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Airlines collected $2.8 billion in bag fees in the first half of 2019. Here’s how to avoid them

Sept. 16, 2019
7 min read
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U.S. airlines reported a second-quarter 2019 after-tax net profit of $4.8 billion, and a pre-tax operating profit of $6.9 billion, according to a just-released report from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Want to guess where a large chunk of that profit came from? You guessed it, baggage fees. Airlines collected $1.5 billion in baggage fees, or 2.9% of total operating revenue, through the end of the second quarter. Let's take a look at some of these numbers.

AirlineQ1 fees collectedQ2 fees collectedTotal fees from Q1 + Q2 2019
American317,297350,554667,851
United238,470274,949513,419
Delta201,412288,351489,763
Spirit176,063194,915370,978
Frontier91,389101,567192,956
JetBlue84,59189,860174,451
Alaska69,69185,531155,222
Allegiant63,66073,926137,586
Hawaiian20,18522,51542,700
Southwest12,02513,74925,774
Sun Country16,68717,74134,428
Total1,291,4701,513,6582,805,128

Revenue in thousands of US dollars. Data collected and released by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Every airline had an increase in baggage fees between the first and second quarter. But one carrier, American Airlines remains at the top of the list — again, with over $667 million in baggage fees through the end of the second quarter. The airline also topped the list in 2017 and 2018. United comes in at #2 with over $513 million in baggage fees.

The biggest increase in baggage fees between Q1 and Q2 goes to Delta Air Lines. The airline collected nearly $87 million dollars more in baggage fees in Q2 than Q1.

Ultra-low cost carriers Spirit and Frontier maintained #4 and 5, the same as last year. Budget carriers are known for charging astronomical baggage fees, but these two carriers combined charged just $564 million in the first two quarters. That's still lower than American, and just higher than United.

It's important to note that while the big three airlines collected the most in fees, Frontier and Spirit's collection rate is much higher based on a percentage of passengers flown. For example, American flew 36,544,173 passengers in the first quarter of 2019 while Spirit flew 7,647,003 passengers in the same time period.

Spirit's about a fifth of the size of American in terms of passengers flown, but the fees it collected were more than 50% of those that American did. Note that Spirit has more punitive bag fees overall, it even charges for large carry-on bags (up to $40 when purchasing your ticket online to $65 when at the gate) while American does allow a carry-on and personal item even in its cheapest basic economy fare.

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Want to avoid being part of this massive statistic? Let’s review the ways that you’re able to avoid or have your baggage fees reimbursed.

Get a co-branded credit card

The easiest way to avoid checked baggage fees on most airlines is by having a credit card for the airline that you check bags on the most. Many carriers offer at least one free checked bag on at least one of their co-branded cards. Here’s the airline-by-airline breakdown of which cards will get you a free checked bag (or two):

  • American: Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®, CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Mastercard®, Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®, Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard

The information for the Citi AAdvantage Platinum card and CitiBusiness AAdvantage Platinum card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

  • Delta: 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
  • United: United Explorer Card; United Explorer Business Card, United Club Card (first 2 bags), United Club Business Card (first 2 bags)
  • JetBlue: JetBlue Plus Card and The JetBlue Business Card
  • Alaska: Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card and Alaska Airlines Visa Business® card
  • Hawaiian: Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard and Hawaiian Airlines Business Mastercard

The information for the United Club and United Club 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.

The baggage allowances vary across these cards, but each provides at least one free checked bag for the cardholder (sometimes only for domestic flights). Some cards offer free checked bags for others booked on your same itinerary as well.

Unfortunately, some of the biggest bag fee collectors have co-branded credit cards that don’t offer a free bag: Spirit Airlines (Spirit Airlines Mastercard), Frontier (Frontier Airlines World Mastercard) and Allegiant (Allegiant World Mastercard).

Fly Southwest

The last major airline to still offer complimentary checked bags is Southwest. Each passenger can check two free bags — including golf bags and skis — up to 50 pounds and total dimensions of 62 inches. Overweight items from 51 to 100 pounds and oversized items in excess of 62 inches but not more than 80 inches will be accepted for overweight and oversize baggage fee of $75 per item. Those type of bags is how Southwest collected nearly $50 million in checked bag fees during 2018.

Wipe out baggage charges with a credit card fee reimbursement

Some premium credit cards offer travel fee credits that can be used toward airline fees such as baggage costs. These include the Chase Sapphire Reserve (up to $300 per year), the Citi Prestige® Card (up to $250 per year), Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card (up to $250 per year), The Platinum Card® from American Express (up to $200 per year) and the Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card. If you weren’t able to avoid baggage fees otherwise, using a travel credit could be a great option.

You can also redeem points earned on your Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card or Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card to get a statement credit for your baggage fees.

The information for the Citi Prestige and Hilton Aspire card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Earn elite status

This is easier said than done, but many airlines will offer their elite members between one and three free checked bags. Base-level elite members (American Gold, Delta Silver, United Silver and Alaska MVP) are able to check one bag for free on domestic itineraries. Top-tier members can check up to three free checked bags.

Additional reporting provided by JT Genter

Featured image by Patrick T. Fallon
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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Why We Chose It

The revamped Wander Card from Credit One Bank earns cardmembers up to 10 points per dollar spent on eligible travel purchases. With no foreign transaction fees, the card is also great for international travel. However, points earned from this card can only be used at a fixed value, so it may not be the best option for those striving to get maximum value from their rewards.

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  • Earn 10x points on eligible hotels and car rentals booked through the Credit One Bank travel site
  • Earn 5x points on eligible travel, dining, and gas
  • Earn 1x points on all other purchases
  • Redeem your reward points for statement credits, gift cards, merchandise, flights, hotels, and more
  • With $0 Fraud Liability, you won’t be responsible for unauthorized charges
  • Free Online Credit Score and Credit Report summary, terms apply
  • If you are a Covered Borrower under the Military Lending Act, you may get a different offer
  • See Rates & Fees