Common Airline Baggage Fees

Baggage fees for checked luggage items are a reality for just about all air travelers. While baggage fees are not new, before 2008 most passengers, especially those on domestic flights in the US, were not charged any fees to check one or even two pieces of luggage. That has all changed. Nearly every airline in the US and most airlines outside of the US charge fees for each checked item. This overview will answer some of the common questions passengers have about fees, and will provide an overview of how to avoid or reduce baggage fees.

A brief review of airline baggage fee rules
The general baggage fee rules for most airlines can be summed up in a few sentences:

  • If the only bag you bring on board is small enough to fit under your seat, you will not be charged a fee.
  • You will not be charged for a carry-on bag that can fit in the overhead luggage bin and that is under that airline's size and weight limit.
  • Most airlines charge a fee for each checked bag.
  • Fees are higher for each additional checked bag, and for any luggage item that is larger or heavier than some limit set by the airline
  • Airlines may waive checked bag fees depending on the item, the flight, or the kind of ticket purchased by the passenger.
  • Every airline has different rules on baggage fees.

Bags that fly for free on most airlines
Most airlines allow you to take one carry-on bag and a smaller carry-on item without charge. The carry-on bag has to be small enough to fit into a standard overhead bin and the smaller item has to be able to fit under the seat. The size and weight limits for carry-on bags varies by airline. The maximum weight of a carry-on bag can be as high as 40 pounds (18.2 kg), and as low as 11 pounds (5 kg).

Each airline also has a maximum allowed size for carry-on bags. Carry on bag dimensionsIn the US, the typical maximum size for a carry-on bag is 45 linear inches (115 linear centimeters), which is the total of the length, width, and depth of the bag. This measurement includes handles and wheels. For most US airlines, a carry-on bag has to fit into a box no bigger than 22 inches tall by 14 inches wide by 9 inches deep (56 cm tall by 35 cm wide by 23 cm deep). Keep in mind that your airline may have different limits.

Your second carry-on item, sometimes called a personal item, has to be small enough to fit under a seat. Typical personal items include purses, small backpacks, laptop bags, or tote bags. The maximum size of this second item is typically as large as 36 linear inches (91 cm), but the real limitation is the amount of area under the seat in front of you.

In addition to the two carry-on items that almost all airlines allow, there are a number of categories of extra carry-on items that airlines will allow you to take on board without getting charged. These items include umbrellas, medical equipment (for example crutches or canes), portable oxygen concentrators, infant car seats, and strollers.

Common baggage fees and luggage limitations
Most airlines charge a fee for each checked bag. The amount of that fee will depend on the airline, but most airlines have the following general rules for checked bag fees:

  • There will be a fee for each checked baggage item
  • Fees are higher for each additional bag.
  • There are size and weight limits for each luggage item.
  • Airlines charge fees for each direction of a trip (each time you check your bags for a flight).
  • Checked items that exceed the weight or size limit may be charged extra fees, or may not be allowed to be checked.
  • There is a maximum number of items that each passenger can check.

Common exceptions to baggage fees
Most airlines reduce or eliminate baggage fees for some situations:

  • You will not be charged if your carry-on bag has to be checked because there is no room left in the overhead bins.
  • Passengers who purchase a full fare economy ticket, a business or first class ticket, or who have an elite or premier status in that airline's frequent flyer program can check the first and sometimes the second bag for free.
  • Passengers flying with a passenger who has an elite or premier status in that airline's frequent flyer program will also get the same checked bag privileges.
  • Medically necessary items such as wheelchairs can be checked for free.
  • Passengers traveling with a child can check a car seat or stroller without charge.
  • Some airlines and credit card companies have deals that give passengers one or more free checked bags when the ticket is purchased with that credit card.
  • On most US airlines, active duty military personnel or their family members who are either traveling with the active duty military member or who are on official travel orders can often check several bags without charge.

Common baggage fee surprises
Baggage fee rules are not that complicated, but each airline can have very different fees and baggage limits, and those fees may change at any time. Most surprises can be avoided by going to your airline's web site and reading the rules. If you don't take the time to review the rules, you may face unexpected fees, especially in one of the following situations:

  • Trips involving different airlines: On a round trip ticket, you will be subject to baggage fees for both the outbound and inbound portions of your trip, so if you are using different airlines for each direction, you will be flying under different baggage fee rules.

  • Trips involving international travel: Baggage fee rules and even baggage size and weight limits may be very different in different countries, even for the same airline. This means that your total fees for the outbound flight may be very different than the total fees on the return flight.

  • Travel with a lap child: With the exceptions of a car seat or a stroller, lap children (children under the age of two who can travel for free on the lap of a paying adult) do not have any free carry-on items.

  • Different fees for some domestic destinations: Some airlines charge different fees (often higher fees) for some destinations, even for a domestic flight.

  • Flight cancellations and rebookings: If your flight is cancelled and you have to be booked with another airline, you will be traveling under that other airline's rules and may face additional baggage fees.

  • Changing ticket status after check in: If you check in with a ticket that requires a checked bag fee, but you later upgrade your ticket to one that does not require a fee, some airlines may not refund that fee.

  • Sports equipment and oddly shaped items: Large sports equipment items such as skis and surfboards, as well as oddly shaped baggage items, may have higher fees than regular luggage.

  • Paying higher fees at the airport: Often airlines charge lower checked bag fees if they are paid in advance online.

Avoiding baggage fees and baggage fee surprises
Avoiding baggage fee surprises is very easy. Review your airline policy before you buy your ticket to see what the rules are or what rules may have been changed. The best way to do this is to check the airline's web site and not to rely on outside sources such as travel information web sites or airline ticket booking web sites. To reduce or eliminate baggage fees, passengers can do one or more of the following:

  • Fly on airlines that don't charge fees for carry-on items or for one or more checked items.
  • Avoid flying with checked bags.
  • If you have to fly with checked bags, use as few checked bags as possible.
  • Make sure that any baggage item, even carry-on bags, are within your airline's size and weight limits. If you have any doubts about the size or weight of a bag, find rulers, tape measures, bathroom scales, or any other appropriate tool to measure the bag's size and weight.
  • Take advantage of any special status you may have as a member of your airline's frequent flyer program. That includes programs that waives checked baggage fees for the high status program members, and sometimes for others who are traveling with that high status member.
  • Take advantage of any available bonus program (such as credit card programs) that provides you with free checked bags.
  • When traveling in a group, distribute your luggage items to reduce the number of bags you have to check.
  • If you buy your ticket well in advance of your flight, check the airline's baggage rules shortly before the flight to see if there have been any changes.
  • Pay for checked bag fees online before the flight if the online price is lower than the airport price.
  • If you plan to pay for the fees at the airport, make sure that the airline will accept your form of payment.
  • If you have checked bags but will not be charged by your airline, be prepared to pay baggage fees if your flight is cancelled and you have to continue your flight with a different airline.

    Other Baggage Resources
    Carry-on baggage advice
    Top 10 airline baggage fee tips
    Top 10 baggage tps
    Top 10 baggage claim tips
    Overhead Baggage Risks
    How to protect your laptop when you fly
    How to File a Complaint
    Things you Should Not Bring on Board

    Top 10 Baggage Fee Tips -- Revised 29 May 2015