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Ancillaries ... and What You Can do About Them

10 or so years ago, airlines discovered "ancillaries."  This is the innocuous name they give to the practice of charging for extras, mostly things we all took for granted as part of the package in the old days.  Ancillaries include advance seat selection, preferred seat selection, checked baggage fees (even, in extreme cases, carry-on baggage fees!), special meals, and just about everything else that isn't something an airline is legally required to provide.  (So, no, you'll never be expected to pay for oxygen.  Bathroom privileges, maybe, but not the air you breath).  It seems that everything has a price tag these days (edible food, reasonable leg room, a pre-selected seat so you won't get "bumped", etc.)  And, airlines are making astronomical amounts of money out of these fees.  The CEO of American Airlines recently bragged that his airline was so adept at monetizing everything possible and adapting nimbly to changing market conditions that they may never see an unprofitable month or year ever again!

So, is there anything you can do to minimize your costs?  Sure, lots of things.  Here's some suggestions:

1. Advance seat selection fees:  have your consultant check how empty the plane is (ie. look at the "seat chart" to see how many seats have been assigned.)  If pretty empty, and you are only a few weeks from departure, just wait until you do online check-in (and please DO ONLINE CHECKIN!) to select a seat for free.  If your flight is more than a few weeks away, your consultant will be glad to automatically check on your flights a couple of weeks ahead and give you warning if you have to give in and buy a couple of seat reservations.

2. Seat fees are often non-refundable: say you have to cancel or change your plans.  Most airlines have now made seat selection fees non-refundable.  Their rationale is you are paying for a service (ie. reserving a seat which no one else can have), so the service has been delivered, regardless of whether you use that seat or not).  Look for loop-holes.  Both United and American, for instance, will refund your seat charge if/when you rebook and re-pay for comparable seat reservations on your new flight or trip.  If you're booking your trip on your own, (a) you would never find this out, and (b) it will be a pain to handle; but if you've dealt with a professional travel consultant, it's easy-smeasy to get your "non-refundable" fees back!

3. Checked baggage fees: well, we all know the "solution" to this one, and most of us are not fans when others get onboard the aircraft with their ridiculous monstrosities that they pass off as "carry-on" luggage.  I recommend you pay the checked baggage fee; or follow other strategies.  Minimize what you pack, so that you can use a sensible and legal carry-on bag, for instance.  Work with your travel consultant to achieve status on your most frequently-used airline, so that the first (and sometimes second/third) checked baggage fee is waived.  Pack some old clothes that you can leave behind (eg. old runners, work-out cloths, pajamas), to eliminate a checked baggage fee on your return. 

4. Special meals: this is a new one, and I suppose it falls into the luxury category.  Ie. no one really needs to order a "gourmet" meal offered by some airlines now.  Yes, it is kind of fun to have this delivered to you, just to enjoy the envy from folks sitting nearby, but really - is any airline really capable of producing "gourmet" quality food?  Probably not.  Just pack a decent lunch or snack.

5. Last-minute baggage fees: I really should have put this one at the very top of the list.  Many low-cost carriers (Rynair, Easyjet, Allegient Air, Aegean, Air Berlin) have notorious fees if you wait to pay for your checked baggage at the airport.  Or worse, even if you wait until 24-hour check-in, some airlines are charging increased fees.  Air Berlin, for instance charges euro20 or eur30 for the first checked baggage if you prepay more than 30 hours prior to departure.  Within 30 hours, the price goes up steeply.  It will be eur65 to eur90, depending on the airfare type!  So far, none of the "legacy" carriers do anything this extreme, but watch for it.  It's probably coming!

6. "On My Way" Protection: this is the name Air Canada dreamt up for a kind of "insurance" you can pay for better emergency treatment at the airport (or by phone) in the case of a disruption (weather, strike, etc.)  It's value is really debatable and what it implies they do to passengers who don't buy this protection is a bit disturbing.  Needless to say, your best protection is to have a good travel agency backing you up.

7. Buy all-inclusive airfares.  "Fare Brands" and "Fare Families" are names given to this animal.  Certain airfares, sometimes only slightly higher, offer all-inclusive services such as preferred seats, free checked baggage, free advance seat assignment, and full or additional points.  Sometimes it is an outright better deal than the basic fare; and sometimes it is higher, but you might opt for it anyway for the related benefits (eg. extra points & status, priority boarding, cheaper change fee.)

Conclusion: "ancillaries" are not going away.  You'll see more and more of them; and perhaps the day will come when airlines get creative and sell ones that truly offer new value rather than just giving back to you for a price what you used to get for free.  Working with a savvy travel consultant will definitely help you navigate through the minefield of unnecessary and excessive charges.  Saying no to things you don't really need is a good tactic.  And supporting one airline, and its partners, in order to gain status with that airline is an excellent strategy.  As with everything else in life, in the airline world for every challenge there is an answer out there.  Just find it.





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