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baggage claim airport woman suitcaseEvery Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog or signing up for our newsletter.

In a recent poll, IndependentTraveler.com readers rated airline baggage fees as the biggest rip-off in the travel industry, beating out Wi-Fi charges at hotels, car rental fees and even timeshares.

I’m with you guys — I loathe those fees. And while my personal strategy for avoiding them is to cram everything into a carry-on no matter how far or how long I’m traveling, that’s not the only way to outsmart the airlines. Writes Caroline Costello:

“Virtually all major airlines offer some kind of frequent flier program that includes baggage fee discounts or waivers for ‘elite’ or ‘preferred’ members. … If racking up 25,000 miles a year doesn’t seem attainable, consider applying for an airline credit card. Several major airlines waive checked bag fees for cardholders. For example, Delta SkyMiles cardholders can check one bag for free on Delta flights, and Continental Airlines Presidential Plus cardholders can check two bags for free.”

Of course, you’ll want to read the fine print before adding yet another piece of plastic to your wallet. The annual fee on the Delta SkyMiles credit card is $95 — so getting that free checked bag won’t pay off until you fly at least two round trips. (A single checked bag on Delta usually costs $25 each way.) Alternatively, if you travel with a buddy, you can cancel out that annual fee even sooner; the card grants a free checked bag not only to you but also to your travel companions — up to eight of them.

Meanwhile, Continental’s Presidential Plus card will set you back a whopping $395 per year. That fee gets you plenty of extra perks, such as waived foreign transaction fees and miles that never expire, but they may not be worth it if you only travel once or twice a year.

For more ideas, see Seven Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

train suitcase woman travel railroad railsEvery Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.

With airfares rising to dizzying (or nauseating!) heights, having to shell out an additional $50 for baggage fees on a roundtrip flight is like piling insult on top of injury. That’s why many travelers are choosing to drive this summer — at least you can bring as much luggage as you want. But do you really want to weigh your car down with extra stuff when gas costs $4 a gallon?

There is another way. Caroline Costello writes, “While airlines are charging left and right for big bags, extra bags and even carry-on bags (we’re looking at you, Spirit), train travel is a different story. Amtrak’s baggage allowance policy says passengers may carry on up to two pieces of luggage (not including personal items like purses, strollers or computer bags) and check up to three pieces of luggage — for free! Additional bags cost a surprisingly low $10 per bag. Plus, for a small fee (usually $5 to $10, depending on your route), train travelers can bring big-ticket items like bicycles, surfboards or musical instruments onboard.”

Five bucks for a bike or a surfboard? Compare that to a budget-busting $150 on American Airlines. And with such a generous checked bag allowance, you can pack as many bathing suits and tank tops as you want.

There’s more good news, too. It may not help you this summer, but over the next few years train service across the U.S. will be improving. Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded more than $2 billion to various high-speed rail projects across the country, investing in better and faster service in the Northeast, California and the Midwest.

See six more ways to avoid baggage fees.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

suitcases baggage luggage bagsThe U.S. government is coming to bat for travelers, pushing for the implementation of new rules that would further defend endlessly abused fliers against the big bad airlines.

The Department of Transportation wants to address some of the biggest complaints about airlines, reports the Associated Press. Some of changes proposed by DOT Secretary Ray LaHood include refunds for checked bag fees when luggage is lost, an increase in the amount of money paid to bumped passengers, the option for fliers to cancel reservations within 24 hours of booking at no charge, and a more lucid disclosure of extra fees.

At present, airlines aren’t required to refund checked baggage fees if luggage is lost or damaged. Contributing blogger Dan Askin learned this the hard way when he had to pay $50 for the privilege of having his bag destroyed by US Airways. Such behavior has been de rigueur for the airline industry. But will LaHood’s proposal change things for the better?

The AP spoke to Nick Gates of SITA, an aviation technology provider, who warned that the airlines might use the proposed changes as an excuse to raise fees. This doesn’t come as a huge surprise to us; we’ve seen new rules implemented by the DOT backfire before.

When the Department of Transportation put into effect its passenger rights bill last year, one of its goals was to prevent lengthy delays by imposing hefty fines any time a plane sat on a tarmac for longer than three hours. But the bill may have had unintended consequences for travelers. Crankly Flier argues that the tarmac delay rule incited a significant increase in flight cancellations in 2010, reporting that there were an additional 5,000 cancellations in 2010 versus 2009 (even though weather conditions were 30 percent better in 2010 than in 2009).

Will the proposed DOT rules be a boon for fliers, or might passengers face a surge of reactionary fees or an increase in ticket prices? Share your thoughts!

– written by Caroline Costello

Spirit AirlinesWe thought it couldn’t get any worse. We were wrong.

Spirit Airlines, the only U.S. carrier that charges fees for carry-on luggage, has managed to dump even more baggage fees on fliers. Spirit passengers who pay for their carry-on bags within 24 hours of departure will be charged an additional $5 for doing so online or $10 for doing it by phone. This change is effective for travelers booking on or after March 24.

Spirit’s original carry-on bag fees are now, according to the airline, an “Early Bird Discount.” Spirit customers can catch the disappointing, dried-up worm by paying $30 per carry-on bag ($20 for members of Spirit’s $9 Fare Club) when purchased at least 24 hours in advance of departure. Spirit’s backhanded interpretation of “discount” troubles me. Like a petulant child who “picks up” his clothes by picking them up and then dropping them on the floor again, Spirit is twisting words in the face of its eye-rolling, grudging customers.

And the fees get steeper. The last-minute Larry who shows up at the airport without pre-purchasing a carry-on bag will be charged $45 at the airport gate and $40 at the airport kiosk. (These particular fees aren’t new, but I think they’re noteworthy).

With its newest carry-on baggage charges, Spirit seems to be slapping the concept of customer service square in the face. But the airline’s bread and butter has always been its extremely cheap fares, with flights as low as $9 each way (and sometimes even cheaper) for members of its $9 Fare Club — and Spirit’s never been one to worry about maintaining a squeaky-clean image. We’ve reported on Spirit’s devilish antics in the past, from scuffles with stranded passengers to shocking and offensive ads. Really, nothing Spirit does should surprise us anymore.

In the airline’s defense, its fees are cheaper for checked bags than for carry-ons. (Take a look at the full list of what Spirit charges in Airline Baggage Fees. ) This should, at least, free up some overhead space on the plane.

Will you still fly with Spirit?

– written by Caroline Costello

broken suitcase “Hey, buddy, stuff’s falling out of your bag,” said a customer in line at the Denver Airport Hertz. My suitcase zipper was ripped, and I was leaving a trail of balled socks and rolled T-shirts.

US Airways had ruined my bag. But beyond ranting to strangers on the Internet (there are enough stories of satanic airlines taking pleasure in stuffing passengers into sardine cans, gleefully destroying baggage and watching us boil as we stumble through the customer service labyrinth), what recourse does a flier have when his bag is destroyed?

Like most airlines, US Airways requires that passengers report any damage to checked bags at the airport. With US Airways, this must be done within four hours. (Some carriers allow up to 24 hours, but the complaint still has to be made at the airport.) So I zipped back to the baggage claim.

“I’m sorry, sir, we see this happen all the time,” said the claim rep. She told me that airlines are not liable for damage to wheels, feet, zippers and extending handles. “When the baggage handlers throw the bags, the zipper rips off the fabric.” Do they see a lot of smashed zippers when they gently place the luggage on the belt? She obviously had no answer, but she gave me a number to call and register a complaint.

I was then told to e-mail my story to Central Baggage Resolution, a Phoenix-based office only reachable by e-mail. I imagine CBR as a digital bonfire that’s endlessly destroying correspondences. I learned that once CBR receives my claim, it’ll be 14 – 21 working days before I hear from them.

As I continue to hold my breath, I’ve started researching other ways to protect checked bags in the future. My plan of choice is simply to never check a bag, but here’s some info I found:

Both third-party insurers and credit card companies sometimes offer baggage insurance. American Express, for instance, offers free and for-fee baggage protection policies for card holders. I called Amex to learn about its $9.95 per roundtrip flight “premium” baggage policy, which covers checked bag damages up to $1,000. Here’s how it works, according to the customer rep: “File a claim with the airline at the airport. Get the denial.” Then file a claim with AmEx. The claim is reviewed with a licensed rep — but obviously there’s no guarantee that they’ll rule in your favor. The representative did say, however, that there are technically no exclusions for type of damage, ripped zippers included.

According to Smarter Travel‘s Ed Perkins, third party insurers can vary widely — and again, it’s up to fliers to start with the airline, get the denial (or some coverage if you’re lucky) and then file a second claim with the insurer. As always, it’s essential to read the fine print to see what the coverage cap is and if there are exclusions for certain types of damage.

Quite honestly, it all seems like a massive hassle. I paid $50 for someone to rip my bag, rendering it unusable without turning it into a silver mummy. I just want my $50 back. And maybe US Airways could throw in the $3.69 for the roll of duct tape.

Have the airlines ever lost or ruined your luggage? Share your story!

–written by Dan Askin

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, which also owns Smarter Travel.

piggy bank airplane air travel vacationYour vacation is planned, your bags are packed and you’re ready to fly. But did you know that even after you’ve purchased your plane tickets, you could still incur fees on your flight? It’s true. Baggage fees are the best-known a la carte charges, but there are many others, big and small, that can crop up once you reach the airport. Here are five ways to avoid them.

1. Pack light and save up to $50 in checked bag fees each way. While a few airlines still allow you to bring checked luggage without a fee (such as Southwest and many international carriers), most U.S. airlines will charge you to handle your bags. The best way to bypass this is by taking fewer things and packing them all into a carry-on bag. Do you really need a dozen shirts for a five-day trip? Chances are, you’ll only wear half of those and wish you had left the rest at home. Bring pieces that mix and match with each other. That way all the tops go with all the bottoms, and you can make three or four days’ worth of clothes last two to three weeks without wearing the same outfit twice. Women can toss in a simple dress and use easy accessories to make it seem totally new if it needs to be worn again. For men, it’s even easier: just bring a variety of ties, which take up almost no room.

Limit yourself to two pairs of shoes that look great whether dressed up or down and that are comfortable to walk in. Shoes can take up way too much space in a travel bag, which isn’t helpful when you have limited space to work with. I find shoes that go with everything in my bag and then I pack one pair and wear the bulkier of the two on the plane.

Editor’s Note: Get more space-saving ideas in What Not to Pack.

2. Bring your own food. Most flights don’t offer free meals anymore. Heck, you’re lucky if you get a free drink and a snack. If there are meals or more substantial snacks offered on a flight, they generally cost quite a bit more than you would pay if you picked them up at the grocery store (think $8 – 10 for a sandwich, $6 for a “snack box”). These are things you could make for a fraction of the price at home and bring with you. Security has no problem with food, as long as you aren’t trying to also pack pudding and a drink. I tend to stock up on 100-calorie packs before my trips and then take a nice variety in my carry-on to snack on throughout the flight. Granola bars are also easily packable and can keep you full until you reach your destination.

3. Go totally wireless. Almost all the airlines offer Wi-Fi services on their planes, but it isn’t free. Is it really that necessary to update your Facebook status mid-flight? Keep your credit card in your wallet and opt for a good book or magazine. You’ll save a minimum of $10 for each leg of your flight.

4. Bring your own headphones. If you’re lucky enough to get on a flight that offers onboard entertainment, you’ll need some headphones to participate. Remember just a few short years ago where the flight attendants practically threw handfuls of headsets through the cabin like Mardi Gras beads? Well, no more. Now if you want to watch the movies or listen to the same 12 songs on their airline radio station, you’ll be expected to shell out $3 – $5 for a pair of those less-than-optimal headphones that practically break before you’ve touched down. Most people bring an iPod or handheld gaming device on their trips, so make sure you include your own better-constructed pair that doesn’t have to be vacuum-sealed for freshness.

5. Skip the upgrade. If offered an upgrade upon check-in, think twice — especially if it’s for a relatively short flight. Being in first or business class would be nice, but the upgrade fee can leave you $50 – $100 poorer. Gripe about your loss of extra legroom if you must, but that money could go a long way toward doing something more fun than sitting while you’re actually on your trip.

– written by Shereen Rayle, Editor of Shereen Travels Cheap