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Airlines Collected $4.9 Billion in Bag Fees Last Year. Here’s How to Avoid Being Part of That Statistic

May 06, 2019
7 min read
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More than four months after the end of the year, we are just getting the 2018 statistics for airlines, and there are some jaw-dropping numbers. US-based airlines recorded $11.8 billion in after-tax profits for the full year. And a significant portion of those profits was baggage fees, which came in just shy of $4.9 billion in 2018.

That's an increase of 7% from the baggage fees collected from a year prior. Alaska, American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue and United all increased their fees for first checked bag during the year.

In the fourth quarter of 2018 alone, airlines collected $1.25 billion in bag fees. That marks the 11th straight quarter that US-based airlines have collected over $1 billion in baggage fees.

Although the rankings mostly stayed the same, there was a big change near the top. So, which airlines collected the most baggage fees?

RankAirline20172018% Increase

*Virgin America reported separately for 2017
Revenue in thousands of US dollars. Data collected and released by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

American remains at the top of the list yet again — the world's largest airline raked in $1.22 billion in baggage fees alone, with only a modest 4.2% increase. Delta's bag fees actually dropped by 13.1%, but the airline still managed to collect $788 million in fees for the year.

But the biggest move of the legacy carriers was made by United which led legacy airlines by increasing its baggage fees by over $94 million to more than $888 million. That's a 11.9% increase over 2017, and a move that sent United soaring into second place. This sharp increase in bag fees is no doubt bolstered by United's basic economy restrictions preventing a free carry-on bag -- which remains in place even after AA removed that restriction on its basic economy fares.

Surprisingly, Alaska saw the largest percentage increase with a 33.2% increase over what Alaska and Virgin America collected separately in 2017.

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Ultra-low cost carriers Spirit and Frontier maintained #4 and 5, respectively, in 2018. That's despite Spirit growing bag fees by nearly 30% over 2017. While low-cost carriers are infamous for restrictive bag fees, Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant only combined to charge $1.22 billion in baggage fees, which is what American Airlines collected by itself in 2018.

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
  • 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
  • Hawaiian: Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard and Hawaiian Airlines Business Mastercard

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 — Spirit Airlines (Spirit Airlines Mastercard), Frontier (Frontier Airlines World Mastercard) and Allegiant (Allegiant World Mastercard) — have co-branded credit cards that don’t offer a free bag.

The information for the Citi AAdvantage Platinum, CitiBusiness AAdvantage Platinum, United Club, 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.

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 an overweight and oversize baggage fee of $75 per item. Those type of bags are 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 (up to $250 per year), Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card (up to $250 per calendar year), The Platinum Card® from American Express (up to $200 per calendar year) and the Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card (up to $100 per calendar year). 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.

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 and United Silver) are able to check one bag for free on domestic itineraries. Top-tier members can check up to three free checked bags.

Featured image by Getty Images
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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