Few Expert Tips to Slash Baggage Fees and Travel Light: From Packing Hacks to Frequent Flyer Perks

A few airlines — Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, JetBlue Airways, and United Airlines — have raised their fees for checked bags this year. However, if you plan ahead, such fees are simple to reduce or avoid entirely. On Friday, United adjusted its fee to $40 for a first checked bag at the airport, and to $35 for those who prepay online at least 24 hours before their flight — both of which represent a $5 increase.

American similarly adjusted its fees earlier last week. JetBlue also recently increased its checked-bag fee to $45, and Alaska to $35. Such fee adjustments are “likely to impact families the worst because families tend to travel with checked bags,” said Katy Nastro, travel expert at Going, a platform that helps travelers find airfare deals. Checked bag fees represent significant revenue for airlines. A checked bag refers to luggage stored in a plane’s cargo hold during a flight.

While this service was once provided free of charge, major airlines now commonly charge for checked bags. Major U.S. airlines began implementing these fees in 2008, typically around $15 per bag, according to Nastro. By late 2023, this fee had nearly doubled for many carriers, ranging from $30 to $35 for a single checked bag, as noted by Nastro.

Consequently, travelers checking a bag on each leg of a round-trip journey could see an additional $60 to $70 added to the total cost of their basic fare. Recent adjustments by American and United mean travelers might now face an extra $80 in total fees if they check one bag at the airport, with rates typically increasing for each additional checked bag.

In 2022, passengers collectively paid approximately $6.8 billion in baggage fees, the Bureau of Transportation reports. This marked a 17% increase from around $5.8 billion in 2019, despite a decrease in the number of passengers flying on U.S. carriers in 2022.

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“Unless baggage is included in a higher-class ticket (premium economy, first class, business class, etc.), passengers should expect to pay a fee,” remarked Eric Napoli, vice president of legal strategy at AirHelp, an organization aiding passengers in filing claims for airline compensation.

Travel experts offer strategies for cost-conscious consumers to reduce or potentially avoid these fees altogether. Flying with specific airlines can be a strategic move to avoid checked bag fees, as there are still a few carriers that do not impose such charges. One notable example is Southwest Airlines, which stands out as the exception in the U.S. airline industry by allowing passengers to check two bags for free.

Additionally, the “Big Three” Gulf Airlines — Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways, and Emirates — along with Air India, continue to offer complimentary baggage allowances, as noted by Aiden Higgins, senior editor of The Broke Backpacker website. However, it’s important to note that these carriers may have certain restrictions regarding luggage size and weight.

Nevertheless, it’s essential to consider that while these airlines may not charge for checked bags, their overall fares may not necessarily be cheaper than others. Additionally, their routes may not always align with travelers’ itineraries, so it’s crucial to assess all factors when making booking decisions.

Another strategy to minimize checked bag fees is to combine luggage. Travel companions, particularly families, can explore the option of consolidating suitcases. For instance, a family of four might find it feasible to condense four individual bags into two, potentially halving their checked-bag fees, according to experts.

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Families traveling with small children could also make use of the space within a car-seat carrier. “Since airlines typically do not charge for one car seat per child,” Nastro noted, “you can often fit a small soft duffel into that space to keep items contained.” However, passengers should be mindful of airlines’ weight restrictions for bags and consider whether consolidating suitcases might result in additional fees.

Skipping the checked bag altogether and opting to travel light with only a personal item and/or carry-on bag, as permitted by your airline and fare class, is “the only fool-proof way” to completely avoid paying a checked-bag fee, according to Napoli.

While this approach may not be feasible for everyone, passengers can often bring quite a bit into the cabin within airline limits, especially with a well-packed backpack aided by packing cubes, along with a sling bag and/or tote bag, as noted by Higgins. Passengers with softer, duffel-bag-type luggage that is more pliable may find it easier to meet carry-on size requirements compared to those with hard cases, advises Nastro.

Consideration should also be given to a fare upgrade. Even major carriers typically charge for carry-ons on basic economy fares, experts explain. Opting for a higher-tier ticket at a higher cost may include a baggage allowance, potentially resulting in paying the same total price compared to a lower-cost fare, while also receiving additional benefits such as seat selection or flight changes.

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According to Higgins, using an aggregator like Skyscanner may sometimes reveal that it’s cheaper to choose the second or third most expensive flight if the airline also offers baggage. Travelers are advised to carefully read the fine print to determine what baggage is included in their ticket, as this varies by airline and ticket class, Napoli emphasizes.

Adding bags early can also save money, whether checking a bag or carrying one on for a fee. For instance, Spirit Airlines’ pricing chart indicates that a standard passenger flying from New York to Los Angeles for the weekend (March 1-3) would pay $49 for a carry-on and $44 for a checked bag if added during the initial online booking process. However, those who wait to pay until arriving at the gate would incur higher fees, with a checked bag or carry-on costing $99, according to the chart.

As Nastro points out, it’s generally cheaper to add a bag upon booking rather than deferring until later if you know you’ll need to add one. Additionally, relatively high fees for add-ons such as bags mean that a budget carrier may not necessarily be the cheapest option when assessing total cost and value.

Investing in a luggage scale and opting for lightweight bags can be savvy moves for travelers looking to manage baggage fees and streamline their packing process.

Before traveling, purchasing and using a luggage scale can help individuals avoid unexpected fees at the airport by ensuring their checked bags adhere to weight limits. “At least weigh your suitcase before you even book the flight,” advises Higgins. He emphasizes that airlines are now less likely to overlook excess weight, making it essential for travelers to be mindful of their baggage weight.

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Additionally, travelers can explore the option of investing in ultralight luggage to further minimize weight. “You can easily save one or two kilograms by buying specially designed ultralight travel gear,” notes Higgins. However, it’s important to acknowledge that such bags may come with a higher price tag and might not offer the same level of durability as sturdier packs.

Another strategy to consider is obtaining a credit card or joining a frequent flier program, both of which can offer perks that include free checked bags. “Many credit cards, especially airline-branded cards, offer free checked bags as a perk,” Napoli highlights. While this can be advantageous, experts caution against opening a credit card account solely for this benefit.

Some cards may come with an annual fee, although travelers may still benefit if the value of the annual benefits, such as savings on bag fees, exceeds this expense. “It varies from credit card to credit card and airline to airline,” adds Nastro.

Furthermore, joining an airline’s frequent flier program may also yield benefits for travelers, such as complimentary or additional baggage allowances, according to Higgins. This can be another avenue to explore for those seeking to mitigate baggage fees and enhance their overall travel experience.

Sajda Parveen
Sajda Parveen
Sajda Praveen is a market expert. She has over 6 years of experience in the field and she shares her expertise with readers. You can reach out to her at [email protected]
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