One of the downsides of the rise in airfare-comparison websites like Expedia and Skyscanner has been the rise of airlines hiding fees outside the primary fare. It helps them appear to be the lowest fare — even though they plan to hit you with extra costs later.
And the most common of those extra costs is a fee for checking a bag. Some budget airlines even charge fees for carry-on bags.
Fortunately, there are many ways to minimize baggage-related airline fees, including tips to avoid checking a bag altogether.
Tips to Avoid Checking a Bag
I once traveled for two months with only a carry-on bag. It can be done, but it requires some strategery on your part. Start with these tactics to avoid checking a bag in the first place.
1. Check Carry-On Limits
Some airlines allow more generous carry-on bag limits than others. As noted above, some of the worst airlines nickel and dime you with fees — even for carry-on bags.
Note that luggage limits come in two varieties: size and weight. You have to duck under both limits.
Before booking air travel, check the airline’s carry-on luggage limits and whether they charge a fee. Most airlines allow a free carry-on bag plus a free “personal item,” such as a large purse or tote, a backpack, or a laptop case.
Packing for your trip, you can get far further with a 30-pound carry-on bag than a 10-pound one.
2. Don’t Be Afraid to Do Laundry While Away
You’ll overpack if you plan to wear each outfit only once while traveling.
If you stay at a private residence, such as an Airbnb or vacation rental property, it may well come with a washing machine. That makes doing laundry while traveling no harder than at home.
But even if you stay at a hotel, you can still use a laundromat to do laundry on the road. That way, you can pack light and wear the same clothes multiple times on your trip.
3. Pack Versatile Clothing
I have a pair of boat shoes I always pack for traveling because they can dress up or down. I can wear them with a T-shirt and shorts or slacks and a dress shirt for dinner. Plus, they’re small and collapse down well in my suitcase.
My wife packs similar clothing she can dress up or down, depending on what else she wears. By packing versatile garments and apparel, you don’t have to pack as much.
4. Buy Liquids & Disposables Upon Arrival
Depending on your destination, you probably don’t need to pack every liquid, toiletry, or disposable in your suitcase. Instead, just buy some upon arrival.
Sunscreen and bug spray are two obvious examples. Your hotel or rental property might provide shampoo, conditioner, soap, and body lotion — find out.
For the liquids you must bring, buy TSA-approved travel-size refillable bottles to minimize weight and volume.
5. Mail Packages
Depending on your airline’s baggage fees, it could cost less to ship some things to your destination than to pay for a checked bag.
Likewise, if traveling for the holidays, order gifts online and have them delivered directly to your destination. There’s just no need to pack gifts and travel with them.
6. Weigh Your Bags Before Leaving for the Airport
Before leaving home or your hotel, double-check that your bags don’t exceed the weight limit. You don’t want to find yourself at the check-in counter paying to check your carry-on bag because it’s over the limit.
Pick up an electronic hanging scale for under $20 on Amazon. You can relax knowing you won’t have to frantically unpack and repack your luggage at the airport — or worse, check your bag.
7. Wear Your Larger, Heavier Garments
Don’t pack your winter coat in a bag. Or your heavy boots, thick sweater, or any other weighty clothes or personal effects.
Just throw your coat over your arm or carry-on bag handle. Tie your sweater around your waist if it’s too hot to wear. Wear your largest, heaviest shoes. The more traveling clothes and accessories you wear on your person, the less you have to put in your bag, and the more likely you are to whiz through security with just your carry-on bag.
8. Invest in Lightweight, Expandable Carry-on Luggage
Your carry-on bag should be as light as possible to avoid taking up precious pounds you could use for packing.
But the best carry-on bags can also expand. Remember, some airlines impose tighter size restrictions than others. Bags that unzip to extend outward let you pack up to the very edge of the size limit.
9. Check Airlines’ Stroller & Car Seat Policies
Traveling gets trickier with a baby. Fortunately, most airlines allow passengers with a baby to check a stroller and car seat for free. That means it doesn’t count against your baggage allowance.
You can even cheat a bit and pack other necessities in your stroller bag. My wife and I throw clothes and baby paraphernalia into the stroller bag when we travel for free bag room.
But double-check the airline’s policy, as some may put size or weight restrictions on these items, even when they do allow them for no additional charge. While you’re at it, look up some other tricks and tips for traveling with an infant.
Tips for When You Must Check a Bag
You can’t always avoid checking a bag. If you must do so, follow these tips to minimize your cost.
10. Compare Total Fares, Including Checked Bag Fees
Some airlines, such as Southwest Airlines, include checked bags for free. Others hit you with exorbitant costs. And some airlines include free checked bags under some circumstances but not others (such as international flights versus domestic flights).
As you search for the best airfare deal, compare apples to apples. Check each contending airline’s baggage allowance, and if they charge, check their fees. It happens all the time: One airline displays as the cheapest on the travel price search, but the total cost including checked bag fees far exceeds another airline that showed higher fares but includes bags.
Pricing may go up after the first checked bag. If you need to check more than one bag per person, include that pricing as well.
Don’t get duped by sneaky airlines that hit you with hidden fees. Always look up baggage policies before booking and calculate the full cost to travel.
11. Spread Your Heavy Stuff Strategically
As frequent international travelers, my wife and I usually bump up against the total weight limit. To avoid one bag going over the weight limit, we spread the heaviest items around so that each bag ducks under the limit, if barely.
That means I usually end up with her heavy makeup kits and toiletry bags in my lighter bag. But that’s what you agree to when you say I do.
If your checked bags still exceed the weight limit and you can’t pack less, move the heaviest items to your carry-on bag. While airlines do impose weight limits on these, they often don’t bother weighing them — especially when distracted by your large, heavy checked bags. In my experience, airlines rarely weigh my carry-on, and on many occasions, I’ve skated by with a heavy bag.
12. Open an Airline Credit Card
Many airlines offer perks like free checked bags for cardholders who book with the airline credit card. There are even some travel credit cards unaffiliated with one specific airline that offer these perks.
Watch out for annual fees, and don’t open dozens of credit cards and ruin your credit score. Also, don’t spend more on airfare with a specific airline just because you have a card with them when you would have spent less with a rival airline.
13. Get Elite Status With Your Favorite Airline
Earn enough points with an airline, and they also start giving you perks like free checked baggage.
If you frequently travel with the same airline, sign up for their rewards program. You can earn rewards and airline miles without a credit card. You could even earn free flights.
14. Ask About Last-Minute Upgrades
Airlines typically waive the checked luggage fee for business, premium economy, or first-class passengers. While upgrading to these categories usually costs more than the checked bag fee, sometimes you can get lucky, especially on the day of travel.
When you check in, ask about the possibility of a free upgrade. Though rare, it does happen. More commonly, the desk agent tells you the current cost to upgrade — which is often heavily discounted on the day of travel if they haven’t filled all the higher-end seats.
Given the better food, free booze, greater legroom, and free checked bags, it may be worth it. And in some cases, it costs even less than the cost to check a bag and actually saves you money.
15. Research the Best Airlines if You’re Transporting Oversize Items
Airlines often charge excessive fees for oversize equipment, especially sports equipment, like bicycles, golf clubs, and winter sports equipment. These fees vary, so read up on how much various airlines charge for oversize items before booking your flight.
To find the best airline for a particular item, check websites and message boards dedicated to that subject. For example, you can search “best airlines for cyclists” or “best airlines for skiers.” That will help you find carriers with policies people with similar interests have found friendly.
For example, if you search “best airlines for cyclists,” one of the first results takes you to a Bicycling magazine article on the subject, which notes that Southwest allows you to check your bike as one of your free bags if it falls under the size and weight limits. But double-check the policy on the airline’s site in case it’s recently changed.
Note that it’s cheaper to ship your oversize items separately than pack them on the plane with you in many cases. Price out shipping options before you open your wallet to the airline for exorbitant extra fees.
Or simply rent large sporting equipment, such as bicycles, skis, and snowboards, upon arrival.
Finally, remember that TSA bans or has strict controls for some items, such as firearms and flammables.
If you can avoid checking a bag entirely, do it. It can potentially save you on fees, and you can walk right off the plane and out of the airport without waiting for your bags.
But sometimes, you just can’t get around checking a bag. In those cases, make sure you always understand the total pricing of tickets when shopping for fares and the weight and size limits of both carry-on and checked bags. Then get creative with other ways to dodge hefty baggage fees so airlines can’t get away with nickel and diming you.