Here’s How to Save on Bag Fees to Europe This Summer

May 17, 2019

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Life. Liberty. The pursuit of happiness. Free checked bags.

That fourth right stopped being inalienable for Americans on domestic flights more than a decade ago, and soon after that on flights crossing borders within North America. But as late as last summer, depending on when they bought their tickets and which airlines they flew, many Americans could still check bags for free on flights to Europe. Major airlines began unveiling bag-less “basic economy” fares to Europe in early 2018—but not all airlines, and the change came late enough that some travelers had already booked their summer travel plans when even the cheapest fares still included checked luggage.

This summer, on the other hand, the vast majority of Americans traveling to Europe now face fees to check a bag. All three major US global airlines — American, Delta and United — and all of their joint-venture partners in Europe no longer include free checked bags with their cheapest fare types. Those airlines represent 77% of seats scheduled to fly between the US and Europe for the upcoming peak season, according to an analysis of Diio Mi schedule data. And don’t expect the largest independent airline — Norwegian, according to the same analysis — to help you either: It charges not only for checked bags but also for meals, which basic economy fares on major legacy-airline rivals still include.

Most airline-branded credit cards, which enable you to avoid fees on domestic routes and which can provide important benefits when traveling internationally, won’t help you avoid these fees either.

So how can you help yourself?

  • Fly a different airline, but not just any airline. Remember, these new basic economy  fares (and their hefty bag fees of about $60 each way) apply to American, Delta and United and all their European joint-venture partners. That’s mostly, but not exactly, the same thing as their Oneworld, SkyTeam and Star Alliance partners (see chart below). Virgin Atlantic is a Delta joint-venture partner — and applies the bag fees — even though it’s not in SkyTeam. On the other hand, SAS, TAP Air Portugal, LOT Polish and Turkish Airlines are Star Alliance members — but they’re not part of United’s joint venture with Air Canada and Lufthansa and its subsidiaries (Swiss, Austrian and Brussels Airlines). SAS and TAP charge for checked bags anyway, but three Star Alliance airlines — LOT (which serves five U.S. airports), Turkish (which serves nine) and Air New Zealand (which flies between Los Angeles and London) — provide some of the best loopholes for avoiding bag fees. From the New York City area, Emirates offers bag fee-free flights to Milan (from JFK) and Athens (from Newark).
  • As always, do the “bag math” to ensure you’re not overpaying to avoid bag fees, which will cost you about $120 round trip for each checked bag. If an airline’s lowest “bundled” fare that includes checked bags is $50 more than a basic economy fare, that’s a good deal if you’re planning to check a bag. If it’s $150 more, it’s not. Keep in mind, this concept applies to domestic travel too. Bags don’t really “fly free” on Southwest — they’re included in fares that can sometimes be higher than those offered by other airlines. If you plan to check bags, Southwest could indeed be the best deal for you. If you’re willing to travel light, you might save by booking a different airline.
  • Consider buying a “more-bundled” fare on one of the bag-fee-charging airlines. These fares tend to cost (you guessed it) $120 more than the basic economy fares. But they carry other benefits, like advance seat selection, which basic economy fares don’t include and which can be particularly important for people traveling together on long flights. Keep in mind that if you select a more expensive fare, it’ll apply to everyone on the reservation, even if not everyone needs to check their own bags. If two or three people can check one bag, you’ll save money by booking the basic economy fare and paying separately for the bag. (Here too, there’s a domestic equivalent to this rule: One person traveling on JetBlue can save a few dollars and some hassle by buying a “Blue Plus” fare, which includes a checked bag. But two or more people traveling together, sharing one checked bag, will come out ahead by booking the standard “Blue” fare and paying separately for the single bag when they check in.)

Confusingly, “basic economy” doesn’t mean the same thing on European flights as it does on US domestic flights. The most important distinction is that all major airlines still allow you to carry aboard a full-size carry-on bag, such as a roll-aboard, for free on flights to Europe. United, most notably (like “ultra-low-cost” Spirit, Allegiant and Frontier), doesn’t allow this on domestic flights. With basic economy fares to Europe, which sometimes carry other branding such as “saver” or “light,” the main things you’ll give up are free checked bags and advance seat assignments. A few airlines also withhold other amenities — Aer Lingus, for example, provides headphones and blankets to its economy passengers traveling on “smart” fares but not to those traveling on “saver” fares. But on most airlines offering basic economy fares between the U.S. and Europe, your in-flight experience will be the same once you’re in your seat. You just won’t be able to choose that seat long in advance or check a bag at no additional cost.

A Little Help From My Friends

Here are the joint venture partners for the major US global airlines. All airlines here (as well as some not on this list) now offer “basic economy” fares that don’t include checked bags, and all charge about $60 each way for a checked bag.

American Delta United
Aer Lingus* Air France Air Canada
British Airways Alitalia Austrian
Finnair KLM Brussels Airlines
Iberia Virgin Atlantic Lufthansa
*pending regulatory approval Swiss


Featured image by Patrick T. Fallon for The Points Guy.

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