Image: Overhead bin space
Elaine Thompson  /  AP
Overhead bin space is precious real estate during the holiday travel season, as fliers bring their usual carry-on items, not to mention gifts.
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updated 12/16/2010 3:29:51 PM ET 2010-12-16T20:29:51

It's probably the most precious thing on planes this holiday season: space in the overhead bin.

Planes are stuffed with travelers, bag fees have driven more luggage into the overheads and Christmas gifts will soon be part of the mix. Some travelers pay extra to get on the plane first and avoid competing with other passengers for bin space. But you don't have to shell out more money just to ensure your bag will fit. The trick is knowing where to sit and when to board.

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Here's a review of airline boarding policies and ways to keep your bag — and your sanity.

Boarding basics
Most airlines board the back of the plane first and work up to the front, several rows at a time. Elite frequent fliers, passengers with disabilities or families needing extra time to board usually get to board ahead of the crowd. The rest have to line up and wait their turn.

In this scenario, it pays to book a seat at the back of the plane.

Related: Booming baggage fees, bursting overhead bins
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Related: U.S. airlines boost fares up to $10 per round trip

There are a few airlines that do it differently. Delta, for instance, books passengers into as many as nine zones. First-class passengers get on first with those in the first row of coach. Then elite frequent fliers get on, followed by elite fliers on Delta's partner airlines, like AirFrance or KLM. Zones 4 through 9 are based on seat assignment where, again, those in the back are boarded first.

Video: Gearing up for holiday travel (on this page)

United has yet another take on boarding. After elites and families with small children, the airline boards window seats first (Zone 2), middle seats next (Zone 3), and aisle seats last (Zone 4). The idea is to prevent passengers from clogging the aisles as they board.

And if you want to sit with someone? It's OK to board with whoever has the window seat, says Matt Daimler of SeatGuru.com. United's gate agents won't stop you from boarding a bit early if you're traveling with a partner in a different zone. Just pick a window seat, to make sure you get on early.

Video: Airline baggage fees top $2.5 billion (on this page)

AirTran uses a back-and-forth system to board. Business class passengers board first, followed by the last five rows of the plane. Then, the first five rows of coach board and the boarding process flips between groups in the back and front until the entire plane is loaded.

So it won't pay to sit in the middle of the plane if you're worried about overhead bin space. You're better off close to the back or front of the plane. Keep in mind, though, that AirTran has a range of seat selection fees, from $6 to $20.

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US Airways boards coach passengers based on when they checked in. Economy passengers who check in online board before those who check in at the airport. The key to getting on a US Airways flight early is getting checking in online a full 24 hours before take-off.

When flying Southwest, a quick trigger finger is even more important since the airline doesn't assign seats. For a chance at getting into the first boarding group on the airline without paying the $10 priority boarding fee, you'll have to check in online as close to 24 hours out as possible.

Another option
Airlines are often willing to let you check bags at the gate, for free, especially on smaller planes that get stuffed quickly. It benefits them because fewer bags stuffed in the cabin means planes get off the ground faster.

If you're flying on a small plane, it's pretty easy to do: just grab a gate check tag from the counter staff, slap it on your bag and hand it off before you get on the plane. Larger planes have bigger overhead bins, of course, so free gate checking may not be available. On flights where this isn't offered, though, it never hurts to ask.

Slideshow: Holiday Travel (on this page)

Gate-checking your bag gives you the benefit of checking a bag without the schlep to baggage claim. Your bag is handed to you as you get off the plane. Just be sure your bag is sturdy — one made with hard plastic or tough panels that won't tear easily.

Some other steps to take: tuck your coat in your bag before it's time to board — you'll save yourself the time of finding overhead space for it. Stuff small gifts in your bag, too, to prevent them from getting damaged. They'll take up a less space slipped in between your sweaters than flying unprotected in the overhead bin.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Unclaimed Baggage

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  1. Missing something?

    Unclaimed Baggage Center is a retail store located in Scottsboro, Ala. The store, which started about 40 years ago, purchases unclaimed bags and cargo and resells the items. The airlines make every effort to return luggage and most bags that end up in Scottsboro have no identification and no clues of the owner. The bags don't arrive at the center until three to four months after the travel date. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Shoe shopping

    Lucas and Stewart Devries, from Scottsboro, Ala., stopped by UBC to make a video for their church group but couldn't help checking out what new sneakers had come in. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Weighing his options

    Terry Meadows shops for a portable DVD player. UBC adds 7,000 items to its shelves each day, and over 1 million customers visit the 50,000-square-foot store each year. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Time for lunch

    Moving clockwise, Christy Hoekenschnieder, 54 (back to camera), Mary Jean Moody, 22, Blair Hoekenschneider, 25, and Raily Parker, 27 (with her newborn daughter Mary Parker), take a lunch break at UBC. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Turning a profit

    "I grew up shopping here," said event planner Miles Lyndsey, who drove three hours from Atlanta to look for a wedding dress for one of her clients. "Some of the same people still work here, only their prices have changed," she said. Lyndsey checks eBay on her iPhone for the price of a bag she found in the store. It's not a great deal this time, but she recently found a pair of Chanel shoes for $30 that she later sold online for $400. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Wearing white

    A bride-to-be could find an outfit for her big day at UBC, such as this St. Tropez wedding dress selling for $140 ... (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Choo shoes

    ... These Jimmy Choo high-heeled shoes, selling for just over $100 ... (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Unclaimed bling

    ... And this 18-karat gold ring with a diamond ($15,000.99), offered in a set with a gold and diamond pendant ($12,500.99) on a 14-karat gold necklace ($528.99). (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Cover me!

    Pat West, 66, and Bonnie Seaburn, 68, browse for a cell phone case. UBC "purchases unclaimed baggage and cargo by the truckload," according to the store's website. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Looking for a good read

    Jerry Herly from Hollywood, Ala., shops around for books. UBC stocks "more than 7,000 new and pre-owned items daily," according to its website, "stocked in easy-to-prowl departments." (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. After-school hangout

    "We come here like every day. There's not much to do in Scottsboro, so we come here if we're not at McDonald's," said high schooler Colin Lott, who tries on a green jacket while his friend Tyler Winiger takes pictures of him for Facebook. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. The right stuff

    Brenda Cantrell, the director of marketing at UBC, shows off one of the more unusual items found at the store -- a stuffed Canada goose. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Staying put

    No, the goose isn't for sale. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Return shopper

    Linda Mckee from Huntsville, Ala., shops at UBC once a month. This trip, she found a cell phone charger for $2.06 -- the charger would have cost $30 at a cell phone store. McKee also ended up buying a jacket and pants, among other things. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Cold-weather gear

    A customer browses UBC's collection of winter coats. The store was founded in 1970 by Doyle and Sue Owens as a part-time business, but "soon became a full-time venture," the store's website says. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Feel the beat

    Often left behind on planes, iPods are abundant at UBC. Prices differ depending on models. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Stars and stripes

    American-flag underpants will set a patriotic UBC customer back about 99 cents. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Magic moment

    It's not just clothes, electronics and books for sale at Unclaimed Baggage Center -- there's sports memorabilia, too. This jersey, autographed by Magic Johnson, sells for $225.99. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. All aboard!

    Not everything at UBC is up for grabs. A few items not for sale include this New York City conductor hat ... (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Sharp edge

    ... This handmade dagger ... (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Bullwinkle's nightmare

    ... And these giant moose antlers. Unclaimed Baggage Center is located in Scottsboro, Ala., and is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Saturday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m., and is closed Sundays. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Unclaimed Baggage Center
    Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com
    Above: Slideshow (21) Unclaimed baggage's final stop
  2. Joe Heller / The Green Bay Press-Gazette, Politicalcartoons.com
    Slideshow (6) Holiday Travel

Video: Airline baggage fees top $2.5 billion

  1. Transcript of: Airline baggage fees top $2.5 billion

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: All those extra fees the airlines have been charging for things that used to be free for just about everything, turns out they've been pure profit for a lot of the airlines. The government said today that major airlines have raked in $2.5 billion on baggage fees alone, 2 1/2 billion. That's just through the end of the month of September. It's up 22 1/2 percent over last year. For example, when US Airways added up all the fees it collects, from baggage to ticket charges and stuff they sell on board the aircraft, they netted $500 million, which is almost exactly what their expected profit will be for the year.

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