Airline fees keep climbing: How to avoid them

A plane prepares to land during the first day of the fasting month of Ramadan in Jimbaran on Indonesia's resort island of Bali on July 21, 2012. Muslims fasting in the month of Ramadan must abstain from food, drink and sex from dawn until sunset, when they break the fast with the meal known as Iftar. AFP PHOTO / SONNY TUMBELAKA (Photo credit should read SONNY TUMBELAKA/AFP/GettyImages)
Sonny Tumbelaka/AFP/Getty
Sonny Tumbelaka/AFP/Getty

(MoneyWatch) The growing number of airline fees has become old news -- as reliable as bad food and long lines. Still, the actual numbers are staggering: Airlines in 2011 generated a total of $22.6 billion in revenue on bag and other travel fees, according to a report this week from airline consultant IdeaWorksCompany. That's up 66 percent over the last two years. United Continental (UAL) alone brought in $5 billion last year in these ancillary changes.

In addition to the obvious reason for charging fees -- they bring in revenue -- airlines have a lesser-known motive, according to CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg. Airline tickets are subject to federal taxes, but fees are only subject to local sales tax. So by breaking out their costs and calling them "fees," the airlines pay less in taxes. "The airlines save -- actually they make -- an incredible amount of money by pricing things this way," he says. 

Another reason airlines charge fees? People pay them, Greenberg says. "Many passengers are showing a surprising willingness to pay to get off the plane first." He's not joking. Fare-tracking site found that given the opportunity, nearly 20 percent of fliers would pay to exit a plane first -- some as much as $20.

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With so many consumers willing to pay extra for their travel, many airlines keep tacking on extra fees. Along with charging for carry-on bags, checked bags, wi-fi access, and even making a reservation, some carriers are considering increasing the cost of seats for family members who want to sit next to each other.

"Is the next fee going to be to land the plane?" Greenberg said with a chuckle. Here are his tips on how to trim the growing cost of air travel:

Ship baggage yourself. Many of the extra fees carriers charge travelers are "downright ridiculous," Greenberg says. Some bag fees can reach upwards of $120 for a round trip, which could approach the cost of your plane ticket. Using FedEx to ship luggage to your destination is a convenient way to avoid these hefty, and often unforeseen fees. You can calculate the cost to ship your luggage on

Before you board, stop by the deli. No one says you have to buy overpriced, semi-edible airline food. And that way you can specify white, wheat, or rye.

Buy a one-way ticket. If you need to switch your travel dates after booking the flight, changing a ticket typically costs just as much as the original ticket. Go for airlines that allow you to buy one-way tickets for the individual legs of your trip without charging you an arm and a leg, such as Southwest (LUV) or Jetblue (JBLU). That way you pay to change only a single ticket instead of two, and you'll save in the process.