Here’s How to Avoid Checked Bag Fees on United Airlines

Fees for checked bags can add up quickly, but you can avoid them with these strategies.
Last updated Apr 27, 2020 | By Sarah Li Cain
Smiling woman using check-in machine at airport

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Travel can be expensive, and baggage fees only add to the costs. Most U.S. domestic flights charge checked bag fees, including United Airlines. Learning how to avoid checked bag fees when flying with United Airlines can save you some significant money, especially if you’re traveling with your spouse or family.

To help you save some cash, let’s take a look at how much checked bags cost with United Airlines — and how to avoid them.

What is United Airlines’ baggage policy?

The exact policies and fees you’ll face on United Airlines depend on your fare class, MileagePlus status, whether you’re carrying on or checking your luggage, and the weight and size of your bag.

But whether it’s a checked or carry-on bag, any bag that has lithium batteries installed needs to be removed and stowed with you, or else it’s not allowed on any United flights.

Other prohibited items are also typically banned by federal law, including oxygen bottles, fireworks, and paints. You can check United’s dangerous goods page or the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) What Can I Bring page for more information.

Carry-ons

United travelers are allowed one small personal item, like a purse or laptop bag (maximum dimensions 9 inches x 10 inches x 17 inches), and a full-sized carry-on bag (maximum dimensions 9 inches x 14 inches x 22 inches).

United Airlines will also let you bring on other items aside from their carry-on restrictions, such as:

  • Items purchased at the airport — think food, reading material, and souvenirs
  • Assistive devices, such as collapsible wheelchairs and crutches
  • FAA-approved child restraint systems or safety seats
  • Diaper bag and breast pump
  • Folding stroller (as long as it fits within the carry-on dimensions)
  • Pet carrier

However, there are a few exceptions. Those who purchase a Basic Economy ticket are only allowed one personal item — a full-size carry-on is not allowed unless the ticket holder is on a trans-Atlantic flight, is a MileagePlus Premier member, or is a primary cardholder using a qualifying MileagePlus credit card. If a Basic Economy traveler brings an ineligible carry-on to the gate and is required to check it, you’ll pay an additional $25 gate handling charge on top of the standard checked-bag fee.

For smaller United Express flights, you may need to gate check your carry-on items if the overhead bins aren’t large enough to accommodate them.

Checked bags

Unfortunately, many travelers will need to pay for checked luggage — but how much you pay depends on your flight route, ticket status, and how many bags you check. On domestic flights, Economy passengers generally pay $30 for the first bag, $40 for the second bag, and $150 for the third bag. Premium tickets can typically check up to two bags for free.

On international flights, Economy passengers generally get one checked bag free; a second bag is $100, and a third is $200. Premium passengers typically get the first two bags free.

To check your exact baggage fees, head to United Airlines’ fee calculator.

The maximum weight for checked bags is 50 pounds for Economy passengers. Business, First Class, Star Alliance Gold, and MileagePlus Premier members are allowed a maximum of 70 pounds. All checked bags need to have a maximum exterior dimension of 62 linear inches.

Oversized and overweight bags will accrue an extra fee — $200 extra for an oversized bag and $100 to $400 extra for an overweight bag. Any bags are over 100 pounds or 115 linear inches will be denied.

You can pay for checked luggage by credit card either when you check in at the airport or by prepaying ahead of time when you check in online. Keep in mind if you prepay, you’ll be charged immediately and won’t be eligible for a refund if you end up checking fewer bags.

How to avoid checked bag fees on United Airlines

Checked bag fees can add up, but there are ways you can bypass paying them. Here’s how to avoid checked bag fees on United Airlines.

1. Only pack a carry-on

If you can fit everything into your personal and carry-on items, you won’t need to pay any baggage fees. Remember, though, that Basic Economy passengers may only be allowed one personal item on a flight. Check the fine print so you’re not caught by surprise.

2. Join the United loyalty program

United’s MileagePlus program offers perks including free checked bags if you’re a Premier member. To reach this status, you’ll need to earn a certain number of Premier qualifying miles (PQM) or Premier qualifying segments (PQS). You’ll also need to meet a minimum annual spending threshold if you reside in the U.S. and fly at least four flights or segments within a calendar year to qualify.

There are four Premier levels — Silver, Gold, Platinum, and 1K. Based on your Premier status and the ticket class you purchased, you could be allowed one to three free checked bags. The higher your status, the more free bags you’re allowed.

3. Buy a premium ticket

Economy class tickets are generally subject to a checked bag fee, so consider purchasing a Premium Economy class ticket (or higher) to avoid these charges. These classes get up to two checked bags for free. If you have an oversized or overweight bag, you may be charged extra fees.

4. Bring your military documentation

Active U.S. military personnel are exempt from many checked luggage fees. For personal travel, you’re allowed up to three bags weighing 70 pounds each for free. Those traveling for official business are allowed up to five free bags weighing up to 100 pounds each.

Dependents of active military personnel could also access these same benefits in some situations.

5. Get a United credit card

United Airlines credit cardholders can get access to perks such as free checked bags and the ability to earn bonus reward miles. Whether you qualify for these cards depends on your creditworthiness.

Here are some of the current offers and benefits you can get with a United credit card:

Card Perks you get on United Annual fee
United Explorer Card
  • First checked bag free
  • Priority boarding
  • Credits for in-flight purchases
  • Up to $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck fee
  • Two United Club passes
  • Earn 40,000 bonus miles after spending $2,000 in the first 3 months
$95 (waived first year)
United Business Card
  • First checked bag free
  • Priority boarding
  • Two United Club passes
  • Earn 100,000 bonus miles after spending $10,000 in the first three months
$99
United MileagePlus Club Card
  • First and second checked bag free
  • United Club lounge membership
  • Complimentary upgrades on awards tickets
  • Preferential treatment with Premier Access
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months
$450
United MileagePlus Club Business Card
  • First and second checked bag free
  • United Club lounge membership
  • Complimentary upgrades on awards tickets
  • Preferential treatment with Premier Access
  • Earn 100,000 bonus miles after spending $10,000 on purchases in the first three months (limited-time offer)
$450

6. Use a general travel card

More general travel credit cards could also help you save on baggage fees in a number of ways. First, you may be able to transfer credit card points to United. For example, you could transfer points from the Chase Sapphire Preferred to the United MileagePlus program, then use those points to purchase a premium ticket and avoid baggage fees.

Some cards even offer credits that cover baggage fees directly. The airline credit offered with select American Express cards, for instance, could reimburse you for up to $250 of baggage fees if you choose United as your primary airline.

Bottom line

Saving money on baggage fees from United Airlines is completely possible if you take the time to figure out which strategy is best for you. Signing up for a rewards credit card, packing light, or working toward MileagePlus Premier status are all viable options.

Whichever method you choose, make sure to read the fine print so you’re not in for a surprise when you check in.

Best Rewards for United

Benefits

  • 40,000 mile sign-up bonus
  • 2X miles on United purchases and at restaurants
  • 3X points on grocery purchases — up to $1,500 per month (ends June 30, 2020)
  • Free first checked bag
  • 2 United Club Passes annually