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How to beat airline fees

Garments and gadgets that let you travel light and avoid extra charges on your next trip.
/ Source: Forbes

You could almost feel sorry for the airlines.

Few people see the service on one carrier as being much different than another, so competition is all around fares — how cheaply can I get there? — and most of them lose money. Which means the carriers constantly skirt bankruptcy and have to find all kinds of sneaky ways to make you pay on top of the airfare in the form of fees and surcharges.

Which is precisely why it is impossible to feel sorry for the airlines. There are now, among the major carriers, charges for booking a flight over the phone, for in-flight soft drinks and water, for leg room, for wireless connections, for redeeming air miles, for carrying a pet, for meals, even for a pillow and blanket.

On one carrier alone, an underage person flying with a pet and two bags, one over the size and weight limit, could conceivably pay over $700 in such fees. U.S. Airways will sell you two nonrefundable coach seats from New York to Hawaii for less than that.

The true outrage in most travelers' minds is the recent, and increasing, charges to check a bag. It was long a standard part of the service, and most of us were trained to assume we can actually travel with the stuff we'll need for a trip.

Now that is a luxury. It seemed a (somewhat arguable) point when there were fees for too many or too weighty a bag, but over the past couple of months it has become a standard on most carriers.

Well, if airlines are going to act like they do not really want us there, we should probably not hang around with them any longer than we have to, or fund their customer-hostile fee games. That means traveling with just a carry-on, no matter what the duration of our flights, and the smaller the better, so we can get in and out of the airport like a ninja.

It takes some learning, but there are a few basic lessons — make lists of essentials and do not take more than that — that will get you started. There are also a number of high-tech tools that have sprung up to support ultralight travelers, making things a lot easier than they were just a few years back.

Years ago I was a traveling salesman and my turf was most of Asia. I lost enough luggage that I learned early to live out of a carry-on-bag for weeks if need be. Whatever I lost in not having stuff was more than recovered by the extra confidence I got from knowing I had more control than most over my destiny. This was before plausible roller bags, Web sites for lightweight travelers and all the digital folding headphones, smart phone stands and nanofiber clothing that make the light life easy.

It was also before the cursed baggage fees — now beating them is almost like flying for free.