Major airlines raised fees for checked bags. Here are 7 ways to cut costs

Major airlines raised fees for checked bags. Here are 7 ways to cut costs © Provided by CNBC
  • Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, JetBlue Airways and United Airlines have raised their fees for checked bags in 2024.
  • Checking bags generally adds an extra $60 or more to the cost of a basic round-trip fare.
  • Travel experts share ways to reduce or avoid those fees.
  • A handful of airlines — Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, JetBlue Airways and United Airlines — have raised their fees for checked bags this year. But if you plan ahead, such fees are easy to reduce or avoid altogether.

    On Friday, United raised its fee to $40 for a first checked bag at the airport, and to $35 for those who prepay online at least 24 hours before their flight — both of which are a $5 increase.

American similarly upped its fees earlier last week. JetBlue also recently increased its checked-bag fee to $45, and Alaska to $35.

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Such fee changes are “likely to impact families the worst because families tend to travel with checked bags,” said Katy Nastro, travel expert at Going, a platform that helps travelers find airfare deals.

Checked bag fees represent big revenue

A checked bag is one stored in a plane’s cargo hold during a flight. While that service was free in years past, it’s now standard for major airlines to charge for checked bags.

Major U.S. airlines started doing so in 2008, levying around $15 a bag, Nastro said.

By late 2023, it was about double for many carriers: $30 to $35 for one checked bag, Nastro said. That means travelers who checked a bag on each leg of a round-trip itinerary could add an extra $60 to $70 to the total cost of their basic fare.

Recent changes from American and United mean travelers could now incur an additional $80 total if they check one bag at the airport.

Rates generally increase for each additional checked bag.

How to reduce — or avoid — airline fees for checked bags© Provided by CNBC

Passengers paid about $6.8 billion in total baggage fees in 2022, the last full year for which data is available, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That’s up 17% from roughly $5.8 billion in 2019, even though fewer passengers flew on U.S. carriers in 2022, Bureau of Transportation Statistics data shows.

“Unless baggage is included in a higher-class (premium economy, first, business class, etc.) ticket, passengers should expect to pay a fee,” Eric Napoli, vice president of legal strategy at AirHelp, which helps passengers file claims for airline compensation, said in an email.

Here’s how cost-conscious consumers can reduce those fees, and perhaps avoid them altogether, according to travel experts.

1. Fly with certain airlines

How to reduce — or avoid — airline fees for checked bags© Provided by CNBC

There are a few airlines that still don’t charge for a checked bag.

Southwest, for example, is the one outlier in the U.S., experts said. The carrier allows two free checked bags.

The “Big Three” Gulf Airlines — Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways and Emirates — still offer free baggage, as does Air India, according to Aiden Higgins, senior editor of The Broke Backpacker website.

These carriers may have certain restrictions, including for luggage size and weight.

Of course, just because they may not charge for bags doesn’t mean their fares are cheaper than others when assessing overall cost. They also may not fly routes that work for travelers’ itineraries.

2. Combine bags

Travel partners may also consider combining suitcases.

A family of four may be able to condense four bags into two, potentially cutting checked-bag fees in half, experts said.

Families with small kids may be able to leverage the space within a car seat carrier, “since airlines don’t charge for one car seat per child,” Nastro said. “You can often fit a small soft duffel into that space to keep items contained,” she added.

Passengers need to consider airlines’ weight requirements for bags and whether consolidating suitcases could trigger additional fees.

3. Skip checking a bag

Traveling light — only with a personal item and/or carry-on bag, depending on what your airline and fare class permit for free — is “the only fool-proof way” to avoid paying a checked-bag fee, Napoli said.

Of course, this won’t be possible for everyone.

But passengers “can sneak quite a bit into the cabin” within airline limits, especially with a well-packed backpack — aided by packing cubes — combined with a sling bag and/or a tote bag, Higgins said.

Passengers with softer, duffel-bag-type luggage that’s more pliable may have an easier time meeting carry-on size requirements versus those with a hard case, Nastro said.

4. Consider a fare upgrade

Major airlines raised fees for checked bags. Here are 7 ways to cut costs© Provided by CNBC

Even the major carriers generally charge for carry-ons on basic economy fares, experts said.

A higher-tier ticket for a higher cost might include a baggage allowance, in which case passengers may wind up paying the same total price compared with a lower-cost fare while also getting some additional benefits such as the ability to choose a seat or make flight changes, experts said.

“If you are using an aggregator like Skyscanner, it can sometimes work out cheaper to go with the 2nd or 3rd most expensive flight if the airline is [also] offering baggage,” Higgins said.

Travelers should read the fine print to discern what baggage is included in their ticket, which varies by airline and ticket class, Napoli said.

5. Add bags early

Whether you’re checking a bag or carrying one on for a fee, declaring that early can save you money.

For example, a standard passenger flying Spirit Airlines from New York to Los Angeles for the weekend (March 1-3) would pay $49 for a carry-on, according to the carrier’s price chart. A checked bag is cheaper at $44.

But these prices assume passengers add their bags during the initial online booking process. Those who wait to pay until arriving at the gate, for example, would pay $99 for a checked bag or carry-on, the chart indicates.

For those who know they’ll need to add a bag, “nine times out of 10 it’s always cheaper to do it upon booking” instead of deferring until later, Nastro said.

Relatively high fees for “add ons” such as bags mean a budget carrier may not be the cheapest option when assessing total cost and value, she said.

6. Buy a luggage scale, lightweight bags

Buying and using a luggage scale before traveling can help travelers avoid surprise fees at the airport due to exceeding a weight limit on checked bags.

“At least weigh your suitcase before you even book the flight,” Higgins said. “Once upon a time, airlines might have turned a blind eye” to additional weight, but not anymore, he said.

Travelers can also invest in ultralight luggage, Higgins said.

“You can easily save one or two [kilograms] by buying specially designed ultralight travel gear,” he said. However, such bags can be pricey and may not be as durable as sturdier packs, he said.

7. Get a credit card or join a frequent flier program

“Many credit cards, especially airline-branded cards, offer free checked bags as a perk,” Napoli said.

Of course, travelers shouldn’t necessarily open a credit card account just for this perk, experts said. Some cards might also carry an annual fee, though travelers might come out ahead if their annual benefits (e.g., savings on bag fees) eclipse that expense.

“It varies credit card to credit card and airline to airline,” Nastro said.

Joining an airline’s frequent flier program may also come with perks for travelers such as free or extra baggage, Higgins said.

Correction: Some data came from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. An earlier version misstated the name of the agency.

Source: CNBC