Airlines bundling fees: Trick or treat?

Before you buy extra perks do the math

ORLANDO, Fla. - You know something's up when Southwest Airlines, a pioneer in low-cost air travel, starts bundling perks and calling it Business Select even though there are no business class seats on board (the perks are arguably aimed at the business traveler, but once on board, a seat is a seat is a seat.)

All the major domestic carriers are now offering bundled perks as a way to increase revenue from coach/economy cabin passengers. Basically, you pay one flat fee for a set of services you used to get for free, like checking a bag, advanced seat selection and a pillow.

Some consumers like the bundled offers, saying the perks offer convenience and clarity; they know what they're paying for. Others feel fleeced. The truth is really in the numbers.

Let's compare.

The following are different economy fares for the same American Airlines flight from Orlando to Chicago

  • $228 - Basic coach seat, no perks.
  • $296 - Choice Essential, which includes one free checked bag, priority boarding and no change fees.
  • $309 - Choice Plus, which includes all of the above, plus additional bonus miles, same day standby options, and a free alcoholic drink.

You'll notice that none of those bundles listed above include a preferred seat; you'd still have to pay more for a seat with extra legroom or one close to the front of the coach cabin.

Now for the math:

If you buy the basic economy ticket, it will cost you $25 to check a bag, and $24 for preferred seating and priority boarding, a la carte.

Your cost is $277.

Unless you're worried about change fees, that's a better deal than paying $296 for Choice Essential.

These bundles are sometimes, but not always, referred to as Premium Economy, Economy Comfort, or Economy Plus, which actually do offer between 4 inches and 6 inches of extra legroom, with fees starting at $14 and increasing with the length of the flight.  If all you're interested in is extra legroom, the price might be worth it.

But most carriers will offer an up-sell to give you that extra legroom along with the other bundled perks for a flat fee, adding hundreds of dollars to your fare.  The more you add to the bundle (free WiFi, free headphones), the more the bundle costs.

My favorite, bang-for-the-buck bundle, is the AirTran upgrade. If business class is available 24 hours before the flight, passengers can upgrade for as little as $69, get a free checked bag, free cocktails, and an outdated but very real, very comfortable business class seat. However, as Southwest takes over AirTran that bundle will eventually go away as the acquisition will remove business class service.  Unless. of course, a lot of loyal customers speak up.

I'm just saying.

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