A study of 2012 airline fees found that United Airlines reduced its fee for… (Scott Olson, Getty Images )
Airline travel fees — including charges to check a bag and to board early — have become so prevalent that travelers almost need an advanced degree in mathematics to calculate overall trip costs.
Last year at least 36 airline fees increased, and 16 others were redefined, bundled or unbundled with other services, according to a recent study by the consumer travel website Travelnerd.
One bright spot in the Travelnerd study of 14 U.S. airlines is that most fee increases were only $5 to $10 each.
In one case an airline had a big fee reduction. The study found that United Airlines reduced its fee for checking an overweight bag to $100 from $200 for bags 50 to 70 pounds and to $200 from $400 for bags 71 to 100 pounds.
"Travelers really have to be extra cautious when booking a flight," said Alicia Jao, vice president of travel media at Travelnerd, who predicts travelers will see even more fees in 2013. "U.S. carriers are becoming creative at charging consumers extra fees."
But some airlines seem to charge fees arbitrarily, said Perach Mazol, a Los Angeles resident who recently flew to Florida with friends from Romania to take a cruise.
On her flight from L.A. to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Spirit Airlines, she said the Florida airline did not charge for the carry-on bags she and her friends were carrying, but the carrier asked for $50 each to carry the same bags on the flight back. (Spirit is one of only two airlines in the U.S. that charge passengers for carry-on luggage.)
"I don't understand why they charged us on one flight and they don't on the other," Mazol said. "It's confusing."
A spokeswoman for Spirit said the airline tries to enforce its policies consistently.
"Maybe she got lucky one way and didn't have to pay," Spirit spokeswoman Misty Pinson said.
United offering satellite-based Wi-Fi
United Airlines was one of the last major airlines to offer onboard wireless Internet. But the Chicago carrier is trying to make up for its tardiness.
United offers Wi-Fi in about 3% of its fleet of about 700 planes, one of the lowest rates of any major carrier in the nation, according to a recent study.
But United recently became the first U.S.-based international carrier to offer satellite-based Wi-Fi Internet for passengers traveling on long-haul overseas flights.
The carrier has installed satellite-based Wi-Fi on nearly a dozen planes, with plans to expand the service to more than 300 planes, or about 43% of the fleet, by the end of the year.
"With this new service, we continue to build the airline that customers want to fly," said Jim Compton, vice chairman and chief revenue officer at United.
Satellite-based Wi-Fi is typically as fast as ground-based Wi-Fi, experts say, but the advantage is that it can give passengers Internet access when flying over areas where cellular towers don't exist — such as the Pacific or Atlantic oceans.
But, of course, there is a price to pay for the service.
United is charging $3.99 to $14.99 for standard speed, depending on the duration of the flight, and $5.99 to $19.99 for faster speeds.
United is not the only airline to offer satellite-based Wi-Fi. Southwest Airlines, the nation's largest domestic carrier, offers it through Westlake Village-based Row 44.
Delta to raise fee to access lounges
Airline fees are rising not only for onboard services but for amenities at the airport too.
Delta Air Lines, which has invested more than $20 million in its airport lounges over the last two years, announced that it would raise the cost for annual membership to access its lounges across the country by $50, starting March 1.
The increase means that an annual membership will range from $350 to $450, depending on membership level. (The more miles passengers fly on Delta the less they pay for membership.)
Among the investments Delta has made is the addition of a new luxury bar that opened recently at Delta's lounge at Los Angeles International Airport. Instead of helping themselves at a self-serve bar, members can now belly up to a fully stocked bar and order a drink from a bartender.