Image: Airline baggage
Brian Mcdermott  /  AP file
Most major airlines are now charging travelers to check a first or second bag on domestic flights — even as they continue to mishandle luggage in record numbers. In light of this, shipping your suitcase may suddenly look like a more attractive alternative.
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updated 7/8/2008 9:44:15 AM ET 2008-07-08T13:44:15

If you're like most travelers, you've probably never considered shipping your luggage ahead of you instead of carrying it with you on a trip. Sure, over the holidays you might mail a few gifts to your destination instead of having the TSA root through your suitcase and ruin your perfect wrapping job, but otherwise it probably seems more practical, convenient and economical to check your bags with your airline.

But is this still the case? Most major airlines are now charging travelers to check a first or second bag on domestic flights — even as they continue to mishandle luggage in record numbers. (If you thought luggage delays were frustrating before, imagine how you'll feel if your airline loses a bag that you paid $25 to check!) And if your bag is overweight, be prepared to shell out $50 or more in penalties on top of whatever fees you're already paying for the privilege of checking that bag.

In light of these changes, shipping your suitcase may suddenly look like a more attractive alternative. While it's still generally more expensive to ship a suitcase than to check it, the latest airline fees have narrowed the cost differential — and what you gain in convenience and reliability may be worth paying a few extra bucks.

To help you "weigh" your options, we've outlined the pros, cons and costs of checking bags versus shipping them. We've included information on standard delivery services (such as UPS and FedEx) as well as specialty luggage handlers like Luggage Forward and Luggage Concierge.

One important note: Shipping is generally not an economical option if you're flying overseas. Most airlines still allow travelers to check two bags for free on international flights, and shipping a bag outside the United States can easily cost as much as your airfare. The information below is geared toward domestic travelers.

Checking bags

Who: All major airlines

Price: This varies by airline. On domestic flights, most airlines still allow passengers to check a single bag for free. Exceptions to this rule include American, United, US Airways and Spirit, all of whom charge $15 for the first bag you wish to check. Beyond that first bag, you'll have to pay on nearly every airline. On AirTran, it's $10 for a second bag; on JetBlue, it's $20; and on American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, Spirit, United and US Airways, you'll pay $25.

In most cases these fees do not apply to elite fliers, passengers who have paid full fare on a particular route, and travelers flying internationally beyond the U.S., Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Canada. Check your airline's Web site for exact terms and conditions.

Pros:Despite the new fees, checking your bags is usually still the cheapest option for travelers bringing only one or two pieces of luggage.

Checking bags is convenient if you are a last-minute packer, since you don't need to make advance arrangements for dropping off your bag or having it picked up.

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When the system works properly, your luggage departs and arrives at the same time you do, no matter what time or day of the week it is.

Cons: Even if you pay a fee to check a bag, there's no guarantee that the airline won't lose or mishandle your luggage.

You'll have to wait in line to check your bags before your flight, and then wait again at the baggage carousel after you arrive. (Got a stopover? You may even have to do this more than once!)

Schlepping your own bags to and from the airport can be tiring, and it's less convenient than having a shipping service do all the work for you.

If your bags are overweight or you're checking more than two items, you could pay dearly in airline penalties — making shipping a more economical option.

Standard delivery services

Who: FedEx, UPS, DHL, the United States Postal Service and other all-purpose shipping companies

Price: The cost varies widely based on the size and weight of your bag, the distance it needs to travel, and the speed of service that you select. To send a 40-pound suitcase from New York to San Francisco in five days, UPS quoted us a fee of $48.91. Want it there in three days? The price skyrockets to $119.

Raise the weight of the bag to 60 pounds, and UPS charges $65.13 for five-day delivery — which could be less than the penalties you'll pay for exceeding your airline's weight limit. (Most airlines charge fees for any bags exceeding 50 pounds.)

Pros: These services are quite reliable and will generally give you a tracking number so that you can keep tabs on the whereabouts of your bag.

They're less expensive than specialized luggage services, and (as in the example above) could be more economical than checking a bag with your airline under certain circumstances.

Shipping your bags ahead of time allows you to skip check-in lines and waiting around at baggage claim.

Cons: UPS, FedEx and the like do not offer as much personal service as the smaller luggage shipping companies.

You may need to drop your bag off at a designated shipping location or arrange for a special pickup several days before your trip.

Service may only be available on business days.

In most cases, shipping your bags will be pricier than checking them on your airline.

Luggage shipping companies

Who: Luggage Forward, Luggage Concierge, Luggage Free, Luggage Club, Sports Express and many others

Price: To send a 40-pound bag between New York and San Francisco, the lowest price we found on Luggage Forward was $94 each way (for delivery within four to seven days). Luggage Free, which charges per pound, gave us a quote of $66 for five-day delivery of a 40-pound bag, plus a fuel charge that varies by market and a standard pickup fee of $40.

Pros: Because these companies are fairly small, you'll get a lot of personal attention. If your itinerary changes, an agent will handle all the details of rerouting your luggage.

These companies are experienced at dealing with luggage in all shapes and sizes, including skis, surf boards, golf clubs, bicycles and monster-sized bags.

The luggage shipping services generally guarantee that your bags will arrive on time and unscathed — which is more than you can expect from an airline!

As with the standard shipping companies, using these luggage shipping companies will allow you to bypass check-in lines and baggage carousels. Instead, your luggage will be waiting for you at your hotel when you arrive.

Cons: Personalized service comes at a price. These companies will almost always be your most expensive option.

Like the standard delivery companies, these agencies typically do not deliver on weekends (though some Saturday services may be available).

You'll need to plan ahead enough to pack early and arrange for a pickup time before you leave for your trip.

Would you rather skip the hassle altogether by simply packing lighter? Check out our helpful tips for what not to pack.

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