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11 Tips for Avoiding Airline Checked Baggage Fees

As 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.

Dont Blame EquipmentIntermediate 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.

Special Items Fly Under RadarFinal 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?

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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