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How to Avoid Checked Baggage Fees on Major Domestic Carriers

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A key component of maximizing your travel is learning to avoid the extra “gotcha” fees, which can add up quickly. Today, TPG Contributor Nick Ewen offers tips for one of the most ubiquitous hidden costs, checked bag fees.

Happy New Year! If 2014 is any indication of what’s to come in 2015 with regard to airline fees, we better start saving now. TPG has written about avoiding airline fees generally in the past, and TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele wrote recently about the best ways to avoid change/cancellation fees, as well as how to avoid fuel surcharges. However, the biggest chunk of fees charged in the third quarter of last year were baggage fees, which reached almost $1 billion! So today I’m going to take a close look at how you can check bags without having to pay extra.

Your pocket may be noticeably lighter by the time your suitcase gets to baggage claim, courtesy of baggage fees charged by almost every airline these days.
Your pocket may be noticeably lighter by the time your suitcase gets to baggage claim, courtesy of the baggage fees charged by almost every airline these days. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

There are several strategies for avoiding checked bag fees, so this post will be divided into sections accordingly. I’ll start by highlighting the major carriers that still don’t charge for checked baggage. I’ll then go through each of the main carriers that do charge for checked bags, highlighting their policies and ways to avoid fees, including:

  • Elite status
  • Credit cards
  • Special situations (certain fares, destinations, partnerships, and other exceptions)

Finally, I’ll discuss some strategies for avoiding (or minimizing) these fees that apply to all airlines.

Many of these policies vary depending on the final destination, weight of the bag, codeshares or connections with other carriers, and a host of other factors, so it’s important to check the specific policies for your carrier. I’ve tried to provide links to all of the pertinent information below. Also, since most airlines allow passengers to check at least one bag for free on long-haul international flights, this post focuses on domestic and short-haul international travel.

"Bags Fly Free" is one of Southwest's taglines (and an obvious dig at legacy carriers).
“Bags Fly Free” is one of Southwest’s taglines (and an obvious dig at legacy carriers).

No bag fees

As of now, there are still two holdouts to the checked bag fee mania that has swept through the airline industry over the last few years:

  1. Southwest: The leading carrier when it comes to checked bag fees (or lack thereof) is Southwest, as they allow all passengers to check two bags for free (up to 50 lbs apiece). Of course, there are exceptions to this rule when it comes to oversize, overweight, or special items (see this link for complete details), and there’s no additional baggage allowance for A-List or A-List Preferred members.
  2. JetBlue: Though not quite as generous as Southwest, JetBlue still allows you to check your first bag for free (up to 50 lbs). Unfortunately, it looks like they will soon succumb to the temptation of baggage fees, though they do plan to introduce additional fare options that include a free checked bag (similar to American’s Choice fares introduced back in 2012). While your first bag is free (for the time being), a second checked bag will set you back $50. However, that second bag fee is waived for Mosaic members.

Unfortunately, that’s it! Every other major carrier in the U.S. has at least some type of fee for the first checked bag, though as you’re about to see, there are several ways around these fees.

Alaska Airlines typically charges for your first checked bag (though not for the month of January!).
Alaska Airlines typically charges for your first checked bag, though not for the month of January!

ALASKA AIRLINES

While not nearly the size of the legacy carriers, Alaska charges baggage fees all the same. You can access their full chart here, but in summary, regular flyers must pay $25 for both the first and second checked bags. However, there are some ways to avoid these fees:

Elite status: If you hold any elite status with Alaska or American Airlines, you can check your first two bags for free (up to 50 lbs apiece). This includes “companions traveling with and booked in the same reservation” as the elite flyer, and applies to Club 49 members, but only on reservations with at least one Alaskan city.

Credit cards: Unfortunately, the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card from Bank of America has no free checked bag benefit.

Special situations: If you’re confirmed in first class at the time of check-in, you’re also entitled to two free checked bags. In addition, the first checked bag fee is waived for flights starting or ending in Guadalajara or Mexico City. Active duty U.S. military and their dependents can check up to 5 bags (up to 70 lbs each) for free. Finally, Alaska recently announced that it would offer the first checked bag for free for all Mileage Plan members during the month of January.

The proposed merger will have massive ripple affects across both markets.
Baggage policies have been aligned on American and US Airways since early 2014.

AMERICAN/US AIRWAYS

Though the impending merger between American Airlines and US Airways is still far from complete, the two carriers have aligned their baggage policies. Generally speaking, regular travelers must pay $25 for the first bag and $35-40 for the second one (depending on the origin and destination—see details here). Here are some ways to avoid these fees:

Elite status: All American and US Airways elites enjoy baggage benefits:

  • 1st, 2nd, and 3rd bag fees: waived for AAdvantage Executive Platinum, US Airways Dividend Miles Chairman’s Preferred, oneworld Emerald, and confirmed first and business class travelers.
  • 1st and 2nd bag fees: waived for AAdvantage Platinum, Dividend Miles Gold/Platinum, Alaska MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75K (only on American-operated flights), and oneworld Sapphire travelers.
  • 1st bag fees: waived for AAdvantage Gold, Dividend Miles Preferred, and oneworld Ruby travelers.

Credit cards: Both American and US Airways offer credit cards that give you a free checked baggage allowance:

Special situations: For starters, American has different ticketing options that include checked baggage, such as Choice Plus, Choice Essential, and Fully Flexible fares. Unfortunately, these were devalued just over a year ago, but they still might be useful. In addition (and like Alaska), American and US Airways have several destinations with waived checked bag fees, all of which are in Central America and the Caribbean. Finally, American also allows active duty U.S. military personnel to check up to 5 bags at no charge when traveling on orders (or 3 bags when traveling on personal trips).

Round-the-World Award Tickets will not be issued on or after January 1, 2015
Delta charges for both your first and second checked bags.

DELTA

Delta’s checked baggage fees are similar to those of American. Generally speaking, regular travelers must pay $25 for the first bag and $35-40 for the second bag when traveling on Delta-operated flights (excluding long-haul international routes). Here’s how to get out of those fees:

Elite status: All Delta Medallion elites are entitled to checked bag fee waivers, though it depends on the exact destination. The above link has a nice chart explaining these differences, but here’s a quick overview for domestic and short-haul international travel:

  • Silver Medallions: one free checked bag (up to 70 lbs) when traveling in Economy class in the U.S. and Canada; two free bags (up to 50 lbs) when traveling in Economy on short-haul international flights.
  • Gold Medallions: two free checked bag (up to 70 lbs) when traveling in Economy class in the U.S. and Canada; two free bags (up to 50 lbs) when traveling in Economy on short-haul international flights.
  • Platinum/Diamond Medallions: three free checked bag (up to 70 lbs) when traveling in Economy class in the U.S. and Canada; two free bags (up to 50 lbs) when traveling in Economy on short-haul international flights.
  • All Medallions: three free checked bags (up to 70 lbs) when traveling in first or business class to all destinations.

Credit cards: Delta also has a number of American Express cards that allow cardholders to avoid checked bag fees, regardless of their Medallion status. The Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express, Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express, and Delta Reserve cards all allow cardholders and up to 8 companions on the same reservation to check a bag for free. Unlike other airlines, this benefit is stackable for elite members traveling in the U.S. and Canada, so Silver Medallions and above can check two free bags weighing up to 70 lbs each with one of these cards.

Special situations: Delta too has a list of exceptions for travel to/from certain Central American and Caribbean airports. They also have many others related to travel originating in other countries, so check this link and scroll down to the “General Market Exceptions” page for additional information. Finally, all first and business class passengers are entitled to at least 2 free checked bags.

Unfortunately, Delta’s allowance for active duty military travelers is slightly lower than those discussed above; Delta allows 5 free pieces (up to 70 lbs) for first/business class passengers, but only 4 pieces for economy class passengers. The allowance is also lower for personal trips: 3 bags in first/business class (up to 70 lbs), and 2 bags (up to 50 lbs) in economy class.

Finally, SPG Platinum members can check a free bag when traveling on Delta thanks to the Crossover Rewards program; just make sure to link your accounts by signing up ahead of your flight.

The United baggage calculator allows you to research your fees ahead of time.
The United baggage calculator allows you to research your fees ahead of time.

UNITED

Shockingly enough, United has baggage policies similar to those of the other legacy carriers. Unfortunately, they don’t a chart to easily compare the different classes of service, elite status level, and origin/destination. Instead, you’ll need to use the baggage calculator and sign in to your MileagePlus account, or search based on city and status level. However, for domestic and short-haul international travel, United charges the same $25 for the first bag and $35-40 for the second bag, depending on your destination. Here’s how to avoid those fees:

Elite status: All MileagePlus Premier members and Star Alliance elite flyers enjoy fee waivers for checking bags:

  • Premier Silver and Star Alliance Gold members get one free checked bag (up to 50 lbs).
  • Premier Gold members get three free checked bags for travel within the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands for tickets issued prior to February 1, 2015 (two free checked bags for tickets issued on or after February 1, 2015), and three free checked bags for all other international destinations (all up to 70 lbs)
  • Premier Platinum, 1K, and Global Services members get three free checked bags (up to 70 lbs).

Marriott and United launched their RewardsPlus program back in 2013, and Marriott Platinum and Platinum Elite members have Premier Silver status through May 31, 2015. This should allow you to check a bag for free when traveling on United.

Credit cards: United has two different credit card options that waive checked bag fees. If you hold the United MileagePlus Explorer card (or the business version), you and one companion on the same reservation can check your first bag for free. If you have the United MileagePlus Club card (or the no longer issued Presidential Plus card), you and one companion can check your first two bags for free.

Special situations: United appears to have many of the same exceptions for certain airports in Central America and the Caribbean (double check your specific destination using the baggage calculator linked above). Active duty military members and traveling dependents can check up to three bags when traveling on personal trips, up to four bags when traveling in Economy class on official business, and up to five bags when traveling in first/business class (each item can weigh up to 70 lbs in all cases).

If you frequently enjoy the mood lighting onboard Virgin America, one of these cards absolutely should be in your wallet.
Virgin America’s planes look cool on the inside, but checked bag fees don’t help with the first impression.

VIRGIN AMERICA

As a smaller, more hip carrier, you might expect Virgin America to allow all flyers to check a bag for free, but that isn’t the case. However, they do allow all travelers to check up to 10 bags with a flat fee of $25 apiece. You can avoid these fees altogether in a few ways:

Elite status: Virgin America elite flyers enjoy waivers of certain checked bag fees:

  • Elevate Silver: 1 free checked bag (up to 50 lbs)
  • Elevate Gold: 3 free checked bags (up to 50 lbs)

Credit cards: Both Virgin America Visa Signature cards allow you and one traveling companion to check a bag at no charge, though to be eligible you must purchase the ticket (or pay the taxes & fees on the award ticket) with the credit card. See this post for tips on choosing between these two cards.

Special situations: While Main Cabin travelers typically need to pay $25 for the first checked bag, you can avoid this fee if you purchase a refundable Main Cabin ticket, and all Main Cabin Select travelers get the first bag free. If you splurge for first class, you can check two bags for free.

The $200 airline fee credit on the Amex Platinum resets on January 1st, so apply now and get your first $200 before the end of the year!
The Amex Platinum card rebates your fees (up to $200 per calendar year) on an airline of your choice.

OTHER STRATEGIES

There are a number of other ways you can avoid (or minimize) baggage fees, even if you don’t have a co-branded credit card or elite status with a particular airline.

The Platinum Card from American Express: While this card comes with a hefty $450 annual fee, it also includes a $200 yearly airline fee reimbursement. Checked bag fees are on the approved list of reimbursable expenses, and should be automatically rebated after purchase. This benefit is renewed each calendar year, so you can generally get the $200 credit twice in your first cardmembership year. That’s a good way to reclaim most of the initial $450 annual fee! The big drawback of this benefit is that you must designate a primary carrier, so you’ll only be reimbursed for baggage fees on that airline. That’s less helpful those of you who spread your travel among several airlines.

Citi Prestige: The Citi Prestige card has a similar benefit, though it offers some added appeal. For starters, it’s a $250 credit, and it actually applies toward essentially any air travel expense (including airfare purchases). Like the Platinum card, this benefit is applied on a calendar year basis, so you can get $500 back within the first year of cardmembership, which more than covers the $450 annual fee. Finally, there’s no need to select a primary carrier, so you can spread the love around and get reimbursed for baggage fees on multiple airlines.

The Arrival Plus allows you to redeem points for statement credits to cover just about any travel expense, including checked bag fees.
The Arrival Plus allows you to redeem points for statement credits to cover just about any travel expense, including checked bag fees.

Barclaycard Arrival Plus: Another card that can help with avoiding checked bag fees is the Barclaycard Arrival Plus. While it doesn’t give you a fee credit (like the Prestige or Platinum cards), it does allow you to redeem points for any travel expense. If you incur a $25 checked baggage fee, simply log in to your Arrival Plus account, click on Manage Rewards, and then redeem your points for a travel statement credit. Miles can be redeemed at a rate of one cent apiece, but you get a 5% rebate on redemptions for travel expenses. Just like the Prestige, you can reimburse yourself for these fees on any airline.

You can use a similar strategy with other fixed value options like the Capital One Venture Rewards card.

Bottom line

Baggage fees are here to stay, and while they’re a frustrating aspect of travel, there are many ways to avoid them. Hopefully these strategies have given you some ideas for minimizing the cost of checking bags, and will help you save your money for other (more enjoyable) expenses.

What are your strategies for avoiding checked bag fees?

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