If there’s anything I can do to avoid checked bag fees, I’ll do it. These fees have become a huge money maker for airlines, and I’d rather keep my money in my own pocket. These 12 tips will show you how to avoid those fees.
In 2018, every major airline in the U.S. (with the exception of Southwest), increased their checked bag fees. Southwest Airlines offers everyone two checked bags for free.
As we take a look at fees and how to avoid them, I’ll be specifically talking about U.S. domestic flights. Most international flights often include at least one free checked bag.
Breaking It Down:
History of Checked Baggage Fees
It all started in 2008 with rising fuel costs. American Airlines started charging a $15 fee for a first checked bag. Naturally, other airlines started doing the same. In 2010, low cost carrier Spirit Airlines also began charging a full size carry-on bag fee. Southwest Airlines remains the only major U.S. airline with no checked bag fee.
How much are Americans spending on baggage fees?
In 2017, U.S. flyers spent more than $4.5 billion on baggage fees. That’s a lot of money for travelers to be spending. By reading these tips, you can spend less.
How much do airlines charge per checked bag?
Most airlines now charge a minimum fee of $30 for the first checked bag on domestic flights.
American Airlines, for instance, charges $30 for the first checked bag, $40 for the second, and $150 for an additional checked bag. Similarly, JetBlue charges $30 per one-way ticket for the first checked bag, whether you pay at the airport or online. Checking a second bag will cost you $40.
The airline that charges the most for the first checked bag is Spirit with a $45 fee. The second checked bag costs $55 and you will be charged $100 for an additional bag thereafter. This is for bags purchased in advance online — it’s even more at the airport.
12 Ways To Avoid Airline Baggage Fees
1. Don’t check any bags.
Let’s start with the most obvious answer. Carry-on only means not paying for checked bags, no waiting for bags after deplaning, and no hassles when bags inevitably get lost.
However, even if you’re someone who packs light, there are times when you need to check bags. Also, airlines such as Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant charge even for full-size carry-on bags. And if you’re on a basic economy ticket with United, the same holds true. Every other US airline does allow one free carry-on and one personal item, even if flying basic economy.
2. Pick your airline carefully.
All things being equal, fly an airline that doesn’t charge checked baggage fees, like Southwest Airlines. Take into consideration the checked bag fee when price shopping with other airlines.
3. Join a frequent flyer program…
Frequent flyers can save on baggage fees by first joining their chosen airline’s frequent flyer program. Most major airlines offer some kind of baggage fee discount or waiver once you fly a certain amount with that airline or alliance. However, this only is true once you have completed the next item on this list.
4. …and earn elite status.
Elite status comes with perks! Another sure-fire way to never deal with checked baggage fees again is by earning elite status on an airline.
Elite status comes with varied perks to make traveling on your preferred airline as easy and comfortable as possible. One of those perks is free checked bags.
How many free checked bags you earn will depend on the level of status you have earned and each individual airline’s rules. When traveling as an elite, free checked bag perks usually extend to at least one other companion on the same reservation as the elite member.
Here are the domestic free checked bag rules for elite status members:
|Airline||Status Level||Number of Free Bags|
|Alaska Airlines||All Elite Status Levels||2|
|American||Platinum or Platinum Pro||2|
|Delta||Platinum or Diamond Medallion||3|
|United||Premier Gold, Platinum, 1k||2|
5. Use an airline credit card.
If flying enough to earn elite status isn’t possible, consider applying for an airline credit card. Having an airline credit card is a great way to cover checked bag fees. These cards usually offer at least one free checked bag on domestic flights. Personally, having a credit card that includes free checked bags as a benefit works well for me since I do not have elite status with any major airline.
The annual fees on these cards are often low enough that the annual fees can often be recouped quickly. Keep in mind that this benefit is usually for free checked bags are for the entire reservation, not just for a single person.
Here are the airline credit cards that offer free checked bags:
|Airline||Credit Card||Number of Free Bags|
|Alaska Airlines||Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card||1|
|Alaska Airlines||Alaska Airlines Visa Business Card||1|
|American||American Airlines CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Mastercard®||1|
|American||Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®||1|
|American||Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard||1|
|American||Barclay American Airlines Aviator Mastercard||1|
|Delta||Delta Reserve for Business Credit Card||1|
|Delta||Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express||1|
|Delta||Gold Delta SkyMiles® Business Credit Card from American Express||1|
|Delta||Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Business Credit Card from American Express||1|
|Delta||Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express||1|
|United||United Explorer Card||1|
|United||United Explorer Business Card||1|
|United||United MileagePlus® Club Card||2|
|Untied||United MileagePlus® Club Business Card||2|
6. Use your incidental airline fee credit card benefit on your preferred airline.
Co-branded airline credit cards are not the only ones that offer a free checked bag perk. American Express offers several cards that include annual statement credits to cover incidental fees, such as checked bag fees on your preferred airline. The statement credits also cover fees such as in-flight meals and lounge passes.
These are the AMEX cards that offer statement credits to cover incidental fees:
- The Platinum Card® from American Express: $200 annual statement credit for incidental purchases on 1 selected airline
- The Business Platinum® Card from American Express: $200 annual statement credit for incidental purchases on 1 selected airline
- American Express® Gold Card: $100 annual statement credit for incidental purchases on 1 selected airline
- Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card: $250 airline incidental purchases on 1 airline
7. Use credit cards that include a credit for “travel” expenses.
Citibank and Chase both have cards that fall into this category. The most popular in this category is the Chase Sapphire Reserve card offers up to $300 in credit that cover everything from airline tickets, hotel stays, seat upgrades — and yes, baggage fees. The Citi Prestige card is also a popular choice. It offers up to $250 in credit that covers a wide variety of travel expenses including baggage fees.
Here’s a list of credit cards that can be used to offset baggage fees:
|Credit Card||Annual Credit Amount|
|Chase Sapphire Reserve Card||$300|
|U.S. Bank Altitude™ Reserve Visa Infinite®Card||$325|
|Citi Prestige® Card||$250|
|HSBC Premier World Elite Mastercard||$100|
|Crystal Visa Infinite® Credit Card||$250|
|The Ritz-Carlton Rewards® Credit Card||$300|
|PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express® Card||$100|
|Bank of America® Premium Rewards Credit Card||$100|
|Expedia Voyager Card from Citi||$100|
|U.S. Bank FlexPerks® Gold American Express®Card||$25|
8. Check your bag at the gate.
Airlines want to make the boarding process as fast as possible so the flight can leave on time. Since overhead bin space is often overloaded and limited, airlines usually offer to check your bag to your final destination at the gate. That’s of course if you can get through security with your bag (meaning limited liquids and not massively sized).
This isn’t a guaranteed occurrence, of course, but it happens so often that I know flyers who rely on this method for saving bag fees. On my most recent Alaska flight, I saw a family of five give Alaska so many bags that I was actually shocked. I haven’t a clue how this family expected to take all those bags as carry-on luggage to begin with.
9. Use a collapsable duffle bag that you pack in your carry-on luggage.
If you need to transport a bunch of items in only one direction, this tip may work for you. You can carry a duffle that you’ll convert to a checked bag for one leg of your trip — at least saving you the checked bag fee on the other leg. For this other leg, stuff this duffle bag into the carry-on.
10. Send your bag on ahead of you.
This tip can work if you are traveling on an extended holiday and send bags ahead of where you’ll be. This is particularly useful when you need clothes for different seasons of travel, or your trip involves both business and leisure travel.
I haven’t used this strategy myself, though I came close a few years ago when I was overseas and considered sending my tech gear home ahead of me. It is worth investigating whether UPS and other such services will be less costly than the airline fees. (It often is.)
11. Watch your (baggage) weight.
No, this isn’t a health warning! But it could lighten the load of your wallet if you’re careless about baggage weight limits and what’s considered to be an overweight bag. Most U.S. airlines allow for bags up to 50 pounds. Using a hand scale is the easiest way to avoid overweight bags and the extra fees that come with them.
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12. Fly domestic first class or upgrade to domestic first class.
All first class tickets come with free checked baggage allowances. It never hurts to compare the price of an economy ticket with baggage fees vs. a discounted first class fare.
With an economy ticket, you may even be offered an inexpensive first class upgrade at check-in that would be worth it if you were going to pay to check bags anyway.
The Upshot + Recap
We don’t need to be math geniuses to know that baggage fees add to our overall travel costs. There are ways to easily avoid paying checked baggage fees. The most popular ones are:
- Packing lightly and simply traveling with a single carry-on.
- Earn elite status to check bags for free.
- Fly on Southwest. Tickets include up to 2 free checked bags on all flights, for all passengers
- Hold an airline credit card that offers free checked bags.
- Use a credit card that includes bag fees as incidental airline or travel fees.
There’s both a science and an art to traveling more for less. Reducing costs as much as we can is part of the game. Knowing your airline’s policy is the first step. Navigating the airlines’ complicated baggage policies is no small feat, but paying these fees sometimes isn’t necessary if you’re savvy.
This list is by no means exhaustive, so feel free to share your favorite tips and help us all save even more.
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