Bringing Medical Devices Onboard the Airlines for Free
For the past several years, the fees for bringing bags onboard the airplane have been consistently increasing, while the permitted sizes have been ever decreasing. If you fly on low-cost carriers, or even on a full-service carrier on a Basic Economy ticket, then you often can’t bring anything onboard that is larger than a purse or small backpack without being hit with additional fees.
Either packing light or paying extra for bags has become old hat for many travelers. What is not as widely known is that some bags can still fly for free, even on low-cost carriers, if the contents are medically necessary.
If one of your bags that needs to take the trip with you happens to contain items you need for a medical reason, then it can come along for the ride for free on all the major US carriers. This rule includes, but is not limited to, items such as breast pumps and CPAP machines that are large enough to require their own bag, and would otherwise seriously eat into your included carry-on allowance.
You can find the airline specific policies on their websites, but generally speaking, your CPAPs, POCs, breast pumps, medications, and medical supplies do not count towards your normal baggage allowance and can be brought on board for free in addition to your normal luggage allowance. The caveat is that they must fit in the overhead compartment and follow the same sizing rules as other carry-on bags. You can't have packed other non-medically necessary items in the same bag if you want it to count as an additional free carry-on.
If you do plan to travel with a medically required device, my recommendation is to have the airline's policy printed and available in case you encounter any crew that isn’t familiar with that policy. Hopefully, this is a common enough occurrence that you shouldn’t have an issue, but be ready to explain why you have an additional bag and show its contents if necessary. If it is a medical device you need to actually use in-flight, you may need to contact the air carrier 48 hours in advance of the flight to inform them of the use - this is not going to apply to something like a breast pump.
To get you started, here are some links to airline policies regarding bringing medically necessary devices onboard for no additional fee.
While we are on the topic of free additional bags and devices, note that you can also usually bring a free car seat and/or stroller onboard the plane for free. These items may need to be checked, but they are generally permitted at no additional charge when traveling with your children.
Before handing over your credit card to pay for an extra bag, just think through whether it might be one that is already provided by the airline. In the case of medically necessary assistive devices, you can keep your credit card in your wallet and bring them on the plane for no extra charge.
If you have any first-hand experience bringing medical devices onboard the airlines for free then I'd love to hear your stories and tips!