Saving Money on Checked Luggage

Stephen Vanderpool is a writer for NerdWallet | Travel.

Saving Money on Checked Luggage

Just in case you felt flight prices were too low, airlines are slathering on even more ancillary fees. Along with recent additions to the ever-changing fee structure, the persistent increase in existing fees is startling. Over the past 2 years, ancillary fee revenue has risen 66%, totaling $22.6 billion in 2011. As any frequent flyer knows, baggage fees are amongst the most common and costly. Here are a few guidelines for avoiding unnecessary extra costs and saving money on checked luggage.

Know the airlines

When flying, remember one simple rule: extra service costs extra money. Whether you require priority boarding or blanket and pillow for an in-flight nap, prepare to dish out the dough. The fees aren’t “hidden” per se, but they aren’t always immediately evident, either. The best way to save money on airline fees is to do your research and simplify your needs.

With enough digging, most fees can be found on airline websites, but it’s easy to lose hours of your life to futile Googling in search of buried or unavailable information. To streamline the process, NerdWallet has a free airline fees comparison tool that allows for side-by-side comparison of fees across domestic airlines. Before you choose an airline or pack for your flight, check pricing to avoid being ambushed by unexpected costs.

For most travelers, Southwest will almost always be the best option. Passengers on Southwest are allotted two free checked bags and one carry-on per ticket. Jetblue is the next best domestic option, offering one free checked bag and one carry-on per ticket. If you go with another airline, expect to pay about $20-$30 per checked bag.

Few airlines charge for carry-on items, but don’t be surprised if that changes in the near future. Allegiant recently joined Spirit in charging passengers for carry-ons, a charge of up to $35. Several airlines offer one free carry-on but will charge a fee if the item is too large or too heavy. Such airlines include Alaska, Allegiant, Delta, Southwest, Spirit and Virgin. Be careful not to overstuff your carry-on to avoid fees upwards of $25.  

Know the restrictions

Guarding yourself against airline baggage fees includes dancing around size restrictions. Airlines impose fees on bags that break specified size and weight limits. When possible, stay under 50 pounds and 60 inches, and you’ll usually be safe from additional fees. Once you cross either threshold, prepare to pay big bucks to transport your luggage.

The best domestic airlines for overweight bags between 50 and 70 lbs. are Southwest and Jetblue, each of which charge $50 per item. That’s a lot better than American or United, which would charge $125 for the same bag. If your bag weighs more than 70 lbs., Southwest is your best bet, as it charges a flat $50 for all overweight bags. Other airlines tend to ask more as you add poundage. 

The best domestic airline for an oversized bag between 63 and 80 inches is (shockingly) Allegiant. Allegiant is a pretty fee-heavy airline, but it won’t apply an additional charge until you hit 80 inches. Beyond 80 inches, Frontier and Allegiant have relatively low oversized baggage fees at $75 (plus $20 for the regular checked baggage fee). Compare that to Delta, which can charge over $300 for a single item. 

When it comes down to it, travelers who can survive with a single carry-on and a single personal item won’t have to worry about baggage fees unless flying with Spirit or Allegiant. Travelers checking one normal-sized bag should opt for Southwest or Jetblue when possible. If you require special accommodations, expect to pay more, but realize certain airlines are vastly cheaper than others. Saving money on luggage is a simple matter of preparation and research. Don’t let the airline industry rip you off. Get the numbers before you book.

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