If you’ve ever flown before, you know what a hassle it can be to make sure everything is just right as you’re packing your luggage. Depending on the airline you booked, you’ll likely have to follow strict guidelines for baggage allowances. This means on top of paying to check your luggage, you may also need to make sure your carry-on and checked luggage aren’t overweight or considered excess baggage — or you could face even heftier fees.
You won’t always have to pay a baggage fee, but many of us have been faced with this expense. According to a FinanceBuzz airline fees report, 53% of travelers said they have paid a checked bag fee and 31% have paid a carry-on fee. Because flights aren’t necessarily inexpensive to begin with, having to pay extra on top of your ticket can be frustrating.
However, baggage fees can be easily avoided — if you know a few simple tricks. Here, we’ll look at how baggage fees work and how you can easily avoid them on many popular airlines, often by using the right credit cards.
How do baggage fees work?
The way baggage fees work will depend on the airline you’re flying with. These days, you can typically expect to have baggage fees for any checked baggage on most U.S. airlines, unless you’re flying internationally. Domestic flights within the U.S. used to have more freedom from baggage fees, but now it’s an expense that is more commonplace.
Airline baggage fees can be divided into three general categories:
- Carry-on baggage: This is a smaller piece of luggage you bring with you into the plane’s cabin. It will typically go into the overhead compartment but can sometimes fit underneath the seat in front of you. Most airlines won’t charge a carry-on baggage fee, unless they’re a budget airline like Spirit or Allegiant.
- Checked baggage: Larger, checked luggage is stored in the hold of the plane and you won’t have access to it during your flight. Expect to pay baggage fees for checked luggage on most U.S. airlines. On an international flight, many airlines allow you to bring one checked bag for free but will charge for anything additional.
- Personal items: Most airlines allow you to bring one personal item, separate from your carry-on bag and its contents, onto the plane for free. This could be a purse, briefcase, laptop, or small backpack.
Southwest Airlines is the only major U.S. carrier remaining that doesn’t charge checked baggage fees. As long as your checked baggage doesn’t exceed the dimensions and weight specified by Southwest, you get two checked bags for free on every Southwest flight. It’s an amazing benefit for Southwest fliers and could possibly save you hundreds of dollars each year after only a few round-trip flights. Between savings on bags and savings on flights, you can see why so many people love flying Southwest with points. Not to mention they have one of the best airline credit cards for redeeming miles.
In contrast, we can look at the United Airlines baggage policy. For economy fares, it charges $35 for your first checked bag and $45 for your second. That’s $80 total for two checked bags for a one-way flight. If you’re traveling round-trip, you’re paying $160 total in baggage fees. Two round-trip flights in a year and you’re looking at $320 in fees. It’s easy to see how quickly baggage fees can start adding up.
And that doesn’t even account for overweight baggage fees. Expect to pay more for your baggage if it’s over the weight or size limit dictated by the airline on which you’re flying. Checked baggage weight limits are typically set at 50 pounds, which is United’s basic economy fare limit.
If you’re flying with United and go over this weight limit, you’ll pay these fees:
- $100 per overweight bag up to 70 pounds
- $200 per overweight bag between over 70 pounds and less than 100 pounds
- Checked bags weighing more than 100 pounds aren’t accepted
Rules regarding sports equipment and musical instruments will vary by the airline as well. For United, most sports equipment follows the same rules as checked baggage when it comes to weight, but there may be allowances for oversized bags.
Depending on the airline, you may not have to pay extra for special items like strollers or car seats either. But you’ll want to be sure to read your airline’s rules before you make any assumption about baggage fees.
How to avoid baggage fees on 14 airlines
To help you have a better flight experience, we’ve created guides on how to avoid baggage fees for many of the most popular airlines out there. Each airline has different baggage policies — and different tricks for avoiding their fees — so it’s essential to read the appropriate guide to get the specific information you need.
Here’s how to avoid baggage fees on these major airlines:
- Aeromexico baggage fees
- Air Canada baggage fees
- Alaska Airlines baggage fees
- Allegiant Airlines baggage fees
- American Airlines baggage fees
- British Airways baggage fees
- Delta baggage fees
- Frontier Airlines baggage fees
- Hawaiian Airlines baggage fees
- JetBlue baggage fees
- Korean Air baggage fees
- Spirit Airlines baggage fees
- Sun Country Airlines baggage fees
- Turkish Airlines baggage fees
- United Airlines baggage fees
Quick tips for avoiding baggage fees
Although it depends on the airline, there are almost always ways to avoid baggage fees when you’re flying. Here are a few quick tips you can try to avoid an additional cost for your bags:
- Pack light. This may seem like an obvious option, but it won’t be possible for everyone. However, if you can reduce the number of items you’re packing, you won’t have to bring as much luggage. Packing light is the way to go for many travelers, as it allows you to avoid checked baggage fees and streamline your airport experience. Skipping the check-in counter and the baggage claim can be real time-savers, and you'll avoid the hassle of rummaging through the overhead bin to find your bags. If you can make it work, think about trading your luggage for a backpack.
- Know the policies. There’s nothing quite as frustrating as having to pay baggage fees because you weren’t aware of the rules. That’s why it’s a best practice to make sure you know the policy of each airline you fly. Some airlines allow carry-on luggage for free, whereas others don’t. Also, the size and weight limitations can vary between different airlines. Be on the safe side and review the policies before you fly.
- Buy a premium fare. It’s not uncommon for airlines to reward passengers who pay more for their airfare, which is why a premium (non-economy) fare often has a free checked bag allowance. The cost of a business class or first class fare may actually be more than what you’re saving on baggage fees, but the better seat could have other perks as well. Increased legroom or in-flight amenities can go a long way to making your flight experience that much better.
- Earn elite status. Many airline loyalty programs offer benefits like free checked bags when you reach a certain elite status tier in the program. For example, an AAdvantage Gold member gets one free bag on American Airlines flights.
- Show your military ID. Active-duty military members (and sometimes their dependents) are eligible for free benefits on most major U.S. airlines. A common benefit is being able to check your bags for free. If you’re in the military, make sure you let the airline know so you can avoid baggage fees.
- Open a travel rewards credit card. Opening a travel rewards credit card is one of the easiest ways to get free checked bags — and other convenient perks like priority boarding. There are plenty of airline credit cards out there that give you benefits on specific carriers. With the United Explorer Card, cardholders get their first checked bag for free on United flights. With the JetBlue Plus Card, it’s the same — cardholders get their first checked bag for free on JetBlue Airlines flights.
FAQs about baggage fees
Which airlines allow two checked bags?
Southwest Airlines is the only U.S. carrier that allows two free checked bags on every flight. Most airlines allow at least two checked bags, but you’ll typically have to pay for one or both of your bags.
What happens if your luggage is overweight?
Airlines have limits on how much your luggage can weigh. This can include both carry-on luggage and checked luggage. If your luggage is overweight, expect to be charged an overweight baggage fee. The fee varies by airline, but it can reach hundreds of dollars on United.
Do you get a free checked bag on international flights?
Many airlines offer a free checked bag for international flights, but you’ll have to check the policies of your specific carrier. For major U.S. carriers, these airlines offer a free checked bag on various international flights (it may depend on the route and time of year):
- American Airlines
- Delta Air Lines
- Southwest Airlines
- United Airlines
Is it more expensive to pay for baggage at the airport?
If you have to pay for baggage, it’s typically less expensive to pay for it in advance before you get to the airport. Many airlines offer lower baggage fees when you pay in advance, usually by at least 24 hours before your flight is scheduled to depart.
For example, United’s standard fee is $35 for your first checked bag and $45 for a second. But if you pay in advance, it would be $30 for the first and $40 for the second. Ten dollars in savings may not seem like much, but it can add up if you fly a lot.
Which credit cards come with free baggage perks?
Several travel rewards credit cards offer free checked baggage perks, including:
- Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard: Get your first checked bag free on domestic flights, plus a free checked bag for up to four other family members or friends on the same reservation.
- Delta SkyMiles Platinum American Express Card: Get one checked bag for each person booked on your Delta flight reservation with this co-branded Amex card.
- Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Credit Card: Get your first checked bag free, plus a free checked bag for up to six others on your reservation.
- Chase Sapphire Reserve: While it doesn't come with a free checked bag benefit, this card offers a $300 annual travel credit that can help offset the cost of baggage fees.
In as few as six months, airlines like American, Delta, and United all collected more than $400 million dollars each in baggage fees, according to a FinanceBuzz report on airline fees. Baggage fees clearly bring in heaps of money for airlines, but they're one fee you should never pay. With so many ways to avoid baggage fees, you can easily save some money when you fly.
Remember to check the airline policies well ahead of any scheduled flight. This is the easiest way to avoid baggage fees or at least pay less for your luggage. Knowing the rules in advance will give you sufficient time to make a plan of action, whether that means paying lower baggage fees before you get to the airport, packing lighter, or opening one of the best travel credit cards (which come with many more benefits beyond just free checked bags).