Top Tips for Beating the Airlines' Checked Baggage Fees

Make the Most of Your Checked Baggage Allowance

Pack carefully to minimize checked baggage fees.
••• Tim Boyle / Getty Images

Airline checked baggage fees are here to stay, but you don't have to blow your travel budget on them. Some advance planning will help you keep your air travel costs to a minimum.

First, do your homework before you travel. Just as you would investigate your airfare options, take some time to find out about checked baggage fees and restrictions.

Here are some tips for reducing the impact of checked bag fees on your vacation budget.

Choose an airline with no or lower fees for checked baggage. Southwest does not charge for checked bags, and some airlines, including JetBlue, still let you check one bag for free under certain fare plans.

Use a lightweight suitcase or duffel bag unless you are carrying breakable items, such as bottles of wine, in your checked baggage. If you don't own a lightweight bag, consider borrowing one from a friend.

Pack light to make the most of your checked baggage allowance. Weigh your packed suitcases to make sure they do not go over your airline's weight limit, which is typically 50 pounds per bag. Be sure to leave room for souvenirs and anything else you might want to bring back. If you don't know your airline's baggage weight limit, read your contract of carriage to find out how much each bag should weigh.

Weigh and measure your carry-on bag, too. Carry-on weight limits range from 16.5 pounds at Virgin America to 40 pounds at Delta. Carry-on item dimensions vary by airline and type of aircraft. Some airlines don't publish carry-on bag weight limits on their websites, so it's a good idea to check your contract of carriage to be sure you know whether such a limit exists.

If you are traveling with someone else and your checked bag is near your airline's weight limit, put some of your items into your companion's checked bag. This strategy is particularly effective if you are traveling with children or grandchildren, as their clothes don't take up as much room or weigh as much as adult clothing does.

Wear your bulkiest clothe, accessories and shoes so that you don't have to put them into your suitcase. You can take your coat off once you are on the airplane. If you are flying during the winter months, you'll probably want to wear layers anyway.

If you fly often, stick to one airline so that you can build up enough frequent flyer miles to attain "elite" or "premier" status. Once you hit this milestone, you won't be charged checked baggage fees.

Consider acquiring an airline credit card. Some airlines allow their credit card holders to check bags for free. (Tip: Adding another credit card to your wallet may impact your credit score. It might be cheaper in the long run to pay checked baggage fees once or twice a year rather than pay extra interest on your loans when your credit score goes down.)

Take advantage of gate-check offers before you board your airplane. As of this writing, nearly every US domestic airline offers passengers the option to gate-check a carry-on bag for free. Of course, you will need to plan ahead if you want to gate-check your bag; keep everything valuable and breakable, including prescription drugs, in your "personal item," which can be a laptop bag, purse, tote bag or day pack.

Mail items to your destination if doing so will save you money. Avoid mailing anything you can't live without, such as prescription drugs, medical supplies and essential items of clothing.

Rent large items that you will only use once or twice during your trip, such as golf clubs, skis, scuba gear, surfboards or bicycles. It is often less expensive to rent sports equipment than to check it as baggage, particularly if you already plan to check two bags. Some airlines charge as much as $100 for your third checked bag – and that's only for a one-way flight.

Of course, you can always skip checking a bag altogether, provided you can stuff all of your clothing and travel gear into your carry-on bag.