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

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Checking a bag at the airport has gotten pricier for travelers — and harder to avoid.

A checked bag is one stored in a plane’s cargo hold during a flight. While that service was free in years past, it’s now standard for major airlines to charge for checked bags, experts said.

Major U.S. airlines started doing so in 2008, levying around $15 a bag, said Katy Nastro, travel expert at cheap flight alert platform Going.

Today, it’s about double: $30 to $35 for one checked bag, Nastro said. That means travelers who check a bag on each leg of a round-trip itinerary can add an extra $60 to $70 to the total cost of their basic fare. Rates generally increase for each additional checked bag.

Passengers paid about $6.8 billion in total baggage fees in 2022, the last full year for which data is available, according to the Bureau of Transportation. That’s up 17% from roughly $5.8 billion in 2019, even though fewer passengers flew on U.S. carriers in 2022, Bureau of Transportation data shows.

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“Unless baggage is included in a higher-class (premium economy, first, business class, etc.) ticket, passengers should expect to pay a fee,” Eric Napoli, vice president of legal strategy at AirHelp, which helps passengers file claims for airline compensation, explained in an email.

Here’s some advice from travel experts on how to reduce those fees, and perhaps avoid them altogether.

Fly with certain airlines

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There are a few airlines that still don’t charge for a checked bag.

Southwest, for example, is the one outlier in the U.S., experts said. The carrier allows two free checked bags.

The “Big Three” Gulf Airlines — Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways and Emirates — still offer free baggage, as does Air India, according to Aiden Higgins, senior editor of The Broke Backpacker website.

These carriers may have certain restrictions, including for luggage size and weight.

Of course, just because they may not charge for bags doesn’t mean their fares are cheaper than others when assessing overall cost. They also may not fly routes that work for travelers’ itineraries.

Combine bags

Travel partners may also consider combining suitcases.

A family of four may be able to condense four bags into two, potentially cutting checked-bag fees in half, experts said.

Unless baggage is included in a higher-class (premium economy, first, business class, etc.) ticket, passengers should expect to pay a fee.

Eric Napoli

vice president of legal strategy at AirHelp

There is one caveat, though. Passengers need to consider airlines’ weight requirements for bags and whether consolidating suitcases could trigger additional fees.

Skip checking a bag

Traveling light — only with a personal item and/or carry-on bag, depending on what your airline and fare class permit for free — is “the only fool-proof way” to avoid paying a checked-bag fee, Napoli said.

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

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

Passengers with softer, duffel-bag-type luggage that’s more pliable may have an easier time meeting carry-on size requirements versus those with a hard case, Nastro said.

Consider a fare upgrade

Even the major carriers generally charge for carry-ons on basic economy fares, experts said.

A higher-tier ticket for a higher cost might include a baggage allowance, in which case passengers may wind up paying the same total price compared to a lower-cost fare while also getting some additional benefits such as the ability to choose a seat or make flight changes, experts said.

“If you are using an aggregator like Skyscanner, it can sometimes work out cheaper to go with the 2nd or 3rd most expensive flight if the airline is [also] offering baggage,” Higgins said.

Travelers should read the fine print to discern what baggage is included in their ticket, which varies from airline to airline and ticket class, Napoli said.

Add bags early

Whether you’re checking a bag or carrying one on for a fee, declaring that early can save you money.

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

But these prices assume passengers add their bags during the initial online booking process. Those who wait to pay until arriving at the gate, for example, would pay $99 for a checked bag or carry-on, the chart indicates.

The business behind budget airlines like Ryanair and Spirit

For those who know they’ll need to add a bag, “nine times out of 10 it’s always cheaper to do it upon booking” instead of deferring until later, Nastro said.

Relatively high fees for “add ons” such as bags mean a budget carrier may not be the cheapest option when assessing total cost and value, she said.

Buy a luggage scale, lightweight bags

Buying and using a luggage scale before traveling can help travelers avoid surprise fees at the airport due to exceeding a weight limit on checked bags.

“At least weigh your suitcase before you even book the flight,” Higgins said. “Once upon a time, airlines might have turned a blind eye” to additional weight, but not anymore, he said.

Travelers can also invest in ultralight luggage, Higgins said.

“You can easily save 1 or 2 [kilograms] by buying specially designed ultralight travel gear,” he said. However, such bags can be pricey and may not be as durable as sturdier packs, he said.

Get a credit card or join a frequent flier program

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

Of course, travelers shouldn’t necessarily open a credit card account just for this perk, experts said. Some cards might also carry an annual fee, though travelers might come out ahead if their annual benefits (e.g., savings on bag fees) eclipse that expense.

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

Joining an airline’s frequent flier program may also come with perks for travelers such as free or extra baggage, Higgins said.

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