Airline Baggage Fees are Here to Stay: How to Minimize the Damage

How to save money on air travel -- with and without kids

Just when we finally got used to having to pay the airlines to bring our suitcases along, they are increasing the baggage charge.

Continental Airlines announced this week that it will be raising its baggage fees to match Delta’s new higher baggage rates. The new rates are:

First bag: $23 (paid online) or $25 (paid at the airport)
Second bag: $32 (paid online) or $35 (at the airport)

Don’t Get Caught Unaware

I’m ashamed to admit that just this summer, I had forgotten the details of the whole baggage fee policy (which most airlines introduced in 2008).

I thought one bag was free, so I purposely brought more suitcases than we needed (one for each of my children), thinking I could use the extra space to haul back the hand-me-downs I had stockpiled in my parents’ attic. (N.B.: Add on to the exorbitant price of living in New York City the cost of hauling children’s clothes from an offsite storage space.)

You can imagine I was feeling much less than a frugal mama when I got to the airport and US Airways charged me $15 per suitcase each way, for a total of $90.  (Today their fee is $25 per checked bag, and the damage would have been $150.)

This Christmas we traveled again and — alas, with presents and winter woolens — there was no way to cut down on the baggage count. And, believe me, with small children to keep track of, getting rid of your luggage at check-in is a happy moment.

How to Minimize the Damage

Assuming that the supposedly temporary baggage fees are here to stay, here are things I’ll keep in mind next time we fly within the 50 states. (Thankfully, most international carriers still allow one to two bags free.)

Check the airline’s baggage allowance well in advance of your trip.

This CNN article lists some of the latest, but since fees are changing, check the airline’s policy on their website. (A Google search for “baggage allowance” recently brought up a list of the most popular airline’s pages on this policy.)

Think ahead about how you can pack less or how you can find some items you need on the other end.

For example, if there are laundry facilities at your destination, pack half what you need and wash mid-trip.

Instead of giving them away, my parents keep bulky items like old tennis shoes, thick robes, and big sweaters to ease our double schlep. They also were kind enough to invest in gear like car seats, boosters, strollers, sippy cups and changing mats. Of course we always find a new package of diapers and wipes, bath soap and toys when we get there.

When traveling without children, use a carry-on suitcase.

However, be forewarned.   My friend, Lynn, recently sent out this email, furious about the charges she still had to pay with a carry-on suitcase:

I have been hassled by US Air and United airlines this weekend about my carry-on bag (which I have carried on without difficulty and which easily fits in the overhead compartment for the last 6 years). The bag is not even full. They have cut down the size limitations so it is 3 inches too big (cumulatively – adding height, length and width), so they can charge me $25 ($20 on United) to check it. The gate agent (after we had to change flights and airlines) actually took out a measuring tape and measured it. I am really furious.

CNN says here that “the airlines reported collecting nearly $740 million in baggage fees in the third quarter of 2009, according to U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.”

Enlist your children for help.

If you are traveling with small children (and thus diapers, toys, strollers and snacks), a carry-on suitcase is not a welcome addition to the mix.

However, if you have slightly older children, they will probably be quite happy to help by carrying some of the extras, like toys and snacks, in their own backpacks.

Check-in online.

With some airlines, at least you can save a couple dollars on baggage fees. If you buy tickets online (my favorite travel search site is Kayak), airlines usually send you a reminder by email to check-in online.

Try Southwest or JetBlue.

If the baggage fees are really getting you down, see if your route is served by Southwest, which charges no fees, or by JetBlue, which only charges for the second bag ($30).  (Be aware that Southwest might not be the discount airline that it used to be.  A Frugal Mama reader reports that prices can be significantly higher than major lines.)

Bring your own food.

Airplane food is now just like airport food: unhealthy and overpriced.  Most airlines will charge you now for what they used to hand out as a courtesy for harried travelers.

Because liquids are not allowed (besides amounts under 4 oz. of medicine or baby milk), don’t bring yogurt or juice boxes.  Do bring empty water bottles and fill them up once you pass security.

And don’t even count on the tiny bag of salty snacks and a Coke on board. The last time we flew US Airways, everyone got served the same beverage: a glass of water!

Do you have any tips or experiences with baggage fees to share?

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  • Libby Garvey January 20, 2010, 10:03 pm

    If only train service were better!

  • Libby Garvey January 16, 2010, 10:14 pm

    Thank you for all the helpful tips. I flew for the first time in quite a while and all the issues with luggage were a bit of a shock. I’ve found carrying on food, even if just snacks, a good idea. And the empty water bottle to fill later is crucial!

    • Amy January 20, 2010, 8:02 pm

      Libby: I agree – snacks are such an easy way to cut down on expenses. And it usually feels much better (and of course costs much less) than anything you can buy in the airport, or airplane now.

      Of course it’s fun to eat out, but I also find that my kids and I think it’s just as fun to eat in an unusual place and format — so the fact that we’ve prepared the food ourselves doesn’t matter. It’s like a picnic!

  • Jenny January 15, 2010, 7:27 am

    In many of the airlines we took recently, the flights were full. This meant that most people using small suitcases as carry ons. Because there wouldn’t have been room in the overhead bins for all for all of them the airlines checked the bags plane side for free, and everyone picked them up plane side after deplaning – just like they do for strollers.

    I personally think the bag charges are justified as I have not noticed a huge change last year in ticket prices despite the fact that jet fuel has gone up 41% since last year.

    No wonder the new fuel efficient Boeing Dreamliner 787 (which is made out of a lightweight carbon fiber) is selling like gangbusters.

    • Amy January 20, 2010, 8:07 pm

      Jenny: Thanks for your thoughts and this great information. Many consumers believe fuel prices have gone down and thus the airlines were little justified in charging the baggage fees they once blamed on high fuel costs.

      The fact is, they can do whatever they want: they still have a product that we need (want) to buy and, what is the expression — whatever the market will bear? Of course all these hassles and expenses make a lot of people just want to stay home, or load up the car instead.

  • Nancy West January 14, 2010, 10:29 pm

    This is great information! Here are a few items I’d like to share from my recent experience:
    1) Regarding what to bring vs what to buy, my friend Allison always orders all their toiletries online from and has them delivered to their destination.
    2) Regarding food: yes and no. I’ve never bought food on a plane, but think it’s no longer universally true that airport food is bad or unhealthy, and bringing your own takes up a huge amount of carry-on space. Last summer I bought sushi at one airport and an authentic vegetable burrito at another, both healthy and tasty if admittedly not cheap. The thing is, “eating out” is such a big thrill for young children that to my mind, reducing your carry-on (sandwiches, fruit etc really do take up a lot of room) and using the dining-out as an incentive to behave well during the travel day make airport food not such a bad proposition. (Plus it can help fill the time for kids during a boring layover.) Snacks for the plane are absolutely a good idea though (or the leftovers from your airport meal).
    3) When I flew last winter with my then 6-year-old, I was surprised by her wish to bypass her usual carry-on backpack in favor of a more “grown up” book bag (one of mine that a friend made). And it was one of those things where having something that looked grown up made her act more grown up. She was sashaying along with her cloth bookbag over her shoulder, no complaints whatsoever about having to carry it, and I really think it was because she felt more grown up than she would have with her old Dora backpack.