Last year U.S. fliers spent more than $3.3 billion on baggage fees from the airlines. This suggests that legions of passengers are continuing to shell out hundreds of dollars for optional charges that can be avoided with modest effort.
Naturally, packing light is one of the best ways to avoid these extra fees. But traveling with the bare minimum isn't always an option -- especially for passengers taking month-long cruises or families that need multiple pieces of luggage. Even those of us who've mastered the art of packing light are getting hit with full-size fees. Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant now charge for carry-ons, and a single checked bag costs $50 per roundtrip flight on most major airlines. Fortunately, there are ways to avoid the industry's barrage of baggage fees -- tricks that the airlines probably don't want you to know about.
Navigating the airlines' complicated baggage policies is no small undertaking. Baggage fees change constantly, and can vary by airline, destination, date of travel, number of bags, and bag weight and size. Even if you've secured an affordable plane ticket, you could end up paying a lot more than you bargained for when flying on a carrier that charges baggage fees.
In a recent search for fares between New York - LaGuardia and Fort Lauderdale, we found two fares for travel on the same dates: $206 roundtrip on Delta and $217 roundtrip on Southwest (both fares include taxes and fees). The Delta flight is cheaper. But check a bag at a cost of $25 for the first checked bag each way on Delta, and your total fare climbs to $256 -- more than the cost of the Southwest flight, which includes free first and second checked bags. Add a second checked bag for $35 each way on the Delta flight, and you'll pay a whopping $326.
Your best bet is to thoroughly read your airline's policy before you book your flight. You may also want to check out TripAdvisor's flight search tool, which has a fee estimator that lists fares in conjunction with airline baggage fees based on how many pieces of luggage you plan to travel with.
Travelers who fly often can save on baggage fees by joining their favorite airline's frequent flier program. Virtually all major airlines offer some kind of loyalty program that includes baggage fee discounts or waivers for "elite" or "preferred" members. (Most airlines, including the big ones -- American, United, Delta -- bestow elite or preferred status on frequent flier members who've flown at least 25,0000 miles annually with the airline.) Contact your airline to learn more about its frequent flier program benefits.
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 United MileagePlus Club cardholders can check two bags for free. (Restrictions and annual credit card fees may apply, and vary based on airline and type of card. Programs change frequently, so contact your airline for more information.)
Kudos to the no-frills discount airlines that don't charge travelers the price of a steak dinner just to check a bag. Southwest Airlines allows two checked bags per passenger, while JetBlue lets passengers check one bag for free. (Editor's Note: Starting in 2015, JetBlue will start to offer multiple bundled fare options, with some not including any free checked bags.) Unfortunately, not all discount airlines have magnanimous baggage policies. You could pay anywhere from $26 to $100 for a carry-on bag aboard Spirit Airlines if it doesn't fit under the seat in front of you, and the carrier's checked bag fees cover a similar range.
While airlines are charging left and right for bags of any shape and size, 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 two pieces of luggage -- for free! Additional bags cost a surprisingly low $20 per bag. Plus, for a small fee (usually $10 to $20, depending on your route), train travelers can bring big-ticket items like bicycles, surfboards or musical instruments onboard. The best part? You won't have to worry that your acoustic guitar will end up smashed to bits on the tarmac. For more information, read Top 10 Reasons to Travel by Train.
Overweight baggage fees can be much more expensive than checked bag fees. Although you may manage to heroically stuff two weeks' worth of clothes into a single checked bag, you could end up paying hundreds of dollars per swollen, overweight piece of luggage.
Purchase a small luggage scale and pack it with you when you travel. If your bag is just under the weight limit on your outgoing flight, extras you pick up along your trip, from souvenirs to soggy rain coats, could add some serious heft on the way home. Avoid overweight baggage fees by weighing your luggage each time you fly, including before your return flight. Is your luggage too heavy for the flight back? Stuff some things into your travel partner's suitcase or ship them home.
At first glance, shipping one's bags may sound like a prohibitively expensive prospect. But take another look at your airline's baggage policies (most major airlines charge $50 roundtrip for first checked bags), and suddenly standard delivery services and even luggage shipping companies don't sound like such a bad idea.
How much does shipping luggage cost? Prices charged by standard delivery services like FedEx, UPS and USPS vary based on size and weight of bags (luggage shipping companies such as Luggage Forward and Luggage Concierge tend to be slightly more expensive). FedEx charges $55.31 to send a 40-pound suitcase from New York to San Francisco in four business days. And there's no need to wait in lines at the check-in desk and baggage carousel when sending luggage through the mail. For more information, read Should You Check or Ship Your Bags?
Thanks to high-tech materials like ballistic nylon and polycarbonate, it's not difficult to find a 29-inch upright suitcase that weighs less than 10 pounds. We discovered an ultra-light 7.9-pound Revo City Lights 29" Expandable Spinner Suitcase on Macys.com for $240. A more affordable 24-inch upright spinner that weighs less than seven pounds is available on eBags.com for $89.99. We'll admit these bags are pretty expensive, but so are overweight baggage fees. These fees, which apply each way and per bag, can amount to thousands of dollars over several trips for passengers who don't travel light. Because most high-quality luggage brands are designed to be both lightweight and exceptionally long-lasting, they can help frequent travelers avoid overweight baggage fees over time.
--written by Caroline Costello
Editor's Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc.