Airline Baggage Fees: Are Free Bags Really The Best Deal?

Airline Baggage Fees: Are Free Bags Really The Best Deal?

Posted on May 28, 2012

We all know the feeling...standing in line, nervously shifting your monstrous rolling suitcase, zippers pulling at the seams, front pockets stuffed, and wheels teetering on the brink of collapse. You brought that extra jacket...and those jumbo, value-sized shampoos and conditions...and the entire Harry Potter series for beach reading. Hey, if the airline is charging you to check your bag, you might as well get those most out of it!  Before you lug this beastly baggage onto the check-in scale, here's some advice on how to prevent those pesky fees:

How to Save on Airline Baggage Fees

Baggage fees are (literally) through the roof

Don't Assume "Free Baggage" Is The Best Deal

When you compare flights, make sure you factor in airfare plus all of the baggage fees in your totals. Consider the number of bags allowed, weight limits, and exemptions. Sites like let you enter your departure and arrival locations, and search different airlines to see what they charge for checked bags, overweight items, exemptions, and more.

Once you do the math, you'll see that free bags may not be so free after all. For example, a non-stop round trip weekend flight from Chicago to Tampa goes for around $424 on Southwest, with free checked baggage. But a similar flight on American costs $348. If you're checking one bag for $25, your total comes to $398. Even though "free checked bags" seems like the better deal, you're actually paying less with baggage fees!

Always remember that the difference may be in the details. Fees might look the same, but have very different results. For young families traveling, Delta allows any strollers, car seats, or bassinets to be carried on or checked without it counting towards your baggage total. American Airlines extends a similar policy, but it applies to "non-ticketed children" (under 2 years for domestic flights), and even then, it's only good for 1 stroller and 1 car seat for that "non-ticketed child". Any extra strollers and car seats will count as additional checked baggage, with fees that climb up to $150!

Use Your Rewards Card To Ramp Up Savings

Airline credit cards or rewards programs are an easy way to get your bags checked for free. The American Express Delta Sky Miles cards lets you check your first bag for free, as well as the first bag for anyone else under your reservation- up to 9 people! This saves you and each companion $50 per bag on a round-trip flight.

Two United cards offer a similar program: The Chase MileagePlus Explorer card offers 1 free checked bag for you and 1 traveling companion, saving you up to $100 on a round-trip flight for 2, and the MileagePlus Club card offers 2 free checked bags for you and your companion.

Air Tran offers the A Plus Rewards Card, where you earn 2 points on each round-trip flight (plus extra points on Hertz car rentals). Once you earn1o points in 90-day period, or 25 points in a year, you qualify for an Elite membership, which gets you 2 checked bags for free , saving you up to $45 each time you fly.

Send It By Snail Mail

Consider mailing your luggage. The cost to ship your overweight luggage by FedEx, UPS, or USPS may be cheaper than checking it! For example, a 50lb checked bag on a flight from St. Louis to Chicago may cost $25-$35, but USPS can ship a 50lb package via parcel post for as little as $23.

On a recent trip, my craft-beer loving husband had some "souvenir" home brewing equipment, bottles, and bar glasses to bring back in our checked luggage, which topped us over the weight limit. Despite shoving shoes and hair straighteners in our carry-on bags to lighten the load, it looked like we were stuck with a $50 overweight fee.

What we didn't realize is that UPS could ship it for half the cost! A box weighing about 20lb could be shipped straight to our doorstep for around $22. Plus, many FedEx and UPS locations are located in or around airports, and unlike checking your luggage, you'll have a tracking number to keep tabs on your bags every step of the way!

Have any other tips on how to reduce those pesky flight fees? Post your comments below!

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Photo: David Spencer