For well over a decade, the airlines have been masters of a particularly dark art.

he practice of charging us all extra for things that used to be free – or should always have been free. Where airlines lead, others follow. And now everyone from insurance companies to ticket agencies are exploiting this most dubious of practices.

Businesses love to make up new words or terms to describe these things. So this practice is now known as ‘drip pricing’. This is where businesses offer an enticing starting price, but by the time you arrive at the check-out, the add on charges can leave you paying a much bigger final bill. Next up is ‘micro-charging’, where add-on services are offered for a fee, except these services used to be free. The theory behind micro-charging is you roll your eyes or mildly curse at the cheek, but pay up anyway because it costs under a fiver.

I think these extra ways to extort cash out of us are utterly shameless. But sadly, we have little choice but to pay up. Or we did, until the Government finally announced this week that it was investigating these hidden fees with a view to reining them in. This follows research that suggested hidden fees cost us all £1.6 billion a year. If you want to get involved, you can take part in the consultation here.

Hidden charges and fees are so widespread that to write about them all would take up a fair-sized book. So let’s focus on airline charges, what to watch out for – and if it’s possible to avoid them.

How to find a good flight deal on a comparison site

Many people use comparison sites to find the best prices for flights. But comparison sites also allow airlines to disguise the actual prices you’ll ultimately pay. This is because they only display the face value of the ticket, not the extras you will need to pay for things like luggage or seat allocation.

The regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), publishes tables of common (but not all) charges placed by airlines that fly from the UK here, along with charges placed by airports too. However, as you’ll see from the list, it’s hard to directly compare costs between airlines and therefore predict your final costs.

Airlines have varying definitions around the size of luggage, from the cabin to the hold. There’s a whole other article to be written about what exactly ‘oversize luggage’ is. Don’t assume that a 23kg hold luggage bag is the standard model – especially when it comes to cabin bags.

Because of these varying standards, the average family could end up paying hundreds of pounds more in hidden charges. I’d suggest using comparison sites to search for the best deals, then once you’ve found a price you like, go direct to the airline’s website rather than clicking through. Search first for the airline’s guide to additional charges before you start the process of making the final booking.

Charges you can’t avoid

It pays to be pragmatic. No matter how lightly you pack your bag, chances are you’re going to need a hold suitcase if you’re going away for longer than a week. And like it or not, you’ll probably have to pay if you want to sit with your loved ones.

Welcome to a nightmare world of extremely variable, incomparable costs. If you’re mulling over your flight options, I’d suggest assuming you’ll pay around £30 to £40 for a bag in the hold and £6 to £12 for the thrill of sitting together. That’s £36 to £52 per person to mentally add on to your ‘basic’ flight cost when comparing flights.

But wait! Some airlines have much better policies when it comes to charges. For example, a more expensive airline might throw in a hold bag, speedy boarding and seat allocation either as a special offer or part of a ‘premium’ deal. So don’t assume the cheapest option is the best. Get in to the practice of looking at what the add-on charges are for luggage and seats before starting the final booking process.

Don’t get weighed down by baggage

Pre-pandemic, you may have noticed that airline staff were marching up and down the lines of harassed travellers waiting to board, asking if anyone wanted to put their hand luggage in the hold for free. Failing that, a few unlucky people were told they had to put their hand luggage in ‘airline prison’ whether they liked it or not.

Yes, airlines had got wise to their customers ditching the hold baggage to save money. As a consequence, you can now expect to get charged if your cabin luggage does not fall within the exact dimensions listed on the airline’s website. Bulging bags will not get through. You may even need to pay for some items of cabin luggage.

Back in the hold, if your bag is overweight, then you are usually charged by the kilo. Some airlines are charging up to £200 for ‘oversized luggage’. You’ll pay extra for sports equipment, musical instruments and many more items of luggage.

I’d strongly recommend buying some handheld digital scales so you know what your suitcase actually weighs, rather than waiting to get to the airport then frantically stuffing towels and tops in to your hand luggage in front of an angry queue of holiday makers. Paying for extra weight at the airport is very expensive.

Why do I have to pay to sit with my friends and family

Of all of the charges airlines impose on their customers, this is the one that is the most unfair.

Standard prices for ‘basic’ seats vary from £4 to £20 or more. If you want extra legroom or to sit at the front of the plane, then prices can range from £12 to £70 and upwards.

This policy causes endless headaches for passengers and airline staff. People who haven’t realised they need to pay to sit together have been known to roam aircraft asking others to swap seats, which can lead to frayed tempers and deeply uncomfortable flights. I’d like to see charges for all standard seats banned. Why not let the Government know through their consultation?

Other charges to watch out for

A recent case where two pensioners were charged a whopping £110 to print out boarding passes shone a spotlight on the endemic overcharging by airlines. Here are some of the other charges to watch out for.

You can avoid many of these by triple-checking your booking before clicking to commit and by looking at the refund or cancellation policies of airlines in advance.

  • Mistakes can be costly, including changing your name or passport details if you’ve entered them incorrectly.
  • Any aspect of changing a booking is expensive, including seeking a refund or vouchers if you can’t travel, shifting dates, or taking a different flight.
  • Onboard extras are rocketing in price, with some airlines increasing prices by 40% this year. Watch out for Wi-Fi, food and drink and duty-free price hikes. Don’t be fooled by discounts. I recently found an airline offering 20% off everything when they’d put prices up by 40%.
  • Speedy boarding is only worth it if you want your luggage to be next to you in the overhead lockers.
  • Airports charges are also outrageous, including fast-track security, car parking and even the ‘kiss and wave’ or drop off charge which has now hit £7 at some airports.

Featured in Times Money Mentor – Martyn James

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