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Travel Light — Or Pay a Heavy Price

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Every travel site will tell you how to do things the right way — but as every traveler knows, sometimes things go wrong. In his bimonthly Mistake Monday series, TPG Contributor J. Keith van Straaten invites you to learn from his mistakes — his many, many mistakes. (All photos by the writer unless otherwise noted.)

Putting the lug in luggage. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Putting the lug in luggage. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

I used to pack heavy, lugging a big suitcase everywhere I traveled so that I’d be prepared for any change in the weather — and always have a change of clean underwear. I found light packers to be mystifying people, not understanding how someone could pack enough real human adult clothes into a carry-on that would last more than a weekend and not end up smelling terrible. When I went on a trip, I could barely fit all my shoes into a carry-on.

So when I met my friend Mike in Hong Kong for the last few weeks of his three-month, semi-global adventure, I couldn’t believe how little he had brought. Mike had somehow traversed Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia with nothing more than a backpack and a small duffel bag, neither of which he had checked over the course of his 20+ flights. Meanwhile, Mike also couldn’t believe what I’d packed, but for opposite reasons: traveling for only three weeks through just four countries, I was rocking a 25-inch suitcase, a 21-inch carry-on and a backpack. (I was afraid to tell him that I also had a rolled-up duffel in my suitcase ready to tote the gifts I’d likely bring back home.)

My friend Mike in one of his familiar outfits.
My friend Mike in one of his familiar outfits.

I couldn’t help but notice that Mike would often wear the same outfit, but I would only mention it when he would give me a hard time for slowing him down on the subway stairs as my luggage lived up to its name. Good-natured ribbing aside, we made our way to the Philippines to visit our mutual friend, Christy. It was commuting between these Asian islands where my traveling heavy became traveling hard.

The small planes of Cebu Pacific Airlines weren’t made for heavy-packing cheapskates like me. Arriving at Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport (MNL),  I was horrified to discover that Cebu charged not only for a checked bag, but also per kilo for surplus baggage weight. And boy, did I have a lot of baggage weight.

I’d been excited that I managed to score a fare of 5,151 PHP (about $115) for my multi-leg itinerary in the Philippines: MNL to Dumaguete (DGT), on to Caticlan/Boracay (MPH), and back to MNL — as you’ll see in the screenshot below:

5151.96 PHP seems like a great deal... until I add 5200 PHP in luggage fees!

However, the excitement faded when I realized I would have to pay 600 PHP (about $13) for my suitcase, plus 200 PHP (about $4) per kilo in excess baggage weight fees — on each of my three flights!

It would have been great to have seen this part of Cebu Pacific's website BEFORE I traveled.
I might have reconsidered my packing if I’d seen this part of Cebu Pacific’s website BEFORE I traveled.

The value of traveling light became instantly clear, as I calculated that with my heavy luggage load, Cebu’s baggage fees threatened to as much as double my roughly $115 itinerary from DGT-MNL-MPH. It was time to make some drastic changes.

Cebu Pacific Airlines knows how to make a guy feel welcome. (The Vice President was on the next flight.)
Cebu Pacific Airlines knows how to make a guy feel welcome. (It didn’t hurt that the Vice President was on the next flight.)

Arriving at our friend Christy’s place in Dumaguete, I immediately began jettisoning excess weight: travel books for the places we’d already been, that stupid neck pillow, those jeans I never really liked. Since it was Christmas, I showered Christy and her family with what had previously been my own shopping haul, but now became special gifts for them from other parts of the Far East.

Christmas in the Philippines was not what we expected.
Christmas in the Philippines was not what we expected.

This lightened my load somewhat, but I wasn’t ready to do the last leg of my trip to Seoul in winter without my warm clothes. I also didn’t want to abandon all the cool bargains I’d found in the night markets of Hong Kong, and I still wanted to have clean underwear. So I bit the bullet and paid my fees, promising myself that I would learn to travel light.

And in fact, I did. The following Christmas, when Mike and I traveled to Panama, I was proud to show him that I’d fit everything into my carry-on, and only packed two pairs of shoes. It can be hard to let go of old habits, but less so when it saves you hundreds of dollars.

There are several lessons here:

1. Find out how baggage fees are calculated in advance. Baggage fees may be inflicted upon you according to the number of pieces, size, weight, volume or some combination of these. If you do have to pay extra for your bags, you can often save money by paying the fees in advance. Some airlines even offer a more expensive airfare that includes checked bags. Doing the math before you leave the house can save you money and stress. My best investment has been a luggage scale that I use before I leave home.

2. There’s nothing wrong with checking bags, per se. I’ve come to enjoy the challenge of packing only a carry-on — with the right attitude, it’s like a puzzle or game — but if you must check bags, you can still pack wisely. (Please share your own tips for packing light in the comments below.)

3. Look for a credit card that offers a credit for air travel fees. This wasn’t an option when I took my trip, but nowadays I’d put those excess baggage charges on a card like Citi Prestige (which can save you $250 on airline purchases each year), the American Express Platinum (which comes with a $200 annual airline credit) or the Barclaycard Arrival Plus card and its no-fee versionboth of which offer travel-expense credits (read a comparison of the two cards here).

For more tips on how to avoid and survive baggage fees, check out these posts:

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