Airline fees: a big source of irritation for consumers and good joke fodder for comedians. Most newer fees cover services that were formerly included in the price of a ticket, which is annoying, but those services—from handling checked baggage to providing in-flight meals—generate out-of-pocket costs for airlines. Moreover, travelers can choose to avoid paying these fees.

But the most annoying fees are the ones that don't have any rational justification. These include supposedly "optional" fees that, really, are often not optional; fees for actions that benefit airlines; and gouge fees unrelated to any real airline costs. Airlines often waive or reduce these fees for travelers on premium-class or full-fare economy tickets, exalted-level frequent flyers, and travelers using some airline-sponsored credit cards. But ordinary travelers either pay or go without.

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Online Booking Fee

Although this hit is relatively minor, the fee of $10 to $17 that Allegiant, Spirit, and several overseas low-fare airlines assess for online booking is worse than a gouge—it's a scam. Online booking is by far the lowest-cost way for an airline to sell tickets. Issuing fees to flyers who buy online is an outrage. Airlines get away with it because the only no-fee alternative—schlepping out to an airport ticket counter—costs more than the fee and is a waste of time.

(Photo: Richard Moross via flickr/CC Attribution)

Frequent-Flyer Award Processing Fee

If you ticket a frequent-flyer award flight less than 21 days in advance of departure, American and United each charge an "award processing fee" of $75. That's 100 percent pure gouge: You do it online, the computers do all the work, and your booking date has no effect whatsoever on the airline's processing costs. Fortunately, Delta doesn't hit you with this one.

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Same-Day Standby Fee

Most big airlines charge you extra to stand by for an earlier flight on your scheduled day of departure. The fee is typically less than the regular ticket-change fee, at $50 to $75, but it's a gouge. Furthermore, it's annoying, because you're paying a fee for an action that benefits the airline. Say you get to the airport several hours before your scheduled flight, and your airline has seats available on an earlier flight that hasn't left yet. Switching to that earlier flight should be a win-win: You get where you're going earlier, and the airline gets the chance to resell your original seat to someone else. But that doesn't stop the airline from gouging you. Feh!

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Frequent-Flyer Award Fee

Many airlines based outside the U.S. break true fares into lowball base fares plus "carrier imposed" surcharges, sometimes called fuel surcharges. Normally, this practice doesn't affect you, because the Department of Transportation (DOT) requires airlines to post all-up prices from the very beginning of the fare-search process. Nevertheless, airlines stick it to consumers when they add those fees to supposedly "free" frequent-flyer awards and companion tickets. These fees are a pure gouge and an outright scam. And they can be big: I've seen fees as high as $1,000 on a frequent-flyer award ticket to Europe.

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Ticket-Change Fee

In many ways, this not-always-optional "optional" fee is the most annoying because it can be such a huge dollar hit—up to $700 per person. Unforeseen circumstances occasionally require that you cancel or postpone a trip. And the travel insurance that airlines offer doesn't cover many reasons for cancellation.

Industry insiders estimate that the actual cost to an airline is somewhere under $50, so the typical fees of around $200 for a domestic ticket and up to $700 for an international ticket are excessive by any standard.

Strange as it sounds, however, there is an offsetting consumer benefit that comes out of change fees (so long as they're reasonable). Absent the fees, lots of business travelers who normally buy expensive flexible tickets might instead buy the lowest nonrefundable fares, figuring to exchange the tickets if the need arises. But if airlines found too many high-fare travelers switching to low-fare tickets, they'd have to raise the lowest fares. So the change fees are, in a sense, helping airlines to keep fares affordable.

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Early Boarding/Advance Seat Assignment Fee

This is a classic blackmail fee. If you don't pay extra, people who do will snap up the best seats and fill up the overhead bins before you have a chance. As a result, you're almost certain to be stuck in a middle seat, and the chances of finding bin space or two adjoining seats for a couple are very small. It's a clear case of "pay up or suffer."

Which airline fees do you find the most frustrating?

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Six Most Annoying Airline Fees.

Follow Ed Perkins on Google+ or email him at

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