More than 7 in 10 Americans have travel plans this holiday season, according to a recent Orbitz survey. Although some people will drive or take a train, many will journey by plane. And that often means fees of $25 or more for each checked bag. Only one U.S. airline, Southwest, is holding out and letting all passengers check a bag for free. Some airlines even charge for carry-ons now. But there are ways to lower, avoid, or get reimbursed for baggage fees.
Many airlines offer branded credit cards with travel-related benefits. A common perk is allowing cardholders to check the first bag free on the associated airline if they buy a ticket with the card. The benefit often extends to travel companions, as well. American Airlines' Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select card, for example, grants the free-bag privilege to the cardholder and up to four others. The Chase United MileagePlus Explorer card extends a similar pass to one companion.
There are several so-called travel credit cards that give cardholders credit to help cover travel-related costs such as Wi-Fi, onboard food and drinks, and checked-bag fees. American Express Platinum awards cardholders up to $200 each year in airline-fee credit, in addition to many other travel benefits, but imposes a hefty $450 annual fee. The recently released Chase Sapphire Reserve includes up to $300 in travel-related credit but also has a $450 annual fee.
Some airlines charge more for bags when travelers pay the fee at the airport. Although paying in advance usually doesn't negate baggage fees entirely, any opportunity to save is worth grabbing. For example, paying for the first checked bag while booking directly with Spirit Airlines typically costs $30; paying during early check-in (from home or wherever) is $40; paying at an airport kiosk costs $50; and paying at the gate ups the fee to $100.
Earning status in an airline's loyalty program is no doubt easier said than done, and frequent travelers might already know the ins and outs of fees. Still, it's worth noting that baggage fees are often waived for frequent flyers who have reached elite status. This is true even at the lowest status level on legacy carriers American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United.
Another easier-said-than-done tactic (especially during the holidays), but one that deserves high priority, is packing light. Many airlines let passengers carry on one bag and one personal item, such as a backpack or purse, free of charge. Try consolidating down to those two items and say goodbye to the checked-bag fee. Alternatively, ask a travel companion with space to spare to share a carry-on. And don't forget the bulky-clothing trick: Wear a coat or boots onto the plane and stash them in the overhead bin after boarding.
Some budget airlines, including Frontier, Allegiant, and Spirit, charge for carry-on bags, as well as checked luggage. (United Airlines announced a similar policy for its new Basic Economy class.) Passengers on budget carriers also pay a la carte for all sorts of small things, such as soft drinks and coffee. After all is said and done, the flight could cost more than a slightly pricier ticket on one of the legacy airlines.
Related: Airline Fees: A Complete Guide
Not only does another checked bag add another fee, the second typically costs $10 more than the first. Alaska Airlines and Virgin America are notable for charging the same fee for the first and second bags ($25). For travelers who have three or more bags to check, Virgin America stands out for allowing up to 10 bags at $25 each, while other airlines charge up to $150 for the third bag and beyond.
Checked-bag fees often are waived for at least one bag on select international routes. Oversize and overweight charges could still apply, and in some cases a second checked bag is more expensive than it would be for domestic travel. On Delta, for example, a second checked bag on a Europe-bound flight costs $100 compared with $35 on a domestic flight (but the first bag is free).
Active-duty military personnel and their dependents may be able to bring several checked bags for free when traveling together. Dependents might get the fee waiver when traveling alone if the trip is part of an official order.
Especially during the holidays, when presents need to get home but don't necessarily need to fly with you, consider mailing a package rather than checking a bag. Also look into the flat-rate boxes offered by the Postal Service if you have a few small but heavy items that could lead to expensive overweight-baggage fees (up to $200 on major airlines).