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 Mar 6, 2021 | 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.

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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 baggage 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 checked baggage fees — but how much you pay depends on your flight route, class of service, 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, use the United.com baggage calculator.

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

Oversized baggage and overweight baggage 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.  If you need to check more than three bags, you'll also need to pay an excess baggage fee, which can range from $150 to $500.

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 United Airlines baggage fees.

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 credit cards depends on your creditworthiness.

Here are some of the current offers and benefits you can get with a United credit card so that you choose the best airline credit card for you:

Card Perks you get on United Annual fee
United Explorer Card
  • First checked bag free for you and a travel companion
  • 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, plus an additional 25,000 bonus miles after spending $10,000 in the first 6 months
$95 (waived first year)
United Business Card
  • First checked bag free for you and a travel companion
  • Priority boarding
  • Two United Club passes
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles after spending $5,000 in the first three months
$99 (waived first year)
United MileagePlus Club Card
  • First and second checked bag free for you and a travel companion
  • 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 for you and a travel companion
  • 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 of the best travel credit 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.

FAQs about United Airlines' baggage policy

Does United allow a free checked bag?

United offers free checked bags for all business and first-class customers, regardless of destination. Economy customers flying to Europe or other long-distance destinations receive one free checked bag. Complimentary checked bags are not included for customers flying with Economy Basic fare.

Some complimentary checked bag services are also available for active U.S. military personnel and their dependents. This includes up to three free checked bags for personal travel, five for business travel, and two for military dependents with travel orders. You may also be eligible for free checked bags if you have certain United credit cards or you’re a MileagePlus Premier member.

How much does it cost to check a bag on United?

Your first checked bags on U.S. domestic flights with United will cost up to $35. A second bag is up to $45, and a third or any additional bags are $150. Be sure to keep in mind size and weight restrictions when checking a bag with United.

For travelers flying economy, checked bags cannot exceed 50 pounds. For United first and business class, as well as MileagePlus members with Premier status, bags cannot exceed 70 pounds. All bags, regardless of the traveler, must not have any dimensions greater than 62 inches — this includes all wheels and handles.

Can you bring a backpack and a carry-on on a United flight?

Most travelers are allowed to bring one carry-on bag and one personal item. There are some exceptions. If you’re traveling Basic Economy on United Airlines for a U.S. domestic flight, you can bring only one personal item with you. Similarly, there may be restrictions on how many items you can take on board when traveling with a United Express Flight, as these regional partner airlines tend to use smaller planes with less space for baggage.

If one of these unique situations applies to you, it’s best to verify your baggage limitations with United in advance. In all events, carry-on bags cannot exceed 9-by-14-by-22 inches, and personal items cannot exceed 9-by-10-by-17 inches.

Does United waive baggage fees if you have elite status?

United waives certain baggage fees for its MileagePlus Premier members. Each level offers slightly different checked baggage allowance perks, starting with one free bag for Premier Silver members (the lowest tier of membership) traveling within the United States, Mexico, Canada, or Central America all the way up to three free bags for Premier 1k members (the highest level of membership). Premier Gold members receive two free bags for this type of trip, and Premier Platinum members receive three. For longer trips from the U.S. (including destinations in Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa) Premier Silver members receive two free bags, whereas Premier Gold, Premier Platinum, and Premier 1k members all receive three.

Keep in mind that there may be exceptions to these bag allotments based on specific destinations. It’s best to check with United in advance to ensure you pack the correct number of bags.

Which United credit cards give you free checked bags?

Several United Chase credit cards offer free checked baggage as part of their member perks. The United Explorer Card, United Club Card, Presidential Plus Card, United Business card, and United Club Business Card all offer at least one free checked bag for cardholders. The Club Card, Presidential Plus Card, and United Club Business Card also offer a second free checked bag for cardholders. Depending on which card you have, this service amounts to between $140 and $320 in savings for a roundtrip flight.


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

  • Up to 65,000 mile sign-up bonus
  • 2X miles on United purchases, restaurants, and delivery services
  • Free first checked bag
  • 2 United Club Passes annually