bags more than 62 linear inches and up to 80 linear inches, are going from $50 to $75 per bag as of February 13.

That’s a 50 percent increase, but the prices are still much better than fees charged by other airlines. For example, some airlines charge up to $200 extra for a bag weighing 70 to 100 pounds and up to $150 for the third checked bag. The new fee increases that Southwest plans to add in 2013 should generate over 100 million dollars in extra revenue.

Some of you may be irate over these new fees, but to be fair with Southwest, when it comes to all of these new and old fees, Southwest doesn’t take you to the cleaners like the other airlines. In many cases, Southwest’s fees are still are much lower than what the other airlines charge for the same service, sometimes by 50 percent or more.

If you think you are going to need any of the items we just mentioned, keep the difference in fees in mind the next time you look at fares. It could save you a bundle.  






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