An updated report on Cheapism.com compares airline baggage fees at 12 U.S. carriers. This is vital information for holiday travelers because heavy gifts and bulky winter clothing can undermine all the hard work of tracking down the lowest airfare.
Many people who travel for the holidays pack a carry-on bag in addition to a suitcase or two that must be checked. Three budget airlines that often boast low ticket prices -- Spirit Airlines, Allegiant Air, and Frontier Airlines -- now charge as much as $75 or $100 for a carry-on bag. You can minimize the fee, however, by paying for the carry-on before arriving at the airport and, in the case of Frontier, escape it entirely by buying tickets directly from Frontier.com. Alternatively, scratch these airlines from your list while searching for cheap flights.
Even the legacy carriers assess shockingly high fees for checked bags. Delta Air Lines recently raised baggage fees for overweight and oversized bags to match those at United Airlines; an oversize bag weighing more than 71 pounds now adds $400 to your fare. Like the budget airlines, the larger carriers also reward prepaying for checked bags with a discount.
Aside from the three airlines mentioned above, none of the carriers we researched charge for carry-on bags. Southwest Airlines and JetBlue don't even charge for the first checked bag and several other carriers waive the first checked-bag fee if you book tickets using the airline's branded credit card. If you must pay, the fee for a checked bag ranges from $20 on Alaska Airlines to $75 at Allegiant for a last-minute gate-check. If you're traveling with two checked bags, the cheapest route is via Southwest Airlines, the only carrier that doesn't charge for baggage. Alaska Airlines and JetBlue rank second: $40 for a carry-on and two checked bags.
Heavy and Bulky = Expensive.
Weighing suitcases before arriving at the airport can be a time and money saver. Bags 51 pounds and over often cost an additional $50-$100, and on Delta, United, and American, bags weighing more than 71 pounds cost an additional $200. Two of the less expensive carriers, Alaska Airlines and Southwest, charge $50 and $75, respectively, for bags weighing 51-100 pounds. Spirit and Allegiant launch overweight fees at the 41-pound mark. Even if you're willing to pay, no carrier will accept bags weighing more than 100 pounds.
Oversize bags can cause sticker shock at the airport as well. Bags measuring more than 62 inches (length + width + height) come with a minimum $50 surcharge on Virgin America and Alaska Airlines and $200 at American Airlines and Delta. Allegiant is a stickler here, as it imposes strict size limitations for carry-on bags and personal items.
How to Avoid the Fees.
Sometimes airline baggage fees are unavoidable, but often a little pre-airport preparation can make all the difference. Weighing bags and rearranging heavy items to avoid overages can save you big bucks. You may be able to get away with stashing heavier items in carry-on rollers because airlines rarely weigh them. (Just remember you'll have to hoist the bag overhead.) Bringing an extra fold-up duffel bag during the holidays is insurance against overweight bags on the return flight when you're laden with gifts. A second checked bag is always cheaper than paying for excess weight, and even the fee for a third checked bag is often the same or less than that for an overweight bag.
Oversized bags are harder to conceal. If a single object is causing the infraction there's no way around paying the fee at the airport, which is why shipping the item may be the cheapest option. If the item is a gift, shipping is just a one-way charge and usually less costly than a baggage fee, even for cross-country journeys.
Overweight and oversized bags result in the steepest baggage fees. Avoid these by distributing heavy items among bags, wearing heavy coats, packing an extra duffel bag, and shipping large gifts. If you're concerned about bag-check fees, Southwest, JetBlue, and Alaska Airlines assess the lowest charges. See the full comparison here.