Photo by Karl Baron.

Airlines, which struggled for years to stay afloat, have finally come up with a formula for success – but it comes at a price and you’re the one that’s footing the bill. Over the past couple of years, carriers have been adding fees left, right and center for everything from checked baggage to food and drink, and they’re making a killing out of it.

But for passengers, all of those unexpected charges can really add up, and the “great deal” you got on your ticket can start to lose its luster. So how can you avoid all those pesky fees and keep your costs to a minimum? Read on to find out.

How to avoid cancellation fees

  • Regardless of whether or not your ticket is denoted as being a “non-refundable ticket,” most airlines will allow you to cancel it without any fees or penalties as long as you do so within 24 hours of purchase. Note that this rule generally only applies to flights originating in the US, certain US territories and Canada. Click to read the specific policies for United, Delta, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Virgin America.
  • If you’re canceling your ticket because of an extenuating circumstance – for example, a death in the family – be sure to say so as this may help you avoid being hit with a fee.
  • Consider purchasing travel insurance that covers trip cancellation. You may not be able to avoid paying a fee to the airline, but your insurance will allow you to recoup the cost. If you were going to buy insurance anyway (e.g. to cover health or theft while on vacation) this won’t cost you anything extra.

How to avoid exit row fees

  • Everyone wants the extra legroom an exit row has to offer, but most people don’t realize there are some other seats on the plane that are as good as, or even better than an exit row. If you go to seatexpert.com you can see the layout of every style of plane on each of the different airlines and work out which seat is best. This includes things like whether your seat reclines, if there is an entertainment unit obstructing the space near your feet, and so on. You don’t have to pay any extra for these seats – just select what you want when you’re checking in for your flight.

How to avoid baggage fees

  • One way around hefty baggage fees can be to ship your goods to your destination (via UPS, FedEx etc.) in advance rather than checking them onto your flight. This is a particularly good option for overweight bags as it generally works out much cheaper than paying the excess baggage fee imposed by the airline. It’s also great for oversized luggage such as skis, bicycles and surfboards. Another bonus is that there’s a lower chance of your belongings getting damaged or lost – especially since you’re given a tracking number.
  • Don’t forget that you can buy stuff wherever you’re going. This could include toiletry products such as toothpaste, but also items that take up a lot of volume in your luggage yet are cheap to purchase just about anywhere. For example, if you’re going on vacation in Mexico, buy your beach towel when you get there.
  • You can live out of a carry-on bag indefinitely if you’re willing to do a little laundry in your hotel sink. Carrying small sachets of washing powder and a universal sink stopper will enable you to do this. These days, most travel stores sell clothes made from high-tech fabrics that enable them to dry faster – wash them at night and they’ll be ready to wear by morning. An inflatable clothes hangar that allows air to circulate around the item of clothing will speed this process up even more. Also, carrying a stain-remover pen can extend the wear of your clothes by helping you go longer between washes.
  • Even if you’re traveling with just a carry-on, you need to be careful not to overstuff it, since some airlines are now starting to charge passengers for carry-on luggage that exceeds the weight limit. You can keep the weight of your bag down by packing clothes made from fabrics with a good warmth to weight ratio, for example, cashmere, silk, fleece and down. These types of material weigh very little, fold up into nothing, but are extraordinarily warm. You can also “sneak” an extra carry-on onto your flight by wearing a travel vest like this one.
  • Choose clothing in the same color family (go for neutrals like navy, black or beige) that can all be mixed and matched and layered for different climates. Make your outfit more interesting or dressed up using small and lightweight accessories such as scarves and jewelry. You can also create double the number of outfits by choosing clothing that is reversible or that can be worn in multiple ways.
  • If you’re staying in a hotel, be aware that the toiletries stocked in your bathroom (shampoo, conditioner, soap and so on) aren’t the only toiletries available to you. If you call down to the front desk, you’ll almost always be provided with free toothpaste, shaving cream and more, which can be very helpful given the liquid restrictions on flights.

How to avoid in-flight fees

  • These days, many carriers charge for everything from food to entertainment and even blankets, particularly on domestic routes. You can avoid these fees simply by coming prepared. Bring along a set of ear buds or headphones to avoid paying to borrow some from the airline – most plane entertainment units will accept the single jack style that is found on ipods and standard mp3 players. If you’re traveling with an ipad or laptop, pre-load it with movies or bring some DVDs with you. Carry a pashmina-style wrap or an extra sweater for added warmth – it’s possibly more hygienic than the airline blanket anyway. And finally, bring some snacks from home or pick up a take-away meal from the airport before you board the plane. You won’t necessarily save a ton of money (since airport food is often overpriced) but you’ll likely have more choice.

What do you think? Do you have any other suggestions on how to get around airline fees?