17 easy ways to avoid airline fees, from waiting to add bags to checking in late

Booking a flight with a budget airline looks set to remain confusing and laborious. The UK Government has excluded optional airline add-ons from its crackdown on drip pricing – the practise of applying additional charges after the initial price for a service is shown. And, so, the ever-shrinking allowances for free carry-on luggage, charges for families to sit together and fees for printing out boarding passes at the airport will continue.

The airline industry made $102bn from ancillaries such as these in 2022 – up from $42.6bn in 2013. Bernard Lavelle, principal aviation consultant at BL Aviation Consulting, previously told i: “Ticket price is still the main revenue earner, but ancillary revenue helps to generate the profits.”

Unbundling charges makes it harder for passengers to compare prices.

It is left to travellers to try to navigate, and avoid, these add-on fees as best as we can. Seven years as a budget holiday expert have allowed me to ty out many techniques for reducing flight costs and beating airlines at their own game.

Here are the tactics I’ve found most effective.

Baggage

Review airline policies

No two airlines have the same approach to luggage allowances, and some update their rules more frequently than others. Each time you fly, check the airline’s policy before you book, before you pack and before you travel to the airport.

First, find out the categories of luggage, which are, typically, small cabin bag, large cabin bag and checked luggage. In the past, most airlines allowed each passenger to take a larger cabin bag on board, for free. This was often a small suitcase that fit in the overhead compartments. But now, Ryanair, Wizz Air and easyJet charge for this.

You should generally be permitted to take a piece of luggage that will fit under the seat in front of you, without charge.

Opt for the most generous

For flight-only bookings, Jet2, Tui and British Airways include a small cabin bag and a large cabin bag in the ticket cost. Therefore, if you do need a bigger cabin bag, it may be worth paying a little more to fly with one of these carriers as it could work out cheaper overall than travelling with a company such as Ryanair or Wizz Air, with which you’ll have to pay extra for a larger bag.

Book a package holiday

If you need a checked-in bag, you’re more likely to see this added in for free, or at a discount, if you book a package holiday with your airline. This isn’t an option for Ryanair or Wizz Air, but it is worth checking out easyJet, Tui, Jet2 and British Airways if you’re booking accommodation anyway. Before booking, crosscheck the price if you were to pay for each element separately compared with the package holiday cost.

Fly business class

If you are flying short haul and need to take two or more checked bags, a business class ticket may be more cost-effective than adding the luggage to an economy fare.

For example, at the time of writing, you could book a one-way flight in economy from London to Amsterdam for £47 with easyJet and £73 with British Airways. The flights leave just 25 minutes apart.

Selecting business class on the same British Airways flight will cost you £115. As well as a multitude of perks, including access to their lounge and a three-course meal on board, you also get a small cabin bag, a large cabin bag and two 32kg checked bags included in the cost.

The easyJet flight already includes a small cabin bag, but adding a large cabin bag and two 26kg checked bags – the largest you’re able to select online – would bring your total bill to £151.46.

Try a packing hack

If you refuse to spend a penny more on baggage, then there are lots of tried-and-tested hacks that will secure you a bit more space. In the past, I’ve stuffed the case of my neck pillow full of clothes, used a duty-free bag to store some extra bits and even worn a fishing jacket that was full of extra pockets in which to squeeze smaller items. Airlines can get wise to these tactics, however, so you will need to be discreet.

Use click and collect

If you want to travel with hand-luggage only, but need to take more toiletries than the 100ml container limit will permit, you can use the Click and Collect service at Boots and pick up your purchase at the airport branch after security. I recommend selecting a delivery date three days before your flight to allow for any delays. If you are also planning to stick to hand luggage on your return flight, you may have to leave some liquids behind.

The 100ml liquids rule is being phased out at UK airports. A UK deadline of June 2024 to install new-style security scanners that will permit larger containers of liquid, and won’t require passengers to remove them from their bags, may be missed by many airports. Only London City and Teeside have this technology in place so far. Schiphol is among the overseas airports with the new-style scanners.

Risk a too-big backpack

If your suitcase has wheels it is a red flag to airline staff that it is too big to be classed as a “small cabin bag”. While there are a couple of types of cases available that will just about squeeze under a seat, most won’t fit – and airlines know it. Therefore, you’re much more likely to be asked to prove that a suitcase fits the airline’s dimension limits than you are to be asked about a backpack.

Pack less

It’s the obvious solution, but I wouldn’t take a bigger bag even if it was free (of course, others may have different needs). I start by listing every outfit I’ll wear on my trip, tactfully selecting items that can be worn again in different ways. Then, I pack everything into roll-by-hand vacuum bags that squeeze any excess air out. This way, my luggage is light, my hands are free as I’m able to fit everything into a backpack, and I also have little washing to do on my return.

Wait to add a bag

Some airline websites will encourage you to book a ticket that includes a bag. However, it can be cheaper to go through the booking process, then add a bag at the end. Try both options before you pay.

Seats

Choose airlines that won’t split you up

If sitting with the other person, or people, on your booking is important to you, it’s good to know which airlines actively split passengers up. They include Ryanair and Wizz Air. I’ve had experiences when travelling with both carriers where there were plenty of seats available, yet still I was allocated a seat at one end of the plane and my boyfriend was allocated one at the other end.

Most other airlines will seat you together, but make sure of this as soon as check in opens for the flight.

Check prices on desktop, mobile and on the app

A couple of times, I’ve found that seat reservations are cheaper on the Wizz Air app compared with booking my flight on my laptop, so it is worth checking all platforms before parting with your cash.

Don’t select a seat

Airline websites can be a barrage of information, and some can make it seem like you must pay for a seat on board. However, there will always be an option to skip this cost. On Ryanair, select the button “Option 2: Select seats later”; on easyJet choose to “skip seats”. This may mean you have to sit beside a stranger on your flight, but you won’t have to pay any extra.

Check in later (with some airlines)

Ryanair and Wizz Air both seem to dish out their “worst” seats first in the hope that travellers will pay to change them. However, lots of people accept these allocations meaning that upfront and extra legroom seats are often left behind for those checking in later. This has worked for me several times, although I’d recommend checking on what’s left throughout the day rather than simply waiting until the last minute. If you’re on an overbooked flight, you may run the risk of missing out on a seat altogether. If this happens, the airline has a responsibility to get you to your destination and you may even be awarded compensation for the hassle.

Other extras

Approach bundles with caution

Once you’ve searched for your flight, many airlines will offer you a “bundle” where they package together extras such as priority boarding, seat selection and checked bags. Note down that price and what it includes, but then continue with the flight-only booking. From there, you can add on exactly what you need and then compare whether the bundle offered a saving for the services that you want. Among low-cost airlines, the only bundle that has ever tempted me is the “Wizz Go” package.

Book other holiday items separately

You think you’re all done with your booking and then you’re bombarded with options about travel insurance, car hire and transfers. The airlines make money from this and so you should always double-check what it would cost to pay for these separately, before adding them to your flight booking.

Download your boarding pass

If you check in online and forget to take your boarding pass to the airport, Ryanair will charge you a fee to print one off. Always double-check you have this document before you leave home.

Don’t pay for speedy boarding

I often find that passengers with speedy boarding only get onto the plane slightly ahead of those without – and sometimes the groups end up queueing alongside each other, in different lanes.

Chelsea Dickenson offers further travel advice at cheapholidayexpert.com