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On the Spot: Dissecting Spirit Airline's carry-on luggage fees

TravelTourism and LeisureSpirit AirlinesLos Angeles International Airport

Question: I took a trip to Las Vegas last month on Spirit Airlines. The tickets were expensive, but I didn't have time to book ahead of time. What upset me, though, is that the airline charged me $40 each way for carry-on luggage, which was stored overhead. Isn't this an abuse by the airline?

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Answer: Although "airline" and "abuse" go together like love and marriage, horse and carriage, etc., in this case, my answer is a qualified no.

It pains me to say this because it's like agreeing with, say, people whose politics don't mesh with yours but who have a valid point.

But only, I hasten to add, on this point and only up to a point.

There is little about Spirit's method of operation that benefits the passenger from a financial standpoint. For instance, most airlines are desperate for you to use their website to book a ticket to reduce their costs, but Spirit charges you to book online. It would rather have you come to the airport (during the hours its counter is open) and book there if you want to save the $10-a-ticket fee. Hmm, which would I rather do? Book a ticket from the comfort of my PC or fight the traffic to LAX, park and dash in and hope someone is at the counter?

If you want to change your reservation, the tab is $115 online. Do it with a human and it's $125. The message seems to be it's cheaper to use a human except when it's not.

Choose your seat in advance and it will cost you as little as $1 and as much as $50. And so on.

But I do agree with Spirit's carry-on policy. We carry on bags because it's easier, many times, than checking them. And we don't have to stand around at the baggage carousel waiting for them.

Here's where Spirit and I part ways: If you elect, at the time of booking online, to pay for a carry-on bag, you pay $30. It's $35 through the reservations center (that's by phone), $40 at the airport counter before check-in and $45 at the gate.

Could we make this a little more confusing?

Spirit doesn't see this as gouging, of course: It says it "empowers" the consumer to save money. It's hard to be empowered if you don't know the pitfalls.

Not everyone will agree that carry-on luggage fees are a good idea. Some will say, "Fine, make us pay for carry-on but don't charge us for checked."

Ian Ford, chief executive of Undercovertourist.com and a frequent traveler, takes it a step further: He thinks charging for carry-on is fair if there's a corresponding reduction in the base price of the ticket for those who aren't "consuming" more weight (which causes more fuel consumption). "I think it's [the baggage fee] one of those things that can unfairly penalize the infrequent traveler," Ford said.

When you look at recent Department of Transportation regulation changes asking for more clarity in fees — fees that amounted last year to $4 billion for bags alone, with $81.5 million of that going to Spirit — you want to applaud the action. Sort of. As Ford said, "If you're going to tell me [I'm buying] just a seat, be very clear about it" so that no traveler is surprised by the final bill. That's the spirit, if not this Spirit.

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