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Incidental airline fees are a big business for the major airlines in the US. Whether you’re shelling out hundreds of dollars to change a flight or even just a small amount to select your seat, these charges are a key driver of airline profitability nowadays. And of all these additional costs, checked bag fees are probably the most ubiquitous, bringing in a whopping $4.5 billion (with a “b”) in 2017 alone. Unfortunately, these fees are continuing to rise: in 2018 alone, we’ve seen JetBlue, United, Delta and American all increase their checked bag fees.
No one wants to pony up an additional $60 to check a bag on a round-trip domestic flight, but fortunately, there are a handful of simple ways to avoid paying these fees. Today I’ll go through each major carrier in the US to highlight their 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.
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 (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 his/her 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 has (thus far) resisted the urge to bump its bag fees, which were already a bit cheaper than most of the other carriers on this list. Regular travelers will pay $25 for their first bag and then another $25 for their second bag. Both of these are subject to a maximum weight of 50 pounds, and any overweight luggage is subject to an additional $75 fee.
Here’s how you can avoid paying these fees for your next Alaska flight:
Elite Status: The Alaska elite status program has three tiers, and any 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.
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 US 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.
- 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 up to 70 pounds apiece with a valid military ID; this extends to their dependents too with both a military ID and travel orders.
As noted above, American is one of the carriers that recently boosted its checked bag fees by $5. If you’re traveling within the US or to/from Canada, the Caribbean or Central America (excluding Panama) and your ticket was issued on or after September 21, 2018, you’ll now 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 transatlantic passengers 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.
Here’s how you can avoid paying these fees for your next American 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. The 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 lose your status or drop to Gold by the time you take your flight, you can still check-in 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 4 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 8 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 4 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 4 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 7 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 US military and/or dependents can check up to five bags free of charge with a military ID and travel orders; active US military with ID can check three bags for free when traveling for personal reasons.
- If you’re flying from the US 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 1 stroller and 1 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 guilty of raising checked bag fees without any notice in 2018 — you’ll now pay $30 for your first checked bag and $40 for your second checked bag on domestic flights as well as flights between the US 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 these fees for your next Delta 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 US 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 more 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:
- Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
- Gold Delta SkyMiles® Business Credit Card from American Express
- Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
- Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Business Credit Card from American Express
- Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express
- Delta Reserve for Business Credit Card
This perk also extends to up to 8 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:
- Flights from the US or Canada to El Salvador or Panama allow the first checked bag for free unless you’re flying from Atlanta (ATL) to Panama City (PTY) in basic economy, in which case you’ll need to pay $30.
- 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 thus can be checked for free.
JetBlue started the 2018 craze by increasing checked bag fees for tickets issued on or after August 27, 2018. For the lowest-level Blue fare, you’ll now pay $30 for your first bag, while both Blue and Blue Plus tickets will incur $40 for your second bag and a third bag on any fare now costs a whopping $150! All of these bags must weigh 50 pounds or less — double check your bags, since these new policies also increased the fees for overweight/oversized bags (along with increasing change/cancellation fees).
Here’s how you can avoid paying these fees for your next JetBlue 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 7 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, even when I use a different card for the flight.
Premium Ticket(s): JetBlue implemented a new fare structure in 2015, one that continues today. The lowest fare (Blue) doesn’t include a checked bag, but if you spend a little more for Blue Plus (usually around $25, which is cheaper than the first checked bag fee), you’ll enjoy a free bag. Bumping up to Blue Flex or Mint increases your checked baggage allowance to two free bags, though the premium for those ticket types is usually a bit higher. 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 US 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 US 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 many sporting equipment items as one of these two free bags, though note that oversized sports equipment (like surfboards or bicycles) 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 for flights purchased on or after August 31, 2018. You’ll now pay $30 for your first bag and $40 for your second bag on domestic flights and flights between the US and the Caribbean or most of Central America. 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 login 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 where you can indicate whether you fall into any of the groups (below) that would be entitled to free checked bags, allowing it to be tailored directly to your specific situation.
Speaking of which, here’s how you can avoid paying these fees for your next United 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 elite traveler and up to 9 travel companions. Premier Gold members, meanwhile, can check two bags of up to 70 pounds apiece when traveling in economy within or between the US, Canada, Puerto Rico and the US 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 Explorer Business Card: first checked bag is free for the primary cardholder and one companion on the same reservation
- United Club Card and United Club Business Card: first and second checked bags are free for the primary cardholder and one companion on the same reservation
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 still be responsible for the baggage fee.
Premium Ticket(s): If you’re seated in short-haul first class or long-haul business class, you’re generally allowed two free bags weighing up to 70 pounds apiece, while long-haul first class will bump this to three free 70-pound bags. Use the aforementioned baggage fee calculator (or login 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 US 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 additional, 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.
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 or 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.
- Bank of America Premium Rewards credit card: If you can’t stomach an annual fee of $450+, 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.
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 Venture Miles.”
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 rollaboards 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. Not a horrible thing if you were planning to check your bag anyway.
Whether we like it or not, bag fees (and other incidental charges) are likely here to stay. On the major US airlines not named Southwest, you’ll typically pay at least $50 for the privilege of checking a single bag on a round-trip 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 & miles and plan to increase the amount of air travel you do in the near future, you’ll want to pay close attention to these bag fees, as they can be quite costly across multiple flights. I certainly hope that this guide has helped uncover strategies to prevent this from happening.
Featured image by Tim Boyle / Getty Images.
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