Comparing Checked Bag Fees for Domestic Flights on Major US Carriers
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In 2017, airlines collected over $4.5 billion in baggage fees, which was up nearly 10% over the previous year. And considering that most airlines increased their checked baggage fees in 2018, it means that when you're buying an airline ticket, you'll have to take into account these fees before making your purchase or risk paying more for your trip than other options.
In today's post, I want to compare the checked bag fees for domestic flights on the major US airlines, including some concrete, real-world examples. I'll also offer you some tips on how to minimize or avoid paying these fees.
Let's begin with a summary chart that looks at the checked bag fees for the six major US carriers (Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and United). Note that all of this information is accurate at the time of writing and assumes you have no elite status and do not carry a cobranded airline credit card with a checked bag benefit:
|Carrier||First Bag||Second Bag||Third Bag||51 - 70 lbs.||71 - 100 lbs.||Over 62 in.||Bicycle|
As you can see, these fees vary widely across the carriers, so let's take a closer look at the policies for each one.
American, Delta and United
The three major US legacy carriers have much the same policies for domestic checked bags. It's $30 for the first checked bag , $40 for the second, and $150 for the third. Bags between 51 and 70 pounds cost an additional $100 and those between 71 and 100 pounds add $200 to any fees you paid. Finally, oversize fees apply to bags beyond 63 - 80 inches in combined length, width and height (oversized bicycles are charged $150 but must still be 50 pounds or under). And remember, these charges are imposed cumulatively, so you could potentially be charged as many as three fees for one bag: the checked bag fee, the overweight fee and the oversize fee.
Alaska's checked bag fee structure is similar to that of American, Delta and United. Like the big three, you'll pay $30 for the first checked bag and $40 for the second. But instead of coughing up $150 for your third, it will only be $100. You'll also save a bit when it comes to overweight checked bags, as Alaska adds a $100 charge to any bag between 51 and 100 pounds. In contrast, the big three will charge you $200 for bags that weight between 71 and 100 pounds. Finally, Alaska treats bicycles that exceed the standard size requirements (62" linear total) like any oversized bag and imposes a $100 fee, $50 less than American, Delta and United.
JetBlue used offer every traveler one free checked bag, but the carrier abandoned that policy just a few years ago. Today, its checked baggage policies largely mirror the big three, but with a few differences (some good, some bad). As with the big three, it's $30 for the first checked bag, $40 for the second and $150 for the third. Overweight bags between 51 and 100 pounds cost an additional $150, which is $50 more than the big three for bags between 51 and 70 pounds, but $50 less for bags that weigh 71 to 100 pounds. The charge for bicycles is $100, $50 less than the big three. Oversize bags also have a $150 fee, but it's just $100 if it's a bicycle.
Southwest has built its brand (in part) on its generous free checked baggage allowance and relatively low bag fees. To start, every traveler receives two free checked bags of up to 50 pounds, and even the third bag is a mere $75, half of the third checked bag fee of American, Delta, United and JetBlue. Overweight bags between 51 and 100 pounds are just an additional $75, as are oversize bags beyond 62 inches in combined length, width, and height, including bicycles.
Of course, these numbers can easily blur together, so it's critical to look at some concrete examples of how they translate to real-life. Here are a few such scenarios you may face at some point.
Flying to College
Imagine you have a child enrolling in college on the other side of the country, a move that'll require a large amount of his/her possessions to be moved by air. If the passenger requires three checked bags (one of which is crammed full and weighs 60 pounds) which airline will charge the fewest fees?
Here's the calculation:
- American, Delta and United: $320 ($30 for the first bag, $40 for the second and $150 for the third plus a $100 overweight fee)
- Alaska Airlines: $270 ($170 for your three checked bags plus an additional $100 for overweight bag)
- JetBlue: $370 ($220 for your first three checked bags plus an extra $150 for the 60-pound bag)
- Southwest: $150 (two free bags plus $75 for the third and a $75 fee for the overweight bag)
Without a doubt, Southwest is your best option here.
Taking a Ski Trip
What if you're planning to hit the slopes this winter? Points and miles can be a great way to defray the costs of such a vacation, but you'll need to factor in the cost of bag fees. Let's say that you're checking one bag (under 50 pounds) and bringing along your ski or snowboard equipment. Which carrier comes out on top?
For starters, all six of the carriers we're evaluating today will actually allow two bags to count as one in this scenario. You can have one bag with skis and poles (or a snowboard) plus one bag with ski/snowboard boots and it'll count as a single checked bag, though if you try to get sneaky and throw some clothes in those bags, the carrier reserves the right to treat them as separate items. You also won't be subject to over-sized fees for these bags, though exceeding 50 pounds will result in overweight baggage charges.
Here's what you'll need to pay:
- Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue and United: $70 ($30 for the regular bag and $40 for the ski/snowboard equipment)
- Southwest: $0 (two free bags)
Once again, Southwest comes out on top in this scenario.
Trying to Be Efficient
Many travelers like to be efficient when it comes to travel, so what if you're traveling with a spouse and a child (or two) and you don't want to be lugging around multiple bags? In this case, you may stuff a single rolling suitcase to the gills rather than splitting your luggage into two smaller and lighter bags.
(Spoiler alert: This will always cost you more money.)
Here's what you'd need to pay for this type of packing strategy:
- Alaska, American, Delta and United: $130 ($30 for the bag plus $100 for exceeding 50 pounds)
- JetBlue: $180 ($30 for the bag plus an extra $150 for an overweight bag)
- Southwest: $75 (the bag itself is free, while you'll be charged $75 for the overweight bag)
If you instead split this one, massive bag into two smaller bags, your out-of-pocket cost drops to $70 for the five carriers not named Southwest, and you'll pay nothing on Southwest.
Tips for Avoiding Checked Bag Fees
Now that you see how quickly these fees can add up, the next thing you'll want to learn is how to avoid them. The easiest way to do so is to have the corresponding airline's cobranded credit card. For all of the above carriers that typically charge for a checked bag (excluding Southwest), there's at least one credit card that'll waive that fee. Most offer it to additional companions traveling on the same reservation as well. However, the exact perk varies by card and airline, and some are more restrictive than others. For example, to utilize the waived bag fee benefit on the United Explorer Card, you must purchase your ticket using the card (which includes paying the taxes and fees on an award ticket). With all other airline cards, merely having cardholder status is sufficient, regardless of the card you swiped at the time of purchase.
The next option for avoiding checked bag fees is to hold elite status with the airline's frequent flyer program. All airlines mentioned here offer at least one free checked bag to elites (except Southwest, which offers two free checked bags to everyone). American allows one standard, 50-pound bag for Gold, two for Platinum & Platinum Pro, and three for Executive Platinum. Delta and United, on the other hand, boost the weight limit to 70 pounds for elite flyers and allow one for low-tier Silver travelers, two for mid-tier Gold flyers and three for upper-level elites. JetBlue offers a single free checked bag for Mosaic members, while Alaska offers two for all elites. Having status on Southwest doesn't offer you any additional baggage privileges.
For the most generous baggage allowance, you may simply have to buy a business or first class ticket, as many carriers will allow multiple checked bags and waive some overweight charges. For example, United offers two free 70-pound bags when flying domestic first class, though this jumps to three if you're an elite.
To learn more about how to use credit card benefits, elite status, a premium class of service and other special circumstances to reduce or eliminate these fees, read Nick Ewen's post on How to Avoid Checked Baggage Fees on Major Domestic Airlines and Dan Miller's post on How to Avoid Airline Bag Fees on Family Trips.
In addition, here are a few of my favorite tricks:
1. Gate check. Most airlines still allow you to gate check your carry-ons for no additional cost, and they'll often force you to do so when they run out of overhead bin space. The exceptions are typically low-cost carriers like Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant, along with legacy carriers on basic economy fares. Otherwise, most airlines are happy to gate check just about whatever you'd like, and you may even have luck doing this before boarding even starts. Just be sure that the item is being checked through to baggage claim; strollers, wheelchairs and even rolling carry-ons on small, regional planes often need to be claimed at the gate upon arrival.
For example, my family of five was able to avoid checked baggage fees on a summer trip to Hawaii. On both flights, United gate agents were happy to check our five carry-ons, and we boarded with just our smaller personal items. We also had the same experience this summer flying Czech Airlines on multiple flights within Europe. Just don't try to gate check something that couldn't possibly be considered a carry-on; you may even be stopped by TSA.
2. Utilize child allowances. When we travel with our kids, we always take along with our child safety seats, which every airline allows you to check for free. To protect them, we place them in duffel bags, which can also be used to discreetly carry some bulky (but lightweight) items or even liquids underneath the car seats. Depending on the destination, we might include some beach towels, a bottle of sunscreen, winter jackets or extra diapers. While most carriers reserve the right to inspect luggage before accepting it, we've never had a problem.
3. Employ stealth. Some bicyclists have found that if they pack their bike as compactly as possible, concealing the nature of their bag or boxes contents, then airline staff may not think to impose any applicable extra fees. When asked about the contents, you might even get away with mumbling something about "exercise equipment." But if you show up carrying a bike helmet with a box labeled as bicycle, you'll always have to pay the fee.
4. Read the rules closely. As punitive as airline baggage policies can be, there are some helpful exceptions buried in the rules. As noted above, the major US carriers will let you check skis, snowboards and boots as a single, standard bag. The same often holds true for golf bags, and none of these will require over-sized baggage fees. Just note the specific policies, as with golf bags, the rules say that you are limited to approved items. For example, American limits you to 14 golf clubs, 12 golf balls and 1 pair of golf shoes. And to be safe, you should also print out the rules and be prepared to show them to incredulous agents (which TPG Editor Nick Ewen had to do when flying back from St. Kitts and Nevis with his golf clubs).
5. Try curb-side check-in. Check-in agents at the curb are often contractors, not airline employees, so they may have less incentive to strictly enforce the rules. In addition, these locations may not have scales to weigh the bags. Finally, it's always possible that a generous tip might make them look the other way.
6. Carry-on the heavy stuff. In the US, any carry-on weight restrictions are rarely (if ever) enforced. So when you child packs up to fly to college, have him or her put their books in their carry on and a backpack, rather than risk paying for overweight checked bags.
7. Buy a baggage scale. For under $10, you can find a small, lightweight hanging scale that you can use to quickly weigh your bags at home, and these are typically quite accurate. This allows you to be sure that you'll stay under your desired weight, and you'll also avoid being that person repacking their bags at the airport and holding up everyone else.
8. Consider first class. If you can book in first class for a reasonable price (either in cash or miles), then you could enjoy multiple free overweight checked bags. If you are going to have to pay extra to fly with a two overweight bags, then you might as well enjoy first class for a similar price, or possibly less.
Bag fees are an unfortunate reality of air travel in 2019, and in certain situations, you could wind up spending hundreds of dollars beyond the original price you paid for your ticket. Be sure you carefully consider these policies before jumping on that "great deal" that you read about here at TPG, as the out-of-pocket fees can add up quickly.
What creative techniques do you use to avoid baggage fees?