David Slade is a senior Post and Courier reporter. His work has been honored nationally by Society of Professional Journalists, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Scripps foundation and others. Reach him at 843-937-5552 or dslade@postandcourier.com

southwest airport.jpg (copy) (copy)

Southwest Airlines is among the carrier that serve Charleston International (above) and Greenville-Spartanburg International. File/Wade Spees/Staff

Baggage fees, flight-change fees, fees for using airline miles, fees for seat assignments — it seems there's always another extra charge for flying these days.

Last year U.S. airlines collected nearly $8 billion in baggage and change fees. Now there's just one major carrier where this expense and aggravation can be avoided, and that's Southwest Airlines.

You might not always think of Southwest, because its flights don't appear on some popular search tools, but this large U.S. carrier can provide some real savings.

Travel with two checked bags on a major U.S. airline and you'll pay $70 in baggage fees — each way! On Southwest, you'd pay nothing, as long as each bag is a reasonable size and weighs no more than 50 pounds.

Book a flight with airline miles, and later cancel it, and American Airlines will charge you $150. Not on Southwest. With Southwest, you can book an award ticket and later cancel it, and they just put the award points back in your account.

Pro tip: That Southwest policy means that if you book a ticket with Southwest Rapid Rewards points, and the price later drops, you can just cancel and rebook the flight for less, with no fees. I've done this a few times.

Book a MileagePlus award ticket less than 21 days ahead of time on United, and you'll be charged $75. On Southwest, no charge.

Pay for a reservation and later change it? Delta will charge you $200. On Southwest, you guessed it, no cost.

These policies are great ways to save money and avoid surprises when you are flying. That doesn't mean Southwest will always have the best fares, or even the route or schedule that best suits your needs. But it's worth the extra clicks to check Southwest's website in addition to other flight searches.

In South Carolina, Southwest flies nonstop from Charleston to seven U.S. cities with a large network of domestic and overseas connecting flights beyond. It also flies from Greenville-Spartanburg International.

We're starting a weekly newsletter about the business stories that are shaping Charleston and South Carolina. Get ahead with us - it's free.

One more thing you avoid with Southwest is the game that some big airlines seem to be playing with seat assignments. That's the game where you have to pay extra to choose a seat, or else they pick one for you if you have an inexpensive ticket. I've noticed that they seem to separate people who are traveling together for no apparent reason, other than to prompt them to buy seat assignments.

On Southwest, you just get on the plane when it's your turn and sit wherever you like. (Tip for Southwest newcomers: Checking in online as soon as you're allowed to do so gets you a better boarding position).

On most other airlines, there are some ways to at least avoid baggage fees. The main one is to have the airline's credit card, which typically waives fees for the card holder and for anyone on the same reservation.

If you're loyal to a particular airline and you avoid paying credit card interest charges by paying bills on time and in full, then it's probably worth having that carrier's credit card. The bag-fee savings should outweigh an annual credit card fee, and could really save money if you travel often or with family.

Plus, most airlines will give you a pile of loyalty program miles for signing up for their credit card, good for a round-trip ticket or two.

Major airlines will also waive fees for their top-tier flyers, the folks who fly often and not in the cheap seats. If you're one of them, you already know this.

Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552. Follow him on Twitter @DSladeNews.