How to Avoid Sky-High Baggage Fees
Essential advice for your next vacation flight
While airline passengers were once preoccupied with worries of lost luggage, today, they’re more concerned about how much they’ll pay for checked bags. With most major carriers charging $30 for the first one and $40 for the second one, the fees are have become a pricey and unwelcome traveling companion.
But there are a few ways to get around the sky-high checked baggage fees, as experts explain below. You’ll likely want to follow their advice since these costs aren’t apt to vanish anytime soon. In fact, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s annual airline baggage fee report found that domestic carriers collected nearly $5 billion in baggage fees in 2018 and $1.3 billion in the first quarter of 2019.
In an effort to keep luggage charges down, some flyers have gotten creative. For instance, one gentleman at Guanzhou Baiyun International Airport in China reportedly wore 60 shirts and nine pairs of jeans! Others attempt to dodge fees by stashing items inside their children’s car seats and strollers, which fly free.
Co-branded airline credit cares are one of the easiest ways to avoid baggage fees.
Rather than wearing your entire wardrobe or risk encountering issues with airline staffers at the gate, consider these legitimate ways to say bye to baggage fees:
Choose Your Airline Carefully
Travel journalist Jason Steele says he’s never paid a baggage fee. His secret? “First, pick your airline well,” says Steele. “I like to fly Southwest, as they offer everyone two free checked bags.”
Each passenger aboard the domestic airline is permitted to check up to two bags for free as long as each weighs no more than 50 pounds and doesn’t exceed 62 inches in length, width and height (that’s a standard maximize size for a checked bag).
Before booking a flight, investigate the airline’s checked baggage fees and those of competitors flying the same route. You might find a bargain.
Use the Right Credit Card
Co-branded airline credit cards are one of the easiest ways to avoid baggage fees, notes Daniel A. Gillaspia, CEO and founder of Upon Arriving, a website covering travel credit card rewards and airline and hotel loyalty programs.
“They often allow you to avoid fees for multiple passengers on your itinerary. You just need to be mindful that some only waive baggage fees for domestic flights and not international flights,” Gillaspia says.
That savings can add up.
For example, with a premium co-branded card like the United MileagePlus Club Card, the primary card member and one companion traveling on the same reservation each receive their first and second standard checked bags free. That amounts to a savings of up to $280 for a round-trip flight. (A $30 value for the first checked bag and $40 value for the second checked bag, each way, per person.)
But this United card has a steep $450 annual fee; the card includes free United Club membership at airports and other features, though. It probably only pays to consider if you’re a frequent flier.
The Gold Delta SkyMiles card, with no annual fee for the first year ($95 a year after that), offers cardholders the opportunity to check their first bag free.
You might find other baggage deals with other airline credit cards.
Earn Elite Status in a Frequent Flyer Program
Some airline frequent flyer programs include complimentary checked bags for elite members.
For instance, you can qualify for Jet Blue’s TrueBlue Mosaic membership by earning 15,000 base flight points with the airline within a calendar year or by flying 30 segments plus 12,000 base flight points within a calendar year. Once you’ve reached the Mosaic level, your first two checked bags are free, as well as those of others on your itinerary.
American Airlines Elite Status benefits include up to three free checked bags depending on your level, which is based on miles traveled and dollars spent.
Upgrade Your Seat
“Flying business and first class will allow you to fly free with your bags, and if you have enough miles and points, you can book those type of flights for next to nothing and take advantage of savings all around,” Gillaspia says.
For example, passengers traveling first class as a Delta Premium Select or Delta One customer are allowed two complimentary checked bags of up to 70 pounds each to any destination.
Make the Most of Your Carry-On Items
Depending on your airline, you may be allowed to bring one carry-on bag and one personal item, such as a purse, briefcase or laptop bag aboard for free. So, “if you strategically pack your carry-on and your personal item, you might not need to have a checked bag,” says Logan Allec, owner of the personal finance site Money Done Right.
Rishi Kapoor, CEO and founder of Nanak Flights (a site for travel to India) agrees.
And he says it’s becoming easier to bring along a carry-on.
"Manufacturers are getting more innovative with their carry-on bags, as bags are becoming increasingly lighter and featuring all types of compartments to better fit your items. Between the two bags — and depending on the amount and size of items you bring — you should have no problem fitting in your essentials while saving a bit of money."
Because many airlines have restrictions on the size of carry-on items or don’t permit carry-ons with an economy ticket purchase, though, it’s wise to consult with prospective carriers.
If you can’t avoid baggage fees completely, you may at least be able to keep them as low as possible by checking in online, as early as allowed. That’s especially true with low-cost airlines.
Says Gillaspia: “The baggage fees get higher the closer you get to check-in, so you can often minimize fees by paying for your checked baggage at the time of the booking.”
Travel blogger Alex Tran of Schimiggy.com agrees, speaking from personal experience. “We booked online with Ryan Air and paid only 18 Euros. In person, the baggage fees would have been 50 euros,” says Tran.
One last tip: weigh your bags before you head off to the airport. This way you’ll know how much you’ll have left over for souvenirs and can avoid overage charges.