By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist contributor
updated 7/13/2009 11:50:04 AM ET 2009-07-13T15:50:04

Like just about every other airline passenger this summer, Elizabeth Rodgers wants to avoid any unnecessary fees. So on a recent flight from Los Angeles to Boise, Idaho, she tried to carry all of her luggage on the plane.

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She didn’t get far.

As Rodgers boarded the cramped regional jet, passengers were being asked to gate-check most of their carry-ons. A flight attendant tagged her extra bag without charging her $15. “I checked it for free,” says Rodgers, a technology writer based in Los Angeles.

Sidestepping this year-old airline rule was pretty easy up to this point. Flight attendants and gate agents routinely waved passengers with too much luggage through, hoping to avoid a confrontation. But now that baggage fees are generating serious money — they accounted for $1.5 billion in 2008, according to the Transportation Department — airlines are less likely to let the surplus bags slide.

For example:

  • US Airways this month began charging $5 on top of its $15 fee for a first checked bag if you don’t pay for it in advance.
  • Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines started charging $50 for the second checked bag on flights to Europe.
  • Alaska Airlines added a checked-bag fee, too: $15 for the first bag, $25 for the second.

Airlines are spinning the changes in a clever way. My favorite explanation comes from US Airways, which rationalized its new fee as a way to offer customers “the convenience of prepaying to check their bags online.”

It’s clear that airlines are depending on ancillary revenues in general, and luggage fees in particular, more than ever. Meaning air travelers must be more vigilant than ever about avoiding them.

The days of passengers like Rodgers eluding a $15 or $50 fee are numbered. A proposed new law would see to that. It tasks the Transportation Security Administration with limiting the number of carry-ons travelers can bring through security checkpoints. Not hard to see the airline industry’s fingerprints all over that bill.

What to do?

1. Bring less.
Obviously, the best way to avoid paying for a checked bag is not to bring one in the first place. “Keep your bags as light as possible,” advises Barbara DesChamps, author of “It’s In The Bag: The Complete Guide to Lightweight Travel.” How can you tell if your luggage is overweight? I’ve been testing a Balanzza digital luggage scale that’s very portable and, at a $24.99 list price, doesn’t break the bank. Don’t take this advice too far, though. Pack a change of clothes, and for goodness sakes, wear something on the plane. US Airways passenger Keith Wright might have benefitted from that advice. He disrobed on a recent flight from Charlotte to Los Angeles, and ended up in the slammer.

2. Fly a no-fee airline.
JetBlue Airways doesn’t charge for the first checked bag. Neither does Southwest Airlines. In fact, it doesn’t charge for a second bag, either. Both of these companies have acknowledged what the rest of us already know: People travel with at least one bag. Shouldn’t we be rewarding these airlines with our business?

3. Look for loopholes.
They still exist. For example, US Airways exempts all of its frequent fliers, passengers traveling to and from Europe or Asia, Star Alliance Silver and Gold status members, unaccompanied minors, first class passengers and active duty military. Is anyone left? Mark Mitchell, American Airlines’ managing director of customer experience, recently told me that only 1 in 4 passengers pay luggage fees.

4. Ask someone else to pay.
Hotels are mindful that first-bag fees can hurt their business, so they’re offering to cover the fees. One of the first was Kimpton hotels. My friends over at Amelia Island, Fla., have a new program called “Pack Your Bags for Amelia Island” that offers air travelers an $80 room credit for checked baggage fees. If you have to pay for a checked bag, why not pass the bill off to someone else?

5. Get creative.
Passengers like Carolina Moore, a marketing consultant in North Las Vegas, Nev., are finding interesting ways of avoiding the fees. When she flew with her nine-month-old son recently, she discovered that consolidating her purse, diaper bag, car seat and port-a-crib into two large (and barely legal) bags allowed her to avoid paying the $15 fee. “So, I guess I didn’t really break any of the rules,” she says. “I just stretched them to capacity.”

6. Exploit policy differences.
Airlines don’t have uniform luggage rules, so when you’re flying on two or more airlines, use that to your advantage. Consider what happened to Kristi Nelson when she flew from Oahu to Portland recently. A Hawaiian Air agent in Lihue asked if she wanted to check her bags all the way through to the mainland. “You bet I do,” she said. “I thought for a minute and wondered how we would pay the baggage fee for our Northwest flight from Honolulu.” But when she landed, no one bothered to charge her.

7. Mail it.
Federal Express, UPS, the postal service, or a company like Luggage Forward can help you avoid the fees, but often, these options cost far more than what the airlines are charging. Then again, they’re probably more reliable. An overnight delivery service is far less likely to lose your belongings.

None of this ought to be necessary. If airlines could figure out how to make enough money from their fares, then they wouldn’t need to nickel and dime those of us who aren’t fortunate enough to be elite-level frequent fliers, unaccompanied minors or active duty military.

On a personal note, I never thought I’d have to write a column like this. Ever.

A decade ago, who could have imagined paying for airline food? Today, we’re lucky if there are bland snacks for sale. Checking two or three pieces of luggage was considered the air traveler’s inalienable right. Today we’re paying through the nose for our checked bags.

How do we fix this? I can think of two solutions. First, air travelers can buy tickets on airlines that don’t charge outrageous fees, like JetBlue and Southwest.

And second, our government can say, “enough!” It wouldn’t take much. The Transportation Department could rule that the price of an airline ticket must include at least one piece of checked luggage, and that would pretty much end this debate.

Will it? If the government hears from enough air travelers, sure. Here’s how to contact them.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, or e-mail him at

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