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 they don't have to break your travel budget. Some advance planning will help you keep your checked baggage costs to a minimum.

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 fees 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 do not own a lightweight bag, consider buying one or 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 do not know your airline's baggage weight limit, read your contract of carriage or visit your airline's website to find out how much each bag should weigh.

Weigh and measure your carry-on bag, too. Carry-on weight limits range from 15 pounds at Qantas to 40 pounds at Delta. Carry-on item dimensions vary by airline and type of aircraft. Some airlines do not publish carry-on bag weight limits on their websites, so it is a good idea to check your contract of carriage to be sure you know whether such a limit exists. This will let you know whether you can move some items from your checked bag to your carry-on bag if you are close to the checked baggage weight limit.

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 do not take up as much room or weigh as much as adult clothing does.

Wear your bulkiest clothing, accessories and shoes so that you do not 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 will 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 probably will not 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 cannot 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 is 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.