Getting taken for a ride: Airline fees

Plans often change and flights must be rescheduled, but airline penalties can be harsh.

By Jessica Dickler, CNNMoney.com staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- You paid a fee to purchase the ticket, you may have even chalked up the extra charge for an exit-row seat, and you're prepared to spend $5 for a cocktail on board - but when plans change and you need to modify your flights accordingly, that's when you really get hit.

Most airlines charge change-of-plan fees, which have doubled over the past few years. But are these fees really a necessary cost of last minute travel tweaks or are consumers just getting taken for a ride?

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Depending on the type of ticket and the airline you're flying, rebooking rules can vary greatly. Southwest (Charts, Fortune 500) still lets you change your flight for free but Virgin America charges $40 per person.

Earlier this year, JetBlue (Charts) raised its rebooking rates from $25 to $35 (for changes online), and from $30 to $45 (for phone-ins). And that's mild by industry standards.

If you're flying US Airways, United or American Airlines, be prepared to cough up $100 per person if your plans change. On Delta (Charts, Fortune 500), the change fee is $75 per person for domestic flights but those fees can more than double for international travel.

That's all in addition to any difference in fares and charges from third-party travel sites like Orbitz, which levies a penalty of $30 on top of the airline's cancellation fee.

"Really these fees are a way for airlines to squeeze money out of their passengers," says David Lytle, editorial director for Frommers.com.

But according to Michelle Mohr, a spokeswoman for US Airways, The change fee "is not something for us to make money on, it's to offset the cost of not having that seat for sale."

Depending on the time frame and the market, "we might not necessarily have the chance to sell that seat again," she explained.

While a cancelled seat could remain empty on less in-demand flights, in many cases the airline is still able to resell the seat at an even higher last-minute fare. Although there are still some financial implications to the paperwork and processing involved, according to a spokesman from American Airlines.

Yes, there is a cost to the airline for up-to-the-last-minute changes but it's not nearly as high as what is passed on to the consumer, Lytle said.

"Airlines can make any sort of change they want in their flight and not reimburse you in anyway, but if you need to make a change you will get punished financially," he added.

If you have to switch flights, can you avoid taking a beating?

If you know your plans may change, then arm yourself with information before you choose who to fly with. It's often difficult to find the airline's policy online, so call a representative and ask what fare rules and change fees will apply.

It might turn out that paying more upfront for a ticket through the airline's own site instead of sites like Orbitz, or opting for a refundable ticket, could save you a bundle when the babysitter cancels again.

If it's a last-minute change, shoot for standby seats, which are often fee-free if you're willing to chance not getting on the flight at all. But be prepared to show up early and hope for the best.

Also, many airlines will waive the rebooking fee if there is a family emergency or other extenuating circumstance.

"We always try and work with our customers," said a spokeswoman from Southwest.

Of course, there is no hard and fast rule on what gets you off the hook, but if you kindly explain your situation to a customer service representative you might get a reprieve.

Airline charges, ATM fees, service charges...consumers get ripped off everyday. Do you think you've been the victim of a raw deal? Email your stories and suggestions to rawdeal@cnnmoney.com.  Top of page

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.