How to avoid checked baggage fees on major domestic airlines
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Incidental airline fees are a big business for the major airlines in the U.S., and checked bag fees in particular are a key driver of airline profitability nowadays. In fact, these added services brought in a whopping $4.9 billion (with a “b”) in 2018 alone — and they’re continuing to rise. In the first two months of 2020, we’ve already seen JetBlue and United boost their respective fees for checked bags.
It’s safe to say that no one really wants to pony up an additional $60 – $70 to check a bag on a round-trip, domestic flight.
Fortunately, there are a handful of simple ways to avoid paying these fees. Today I’ll go through all the major carriers in the U.S. to highlight their respective checked baggage policies and how to skirt this added cost. I’ll also provide some general strategies that you can utilize to avoid these charges on your next trip.
Most common bag fees
There are a number of common bag fees imposed by most of the major airlines in the U.S. The first is for any checked bag, typically starting at $30 each way but quickly increasing as you add a second or third suitcase. You might also fall victim to an additional fee for checking an overweight bag, which generally kicks in once you surpass 50 pounds. Finally, there’s a size element: massive suitcases will almost certainly require an additional fee, as will certain kinds of specialty luggage, like scuba equipment.
Fortunately, there are ways to get around these added costs ahead of your next trip.
Best ways to avoid checked bag fees
Generally speaking, there are four main ways to avoid paying checked baggage fees on your next flight:
- Hold elite status (or travel with a friend/family member with elite status)
- Carry the right credit card (or travel with a friend/family member with the right card)
- Purchase a premium ticket (typically premium economy, business and/or first class)
- Travel under a special circumstance or to a specific destination
For each of the airlines that follow, I’ll highlight exactly where these four methods apply, though keep in mind that all of these policies may have some wiggle room. I’ve sometimes had an airline accept my 52-pound bag without tacking on an overweight fee, and if you have status and are traveling with a companion on a separate reservation, you may still be able to convince a sympathetic check-in agent to waive that bag fee.
For the most up-to-date information, I strongly encourage you to check each individual carrier’s baggage page (which I’ve linked below), so you aren’t surprised at the airport.
While most of our coverage of Alaska focuses on its well-regarded Mileage Plan loyalty program, the carrier was among the airlines that raised check bag fees in 2018. Travelers are required to pay $30 for their first bag and $40 for their second bag on Alaska-operated flights. Both of these suitcases are subject to a maximum weight of 50 pounds, and any overweight luggage is subject to an additional $100 fee.
Here’s how you can avoid paying Alaska Airlines checked baggage fees on your next flight:
Elite status: The Alaska elite status program has three tiers, and any MVP elite member will enjoy two free checked bags on all Alaska-operated flights. This perk also extends to all travel companions booked on the same ticket, though it doesn’t apply to group bookings made through the Alaska Airlines group desk.
Credit card(s): The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card carries a variety of valuable benefits like a yearly companion fare, but it also waives the first checked bag fee for the primary cardholder and up to six additional passengers on the same reservation. However, the card must be active at the time of travel for this benefit to apply. Now is a terrific time to apply for the card, since it’s offering an elevated welcome bonus for new cardholders.
Premium ticket(s): If you’ve been confirmed into first class at the time of check-in — be it via a paid ticket or an upgrade — you can check two bags for free.
Special circumstances/destinations: Alaska has published several exceptions to its checked bag fee policy, including the following:
- You can check strollers, car seats, mobility aids (e.g. wheelchairs and walkers) and medical assistive devices free of charge.
- If you’re flying from Hawaii, you can check a box of pineapples for free when traveling back to the U.S. mainland.
- For any Mileage Plan member departing from select cities in California, Idaho, Oregon or Washington, you can check a case of wine for free, provided that it is packed protectively and that you’re traveling to a destination in the U.S.
- You can check three bags for free if you’re traveling wholly within the state of Alaska.
- If you’re a member of the airline’s Club 49 program and are traveling on a ticket that includes at least one city in Alaska, you can check two bags for free
- Active duty military can check five bags for free at up to 70 pounds apiece with a valid military ID; this extends to their dependents, too, with both a military ID and travel orders.
Note that Alaska also offers a 20-minute baggage guarantee, so if one or more of your checked bags don’t arrive at the carousel within 20 minutes of your arrival at the gate, you could take home a $25 travel voucher or 2,500 Alaska miles.
American last boosted its checked bag fees in 2018, and currently if you’re traveling within the U.S. or to/from Canada, the Caribbean or Central America (excluding Panama), you’ll pay $30 each way for your first bag and $40 for your second.
On other international flights, you practically need a PhD to decipher the various policies and how they vary based on your destination, type of ticket and how many bags you’re checking. For example, basic economy flights across the Atlantic will incur a $60 fee for the first bag, whereas regular economy passengers on these transatlantic routes can check their first bag for free. All bags must be 50 pounds or less when traveling in economy, while first or business class flyers can check bags up to 70 pounds.
However, many large pieces of sports equipment and musical instruments now count as standard bags.
Here’s how you can avoid paying American checked bag fees on your next flight:
Elite status: The American elite status program has four levels, and all of them include some type of fee waiver for checked bags. AAdvantage Gold members can check one bag for free, while Platinum/Platinum Pro members can check two free bags and top-tier Executive Platinum members can check three bags for free.
One nice thing about this policy is that your benefit is based on the highest status level at the time of ticketing or check-in. As a result, if you book a flight as a Platinum member and then drop to Gold (or lose your status entirely) by the time you take your flight, you should still be able to check two bags for free — you’d just need to show your ticket receipt to the airport agent.
Credit card(s): American has several credit cards that allow for waived checked bag fees:
- AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard: Free checked bag on domestic flights for the primary cardholder and up to four traveling companions on the same reservation
- Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®: Free checked bag on domestic flights for the primary cardholder and up to eight traveling companions on the same reservation
- Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®: Free checked bag on domestic flights for the primary cardholder and up to four traveling companions on the same reservation
- CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Mastercard®: Free checked bag on domestic flights for the primary cardholder and up to four traveling companions on the same reservation
With any of these, your account must be open and your reservation must include your AAdvantage number at least seven days prior to travel. If you close your account, the benefit will no longer apply.
Premium ticket(s): If you’re confirmed into premium economy or business class, you can check two bags for free. First class passengers on three-class aircraft can check three bags for free.
Special circumstances/destinations: American does provide several exceptions for special travel circumstances, including the following:
- Active U.S. military and/or dependents can check up to five bags free of charge with a military ID and travel orders; active U.S. military with ID can check three bags for free when traveling for personal reasons.
- If you’re flying from the U.S. to Cuba, you’d need to pay for your bags on the way there. However, coming back you can check two bags for free (note that if your round-trip flight originates in Cuba, your first two bags are free in both directions).
- Mobility and medical assistive devices can be checked free of charge.
- Each ticketed customer is allowed one stroller and one car seat to be checked free of charge.
For all of the details regarding checked baggage on American Airlines, visit this link.
Delta Air Lines
Delta is another carrier that raised its checked bag fees in 2018 — you’ll currently pay $30 for your first checked bag and $40 for your second checked bag on domestic flights as well as flights between the U.S. and the Caribbean and most Central American countries (exceptions are below). The weight limit on these bags is 50 pounds, though Medallion members and premium class passengers are allowed bags up to 70 pounds.
Here’s how you can avoid paying Delta checked bag fees on your next flight:
Elite status: Delta’s Medallion program has four tiers, and elite members at every tier will enjoy some type of checked bag fee waiver. Silver Medallion travelers can check one bag of up to 70 pounds for free on flights within the U.S. and Canada, and can add a second for free if they also hold a Delta American Express card. Gold Medallion members can check in two bags of 70 pounds or less on these flights, while Platinum and Diamond Medallions get three 70-pound bags without incurring fees.
All levels will also enjoy expanded baggage allowances on other international flights — check out this link for full details.
Credit card(s): Like American, Delta offers a number of credit cards that waive checked bag fees for cardholders. You’ll enjoy a fee waiver for your first checked bag on any flight where you’d otherwise need to pay on the following cards:
- Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
- Delta SkyMiles® Gold Business American Express Card
- Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card
- Delta SkyMiles® Platinum Business American Express Card
- Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card
- Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card
This perk also extends to up to eight traveling companions on the same reservation, though the respective card must be open at the time of travel for this to apply.
Premium ticket(s): All first class, Delta Premium Select and Delta One passengers will enjoy two free checked bags of up to 70 pounds each on all Delta-operated flights. If you have Medallion status and are confirmed in one of these classes, you can check up to three bags.
Special circumstances/destinations: Delta also publishes many exceptions to its baggage scheme, including:
- Some flights from the U.S. or Canada to select countries in Central America, South America and Europe allow the first checked bag for free unless you’re flying in basic economy, in which case you’ll need to pay $30-$60, depending on your destination.
- Active military traveling on orders can check up to five bags weighing up to 100 pounds apiece for free on all Delta-operated flights. If you’re flying for personal reasons, you’ll get two free bags of 50 pounds or less in economy and three free bags of 70 pounds or less in first class, Delta Premium Select or Delta One.
- Strollers and car seats do not count towards the standard baggage allowance and can be checked for free.
Like Alaska, Delta offers its own 20-minute guarantee for checked bags, awarding members 2,500 SkyMiles for late luggage.
JetBlue started the wave of checked bag fee increases in 2018, and in January 2020, boosted them yet again. For the carrier’s three lowest-level fares — Blue Basic, Blue and Blue Extra — you’ll now pay $35 for your first checked bag and $45 for your second if you wait until 24 hours before your flight. Otherwise, you can drop these prices to $30 and $40, respectively, by paying the fees in advance.
If you’re carrying a ton of gear, a third bag on any fare now costs a whopping $150, and any checked bags must weigh 50 pounds or less — or else you’ll be subject to an overweight fee of $150. Just note that tickets purchased prior to Jan. 16, 2020 have a slightly different set of fees, so check out this link for full information.
Here’s how you can avoid paying JetBlue baggage fees on your next flight:
Elite status: The TrueBlue program has a single level of elite status (Mosaic), and members who reach this tier can check two bags for free. This policy also extends to all travel companions booked on the same reservation.
Credit card(s): Barclays issues two different JetBlue cobranded credit cards that provide fee waivers for checked bags. Both the JetBlue Plus Card and the JetBlue Business Card allow primary cardholders to check their first bag for free, and this also extends to up to three companions booked on the same reservation. Like American’s policy, the card must be opened and the primary cardholder’s TrueBlue number attached to the reservation at least seven days prior to travel for the perk to apply.
In addition, the terms and conditions indicate that you must purchase the ticket with your JetBlue card to get the first bag free. However, in practice it appears that simply having the card associated with your TrueBlue account is enough. I’ve always been able to check a bag for free as a JetBlue Plus cardholder, even when I used a different card for the flight — including a flight at the beginning of March 2020 that was booked and paid for by my company.
Premium ticket(s): JetBlue’s newest baggage updates mean that only two types of tickets — Blue Plus and Mint — will enjoy a free checked bag. Bumping up to Mint actually increases your checked baggage allowance to two free bags, though the premium for those ticket types is usually quite high. Nevertheless, checking two bags for free can make the Mint experience even sweeter.
Special circumstances/destinations: The main exceptions to JetBlue’s baggage policies involve children and military. Like the other airlines mentioned above, JetBlue allows you to check strollers or car seats for free. In addition, if you’re an active member of the U.S. military on travel orders with a military ID, you and your dependents are allowed to check up to five bags weighing up to 99 pounds apiece for free. And if you’re an active military member traveling for leisure, you and your dependents on the same flight can check two bags up to 50 pounds apiece at no additional cost.
You can read all of the details regarding checked baggage on JetBlue Airways at this link.
Southwest is the last airline standing when it comes to this topic: It is the only major carrier in the U.S. that doesn’t impose checked bag fees. In fact, all passengers can check two bags weighing 50 pounds or less for free on all Southwest-operated flights. You can even check certain specialty items as one of these two free bags, though note that oversized sports equipment (like surfboards or bicycles) as well as all bags over 50 pounds are subject to an added fee of $75.
You can read all of Southwest’s checked baggage policies at this link.
Like most of the other airlines on this list, United raised its checked baggage fees in 2018, and it made another change in early 2020. You now must prepay your bag fees online to lock in the price of $30 for your first bag and $40 for your second bag on domestic flights and flights between the U.S. and the Caribbean or most of Central America. However, this higher fee for bags checked at the airport doesn’t apply to customers who booked their trip before Feb. 21, 2020.
Rather than publish a complicated series of charts with the various regions and corresponding bag fees, the carrier has two ways to check how much you’ll need to pay. Visit United’s checked baggage page and either log in to your MileagePlus account or click the “Any Flights” tab to search for the applicable fees based on your origin and destination.
This even includes a drop-down menu where you can indicate whether you fall into any of the groups (below) that would be entitled to free checked bags.
Speaking of which, here’s how you can avoid paying United checked bag fees on your next flight:
Elite status: United’s MileagePlus elite program consists of four tiers, all of which offer checked bag benefits. Premier Silver, the lowest tier, waives the first checked bag fee (up to 50 pounds) for the main traveler and up to nine travel companions. Premier Gold members can check two bags of up to 70 pounds apiece when traveling in economy within or between the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands; on all other international flights, they can check three bags of up to 70 pounds apiece. Premier Platinum and Premier 1K members have the same baggage privileges.
Credit card(s): There are four different United credit cards that include a checked baggage benefit:
- United Explorer Card and United Business Card: first checked bag is free for the primary cardholder and one companion on the same reservation
- United Club Infinite Card and United Club Business Card: first and second checked bags are free for the primary cardholder and one companion on the same reservation
The information for the United Club Business and United Business has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
However, there are two critical caveats to these perks: unlike most other airlines, you must purchase your ticket with the applicable United card and it must still be valid at check-in for the benefit to apply. If you use an alternate card that gives you a better return on airfare purchases — or if you cancel the card sometime between booking and check-in — you’ll be responsible for the baggage fee.
Premium ticket(s): If you’re seated in short-haul first class or long-haul premium economy or business class, you’re generally allowed two free bags weighing up to 70 pounds apiece. Use the aforementioned baggage fee calculator (or log in to your MileagePlus account) to see exactly what you’ll need to pay on the applicable itinerary.
Special circumstances/destinations: United has a handful of exceptions to its baggage policies, including the following:
- You can check one wheelchair or other assistive device at no additional charge.
- When traveling with a child, you can check one stroller and one car seat free of charge.
- Active U.S. military personnel with official travel orders can check five bags weighing up to 100 pounds apiece for free, and this extends to their dependents as well, even if they aren’t traveling together. In addition, active military members traveling for leisure can check up to three bags weighing up to 70 pounds without fees; their dependents can, too, but for personal travel must be on the same reservation.
You can read all of the details regarding checked baggage on United Airlines at this link.
Of course, the aforementioned details only apply to specific carriers — a United credit card isn’t going to help you when it comes time to fly on Delta, for example. What if you don’t have a preferred carrier and simply book whatever airline is the most convenient or least expensive? Is there any way to generally avoid baggage fees across more than one airline or without opening that airline’s credit card?
Fortunately, the answer to these questions is yes. Here are a couple of general suggestions you can use to minimize the impact of baggage fees:
Carry the right credit card
In addition to the cobranded airline cards mentioned above, many top travel rewards credit cards include credits that can cover checked bag fees when you incur them. Here are a few examples:
- Chase Sapphire Reserve: Each year, Sapphire Reserve cardholders receive an annual $300 travel credit that’s applied to virtually any travel-related purchase, including checked bag fees. Any eligible purchase will be automatically credited back to you within a day or two of posting to your account.
- The Platinum Card® from American Express: The Amex Platinum provides cardholders with an up to $200 annual airline fee credit to cover incidentals like seat assignments, lounge passes and checked bag fees. The only downside is that you have to designate a single airline, so you can’t use this across multiple carriers.
- Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express: The Hilton Aspire card has an airline fee credit that works just like the Amex Platinum’s credit. The only difference? It’s up to $250 instead of $200 every calendar year — and if you pair this with the Amex Platinum, you can actually designate two separate airlines, one for each card.
- Bank of America®️ Premium Rewards®️ credit card: If you can’t stomach a large annual fee, consider opening the Premium Rewards card from Bank of America. This card comes with an up to $100 annual airline fee credit that can be used for checked bag fees, along with a much more reasonable annual fee of $95.
READ MORE: Best credit cards with airline fee credits
In addition, you could also look to use a card like the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card to pay for checked bag fees. The miles you earn on this card can be redeemed to cover any travel purchase, so you have the opportunity to “erase” these purchases from your statement with your miles. For more information, check out our guide on How to redeem Capital One miles at a fixed value.
Try to cut back to a carry-on
Another strategy for avoiding checked bag fees is to attempt to cram everything you need into a carry-on size suitcase. As long as it’ll make it through security, you should be able to check it at the gate for no charge (as long as you aren’t in basic economy). With many flights at or near capacity, most gate agents will gladly take bags off your hands if it means fewer travelers trying to cram roll-aboards into the overhead bins during the boarding process.
In fact, on the last several flights I’ve been on, the last boarding group or two were actually barred from bringing their rolling suitcases on the plane. Instead, they were forced to check them at the gate (and retrieve them at baggage claim) due to a lack of space onboard. This isn’t a horrible thing if you were planning to check your bag anyway.
Just be aware that some airlines impose fees for larger bags that are carried onto the plane. Spirit, for example, allows each passenger a free personal item but charges $37 to $65 for a standard, rolling carry-on suitcase. While there are ways to pack a personal item on Spirit to skirt these restrictions, you definitely should be aware that these fees are out there.
Whether we like it or not, airline bag fees (and other incidental charges) are likely here to stay. On the major U.S. airlines not named Southwest, you’ll typically pay at least $60 for the privilege of checking a single bag on a round-trip domestic flight. However, there are many ways you can avoid these fees, including elite status, airline cobranded credit cards or through a special circumstance. There are even some general credit cards that can help minimize the impact of these charges.
If you’re just starting out in the world of points and miles, you’ll want to pay close attention to these bag fees, as they can be quite costly across multiple flights. Hopefully this guide has helped uncover strategies to prevent this from happening.
Featured image by Tim Boyle/Getty Images.
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