In the first half of 2012, U.S. airlines raked in $1.7 billion in baggage fees, the largest amount ever collected by the industry in a six-month period. These fees, which are tacked onto an optional service that was mostly free years ago, are both costly and endlessly complex. But, with a little know-how and some planning ahead, you can beat 'em. Here are seven smart strategies for avoiding expensive airline baggage fees on every trip.
Choose Your Airline Wisely
Not all domestic airlines are equal when it comes to baggage fees. Southwest and JetBlue stand out from the rest: Southwest offers two free checked bags, while JetBlue offers one. Conversely, the legacy airlines -- American, Delta, United and U.S. Airways -- charge fees for the first and second checked bags, which generally start at $25. Spirit's arguably the worst, charging $100 for a carry-on bag checked at the gate. Check out our Ultimate Guide to Airline Fees for a complete list of domestic airline baggage charges.
If you're looking for a flight and planning on checking luggage, a good place to start your search is TripAdvisor Flights (our sister site). This fare aggregator calculates costs while factoring in selected extras, such as number of checked bags and in-flight services.
Get Elite Status
We know: It's not exactly easy to get elite status with an airline. You have to log 25,000 miles in a year before you're eligible for the perks of elite status on a legacy airline. (Other airline's elite-mileage requirements differ.) But once you do, you'll enjoy baggage-fee waivers and additional perks like priority boarding and access to preferred seating.
Pack Light with Cool Products
Sure, fitting everything into a carry-on bag is an obvious solution to the baggage-fee problem. Still, there are those travelers for whom packing light is as improbable as flying the plane themselves -- especially on long-haul trips. But we know of a few products that can help. Use compression sacks (also known as vacuum bags), like these ones from Eagle Creek. Take advantage of pocket space by investing in the Scottevest travel vest, which, with its 24 pockets, does double duty as a wearable carry-on bag. And look for squishy, foldable travel essentials that take up minimal suitcase space whenever you can; some of our favorites include CitySlips, the Vapur Anti-Bottle and the inflatable Travelrest Pillow.
For more ideas, see Five Tips for Fitting it All in a Carry-on Bag.
Read Your Airline's Baggage Policy Carefully
One of the biggest mistakes an overpacking traveler can make is booking a ticket without first reading the airline's baggage-fee policy closely and carefully. Airline baggage-fee policies (and policies regarding extra fees in general) differ significantly, and they're often very complicated. Size, weight and the number of bags all factor into the cost of checked luggage, as well as route, miles flown and frequent-flyer status. If you don't read your policy, you could easily end up paying way more than you bargained for.
Know How Much Your Suitcase Weighs
Overweight-bag fees can be far costlier than base charges for checked luggage. Generally, bags that weigh at least 51 pounds are qualified as overweight, and airline fees for too-heavy bags often start at $50 or more. But some airlines charge even higher prices: American and United, for example, issue a fee of $100 for each checked bag weighing more than 50 pounds on domestic flights.
Bring a small, portable luggage scale with you so you can weigh your bags prior to your departure and return flights. And make sure it's calibrated correctly. (Check its instruction manual for information on proper calibration.)
Get an Airline Credit Card
Baggage-fee savings are a big incentive to sign up for airline-branded credit cards. Several cards waive fees for the first bag you check, including Gold Delta Skymiles, Citi Platinum Select/AAdvantage Visa Signature and United Mileageplus Explorer Card. Most credit cards that offer free checked bags come with an annual fee. So do the math. Balance the baggage fees you usually pay against your annual credit-card fee, and you could see significant savings, even if you only check luggage a few times a year.
Ship Your Stuff
Shipping luggage could save you some money, not to mention it'll save you the stress of worrying about a possible lost suitcase. In Seven Ways to Prevent Lost Luggage, we break down the costs: "American Airlines charges $100 for checked bags weighing more than 50 lb. on flights within the U.S. In comparison, UPS charges $66.24 to ship a 55-lb. bag from Los Angeles to Chicago. Sure, it takes longer to arrive. (In this example, the $66.24 fee is for four-day shipping.)"
-- By Caroline Costello