7 Air Travel Perks That Used To Be Free

By Tara Struyk | March 18, 2010 AAA
7 Air Travel Perks That Used To Be Free

If you're an experienced traveler, you've probably already noticed that air travel perks are few and far between, especially if you aren't a first or business-class traveler. In the heydays of airline travel (1940s-60s), flying was actually a glamorous experience because it was so new, expensive and exclusive. But even in more recent memory, flying was still a fast and relatively pleasant way to travel.

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Not so much anymore. A whole new generation of air travellers is adjusting to new delays, discomforts and, despite the increased affordability of airline travel, the fact that travelers can now expect to get a whole lot less for that ticket price. Like, just a seat and possibly a few ounces of pretzels - if you're lucky. Flying used to have a few perks, but these have fallen by the wayside, much like the fashionably outfitted flight attendants and the free cocktails they once served up.

In recent years, struggling airlines have been squeezing revenue out of passengers wherever they can. Here we look at (and long for) airline perks that used to be free. (Interested in investing in the airline industry? Check out Is That Airline Ready For Liftoff?)

  1. Luggage
    A mere two years ago, passengers could fly on any U.S. airline and check two bags at no cost. Today, most carriers charge around $25 for the first bag and $35 for the second - that's a total of $120 dollars more for a round trip! If you have overweight baggage (for most airlines this is more than 50 pounds), expect an additional charge of between $75 and several hundred dollars, depending on weight.

    The luggage charges have also introduced a new level of discomfort for coach passengers; on full flights, cabins are reportedly nearly bursting at the seams with carry-on luggage.

  2. Food
    Maybe it wasn't always great, but at least it was free. There are still a few domestic flights and classes of service where you can indulge in airplane food without reaching for your wallet, but for the most part, the days of free in-flight meals are gone.

    For example, the Transportation Library archival collections at Northwestern University lists scores of old airline menus. United Airlines' (Nasdaq:UAUA) coach class meals included salads, desserts, sandwiches and beverages, with menu items such as "Pineapple Tartelette" (1962, San Francisco - Denver) and "Breast of Chicken Virginienne" (1963, Washington to Denver). Customers still enjoy free meals on most international flights, but for economy class flights within in the U.S., if you fly United today, you'll have to settle for a cold salads or sandwiches for $9.

    Continental Airlines (NYSE:CAL) was one of the last bastions of free meal service until it announced it would begin selling meals to coach passengers on most domestic flights this year.

    Most airlines still offer a free snack or two, but they run along the lines of a fraction of an ounce of pretzels or crackers. And some airlines have even eliminated free snacks altogether. (For insight on how to cut down on how much you spend on food, read 22 Ways To Fight Rising Food Prices.)

  3. Creature Comforts
    Whether you're only on a short flight or are flying clear across the country, comfort is optional. In other words, you'll have to pay for it. In earlier days of airline travel, passengers were given pillows and blankets - and even playing cards, pens and magazines - free of charge to make their flights comfortable. Not anymore.

    American Airlines announced in February that it would follow the lead of competitors like JetBlue (Nasdaq:JBLU) and U.S. Airways (NYSE:LCC) and begin charging $8 for pillows and blankets on domestic trips. The good news is, you can keep your plastic inflatable neck pillow and fleece blanket for future trips.

  4. Headphones
    You have probably tried out a pair of spindly, coach-class headphones before. They're junk - and you get to keep them! Yup, those cheap, uncomfortable headphones used on airplanes now come at a price of $1-$5 on most airlines. And, while some airlines are introducing new entertainment options such as WiFi and Pay-per-View, these may also come at a price.

  5. Leg Room
    In March, Continental Airlines announced that it would begin charging coach passengers extra if they wanted more leg room. It joins United and JetBlue in charging for seats that could once be requested upon checking in, or were just handed out arbitrarily. And this extra seven inches or so comes at fairly hefty price - more than $50 for a domestic flight depending on the length of the flight and the popularity of the route.

  6. Booking
    Since you're already buying a service, you wouldn't think that the airlines would have to charge you to sell it - but they do. Many major U.S. airlines charge a fee to book a flight over the phone or in person. Online travel agents such as Orbitz and Expedia removed their booking fees in 2009, but many airlines still charge them depending on how you book.

  7. Changing Your Plans
    If something comes up and you can't make your flight, changing your ticket - even to an equal or less-expensive flight - will cost you between $75 and $300 depending on the airline. Of course, you could buy what's called a "refundable ticket," or "refundable fare," which allows you to get (most of) your money back if you have to cancel your flight, and to avoid additional penalties for making changes. But guess what? These tickets cost considerably more than non-refundable ones.

How Far Will It Go?
The recent rash of new airline fees has left many pondering what could be next. In 2009, U.K. flyers were outraged at Irish budget carrier Ryanair's announcement that it was considering charging passengers to use the restroom. So far, this particular fee has not been put in place, but only time will tell how far airlines will go - or how much more nickel-and-diming passengers will tolerate.

Still feeling uninformed? Check out last week's Water Cooler Finance to see what's been happening in financial news.

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