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11 Tips for Avoiding Airline Checked Baggage Fees

By Jason Steele

luggage suitcasesAs if finding affordable fares for air travel isn’t tough enough, rising and surprising fees are making it an even bigger challenge to figure out the best deal if you want to pack any luggage.

After all the fee increases, the best advice the airlines seem to have for saving on baggage fees is to “pack light.” That’s not good enough, especially since families with young kids, individuals who don’t travel often, and anyone traveling in search of better weather can’t simply “pack light.” And everyone’s definition of “light” is different.

You need some realistic steps to take when the airlines start raising the cost of your travel by hundreds of dollars just for bringing your luggage with you. Depending on the size of your group (i.e. group vacation travel), your destination, and your comfort level, you have a few practical options that don’t involve sacrificing some of the favorite items that you want to bring with you on your trip.

Beginner Tips

For first-time travelers, or if you only travel once or twice a year

1. Choose Wisely
Fly airlines that go easy on fees, and punish the ones that charge for bags. Commit your valuable consumer dollars to the traveler-friendly businesses. Southwest, for example, still allows two free checked bags per person, while only your first checked bag is free with JetBlue. Frontier Airlines just announced that they will transport bicycles for the same fee as a standard piece of luggage. If an airline charges for just one checked bag, don’t book with them. It’s rarely worth the $10 or $20 savings on a cheaper flight if you’ll have to eventually pay for your carry-on or your checked bags.

2. Read the Rules
Even the airlines with good deals still have complex rules. Their allowances vary by destination, class of service, and operating carrier. Sometimes the airline staff themselves don’t even completely understand the rules, and stopovers and transfers can make things even more complicated. Dedicate some time to thoroughly read through the airline’s online policies, and print out the relevant pages in case you need to clarify for a misinformed agent.

3. Weigh in at Home
You can get an electronic hanging scale for under $20 on Amazon (e.g. American Weigh Scale American Weigh H-110 Digital Hanging Scale), and then simulate the weigh-in experience at home. This way, you’ll leave home knowing that you won’t have to frantically unpack and re-pack your luggage at the airport.

4. Get Strategic
Armed with the airline’s policies and your scale, maximize the effect of the free checked bags. Every family member doesn’t necessarily need every item in a personal bag. Spread heavy items around and distribute the weight so that no one bag exceeds the weight limit. You’ll avoid incurring the dreaded overweight bag fee and needing extra bags.

5. Don’t Blame Your Equipment
Invest in lightweight, properly-sized luggage to maximize both your carry-on allowance as well as any checked bags allowance you have. Heavy luggage can eat up a lot of your weight allowance, so spending a little more on lightweight luggage is worth it in the long run.

Intermediate Strategies

For experienced travelers who take to the skies four or five times a year, particularly ski-season flyers

6. Put the Heavy Stuff in Your Carry-On
Most airlines have a weight limit for carry-on baggage, but while all checked bags get weighed, most ticket agents don’t take the time to examine bags and enforce weight limits for carry-ons. So if you have some dense items that will put you over the limit on checked bags, try to fit them into your carry-on and take advantage of the fact that they’ll look the other way.

7. Wear the Bulky Stuff
Jackets and sweaters don’t count as carry-ons as long as you’re wearing them. Even if you’re departing from or landing in a warm climate, wear your bulky cold-weather clothes if you can. You’ll save space and weight, and then you can just take off your coat once you’re at your seat. Think about shoes too, since you can wear the bulky boots that don’t quite fit in your carry-on.

8. Get a Credit Card
Some airlines, like Continental and Delta, will waive checked bag fees if you purchase your tickets with their co-branded credit card. If you’re not carrying a lot of credit card debt, and you can open another card without hurting your credit score, consider this option. For frequent travelers, a perk like this is a good way to choose a card, but it’s not a reason to open a new account.

Advanced Techniques

For jet-setters who travel monthly or with special equipment

9. Take Advantage of Free Items
Airlines don’t advertise it, but advanced travelers know that there are certain items that are always free, like children’s strollers, car seats, and certain medical items. When I travel with my child, her car seat goes in a large duffel, and they never seem to notice or care when I pack other items below it. While you can’t get a free bag just by packing non-medical items with an important medical device, knowing that you can check the device might free up space in your carry-ons.

10. Upgrade Yourself
First-class travelers rarely pay any bag fees. And while you may not want to spend an extra $800 to get a first-class ticket, sometimes you can get an upgrade the day of for a much lower fee. Delta, for example, sometimes offers coach passengers a chance to upgrade for $90 at check-in. Since an overweight bag weighing 50 to 70 pounds can run you as much as $90, you may as well take the upgrade. You’ll end up spending the money anyway, and this way you’ll get the comfort and luxury at the same time it. Just make sure that your airline offers free bags for first class passengers before you commit to spending.

11. Special Items Fly under the Radar
Airlines love to charge excessive fees for sporting equipment like bicycles. Many cyclists have evaded the exorbitant bike fee by packing the frame in an unmarked box and the wheels in another. As long as there is no obvious indication that you’re transporting a bike, you will likely avoid the fee. If you can pack special equipment in a normal looking bag without worrying about it getting damaged, there’s usually no reason you have to declare it to airline personnel.

Final Word

You don’t have to leave stuff at home just to avoid luggage charges. Figure out your personal comfort level, and then slowly apply a few tricks to save here and there. The more success you have, the more new ideas you can try.

Airlines seem very comfortable charging you with new fees everywhere you turn, so it’s time to take some power back. Don’t let them keep changing fee structures and calling that a successful business model. Fight back with your consumer dollar and some innovative, ethical tools for cheaper checked luggage.

What ideas do you have for beating the airlines at their own baggage fee game?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Jason Steele
Jason has been writing about personal finance, travel, and other topics on blogs across the Internet. When he is not writing, he has a career in information technology and is also a commercially rated pilot. Jason lives in Colorado with his wife and young daughter where he enjoys parenting, cycling, and other extreme sports.

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  • Michael

    If you can take your bag through security, most airlines will check your bag to the final destination at the gate because they want to make room on overhead compartments.

  • relarela

    I have a wheeling suitcase that is too big to fit in the overhead bin, but small enough to get through security without them noticing. I always gate check it and it saves me lots of money and hassle.

  • hassan yacoub

    i tried many journey to lebanon middle east by having europe as distination but found that of the emirates that goes directly to dhubai nonstop during 15 hours is the best because staying in any airport in europe to some hours that may be sometimes 11 hours in the state that one is eager to see his relatives and time has great value so i like going by that planes that goes with nonstop even if the journey take a long period

  • Matt R

    Careful with gate checking bags. As opposed to fee-checked bags, there are no guarantees from the airline that gate-checked bags will reach your destination at the same time as you. Even though most of the time they do, when the bags don’t make a connection somewhere the passenger is not entitled to any recourse or compensation. At least if you pay for checked baggage the airline has some responsibility to you for your luggage.

  • Peter

    For domestic travel, send your bags a week or two ahead via the post office or Greyhound. It saves lugging them around the airport. It may even be cheaper, particularly if you can then use an airline that discounts the fare and charges for all baggage.

  • http://www.acceleratedstall.com Acceleratedstall

    Flying within the US – try shipping your bags via UPS or FedEx – I just had 3 suitcases of clothing shipped for a cross country move. UPS didn’t ask me any questions and because the cases were hard cover types, didn’t even need a box, just locked them up and slapped a label on them. Total cost was under $60 (USD) and the airline would have charged me for weight on each as well as for checking 3 bags. Added benefit, no luggage to collect at the airport – it was waiting for me at my final destination when I arrived.

  • HappyPig

    “9. [...] When I travel with my child, her car seat goes in a large duffel, and they never seem to notice or care when I pack other items below it. ”

    I’ve checked a car seat for free once. It was in a black trashbag, securely wrapped, but the AA baggage checker cut it open to make sure that I wasn’t putting anything else in there. So I wouldn’t recommend this.

  • Karmella

    I refuse to check bags – carry on only. I’ve been like that since before bag fees – it’s just a pain to check bags, retrieve bags, deal with them losing things. If I get buy too much stuff at my destination (rare), I ship it home or I get rid of something I brought with me to make the room. I can do well over a week in one carry on.

    While you’re packing, consider giving it a try – you might surprise yourself!

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