Why Several Airlines Sell Tickets for Less at the Airport Than Online

Spirit Airlines, Frontier Airlines, and Allegiant charge fees for booking their tickets online. They also charge fees for booking by phone. That seems ludicrous at first.

  • It’s their cash register. It’s how they sell a product. Supermarkets and hardware stores don’t charge separate “cash register fees.”

  • You can avoid paying these fees by buying your ticket at the airport. Almost no one does this because it’s time consuming, and you have travel costs (and if you drive, parking costs) as well.

  • It’s more expensive for an airport agent at a ticket counter to sell tickets than to sell them online. Don’t these airlines want to encourage customers to book online?

Copyright: boarding1now / 123RF Stock Photo

Years ago airlines used to award bonus miles for online bookings. Hotel chains sometimes offer bonus points for making bookings through their app. Pushing customers to self service modes holds down costs (and encouraging them to book direct rather than through an online agency saves commissions or override expense).

So why do ultra low cost carriers make it cheaper to buy tickets at the airport? Glazer’s Law actually holds here. The reason is taxes (and regulation).

  • Airlines want to move as much of the cost of a domestic ticket into fees as possible. That’s because domestic airfares are subject to a 7.5% excise tax. Anything that’s a fee, from seat assignments to checked baggage fees, avoids this tax.

  • Calling part of the cost of a ticket a ‘booking fee’ saves taxes on that part of a ticket.

  • However the Department of Transportation requires that for something to be a fee, it must be optional. (HT: Melissa Yeagrr) If hotels were regulated by the DOT they couldn’t have non-optional resort fees, all mandatory costs would have to be included in the room rate.

  • The online (and telephone) booking fees are optional, because customers can avoid the fees by buying at the airport.

Copyright: boarding1now / 123RF Stock Photo

Now it all makes a lot more sense why ultra low cost carriers will sell you tickets for less at the airport than they will online. You save the online booking fee. And they do this because it saves them 7.5% tax on the amount of the booking fee for everyone else who doesn’t go through the hassle of airport ticketing.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »



  1. So why don’t have LCCs in the u.s. a “you haven’t checked in online / via the app” fee suchs as Ryanair does? It would be an optional fee.

  2. A list of airlines that offer discounts as well as the amount of the discount, would take this post from being somewhat interesting, to very useful.

  3. Buying at the airport presupposes that there will in fact be availability for the flight you want. Most people want the certainty that they have a seat before they head off to the airport.

  4. If you want to be assured of availability, go to the airport 2 months ahead of time and buy the ticket…if your goal is to save 7.5% you don’t have to buy the ticket at the airport for a same day flight correct?

  5. Ask a big city airport check in agent about stories of who walks up with wade of cash buying one way first class tickets

    Some good tales to tell

  6. Just did this at the Orlando Airport with Spirit while coming back from a cruise. Saved $19 each way for my DEN to LAX trip coming up….a no brainer. Wish I knew Frontier works the same way as I just completed a trip with my family of four on them that could have saved a bundle…next time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.