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Pack small or pay up: Frontier is cracking down on carry-on baggage

Oct. 18, 2022
9 min read
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Ultra-low-cost airlines, including Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines, are not only known for having low fares that are often less than the cost of a dinner out. They're equally known for offering "optional" ancillary fees that are typically anything but cheap.

Denver-based Frontier services 50-plus markets in North America and the Caribbean. For its routes, the airline sometimes offers fares as low as $19, but out-of-pocket costs for customers quickly go up when everything from bringing a full-size carry-on bag for $50 to $89 to traveling with a checked bag for $55 to $96 is factored in. Seat assignments, select in-airport agent help and onboard food and beverage services also cost extra.

Just about the only thing that is free on a Frontier flight — other than using the lavatory — is the one personal item, such as a purse or other similarly sized item, you're permitted to bring on board. Online, Frontier specifies that this item must be no larger than 14 inches by 18 inches by 8 inches, and it must fit under the seat in front of you.

To put that into context, those dimensions are slightly larger than the size of the ubiquitous Herschel Classic Backpack in the Mini size, which measures 11 inches by 8 inches by 4 1/4 inches. Know, though, that the full-size version (the Herschel Classic Backpack) is too large. The same would be true of the classic JanSport backpack.

If you are unable to fit all the stuff you need for your trip in that small of an item, then you can pay for a carry-on bag that's suitable for the overhead bin. However, it cannot exceed 10 inches by 16 inches by 24 inches — including handles, wheels and straps — and must weigh less than 35 pounds.

But, of course, those are the printed rules.

Those who've flown Frontier in the last couple of years know that there are occasionally times when passengers can get away with carrying on a larger bag like a standard-size backpack or even a full-size duffel bag as their personal item. In our experience, passengers rarely pressed their luck with wheeled carry-on bags, but pretty much anything that could be worn on your shoulder has had a shot of getting on board in recent years.

All good things come to an end, though, as Frontier is clearly making a greater effort to enforce its existing baggage policy by tacking on fees for those who attempt to bring on larger items.

A Frontier spokesperson declined to specify any recent changes to their carry-on baggage policy, but did confirm they were enforcing their rules.

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To help you plan accordingly so you are not hit with any surprise fees, here's all you need to know based on my recent experience flying with the carrier.

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Consider all options before paying for carry-on baggage

When you purchase a Frontier flight, you have the option to add baggage at the time of purchase. Doing so is the cheapest option if you'll need to bring more than a personal item, according to Frontier's website.

How much will that bag cost you? Unfortunately, there's no straightforward answer since the carry-on fee is based on a variety of factors, including whether you choose to purchase a bundle package, what your flight route is, if you have Frontier elite status and when you pay for your carry-on.

Based on a series of test flights researched for this story, we found that you can currently expect to shell out anywhere from $55 for a full-size carry-on you pay for when making your online reservation to $100 for a similarly sized bag you pay for at the gate right before boarding.

In the case of my flight, a round-trip itinerary from Chicago's Midway International Airport (MDW) to Philadelphia International Airport (PHL), it cost $60 each way to bring a full-size carry-on. That was almost the same price as my ticket.

By the time I added a carry-on and selected my seats, my total cost for the ticket was nearly $300, a far cry from the originally advertised fare of $125.

Throughout the booking process, you are constantly encouraged to add baggage services or even a bundle of "extras."

The fee for the cheapest bundle on my ticket was $120 each way (or $240 total). This would include a checked bag, a carry-on bag and seat selection. However, it was less expensive for me to only pay for what I needed, so I ended up spending $120 for baggage and $47 for seat selection.

FRONTIER.COM

Related: Here's what to pack in a carry-on bag every time you travel

Prepare for your luggage to be measured

When you arrive at the airport, you'll see luggage measurement bins for Frontier passengers both at the check-in counter and at the gate.

CAROLINE TANNER/THE POINTS GUY

Because I had paid for my carry-on item ahead of time, I verified with the check-in agent whether I needed to place my bag in the measurer. She told me no and said I could head straight to the security area since I already had my boarding pass.

CAROLINE TANNER/THE POINTS GUY

When I arrived at my gate, there were two sizers for bags: one for your free personal item, and one for paid carry-on bags.

About 20 minutes before boarding, a flight attendant supervisor gave a reminder about the airline’s carry-on baggage policy to those of us waiting in the gate area. During this announcement, he “highly, highly recommended” travelers “step up to the counter" to measure their large backpacks, roller bags and duffle bags. He also reiterated that the bag must be able to slide seamlessly in and out of the measurer.

CAROLINE TANNER/THE POINTS GUY

“You will be charged a higher price if you attempt to board with an unpaid carry-on,” the Frontier supervisor said. “We do not wish to leave anyone behind, so please measure.”

This was not a one-off experience I had. Based on discussions with other Frontier travelers, it is common to hear frequent announcements about measuring your personal item before boarding.

Should anyone's personal item have been too big, passengers could've added the option for a carry-on via the app. The gate agents recommended this option since it was cheaper than paying at the gate counter — though it was still pricier than paying during the booking process, which is what I did.

“If you need any assistance using our website or app, we’re more than willing to assist you,” the supervisor continued.

A few minutes later, a gate agent made a second announcement about the carry-on reminder, at which point several travelers went to the sizers to measure their backpacks and larger roller bags.

When I asked for instructions regarding this process, a gate agent said “just see if it fits in the top bin, and if it does, you’re all good.”

For good measure (literally), I inserted both my paid carry-on bag, which was a large tote, and my Caraa Stratus backpack. Both fit without issue.

Other backpacks you could bring on board include Lululemon's Pack it Up Backpack (which measures 12.2 inches by 17.3 inches by 5.9 inches) and the Everywhere Zip Backpack from Away (which is 12 inches by 17.7 inches by 5.9 inches).

CAROLINE TANNER/THE POINTS GUY

On my flight back from Philidelphia to Chicago, the departure gate agents made similar announcements as those made before my outgoing flight to Philidelphia, specifically to remind travelers to measure their duffle bags, backpacks and roller bags. There was also signage throughout the gate area reminding travelers of the policy.

On board, I mostly noticed backpacks and smaller duffle bags stored in the overhead bin compartments, but some larger roller bags were placed in the bins as well.

Additionally, every passenger that paid for a carry-on bag was upgraded to Zone 1 boarding, the priority boarding group. This helps the gate agent keep track of who has (and hasn't) paid for a full-size carry-on bag. If you don't pay for your carry-on bag during the booking process, it's safe to assume that you'll be placed in a later boarding group.

CAROLINE TANNER/THE POINTS GUY

Related: 3 ways to avoid checking your bag at the gate

Bottom line

When the cost of bringing a full-size carry-on bag on ultra-low-cost carriers such as Frontier is about the same — or sometimes more — than the cost of the flight itself, it can certainly be tempting to try and stuff everything you need into your free personal item. After all, you're presumably flying on an ultra-low-cost carrier to minimize travel expenses as much as possible.

THE POINTS GUY/CAROLINE TANNER

While you can still bring a small backpack or laptop bag on board for free, the days of bringing a slightly larger backpack or duffle bag without incurring a fee may be over ... at least, for now. Because of this, your best bet will likely be to pay for your bag during the booking process, as it costs more to add baggage at the gate.

For more information about flying with Frontier, read:

Featured image by CAROLINE TANNER/THE POINTS GUY
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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  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
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  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
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  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees