How to Avoid Checked Baggage Fees

The costs of checking baggage keeps going up. Here’s how to minimize the damage to your wallet.

Check-in employee attaches a luggage tag to blue suitcase of passenger, with closeup of hands

U.S. airlines may charge as much as $45 to check a first bag and as much as $60 for a second bag.

Photo by Shutterstock

It wasn’t all that long ago that Americans could check their luggage on flights for free.

Back in 2002, American Airlines became the first U.S. airline to charge a bag fee. It was $50 but only applied to bags that weighed more than 50 pounds. Within six months, United and Alaska Airlines followed suit. But it wasn’t until 2008 that American announced it would begin charging $15 for all first checked bags. Within months, all the other major airlines rolled out similar programs, citing the Great Recession and the high cost of airline fuel.

Today, the charges are ubiquitous—and several U.S. airlines, including United, JetBlue, Alaska, and American, just increased checked-bag fees again. According to the Department of Transportation, travelers spent about $5.5 billion on checked bag fees within the USA in the first three quarters of 2023.

However, with careful planning (and some smart packing), you can avoid these fees altogether, saving both money and hassle. Here’s a guide on how to navigate the world of air travel without having to pay checked baggage fees.

Fly with certain airlines

Only one airline in the United States still allows each passenger two free bags regardless of their ticket type: Southwest Airlines.

“If you must travel with bags, or equipment like golf bags and skis, consider checking to see if you can fly Southwest for even just part of the trip to save,” said Katy Nastro, a travel expert at flight deal tracking service

Similarly, consider airlines that allow certain types of bags to fly free. Alaska Airlines, for example, lets travelers check a case of wine or a ski bag for free, no matter their fare.

Join a frequent flier program and choose the right credit card

Loyalty to one airline (or one airline alliance) can net you perks like complimentary upgrades, discounted lounge access, and, importantly, free checked bags. However, note that policies vary by airline and by what tier you’ve earned.

Similarly, credit cards that are cobranded with airlines include free checked bags for the cardholder and at least one companion. (The Delta SkyMiles credit cards from American Express allow for one free bag for up to nine people on the same reservation.) But be sure to read the fine print: On United, you have to buy the flight with a credit card, whereas American and Delta allow cardholders to receive the perk still provided their credit card is linked to their frequent flier account.

Even some unaffiliated cards, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Capital One Venture X, offer travel credits you can apply toward bag fees.

Consider a fare upgrade

Sometimes, the difference in fare between Basic and Main Economy or Main and Premium Economy is worth the extra money, especially when bags are involved.

“Long-haul flights to Europe, for example, almost always are worth upgrading to Main economy from Basic for the price since they can include bags, ticket changes, better boarding, seat selection, et cetera,” Nastro said. “And some airlines (like SAS, TAP, and Icelandair) have been known to charge less for Main versus Basic Economy with an added bag fee.”

Pay for baggage ahead of time

Nastro noted that many foreign and domestic low-cost carriers have varying policies on baggage when it comes to carry-ons and that it’s important to check those limitations ahead of time. Simply because your bag complies with one airline doesn’t mean it will for others, especially when it comes to weight.

“Low-cost carriers have a reputation for charging hefty fees for add-ons, but also what some may not realize is that the cost may increase if you don’t purchase at the time of booking,” Nastro said. “Do yourself a favor, and if you must check a bag, add it sooner rather than later.”

Check baggage at the gate

If you can fit your belongings into a carry-on but don’t necessarily want to lug them through the various airports on your itinerary, you might be able to volunteer to gate-check your bag.

Gary Leff, a points-and-miles expert and the founder of blog View From the Wing, said that while “some airlines and agents will try to charge for this (airlines like Spirit and Frontier frequently will), it is oftentimes a step that gets skipped in the rush to get planes boarded and out on time.”

Consider shipping your luggage

If you need to bring bulky or heavy items that won’t fit in your carry-on bag, consider shipping them to your destination instead of checking them as luggage. Shipping items in advance may be more cost-effective than paying checked baggage fees, especially if you’re traveling with oversize or overweight items. Additionally, shipping allows you to track your belongings and ensures they arrive safely at your destination.

Pack light

Arguably, the most surefire way to not have to pay for checked baggage is to pack light enough that your stuff fits into an appropriately sized carry-on bag that can be stashed under your seat or in the overhead bin for free (especially now that airlines are finally adding enough overhead bin space for all carry-ons). Experts say there is a psychological reason we tend to overpack, but having a good strategy for packing light can help keep your baggage—and baggage fees—in check.

Bailey Berg is a freelance travel writer and editor, who covers breaking news, trends, tips, transportation, sustainability, the outdoors, and more. She was formerly the associate travel news editor at AFAR. Her work can also be found in the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, the Points Guy, Atlas Obscura, Vice, Thrillist, Men’s Journal, Architectural Digest, Forbes, Lonely Planet, and beyond.
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