Airline Travel Tips: Checked Bag Fees, Redeeming Travel Vouchers

Note: This post is a compilation of four separate blog posts about airline travel. See them each below.

When adjusted for inflation, airline fares have gone way down over the past 15 years, while fuel costs have soared. Is it any wonder airlines are going bankrupt left and right?

American Airlines

Here’s an opinion I know many people will disagree with: Airline travel should be way more expensive than it is. And those checked baggage fees are totally justified – even for the first bag.

I know these beliefs put me in the minority, but it’s a fact that many airlines have struggled to stay in business (American was the latest to file for bankruptcy), and the bottom-line reason is that they’re simply not charging enough for their services.

In the past year, I’ve purchased round-trip flights from Chicago to Los Angeles for $150 and from Chicago to Miami for $144, all fees included. You’d pay at least triple those amounts to go by Greyhound or Amtrak, which are supposedly the cheapest means of travel!

I also saw round-trip flights to Iceland for $500. Those are insane prices! As a consumer, I’m thrilled to see these deals. But as a person with some reasonable level of concern for our economy, I can see why the airlines are struggling.

This is anecdotal evidence, of course, and you could locate expensive flights as well. But overall, flight costs are just too low.

midway sirport signs

Flight costs have not kept up with inflation

I’m not an expert on aviation, so I don’t necessarily know where to find the most reliable data on the subject. But I know that as the costs of gasoline and manpower have soared over the past two decades, flight costs have not kept up.

This site (broken link removed) has an interesting chart, for those who like seeing stats in visual form. Here’s the key bit of news from the piece: “When calculated in 1995 dollar value, the average fare price has decreased about 20 percent in the last 15 years.”

So fare prices are going down – way down – when adjusted for inflation, even while fuel costs have gone through the roof. It’s no wonder that many airlines are hemorrhaging money.

southwest airlines

Pilot salaries and benefits are dropping

Another reason flight costs should go up is that pilots need to be paid more. Nobody really trains to be a pilot anymore. When most of the current pilots retire within the next 20 years, there’s going to be no one left to fly the planes. One way to avoid this problem is to raise pilots’ pay, which can only happen by charging substantially more for flights. It will suck for those of us who love to travel, but it must be done.

Hero pilot Chesley Sullenberger, who successfully landed his disabled plane in the Hudson River in 2009, appeared before Congress after that incident and gave heartbreaking testimony about how many commercial pilots are struggling to make ends meet.

He said that many are now forced to take second jobs because their pay has been slashed so dramatically they can’t support themselves on a pilot’s salary alone. That revelation is shocking and highly troubling.

Those interested in aviation issues should watch the video of his testimony to get some context on the pilots’ point of view. Check it out here. (Fast forward to 2:47 to get right to the good stuff.)

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baggage claim

Why charging for checked bags is the best solution

The main reason people are upset about paying for checked baggage is that they didn’t have to pay for it in the past. It’s a psychological thing. It’s all in your head! I get it – when companies give consumers something (e.g., free bag checking) and then take it away, it can be upsetting. But consider the alternative.

Which would you rather have: A 20%, across-the-board price increase on all flights everywhere in the world. Or, an effort to keep base flight costs relatively stable, and instead start charging for checked bags, meals, and other amenities?

The latter option is certainly better, because it still gives budget travelers some options. You don’t have to buy a meal. And you don’t have to check a bag. If you really want to pinch your pennies, there are ways around these airline fees. There would not be any way around an all-out base fare increase.

Frankly, charging for checked baggage makes sense. If you check a bag, you’re requiring extra work on the part of the airline, which needs to inspect the bag, transport it to the plane, and transport it to the terminal after landing. That extra manpower costs money. So logically, checked bags should cost extra.

air baggage

Some airlines have found a way to post profits, even in these difficult times for the industry. As ABC News points out, airlines that are already profitable and theoretically don’t “need” baggage fees are putting the revenue from such fees to good use by, for instance, buying new, more fuel-efficient planes – something that is long overdue in many cases!

Airlines are not making record profits like oil companies

If airlines were making multi-billion-dollar record profits like oil companies and were trying to gouge every last penny from consumers, I would absolutely feel differently. But that’s not the case. Most are just scraping by, trying to compete with low-cost competitors with lower operating costs.

These companies are fighting for their lives and they’re trying to avoid bankruptcy by instituting new fees. I’m pretty sure that’s how our economy is supposed to work. What’s wrong with that? What am I missing?

I haven’t studied the inner workings of the airline industry. This is just my take as a regular dude who travels. I welcome feedback from anyone who wants to present the other side of the story.

Am I out to lunch on this one, or do you agree that airline fees aren’t so bad?

How I Like to Fly

Originally published February, 2012

southwest airlines

Let’s talk flying. I usually take a few flights a year – not really enough to make me a frequent flyer. And I’m still learning things.

One thing I learned not long ago is that some airlines have displays that allow you see a live map of the plane’s progress during the route. Apparently this is common knowledge, but I had literally never heard of this before until Adventures with Ben pointed it out. Despite taking probably 30 flights over the years, I’ve never seen this even once. I guess because I’m usually on Southwest or US Airways, I’ve been missing out on all the cool stuff. Live and learn!

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Sit up front or in the back?

What I’m really fascinated by are people’s personal preferences when it comes to being on the plane. Many people advise sitting up front to get off the plane first, something I’ve done many times. But then it occurred to me that I actually prefer getting off the plane last now. Am I the only wacko who feels this way?

baggage claim

I don’t like the rat race that ensues when the plane stops. I’d much rather remain seated until just about everyone has deboarded, then casually get up, remove my carry-on from the overheard, and head out at my leisure with the other stragglers. There’s enough stress in traveling already – who wants the hassle of fighting a hundred other people just to save three minutes? It really is just three minutes – maybe five if you’re on a huge plane. And if you get off too soon, chances are you’ll arrive at the checked baggage counter before your bags! Sit back and relax, I say.

This mindset allows me to willingly sit in the back all the time – especially on those Southwest flights with open seating.

Window, middle or aisle seat?

Like many people, I also prefer window seats. I’ve already accepted that I was a cat in a previous life, because I could stare out windows all day long. So of course, when I’m traveling I have to have control of the window. Especially when it gives me opportunities to see Mt. Rainier. Or downtown Miami:

miami from plane

I know many people like to be on the aisle, to have easy access to the bathrooms. I’m really curious whether anyone prefers the middle seat. Is there any reason at all why being in the middle seat could be advantageous? There’s got to be some reason, right?

Airline preferences

Since I usually look for the cheapest price, I’ve ended up on the same airlines repeatedly. I finally joined Southwest’s frequent flyer program, though it looks like it will take me years to get enough points for a free flight.

I like Southwest’s open seating, where you just show up and choose your seat. It’s nice for people like me who want the window and don’t mind sitting in the back of the plane, because I can almost always make that happen. Then I get a clear view of Long Island as we fly into NYC:

plane long island

I only flew JetBlue once but I loved it because they have tv monitors behind every seat so you can watch live TV. Come to think of it, maybe they had an in-flight map, but I didn’t bother to check because I was glued to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. I didn’t even mind having to spend an extra hour on the tarmac in NYC during a delay because the visual entertainment was wonderfully distracting.

I’ve never flown Delta, Continental, Virgin or Alaska. Am I missing out on anything?

What are your flying preferences?

Sit up front or in the back? Window, middle or aisle seat? How about the exit row? What’s your preferred airline? Leave a comment and let me know how you like to fly – perhaps I can learn a little more.

Deciding Where To Use My Airline Voucher

Originally published December, 2012

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departure board

Good news on the lost luggage front: I received my reimbursement!

A brief recap: When I flew to Alaska this summer, United misplaced my camping gear, causing me to have to scramble, running around the state buying new camping gear for our week there. The bag finally showed up more than a week after we returned to Chicago.

Now, I can report that I did receive the $100 travel voucher as well as full reimbursement for my emergency purchases. It took a while and many phone calls, but United delivered what the company promised.

alaska from plane

The only question now is when and where I should use the voucher. This is the first time I’ve ever had the luxury of a voucher (btw, if you want to play the voucher game, check out these tips from John at Travel Rinse Repeat, the voucher-acquisition expert.)

I have about a half-dozen potential trips planned in the next six months or so. But I’ve checked the flight prices for all them, and United’s prices are just not competitive. Pittsburgh to Chicago is $253 one way. That’s crazy! I’m used to going for $79 each way on Southwest.

Searching for airline tickets is usually a fun experience for me – nothing is more fun than scoring a deal – but trying to redeem the voucher has proven a challenge. Even with the $100 discount, I’m finding that prices on United are still more expensive than other airlines. I suppose I’ll keep waiting for a sale, and if none shows up, I’ll look for a one-way ticket to somewhere not far from Chicago, like Detroit or St. Louis, where I could get a flight for close to $100, therefore making it nearly free. I only have until June to use the voucher.

Do you have any suggestions on how to redeem travel vouchers?

Where Should I Go With My Free Airline Points?

Originally published February, 2015

southwest plane los angeles

At the moment, I have so many options for free travel I can’t make a decision. Take another trip to NYC? Maybe a Pacific Northwest vacation to Seattle and Portland? Or maybe somewhere more exotic like Puerto Rico, Aruba, Jamaica, or Costa Rica? So many possibilities!

The reason I have these options for free travel is not because of any insider travel blogger freebies, but rather because last year, I applied for and opened a Southwest credit card. That was the greatest travel decision I ever made.

The 50,000 bonus points I received from signing up, combined with the 10k points I had already accrued and the 2k or so points I continue to amass each month by paying all my bills with the card (score!), means that I now have at least three free trips coming up. (I HIGHLY recommend getting an airline credit card if you don’t already have one.)

The problem now is deciding how best to redeem these points to maximize their value.

Options: NYC vs Puerto Rico?

Initially, I wanted to use points to travel to New York. I haven’t been to NYC in a few years, and as I mentioned in my list of places I want to visit in 2015, I especially want to spend time in Brooklyn.

times square nyc

While comparing prices, though, I noticed something odd: For roughly the same amount of points I’d need to fly to New York, I can fly to San Juan, Puerto Rico instead. Puerto Rico!

Since my travel has been focused exclusively on the U.S., Canada, and Mexico thus far, I’m always looking to branch out. Puerto Rico is in the Caribbean so it’s not like I’m going to the other side of the globe, but at least I’ll finally be moving beyond continental North America.

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So Puerto Rico it is! I’m hoping to visit later this year. Probably September, when hurricane season kicks in (living dangerously!) and prices are lower.

Other possibilities: Glacier National Park?

The top domestic destination on my wishlist right now is Glacier National Park and its famous Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana, but the closest Southwest flies to there is Spokane, Washington. Flights to Spokane aren’t particularly affordable, and from there I’d have to rent a car and drive five hours to the park. That would be very time-consuming and expensive, so I’ve decided that a Glacier trip would not be an ideal use of points.

As for other options, Las Vegas and all the Utah national parks are high on my list. In Utah I can visit Zion, Arches, and Canyonlands National Parks. In Vegas, there are the casinos, of course, plus all the shows on the strip and attractions like the Stratosphere rides.

But there’s a good chance I’ll be moving to the west coast soon, so I think the smart thing to do is hold off on any trips to that half of the country until then.

welcome to vegas sign

So what does that leave? Aside from Puerto Rico, I’m looking at south Florida again (another Miami vacation would be sweet), and possibly somewhere in the Northeast, like Boston or Hartford. I’d love to do a New England road trip for 10 days through Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, since those destinations are often overlooked by travel bloggers. That’s also the area of the country where I’ve spent the least amount of time.

I love maximizing my travel opportunities, so even though I have these free points available, I’m still going to wait for sales so I can use as few points as possible for each journey. That way I can potentially stretch the points into four or five trips.

Conclusion: Still undecided but leaning towards…

As of now, I’m planning to save my points for Puerto Rico, Pittsburgh (for a family visit), and Los Angeles, where I hope to move next year. But that’s all subject to change depending on upcoming sales and discounts, or changes in my own perspective.

I strongly advise the frequent traveler or wannabe frequent traveler to get an airline credit card. It doesn’t have to be Southwest – I’m not being paid to endorse them or anything. I prefer Southwest because they’re affordable and they still allow free checked baggage, unlike many other carriers, but there are some drawbacks with Southwest – they don’t travel to Canada, for instance.

plane airport

So do your homework, decide where you’d really like to travel, compare the various airline credit cards, and get yourself one. (Pay off your full balance at the end of each month, of course, to avoid crazy finance charges.) Then you too can deal with the awesome problem of trying to figure out where to take your free trips!

About Quirky Travel Guy

Scott Shetler is a Seattle-based freelance writer & fan of indie rock, road trips, ice cream, squirrels on power lines, runaway shopping carts, and six-way intersections. Some posts on this site contain affiliate links, which may earn me a commission (at no extra cost to you) if you make a purchase.

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22 Comments

  1. I guess its very easy to forget that we are paying a very reasonable rate while we travel through air at a really high speed and arrive safely. We don’t acknowledge technology and how much we’ve progressed compared to our grandparent’s generation or even our parents!
    But I must say that sometimes, the airlines really aren’t reasonable and cause a lot of anger!

  2. The point that is missed in this argument is that of volume. If prices were raised, then the demand for seats would drop and perhaps not end up with more money in the airline coffers. This is why those cheap seats are so limited, and why they overbook flights. I believe all of the flights are balanced to have the maximum load of people on them. Empty seats are losses.

    So there is definitely a point to raise prices and fees, but it has to be done without lowering demand. I think this is why the fees are added. The “main” price can be advertised as low and then the “real” price can be inflated back up to where they need it to be. I too miss the days where food and bags were a part of the package. Especially the drinks aspect of things now that the draconian anti-water regulations of the security points are here.

    It’s not an economic thing, its a psychological one. I get that if it was in the price of the tickets, I might likely be paying more than if I pay out of pocket, especially if I decline to eat the peanuts. The point though is that with all the ads and extra fees, it makes the airlines in my mind into corporate greedy slobbering monsters. This is especially true when I read how the pilots are treated. Every time I am asked to pay for something or have to look at ads on my seat back, it makes me feel less like a valued customer and more like a consumer captive audience to be sold at. I am nervous enough of a flyer without that in my head.

    So I’m all for raising prices if it includes a level of service that makes me feel like I am treated as a human not a bum-in-a-seat.

    1. Good points… I think we really are just bums in seats, though. That’s all we are on Greyhound or Amtrak or a local subway system, so why should it be any different on planes? It’s weird that we’ve been conditioned to expect to be treated like kings and queens when we fly. The fact that there is any food service at all on flights shorter than 5 hours – even snacks – really doesn’t make a lot of sense when you think about it. It’s part of an outdated business model. Logically, the Amtrak model – food is available but you have to pay for everything – seems to make the most sense.

      Of course, if they’re going to offer me free juice and nuts, I’ll gladly accept them 🙂

  3. You definitely have a point, but as a budget traveler I’m happy that airline competition helps decrease flights – perhaps a bit selfish but I also understand the frustration it is for airlines to stay in business.

    1. I just bought a $120 roundtrip flight from Chicago to San Diego so I’m thrilled about deals, too! But I know that Southwest won’t be making any money off me.

  4. Airline fees are low because of competition from so-called ‘no-frills’ or budget airlines, not because of the passengers. If the airlines weren’t charging for bags and meals in the past, that’s definitely a bad business model and one that could not be sustained. Frankly, I prefer bags and meals were included in the fare like they used to be.

  5. Is there a lot of competition between the airlines over there? That definately lowers the price, here in New Zealand it’s cheaper to fly to Australia than it is to fly domestic!! I think there’s only one main airline flying within NZ now.

    1. In some places the competition is going away, as airlines cut back less profitable routes. That is definitely going to drive up prices – probably too much!

  6. I am wary of any argument which would have air travel once again the preserve of the rich. Some companies are struggling and some are doing well – that seems healthy to me. No, they’re not making the obscene profits that oil companies are. Do we want them to?

    Shareholders are playing the game and can look after themselves. I think it’s good to see an industry have to really fight for its customers.

    1. The argument is that without these extra fees, air travel would indeed become the preserve of the rich. Because of the baggage fees that some customers pay, budget customers can still get cheap flights. That’s my take, anyway.

  7. I think airline should care more about their quality than lowering prices. I rather pay more for a good, well rested, healthy pilot, fully inspected, well built airplane, and better food than ummm, shitty food and bad service.

    When I travel I actually tend to choose medium price airlines for at least decent seats and service…especially if I am trapped in a tight space for like 10 hours at a time. >.<

  8. Yes, it does appear that flights are getting cheaper. They are! But this is to do with a marketing approach where companies just want bums on seats. The end result is they have opened up a whole new market of travellers, who previously would never have travelled. Now you can travel around Europe for next to nothing. In France for example people used to have their holidays locally, say on the French Riviera, but now they jump on easyjet and go everywhere and anywhere for less than local transportation. We are all grateful for it! Remember airlines used to go out of business 30 years ago as well!

    1. I don’t think the numbers are fudged at all – flights really are cheaper than they used to be. I’m happy about it as a traveler myself, but it’s probably not healthy for the industry!

  9. First, full disclosure: I work for a travel technology company.

    Second, I think you’re right on—especially since air travel is so much cheaper than it used to be. Back then, we all paid for checking a bag, whether we were checking one or not. It was included in the price of our ticket. Same goes for meals. We used to all pay for them, and let’s not forget that everybody used to complain about airplane food when it was included.

    Just paying for what you want—that’s the way to do it. And, yes, if you’re checking a 70-pound bag, you should have to pay extra for it. Makes total sense to me.

    Plug: We have a website, http://www.iflybags.com, that calculates baggage fees and allowances based on your trip details. Worth checking out if you know you’re going to be checking bags.

  10. Yer full of it. (meant nicely)

    (and I usually know when my chain is pulled)

    Let’s face it, These people are capitalists – they know the market and will play it to us, so we now pay $5.00 to Myrtle Beach and $850 to Philly. If it don’t work – they will find a market that will. Quirk… don’t worry ’bout ’em. The market will let them thrive or die. (as well they should)

    1. I saw those $650 flights to Philly. That’s obviously out of line. But I doubt those fares will stay that high given the public outrage.

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