How to Avoid Airline Baggage Fees

The bad news is that because of high fuel costs, United Airlines and US Airways will be following American Airlines in charging a $15 first-bag fee. The even worse news is that most of the remaining airlines will probably follow suit with the exception Southwest who locked in their fuel prices several years ago. Since the airlines are attempting to cash in on baggage fees, SmartMoney offers some tips on how to avoid them. The tips, inside…

Some tips on carry-on bags:

Embrace the middle seat
Often, there is more space for your carry-on under the middle seat, however, sometimes airplanes have equipment stored under them. You can usually find information on which seats to avoid in the airline’s carry-on bag restrictions or in their policy section on traveling with pets.

Board Early
To get that precious overhead-bin space, get familiar with how your airline boards the plane. “Most carriers allow passengers with disabilities and elite frequent fliers to board first. Northwest offers open boarding in no particular order, while Delta often starts with the window seats in the back. “

Be aware of carry-on limits
For example, American Airlines limits carry-ons to 45 linear inches (length+width+height) and 40 lbs. They also allow one small personal item like a purse or briefcase.

Some tips on checked bags:

Check airline exemptions
“American and United waive first-bag fees for first- or business-class passengers and elite frequent fliers. All major carriers still allow two checked bags for flights with an international leg. You might also be exempt if you bought your ticket before the new fee goes into effect. US Airways won’t charge those who purchased tickets before July 9. Consider planning future trips on an airline that hasn’t yet announced a first-bag fee.”

Note item exceptions

Usually strollers, child car-seats and wheelchairs are free of charge. Since each airline has different restrictions regarding weight and dimensions, make sure you review the policies on the airlines you plan to fly.

Start small
If you start with a large bag you will tend to stuff more inside increasing your bag’s chance of being overweight. As a rule of thumb, don’t check a bag bigger than 24 inches if you want to stay under weight limits.

Look for a cheap light bag

Unless you are a frequent traveler, it is advantageous to go with lighter luggage which only needs to withstand a few trips a year. High end luggage is obviously more durable but weighs a good deal more.

How to Avoid Paying Airline Baggage Fees [SmartMoney]
(Photo: Getty)


Edit Your Comment

  1. dripdrop says:

    There are few things I hate more than people who use too much of the overhead bin space. It’s because of people like those that my luggage on a flight to Italy had to be checked and then got lost. UGH

  2. A.W.E.S.O.M.-O says:

    God I hope airlines start enforcing carry-on rules. I’m already tired of waiting behind douchebags who stuff four bags into the overhead compartment.

  3. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    My carry-on is close to the max size and doesn’t fit in the Embraer overhead bins. It DOES fit under the seat in front of me, though, to the surprise of the flight attendants.

    My purse… sheesh, I’m glad they don’t make me weigh it. It could double as a diaper bag and I make it work like a bricklayer’s assistant.

  4. ianmac47 says:

    What I don’t understand is, with everyone wanting to have carry on space, which is at a premium, why are the airlines charging for checked baggage? Why not charge a premium fee for extra carry on luggage, and oversized luggage? I would gladly pay $25 to $50 to carry on an extra piece of luggage and not wait around for a the carousel of lost luggage.

  5. CowboyRob says:

    The problem I’ve found with the idea of boarding early is that the moment flights start with general boarding from, for example, Rows 25 and higher, EVERYONE lines up and gets on the plane, and most of the employees just let everyone on.

    It’s gotten worse recently as people have become more desperate for that precious overhead storage.

  6. Nogard13 says:

    I usually have two carry-ons. One is my boxing duffel bag that will fit in their little metal size checker thing but I can fit tons of stuff in and the other is my back pack, which is HUGE. I can also fit tons of stuff in my back pack, including my laptop with all it’s components, snacks, books, a bottle of water, and have plenty of room to spare.

  7. Lambasted says:

    It is a farce that airlines are charging baggage fees because of high gas prices. Don’t let them fool you. Airlines already charge a fuel surcharge. If high gas prices were truly the culprit airlines would temporarily increase ticket prices or the fuel surcharge not charge extra for baggage–something that seems a bit more permanent to me.

    High gas prices is just a scapegoat excuse for airlines to suck more money out of consumers. They hide it in baggage fees so when/if gas prices drop airlines can keep on charging the baggage fees. Airlines are banking on passengers becoming accustomed to paying baggage fees and not balking when they don’t lower or do away with them.

    Southwest is the only airline still worth flying.

  8. bagumpity says:

    From what I’ve seen, they don’t charge you for checking bags at the gate. Pack multiple bags of carry-on size and gate-check one or all of them. You might even get away with a larger bag if you just tell the security checkpoint morons “I have to gate-check these.” Most of the time, they’ll assume you’re late for your flight or won’t bother to ask why. If they do, you can reply “they told me I had to gate-check these. I don’t know why.” They probably won’t ask who “they” are, and if pressed you can say “my company travel department. It’s some sort of new policy. I don’t know why.” The key is to act stupid, or afraid of getting in trouble for not following company policy, not belligerant. If it doesn’t work, you can go back and check the bags. You’ve only lost the time spent in line.

    When you’re through security with your one (or several) bags, don’t go right up to the gate. The gate agents are trained to spot passengers with large and/or multiple bags. Try to board in the middle of the rush, since that’s the time when they’ll be busiest. If you are asked to pay, tell them you didn’t bring a credit card. Most gates aren’t equipped for taking cash. If they do ask for cash, hand them a $100 bill and say “sorry, I don’t have anything smaller.” Chances are, they won’t have the change. Do as much of this at the gate itself, not the podium nearby. Be as slow about it as you can. Ask the same question two or three times and appear confused by the answer. The idea is to be as inconvenient to them as possible- but not in a way that looks menacing or deliberate. The more passengers behind you, the better. If the gate agent has to decide between collecting a fee and a late departure, avoiding the latter will always win.

  9. GrandmaSophie says:

    ianmac47, I totally agree with you. I pretty much only travel with my kids, so carry-on luggage is necessary (trust me, if you think kids on flights are annoying, consider kids on flights with no books, crayons, portable DVD players, or ready snacks.) But BK (Before Kids), I always traveled light. Typically one purse/backpack (magazines and snacks for the flight plus my camera which I’m unwilling to check) and one suitcase (which I would usually check.) Why does it affect the fuel load of the flight whether I check it or carry it on? I suppose it costs them money to pay a bag handler, but that must be pretty low compared to the cost of pissing off other customers with overstuffed bins and so forth. So why not make the first bag free whether it’s checked or carry on, or even make that first bag free only if it’s checked?

  10. HIV 2 Elway says:

    @bagumpity: Sounds like a good plan, if you value your dignity at less than $15.

  11. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    @ianmac47: There isn’t enough space, what with my “purse” and NoGard13’s round-the-world-sized backpack and the diaper bags, box lunches, laptop bags, and other various and sundry workarounds of other passengers, to even get your extra carry-on into the plane. Nearly every flight I’ve been on lately has had to bump some late bags from carry-on to checked.

    As a survivor of British Airways’ Heathrow Terminal 5 luggage black hole, I conjecture that they are charging the extra fee in anticipation of having to hire extra PR people in the inevitable event they screw up badly enough to attract media attention. :P

    OK, this is the eighth time I’ve had to hit “submit” without it adding my comment. If I multiple post, please forgive me.

  12. NotATool says:

    So…the advice is to board before everyone else and use up more than your fair share of overhead bin space? Really? Why not just call this “How to be A Jacka$$ When Flying”

  13. HIV 2 Elway says:

    @GrandmaSophie: Baggage handlers are unionized and not cheap. Airlines make a large percentage of their money off business travelers who are far less temperamental, and travel lighter, than folks traveling on vacation.

  14. Mantichora says:

    What really upsets me are he people from “steerage” that fill up the First Class overhead bins as they pass by on the way to their seats.

    They should be made by the Flight Attendants to move them!

  15. The Boy Wonder says:

    Maintaining bag size is all well and good, but what about those pesky liquid/gel restrictions? Sure you can transfer all of your shampoos, conditioners, toothpastes, hair gels to smaller containers, but contact wearers are left out in the cold. There are no 3oz travel containers made, and contact solution isnt something that I’d want to pass from container to container. No matter how much I’d like to be a carry on commando, sometimes its just not feasible.

  16. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    @NotATool: You sound like someone who would kvetch at the African tribesmen in the hold of a slaver ship for shoving each other.

    Oh, and are you from outer space? However did you miss that human beings, under conditions of overcrowding and scarcity, do what they can to make sure they have enough of whatever scarce resources they can get, and civilized behavior be damned? What would you do if you were in a situation like that? Stand firm in the middle of the chaos and gently chide everyone? Save your breath. Direct your contempt toward the people responsible for packing airplanes past their capacities.

    My point is, when airlines quit acting like jackasses, we’ll maybe have the room to put a reasonable amount of baggage.

  17. Andronicus1717 says:

    ^Nice resource which seems more relevant to the topic than the content of this post.

  18. Javert says:

    The reason they don’t want you to check bags is that they can then sell the space to move cargo which problem is a better income than your bag.

    If this was a legitimate issue with weight and fuel the logical solution would be to simply give each passenger x pounds (or kilos, eh?) and they can either carry it on or check it. Even when they limited passengers to one bag earlier this year, this did not make sense as there is no difference between 2 bags of 10 pounds each and one bag of 20 pounds except that for many people, 2 smaller bags seem to be easier to manage.

    Again, my conspiracy mind says that this is indeed a farce and the airlines simply want to clear the luggage hold for more valuable, commercial cargo.

  19. sean98125 says:

    Why don’t the airlines just charge something like 50 cents per pound of luggage, regardless of whether it is checked or carried on?

    Heck, charge for passenger weight, too. Base the ticket price on the fuel and fee costs to go to a particular place, then add a weight surcharge for the person and his or her luggage.

  20. David M says:

    Sooo do all of these fees just go for checking your bag at the ticket counter or also if you “carry-on” your bag, take it through security, but gate check it?

    I fly on a lot of US Airways Express flights and the overhead compartments can’t even fit a small carry-on bag – everyone just gate checks them.

    So gate checking is charged the fee as well or only if you officially check your bags?

  21. dry-roasted-peanuts says:

    @sean98125: I like the idea, but there would be lawsuits out the ass over it.

  22. HIV 2 Elway says:

    @sean98125: Because then you need to pay people to weight bags and people which doesn’t help minimize costs.

  23. philipbarrett says:


    Absolutely – it’s all about freight. Pays nicely, doesn’t need drinks, oxygen, a window seat or food.

  24. razremytuxbuddy says:

    Charge a substantial fee to anyone needing a seatbelt extension.

    @sean98125: I agree. If weight is the issue, weigh all cargo–human and bags. I’d come out ahead on my weight, but would end up paying more for my luggage because I can’t pack for sh*t.

  25. dcaslin says:

    @David M: I agree, can someone let us know if airlines are charging fees for gate checks?

    If they aren’t then it’s not that big of a deal to avoid the fees, just bring it on the plane and see what happens. Either 1) You’ll have space to store it or 2) You’ll have them gate check it for free.

  26. Jeangenie says:

    But what about overweight person like me, who can pack extremely light?

  27. mikelotus says:

    @Mantichora: idiotic comments upset me

  28. Lambasted says:

    @Mantichora: “steerage”?!

    Oh la-dee-da, excuse me. I thought I was flying on an airplane in the enlightened age. Not sailing on the Titanic in 1912. But we’re only uncouth steerage. Would you expect anything less from us uncivilized heathens?

    Hey, airlines let first class board first. If you can’t take advantage of that and get your bag into the bin, don’t blame us because we saw an opportunity and seized it. Besides, isn’t seizing opportunities something you first class folks should be able to appreciate?

  29. JustThatGuy3 says:


    Yeah, definitely, it’s a total scam. Fuel prices aren’t that high, just look at all the money the airlines are making. Oh, wait, nevermind.

    When you pay for first, you pay for certain benefits, which include a better seat, more bin space, better service, and shorter bathroom lines.

    The FAs should definitely move coach passengers’ bags out of first class bins, just as they shouldn’t let coach passengers plunk down in first class seats, displacing the people who paid for them.

  30. clnclarinet says:

    I’d gladly pay a fee to check a bag if they could guarantee that my bag would get there with me. I’m imagining sort of an on-time insurance where they would refund the fee (or better, more than the fee) if my bag wasn’t on my flight.

    I’ve had my bag lost too many times to ever want to check my bag again– I’d rather just pack light with a carry-on and know I’ll have everything with me.

  31. tspack says:

    I am so sick of the whole flying fiasco that is modern day air travel. I have a trip planned for August, and then that’s it. I have no more trips planned and will stop flying except in an emergency (e.g., if my father dies, I’ll fly home for his funeral). Normally I fly several times a year for work and play, but my work has dropped quite a few trips because no one wants to go any more and are willing to sit in a 6 hour telecon (it’s miserable, but not as miserable as flying), and the few trips that remain I’ve been able to beg off of. As for playing, well, just think of all the money I’ll save by staying home and exploring nearby areas.

  32. Mantichora says:


    Yes, I said steerage, did you also see the quotation marks?

    Coach has become a nightmare with rookies that are flying for the first time with their shopping bags held together with duct tape. They walk through the aisle hitting, kicking and bumping everyone and everything.


    Yes, when you pay, or use points for a First Class seat you can expect certain benefits, all of which you have earned.

  33. ianmac47 says:

    @speedwell: That’s the whole point– charge for the carry on bags and people who are cheap will check their bags instead, and the people who really need or want a carry on will pay the fee. If the airlines are looking to really fleece customers, they should charge a “reserve” fee for the first carry on, so that you are assured a space for your first carry on. Structure it as $25 for the first carry on, $50 for the second. That would probably generate far more cash than checked baggage fees, AND ensure everyone who wanted a carry on got one.

  34. BlackFlag55 says:

    I avoid these new fees by not flying.

    However, douchebaggery should be stomped on at every opportunity, especially douche bags who are offensive in a confined area. Used to be we could smack people around who couldn’t or wouldn’t play fair until they straightened up. Now we have to put up with Rules Rules and More Rules. I wanna go back to hitting. Much more direct, much more effective.

  35. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot says:

    Whenever friends/family ask me why I prefer Amtrak to flying, I point them to stories/comments like these.

  36. RobertW.TX says:

    Another option is to ship your luggage. Whenever I take a non direct flight I ship my luggage UPS Ground a few days ahead of time. I think all the major shippers have a Hold for Pickup option so you can ship your luggage to the UPS terminal at your destination airport. It may be a little more expensive (around $40 for a 50lb bag) but you know your luggage is there before you leave for the airport thanks to tracking information.


  37. JustThatGuy3 says:


    Oops, meant to refer to Lambasta, not to your comment. I agree with you.

  38. Difdi says:

    I own a travel vest with many pockets in it. Between it and a small backpack, I don’t need any checked luggage, and the airlines consider the vest to be a garment, not luggage, so I come in well under the carry-on bag limit. And I could fit 2-3 of the backpack I use inside a suitcase that is right at the limit of carry-on size.

  39. EYESONLY says:

    @ianmac47: @ianmac47: I’d imagine that at least part of the difficulty with charging for carry-ons would be that certain groups would complain that it was discriminatory… People flying with children would be harder hit, as GrandmaSophie mentioned–but also, there’d be the issue of people who need to travel with medications and so on. (A friend of mine who has several chronic illnesses kvetched to me for days after the 3 oz. liquid rule was first introduced.) Personally I wouldn’t mind a carry-on charge (I travel light anyway), but a lot of the alternative methods for calibrating fees (such as weighing passengers, or charging extra for carry-ons) would probably set off lawsuits.

  40. ianmac47 says:


    But the way the system is now, even those who “need” carry on bags can be told there is not enough room overhead. Besides, aren’t we all better off if people with children decide to find an alternate route because the carry on charges make flying too expensive?

    Either way, the way the TSA regulations are going, we will all be flying in hospital gowns, carrying with us nothing but a secure photo identification card.

  41. avsfan123 says:

    Working in Customer Service at an airline that just recently implemented a second bag fee, we’re being trained to charge that second bag fee at the gate if a carry-on piece does not meet requirements. Or you don’t fly. All y’all’s brilliant cost savings ideas aren’t gonna go over when you’ve got a bag nazi such as myself boarding the plane. If I don’t catch it the flight attendants will, and you will be paying for your bag.

    @Javert: YES! Cargo is very expensive and if an aircraft is weight restricted we will pull passengers off to make room for cargo.

  42. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    @avsfan123: Oh, but, sweetcheeks, my bags both do fit requirements. I’m very careful of that. Y’all’s little Nazi power trip is just going to have to shut your pretty little mouth and deal.

  43. kepler11 says:

    thank you, thank you, thank you. For enforcing rules against the amateur travelers such as those on these boards, who the new baggage fees were designed exactly to identify and make money from. They care nothing about what airline they’re flying on, they swing their allegiance without a thought to the cheapest fare, and (in combination with the regulation schemes of the industry) have put the airlines out of business. And yet they complain about not getting meals, hotels, free tickets, when there is a delay, and try to bring three 80 pound suitcases across the country as if it’s a moving van, and become indignant if you raise the baggage charge by $10.

    Go figure.

    but thank you for helping them see a new reality of paying for what they use, and making a little bit of money for the airline to stay afloat.

  44. Amy Alkon000 says:

    I really don’t have a problem paying $15 or $25 for a bag (in fact, I just did — a second bag I had to bring to a conference in Philly), and I wouldn’t whine that a restaurant wouldn’t give me a free plate of French fries, either. I’m amazed by the commenter above who goes on and on about elaborate ways to get a bag on a plane free. Uh, yes, the bag is free if you’re that big of a pushy, sneaky asshole, but then there’s the intangible price you have to pay: knowing you’re a pushy, sneaky, asshole.

    Airlines are going to be going under in this country, for a variety of reasons; probably fuel prices and mismanagement are among the tops. Whatever the reason, we all lose if this happens.

  45. DH405 says:

    @kepler11: What a well-refined sense of superiority you have. Like you’ve been thinking your shit doesn’t stink for all your life… Impressive.

    Allegiance?! It’s a company. It is a business transaction. If Company A can offer me X number of Widgets cheaper than Company B, where do I buy? Simple economics. You think your airline of choice bears any loyalty to YOU?

  46. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    @Amy Alkon: Uh, Amy, it is not the job of the business to tell the customer what they should need. Customers have pre-existing wants and needs, and the business who gets there fastest and cheapest with the best quality solution wins.

    In this case, passengers expect to be able to fly on schedule, without physical pain or emotional harassment, and with sufficient baggage for a trip of a reasonable length. This used to be a no-brainer and airlines used to bend over backward to compete with each other on these things. Now passengers are beginning to notice they are treated simply like unprofitably difficult, messy, and fragile cargo.

  47. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    @Amy Alkon: What’s the opposite of an “asshole” who wants to avoid being fleeced? A mark who thinks it’s virtuous to allow themselves to be scammed? You’re that.

  48. drewapicture says:


    The way to beat this system, is just get a seat near the back of the plane. The staff usually seat from rear to front of the plane, so if you have a back-seat you’re more likely to board first.