In the first quarter of 2010, the U.S. airline industry made more than $760 million in revenue from baggage fees, an increase of 33 percent over the same period last year. These numbers imply that legions of passengers are continuing to shell out hundreds of dollars for optional charges that can be avoided with modest effort.
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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 Airlines recently added a downright obscene carry-on fee of up to $45 (starting August 1), and a single checked bag costs as much as $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.
Know your policy
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.
We searched for nonstop weekend flights from New York to Las Vegas in August and found two fares for travel on the same dates: $471.40 roundtrip on American and $527.50 roundtrip on Southwest (including taxes and fees). The American Airlines flight is cheaper. But check two bags at a cost of $25 for the first checked bag and $35 for the second each way on American, and your total fare climbs to $591.40 — more than the cost of the Southwest flight, which includes free first and second checked bags.
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.
(Disclaimer: IndependentTraveler.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc.)
Join a frequent flier program
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 frequent flier program that includes baggage fee discounts or waivers for "elite" or "preferred" members. (Most airlines, including the big ones — Continental, American, United, US Airways, Delta — bestow elite or preferred status on frequent flier members who've flown at least 25,0000 miles with the airline.) Contact your airline to learn more about its frequent flier program benefits.
Fly on a discount airline
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. Unfortunately, not all discount airlines have magnanimous baggage policies. As of August 1, 2010, Spirit Airlines will charge travelers $45 ($30 when reserved online) for carry-on bags that don't fit under the seat, in addition to its checked bag fees.
Take the train
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. 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."
Use a luggage scale
Overweight baggage fees can be exceedingly 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 (Delta charges as much as $450 each way for each checked bag that weighs more than 71 pounds on some international flights).
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.
Ship your bags
At first glance, shipping one's bags may sound like a prohibitively expensive prospect. But take another look at your airline's baggage policies (at least eight major airlines charge more than $40 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). UPS charges $51.99 to send a 40-pound suitcase from New York to San Francisco in five 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?"
Upgrade your luggage
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 7.1-lb. Salsa Air 29" Multiwheel Trolley Suitcase on Luggage.com for $495. A more affordable 21-inch upright roller that weighs just under 8 pounds is available on Magellans.com for $179. We'll admit these bags are pretty expensive. But so are overweight baggage fees, which range from $49 (for checked bags weighing 51 to 70 pounds on AirTran Airways) to Delta's aforementioned $450 fee for extra-heavy bags on international flights. These fees, which apply each way and per bag, can amount to thousands of dollars 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.