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What Fees Are Actually Worth Paying for?

02/02/2015 06:04 pm ET | Updated Apr 04, 2015
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Fees are the reality of flying today, and it's left us with a whole bunch of "to pay," or "not to pay" questioning. So, which extras are actually worth paying for?

This sucker-punch of an article from The New Yorker was shared all over the internet recently: "Why Airlines Want to Make You Suffer." I found it painful to read, mostly because it made me confront how much flying has changed over the years -- for the more stressful. Or, as the article puts it, more "miserable."

It all comes down to a industry-wide move to the fee-based model, which flyers have experienced the slow and costly shift to. First came the charges for checked bags. Then, meals disappeared on flights. Now, someone tells me that seats have actually been shrinking.

That same article even makes the counterpoint that:

The airlines, and some economists, argue that the rise of the fee model is good for travelers [sic]. You only pay for what you want, and you can therefore save money if you, for instance, don't mind sitting in middle seats in the back, waiting in line to board, or bringing your own food.

Sure. I guess.

Unfortunately, whether you like it or not, not all fees are worth it. Here's our take.

Checked Bags:

Ideally not, but sometimes, it can't be avoided. Keep things to one bag, because the big fees come after bag number one. For the wise packers: When gate-checking, there's no fee. Make sure the look and size is right (carry-on) to get it past check-in.

Upgraded Seats:

Yes -- at least for long flights. Like for those really, really long international flights. I weigh the cost-value benefit based on flight time and my projected mental and emotional state for the duration of the flight. If it's an overnighter, or I'm going to be spending quite a bit of time in that seat, those extra inches at my feet really do make a difference. This is one area where it's an advantage to be short.

We're not just getting bigger, either. Seats these days are smaller than they've ever been. It doesn't mean there aren't cost-free methods to get more room, though. Get a wingman and snag a whole row with this method or this trick if you're flying solo.

Food:

No. Now, it really comes down to personal taste and preference, but overpaying for mediocre (at best) food is something that really grates me. There are lots of really good snacks for traveling. And, as I've reported before, bringing home-cooked food through security is kosher with the TSA, as long as it's packaged properly.

If anything, buy at the airport before or after, where there are at least non-boxed options. (I also consider ending up at a place like Chicago O'Hare where Rick Bayless has his Tortas Frontera outpost, a real food win. Erica loves this place too.) In fact, T Magazine says we are living in the golden age of airport restaurants, so eat up.

As for alcohol, mini liquor bottles actually can be carried on, so mixed drinks can come free.

Ticket Changes:

Sometimes, this can't be avoided, but there are ways to minimize the damage. In fact, in some cases, just buying a new flight can be cheaper than changing it. For those d'oh moments when a ticket is booked, there's a grace period of 24 hours during which the ticket can be changed -- that also can be hacked to 48 hours. And when it's too late for that, we've found that waiting until the very last moment to change it -- we're talking the day of -- is cheapest.

In-Flight Wi-Fi:

Wi-Fi is not for if you just want to use basic Google apps. But, if you need a little bit more, there's also a way to mod your browser to get cheaper in flight Wi-Fi. Dude, there's even a whole guide on this stuff, courtesy of Erica. But, just be sure to know, before you jump through all this hoopla -- it will cost you.

Airport Lounges:

Depending on the day, airport and layover, you might hear something different from me. Sometimes, I've just got to get a shower, and want to splay out on a comfortable chair with complimentary beverages. And, if I don't have access already granted with status, and I'm facing a doozy of a layover, I'll potentially shell out.

There's just no right answer here, but a lot of it is going to depend on the lounge you're thinking about. Here's a hint: If you can just pay for a separate standalone shower, that's usually the best amenity to give in to.

Karina Martinez-Carter is an assistant editor at Map Happy. She has written for BBC Travel, BBC Capital, Travel + Leisure, Thrillist and more.