Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/26/2008 6:56:03 PM ET 2008-02-26T23:56:03

How much do you really need to take with you when you head to the airport? Think — and pack — carefully, because these days an extra bag or two can cost you big bucks.

Earlier this month, United Airlines announced a significant and, to many, an alarming change in its checked baggage policy . Every domestic passenger will still be entitled to check one bag weighing up to 50 pounds for free. After May 5, though, it will cost $25 (each way) to check a second bag — that is unless you've purchased a refundable (and more expensive) ticket or hold Premier status or above in the airline's Mileage Plus program.

US Airways on Tuesday became the first legacy carrier to follow suit, announcing a $25 charge of its own for a second bag.

Ka-Ching!
Don't mind paying that $25 and want to check more than two suitcases? Get ready to empty your wallet: Come May, United will begin charging an additional $100 for each bag beyond two that you want to check. It doesn't stop there: the carrier is rolling out other changes to its bag check policies, but the bottom line is that soon the more you tote the more you'll pay.

Travelers are pretty much up in arms about all of this. In fact, as of last weekend, more than 1,500 people posted comments about the move on the msnbc.com message boards. A few folks are optimistic and hope that the new fees will encourage others to pack light. (Don’t hold your breath.) Others predict a sharp increase in the size and number of carry-on bags other passengers (it’s always other passengers) will try to take onboard with them. But most responses are along the lines of the "here we go again" comment that Parrot4 posted: "... I love to fly for the convenience but that 'convenience' is slowly becoming inconvenient. More fees, higher prices, more waits, more cancellations, etc. For a family of 4, it's cheaper to drive again, even at $3.00 a gallon."

No way out?
If you don't like United's new bag-check policy, of course, you can choose to fly on another airline that doesn't levy a fee for an extra checked bag. But experts who study these things say don't count on that workaround being available for much longer. United Airlines estimates that it will generate more than $100 million a year in new revenue from this move, so other major U.S. airlines will surely follow suit.

Charging for checking bags is nothing new. Several budget carriers in Europe and Canada do this, as do some smaller carriers in the U.S., most notably Spirit and Skybus Airlines. In fact, blaming it on the increased price of fuel, discount carrier Spirit Airlines recently announced that its fees for checked items have increased from $5 to $10 when reserved online. Passengers who first request to check baggage when they arrive at the airport will now be charged $20 per bag (up from $10). ("Yeah, so pack smartly," the airline advises on its Web site.)  And word has it that Skybus Airlines will now charge $12 — up from $5 — for the first two bags a passenger checks. (For now the airline’s $50 fee for additional bags beyond two remains unchanged.) The news isn't all bad. For those who wish to save a few bucks, Skybus is offering a $2 discount to travelers who print their own baggage labels at home and who check their bags in online at least 24 hours before departure.

What can you do?
So how can a well-mannered traveler be suitcase savvy and avoid having to pay to check that first or second bag? Here are a few ideas:

Pack prudently 
There are plenty of folks who can go away for a week or a month with all they need folded neatly in a carry-on. Others can't leave home for an afternoon without an overstuffed suitcase.

The truth is that most of us over-pack. I rarely check a bag and pride myself on packing light. Yet, I have a perfectly lovely pair of pants and a dressy skirt that I've taken around the world in my carry-on and never worn. And although I feel prepared for just about anything with my assortment of travel gadgets, I rarely use them. They just come along for the ride.

But why pay to check a bag full of items you may not really need? Before your next trip, take a moment to read one of the many Web sites, books or magazine articles that offer packing tips. You'll learn a trick or two for lightening your load, creating a travel wardrobe of mix and match outfits, and for getting your stuff from here to there with fewer wrinkles. You may discover that you can leave that second suitcase behind and do just fine.

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Carry-on what you can
Most airlines request that each passenger board with just one bag that fits either under the seat in front of you or in an overhead bin, plus one small "personal item." We've all seen people board airplanes with much, much more than that. And the definition of "personal item" gets stretched pretty far. ("Actually this kitchen sink is my briefcase.")

While it wouldn't be very well-mannered of me to (officially) encourage you to ignore the rules of your airline, I'll urge you to check your airline’s Web site for the acceptable dimensions for carry-ons — then get out your tape measure and see if you can legally "up-size" your suitcase.

Wear it
If you can't leave more stuff at home, you might try taking items out of your suitcase and wearing them on board. As far as I know, while there have been instances of passengers being told to put on more clothing before boarding a flight, no one has been refused service for wearing too much.

I'm not suggesting you board the plane carrying your portable hairdryer and wearing three pairs of pants, but you can certainly wear your bulkier shoes and a multi-layered outfit. Doing so may not only help you avoid checking that extra bag, it may help keep you healthy. Temperatures on airplanes can fluctuate quite a bit and airplane seats, pillows and blankets don't get cleaned as regularly as you might think. It’s a good idea to board a plane wearing long pants, long sleeves, socks and closed shoes. And you should definitely bring along a sweater, jacket or coat that can not only keep you warm, but also double as a pillow or blanket.

Ship it
Sorry, but the chances of your bag getting lost in transit won't decrease just because you've paid extra to check that bag. To avoid that hassle, you might consider shipping your bag to your destination via FedEx, UPS, DHL and, heck — even the U.S. Postal Service. There are also a growing number of companies such as Luggage Free, Luggage Forward, Luggage Concierge and others that specialize in shipping luggage, sports equipment, and odd-shaped items.

You’ll probably pay quite a bit more than $25 to use any of these services, but the convenience and peace of mind that comes with having your items picked up at your home and reliably delivered to your destination may be worth it.

Suitcase offsets
I haven't quite figured out how this one might work, but I’m imagining a time when each airline ticket comes with a coupon that allows a passenger to check one bag. Not every passenger will check a bag, so some savvy business person will work out a way for those traveling with carry-on luggage to share — OK, sell — their checked baggage voucher to another passenger.

Pay half-price
Maybe you're heading out on a trip and really need to check an extra suitcase. But why pay extra to bring home a suitcase that’s just full of dirty clothes?

Among the many packing "systems" I've picked up (rolling, folding, packing everything in tissue-paper or in plastic bags, etc.), the one I'm most intrigued by calls for packing an old suitcase with clothing that you're comfortable discarding or giving away along the way. Once you’ve gotten rid of everything, you can leave that suitcase behind. (An alternative scenario is to fill that empty suitcase with souvenirs and new clothes you've purchased on your trip.)

One warning about this method: I tested the "discard as you go" system on a short business trip to Europe. I packed a small carry-on with a few mix and match outfits and on the final leg of my trip, I jettisoned one outfit to make room for a bottle of duty-free liquor.

Unfortunately, I got detoured by a family emergency on the way home. I ended up spending an extra week on the road with just one change of clothes — and one very good bottle of whiskey.

Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's weekly Well-Mannered Traveler column, and is the author of “Stuck at the Airport.”

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