How to beat sneaky budget airline charges

12 March 2012

Airlines are increasingly finding new and nasty ways to charge you extra.

Carry a cabin bag

With the large carriers like British Airways and Emirates you get a free baggage allowance but the budget airlines charge for each and every bag in the hold. However, carry on luggage is free providing you stick to the airline limits.

Size and weight do vary according to airline, so that bag you took last year may be too big this time round. easyJet, Monarch and Jet2 have maximum cabin bag dimensions of 56 x 45 x 25cm, but fly Ryanair, bmibaby or Thomson and you’re down to 55 x 40 x 20 cm - over 30% smaller. Smaller again is the Flybe limit at only 50 x 35 x 23 cm.  

Remember those measurements include wheels, handles and side pockets so even if your empty bag is the right size, if it’s bulging at the seams post packing you’ll pay more. And if it won’t fit in the size gauge machine at the gate you can pay as much as £60 with Ryanair if it’s deemed too big and shunted off for the hold.

What’s inside counts too; while easyJet has no weight limit, Ryanair has a 10kg allowance, while you only get a tiny 5kg with Thomson which isn’t room for much more than a toothbrush and beach togs.

Prepare for the hold

Pack your cabin bag as if it’s destined for the hold with a padlock at the ready. Reason being, if the flight’s full, even the right size cabin bags can be taken off you at the gate. 

This happened to me on a recent trip to Paris and while you won’t pay more, it can mean a last minute scramble to retrieve your passport which you’ll need before you and your luggage are reunited at the baggage carousel along with any money or items for the flight.

Two for the price of one

The downside of taking the one bag means you may have to sacrifice any ‘duty free’ shopping or risk going beyond your size or weight limit.

Check which airports have special arrangements with airlines so you can take an additional bag of ‘airport shopping’, on board at no extra charge. Both Bristol and East Midlands offer this option if items are purchased in the departure lounge.

Cheapest suitcase charges

Sometimes you just want that extra space, and a cabin bag simply won’t be enough. A big bonus of paying for a bag in the hold is you’re not restricted on liquid size so you can pack that full bottle of shampoo without the messy job of decanting 100ml of it into a smaller container.

But baggage fees are confusing; some airlines like easyJet and Monarch charge based on distance while others have flat fees. So how do the costs stack up for a return trip with an average 20kg suitcase?  

With easyJet it’s £18 to Paris and back, and up to £32 for Marrakech. With Flybe you’ll pay a flat £25.98 and with Monarch £31.98 for a trip to Italy or £37.98 for a longer haul trip like the Canaries. Most expensive of the lot is Ryanair, charging up to £80 return for carrying your 20kg bag to the Canaries during peak season.

But these are the prices for pre-booked luggage; if your packed suitcase makes an unannounced appearance at airport check-in you can stump up penalty fees of as much as £130 per bag.  

Seat charges

To get first choice on seats you’ll need to pay for the privilege of getting on first. ‘Priority boarding’ costs £10 return with Ryanair and easyJet’s ‘speedy boarding’ charges vary according to route. Other airlines offer the chance to book your seat before check in, but this costs £6.50-£15 per person each way with Flybe and £5.50 each way with bmibaby.

But don’t think you’ve got to stump up or risk your group being separated. Under Civil Aviation guidelines "family groups should be seated together" and while this is ultimately down to the airline’s discretion, many will ask other passengers to move to accommodate families. After all, in the event of an emergency if families are seated together, (even within the same row), it saves a delay in disembarking.

Payment charges

If you can snap up a Visa Electron card you can escape booking fees with bmibaby, flybe, Jet2 and Monarch. Paying by PayPal can also be a cheaper option than card payment with some airlines; Jet2 charge 2% for PayPal compared with a 3.6% credit card fee and with Monarch you pay a £5 fee compared with a 4% credit card fee.

Debit card payment can be cheaper than credit cards. With easyJet you’ll just pay its standard £9 booking fee whereas credit card payment incurs another  2.5% (£4.95 minimum) charge.

Ryanair charges are a whopping £6 per person per flight regardless of whether you pay by debit or credit card. This adds £48 to the bill for a family of four, but you can avoid this charge with its pre-paid Mastercard ‘cash passport’ card.  The card costs £6, which is refunded in the form of a voucher but comes with a minimum £150 load. 

More: How British banks rip us off abroad | A new way to compare airline charges | Six ways to cut your holiday costs in 2012


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