7 ways to avoid checked baggage fees

by Christopher Elliott on August 4, 2009

Like just about every other airline passenger this summer, Elizabeth Rodgers wants to avoid any unnecessary fees. So on a recent flight from Los Angeles to Boise, Idaho, she tried to carry all of her luggage on the plane.

She didn’t get far.

As Rodgers boarded the cramped regional jet, passengers were being asked to gate-check most of their carry-ons. A flight attendant tagged her extra bag without charging her $15. “I checked it for free,” says Rodgers, a technology writer based in Los Angeles.

Sidestepping this year-old airline rule was pretty easy up to this point. Flight attendants and gate agents routinely waved passengers with too much luggage through, hoping to avoid a confrontation. But now that baggage fees are generating serious money — they accounted for $1.5 billion in 2008, according to the Transportation Department — airlines are less likely to let the surplus bags slide.

For example:

· US Airways last month began charging $5 on top of its $15 fee for a first checked bag if you don’t pay for it in advance.

· Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines started charging $50 for the second checked bag on flights to Europe.

· Alaska Airlines added a checked-bag fee, too: $15 for the first bag, $25 for the second.

Airlines are spinning the changes in a clever way. My favorite explanation comes from US Airways, which rationalized its new fee as a way to offer customers “the convenience of prepaying to check their bags online.”

It’s clear that airlines are depending on ancillary revenues in general, and luggage fees in particular, more than ever. Meaning air travelers must be more vigilant than ever about avoiding them.

The days of passengers like Rodgers eluding a $15 or $50 fee are numbered. A proposed new law would see to that. It tasks the Transportation Security Administration with limiting the number of carry-ons travelers can bring through security checkpoints. Not hard to see the airline industry’s fingerprints all over that bill.

What to do?

1. Bring less.
Obviously, the best way to avoid paying for a checked bag is not to bring one in the first place. “Keep your bags as light as possible,” advises Barbara DesChamps, author of “It’s In The Bag: The Complete Guide to Lightweight Travel.” How can you tell if your luggage is overweight? I’ve been testing a Balanzza digital luggage scale that’s very portable and, at a $24.99 list price, doesn’t break the bank. Don’t take this advice too far, though. Pack a change of clothes, and for goodness sakes, wear something on the plane. US Airways passenger Keith Wright might have benefitted from that advice. He disrobed on a recent flight from Charlotte to Los Angeles, and ended up in the slammer.

2. Fly a no-fee airline.
JetBlue Airways doesn’t charge for the first checked bag. Neither does Southwest Airlines. In fact, it doesn’t charge for a second bag, either. Both of these companies have acknowledged what the rest of us already know: People travel with at least one bag. Shouldn’t we be rewarding these airlines with our business?

3. Look for loopholes.
They still exist. For example, US Airways exempts all of its elite frequent fliers, passengers traveling to and from Europe or Asia, Star Alliance Silver and Gold status members, unaccompanied minors, first class passengers and active duty military. Is anyone left? Mark Mitchell, American Airlines’ managing director of customer experience, recently told me that only 1 in 4 passengers pay luggage fees.

4. Ask someone else to pay.
Hotels are mindful that first-bag fees can hurt their business, so they’re offering to cover the fees. One of the first was Kimpton hotels. My friends over at Amelia Island, Fla., have a new program called “Pack Your Bags for Amelia Island” that offers air travelers an $80 room credit for checked baggage fees. If you have to pay for a checked bag, why not pass the bill off to someone else?

5. Get creative.
Passengers like Carolina Moore, a marketing consultant in North Las Vegas, Nev., are finding interesting ways of avoiding the fees. When she flew with her nine-month-old son recently, she discovered that consolidating her purse, diaper bag, car seat and port-a-crib into two large (and barely legal) bags allowed her to avoid paying the $15 fee. “So, I guess I didn’t really break any of the rules,” she says. “I just stretched them to capacity.”

6. Exploit policy differences.
Airlines don’t have uniform luggage rules, so when you’re flying on two or more airlines, use that to your advantage. Consider what happened to Kristi Nelson when she flew from Oahu to Portland recently. A Hawaiian Air agent in Lihue asked if she wanted to check her bags all the way through to the mainland. “You bet I do,” she said. “I thought for a minute and wondered how we would pay the baggage fee for our Northwest flight from Honolulu.” But when she landed, no one bothered to charge her.

7. Mail it.
Federal Express, UPS, the postal service, or a company like Luggage Forward can help you avoid the fees, but often, these options cost far more than what the airlines are charging. Then again, they’re probably more reliable. An overnight delivery service is far less likely to lose your belongings.

None of this ought to be necessary. If airlines could figure out how to make enough money from their fares, then they wouldn’t need to nickel and dime those of us who aren’t fortunate enough to be elite-level frequent fliers, unaccompanied minors or active duty military.

On a personal note, I never thought I’d have to write a column like this. Ever.

A decade ago, who could have imagined paying for airline food? Today, we’re lucky if there are bland snacks for sale. Checking two or three pieces of luggage was considered the air traveler’s inalienable right. Today we’re paying through the nose for our checked bags.

How do we fix this? I can think of two solutions. First, air travelers can buy tickets on airlines that don’t charge outrageous fees, like JetBlue and Southwest.

And second, our government can say, “enough!” It wouldn’t take much. The Transportation Department could rule that the price of an airline ticket must include at least one piece of checked luggage, and that would pretty much end this debate.

Will it? If the government hears from enough air travelers, sure. Here’s how to contact them.

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  • TJ Thornton

    On the plus side of paying for checked baggage is the fact that it’s made me more conscious of what I do pack. In fact, I’m not overpacking anymore. The last trip I took with my daughter, we each had a small rolling carryon and a backpack with our electronics, handbags and snacks. Our one combined checked bag was the largest size for checking and we’d packed it using the space compression bags. We had more than enough for our 5-day trip and space for any trinkets we purchased. In fact, the money we saved checking only one bag paid for a really nice dinner!

  • Frank

    2. Fly a no-fee airline.
    JetBlue Airways doesn’t charge for the first checked bag. Neither does Southwest Airlines. In fact, it doesn’t charge for a second bag, either. Both of these companies have acknowledged what the rest of us already know: People travel with at least one bag. Shouldn’t we be rewarding these airlines with our business?
    ===========================================================

    Apparently, the traveling public views this “lack of fee” on WN/Jetblue with less importance when it comes to the legacy carriers which OFFER:

    Worldwide Frequent flyer program
    Upgrades
    First Class
    Business Class
    Baggage Interline
    Airport Clubs
    Power ports
    Movie/Music (exception Jetblue)
    Food (for purchase in economy)
    Duty Free
    Alliance benefits

  • DaveS

    This was a good article with helpful tips most of the way. Then you come to the same ending as yesterday’s article.”Let’s all tell the government we want them to make the big, bad airlines give us a freebie.” This whole concept of looking to the government for free handouts is symptomatic of the culture in our country today. In the case of direct handouts, our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will be paying for them.

    There is no possible reason why it is any of the government’s business to tell airlines they have to ship a bag for free. The airlines are developing a business model in which it becomes possible for them to distinguish in their pricing between 1) passengers who want an array of costly services (baggage handling, meals, etc.); 2) those who are willing to pay extra for added value (preferred seating, blankets, etc.); and 3) those who simply want to get from point A to point B at the cheapest possible price. Why shouldn’t they be able to sell a seat more cheaply to the third group if they want to? Keep the federal government out of it. They already have enough to do running the car companies, the banks, and soon enough, the health care system.

    This has nothing to do with any legitimate role the government has in connection with the airline industry and I hope those who disagree with the premise of the article will contact DOT too, and say, “Hands off,” with respect to baggage policies.

  • laura

    No airline is perfect, but Southwest easily accommodates most of my needs for domestic travel, esp. with no baggage fees, so I always try to patronize them.

    But, as to some of the ‘tricks’ listed above – there’s a special place in hell for selfish passengers that take up all the overhead bin space with their crammed luggage because they are trying to pack everything and get it on the plane. On one recent flight a woman tried to wedge her bag which had to weigh 50 pounds on top of my laptop – Oh, no you don’t! – I told her, and called a flight attendant. Thery gate chec ked it and I hope they charged her a fee.

  • Hapgood

    8. Choose a destination that doesn’t require flying. That will avoid not only the fees, but a number of other sources of needless frustration. Airline executives think they can get away with fees, fees, and more fees because we don’t have a choice. But we actually do. If the airline executives succeed at the apparent goal of making air travel so unpleasant that their customers decide it’s not worth the aggravation, people will start looking at alternatives they may not have considered.

    And Frank, how much do most of the items on your list matter to the leisure traveler who is just looking for the lowest cost, isn’t a frequent flyer, and doesn’t have an employer’s deep pocket to pay for business class or first class? You also forgot to mention that JetBlue offers something you won’t get from any “legacy carrier” in Steerage: “lots of leg room.”

  • Robert

    I wouldn’t mind paying the checked baggage fee if airlines had a “service guarantee” associated with it. For example, you will get your bag delivered to the baggage carousel within 30 minutes of the aircraft’s arrival at the gate. If it’s not there in time you get your money back, or a voucher for free checked baggage the next time you fly.

  • Amy

    And what happens to lost luggage? Do I get my fee back? I don’t think I would mind a baggage fee so much if it weren’t so costly. Does it REALLY cost $50 for my bag to fly? That’s an extra $100 round trip to take my things. I don’t have an extra $100 to burn on some fee. I’d rather take a train, where the journey may be longer, but the scenery is better, the company can be great, the fare much cheaper, and my bag downstairs and easily accessible to me at any time.

  • Frank

    On August 4th, 2009 at 10:14 am Hapgood said
    And Frank, how much do most of the items on your list matter to the leisure traveler who is just looking for the lowest cost, isn’t a frequent flyer, and doesn’t have an employer’s deep pocket to pay for business class or first class? You also forgot to mention that JetBlue offers something you won’t get from any “legacy carrier” in Steerage: “lots of leg room.”
    ===========================================================

    Many leisure travelers maintain frequent flyer programs. In fact, look at the MILLIONS AND MILLIONS of people who do. Many of “them” use miles to upgrade. Most premium cabins are occupied by “upgrades.” and, YOU forgot to mention that the “even more legroom on Jetblue” comes as an extra fee!

  • http://Tripso DavidB

    Question to DaveS; What airline do you work for and how high in upper management are you? Using your logic if every company could just start charging extra for whatever they happen to pick, it would be fine It will cramp me a little but my flying days are numbered.
    Baggage has been included as part of the fare since the inception of air travel. Now airlines have found out they can charge us and the fees will keep climbing. Remember whan food was includecd on longer flights.
    Next they will charge a clothing allowance for whats on our backs.
    I’m an older person and if the airlines could provide everything in their fare before (for many decades) why can’t they now.
    They were too busy pcketing high profits and letting their fleets get old and not competetive.

  • Hapgood

    Frank: “YOU forgot to mention that the “even more legroom on Jetblue” comes as an extra fee!”

    That’s true, but it’s not what I was referring to. Their normal seats have “lots of legroom” (at they put it), noticeably more than you’d get on any “legacy carrier.” But if that’s not enough, you can indeed pay an extra fee for “even more legroom,” which is available because JetBlue’s executives decided that removing a row of seats would produce more cost savings than the lost revenue. “Lots of legroom” is an important reason I prefer JetBlue.

  • Jen

    Im going to florida in a week and this will be my first time flying. I’ve been trying to get all the info and just when I thought I got it all. Here comes the info. of the checked baggage. I will be taking us airways and I looked on their site and I could be paying more for my baggage then my plane ticket. My suit case is sort of big. I’m hoping to keep it under the 50 pounds to keep from spending the extra $50 but then there’s the fact that it is alittle big so that may be $100 more.
    It’s all very overwhelming for me. And do I have to pay this both ways, going there then my return flight home?
    Also, when I get to the airport to change flights do I need to look for my checked baggage and make sure it gets on the flight I’m getting on or will I just need to get on the other plane?
    Please help. lol

  • Pamm

    Holy cow TJ!! You each had a rolling suitcase, a daypack AND “one combined checked bag was the largest size for checking”, FOR A 5 DAY TRIP????? That is excessive for a 5 month trip.

    I am going for two months in a 21″ carryon and a 12″ rollerboard for electronics. Period. My traveling companion is doing the same thing for five and a half months. And we are going from sub-zero temperatures to the Namibian desert. All in a 22″ bag.

    Okay – so I don’t ever want to see those clothes again, but is it really necessary to bring 100 pounds of stuff for a 5 day trip?

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