How to reduce — or avoid — airline fees for checked bags

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Checking a bag at the airport has become more expensive for travelers – and harder to avoid.

A piece of checked baggage is stored in the hold of an aircraft during a flight. While the service was free in years past, it is now standard practice for major airlines to charge a fee for checked bags, experts say.

Major U.S. airlines started doing this in 2008, charging about $15 per bag, said Katy Nastro, a travel expert at the low-cost airline alert platform Going.

Today it's about double that: $30 to $35 for a checked bag, Nastro said. That means travelers who check a bag on each leg of a round-trip trip can add $60 to $70 to the total cost of their base fare. In general, the tariffs increase for each additional piece of checked baggage.

According to the Bureau of Transportation, passengers paid a total of about $6.8 billion in baggage fees in 2022, the most recent full year for which data is available. That's up 17% from about $5.8 billion in 2019, even though fewer passengers flew on U.S. airlines in 2022, Bureau of Transportation data shows.

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“Unless the baggage is included in a higher class ticket (premium economy, first, business class, etc.), passengers can expect to pay a fee,” says Eric Napoli, vice president of legal strategy at AirHelp, which helps passengers make a claim of claims helps compensate the airline, explained in an email.

Here's some advice from travel experts on how you can reduce these fees and perhaps avoid them altogether.

Fly with specific airlines

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There are some airlines that still do not charge a fee for checked baggage.

The Southwest, for example, is the only outlier in the United States, experts said. The carrier allows two free checked bags.

According to Aiden Higgins, editor-in-chief of website The Broke Backpacker, the “big three” Gulf airlines – Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways and Emirates – still offer free luggage, as does Air India.

These carriers may apply certain restrictions, including, but not limited to, baggage size and weight.

Of course, just because they may not charge fees for their luggage doesn't mean their rates are cheaper than others when assessing the overall cost. They also may not fly routes that are suitable for travelers' itineraries.

Combine bags

Travel partners can also think about combining suitcases.

Experts say a family of four could potentially combine two pieces of luggage, potentially cutting checked baggage fees in half.

Unless the baggage is included in a higher class ticket (Premium Economy, First, Business Class, etc.), passengers must expect to pay a fee.

Eric Napoli

Vice President of Legal Strategy at AirHelp

However, there is a caveat. Passengers must consider airline baggage weight requirements and whether additional charges may apply for folding suitcases.

Skip checking a bag

Traveling light — with just one personal item and/or carry-on luggage, depending on what your airline and fare class allows for free — is “the only sure way” to avoid paying a checked baggage fee, Napoli said.

Of course, this won't be possible for everyone.

But passengers can “sneak into the cabin quite a bit” within the airline's limits, especially with a well-packed backpack — supported by packing cubes — combined with a shoulder bag and/or a tote bag, Higgins said.

Passengers with softer, more pliable luggage may be able to meet carry-on size requirements more easily than passengers with a hard-shell suitcase, Nastro said.

Consider a plan upgrade

Even major airlines generally charge a fee for carry-on luggage in economy fares, experts say.

A higher priced ticket may include a baggage allowance. In this case, passengers may pay the same total price as with a cheaper fare, but also benefit from some additional benefits, such as: Such as the ability to choose a seat or brand of flight changes, experts said.

“If you use an aggregator like Skyscanner, it can sometimes be cheaper to choose the second or third most expensive flight if the airline is [also] “Offering baggage,” Higgins said.

Travelers should read the fine print to identify what luggage is included in their ticket, which varies by airline and ticket class, Napoli said.

Add bags early

Whether you're checking a bag or carrying it for a fee, registering early can save you money.

For example, according to the airline's pricing chart, a regular passenger flying Spirit Airlines from New York to Los Angeles this week would pay $39 for a carry-on bag. A checked bag is cheaper at $34.

However, these prices assume that passengers add their luggage during the initial online booking process. For example, if you wait to pay until you arrive at the gate, you will pay $99 for a checked or carry-on bag, the table shows.

For those who know they'll need to add a bag, “nine times out of 10, it's always cheaper to do it right when you book” rather than putting it off until later, Nastro said.

Relatively high fees for “add-ons” like bags mean a budget airline may not be the cheapest option when assessing overall cost and value, she said.

Buy a luggage scale, lightweight bags

Purchasing and using a luggage scale before traveling can help travelers avoid surprise airport fees for exceeding a checked baggage weight limit.

“At least weigh your suitcase before you even book the flight,” Higgins said. “In the past, airlines might have turned a blind eye to extra weight, but that is no longer the case,” he said.

Travelers can also invest in ultralight luggage, Higgins said.

“You can easily save 1 or 2 [kilograms] by purchasing specially designed ultralight travel equipment,” he said. However, such bags can be expensive and may not be as durable as sturdier backpacks, he said.

Get a credit card or join a frequent flyer program

“Many credit cards, especially airline cards, offer free checked bags as a perk,” Napoli said.

Of course, travelers shouldn't necessarily open a credit card account just for this benefit, experts say. Some cards may also have an annual fee. However, travelers can come out ahead if their annual benefits (such as savings on baggage fees) dwarf these costs.

“It varies from credit card to credit card and airline to airline,” Nastro said.

Participating in an airline's frequent flyer program can also provide perks for travelers, such as free or extra baggage, Higgins said.

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