How to Avoid Baggage Fees

Save valuable vacation cash—and time—by giving everyone a carry-on and teaching them how to pack to the max.


By Diane Bair and Pamela Wright

  • Choose an ultra-light bag for each family member. The general rule is that width plus length plus height should not exceed 45 linear inches, but check with your airline. Weight limits may range from 13 to 45 pounds. Everyone is also allowed a personal item, such as a backpack, laptop bag or purse. Assign one to each person—your son brings the backpack, your husband has the computer—to cover all bases without doubling up.
  • Take only what you need for each day’s activities (no “what-ifs”). Bring clothes of varying fabrics that can be layered and are appropriate for different occasions. Look for double-duty pieces, like a bathing suit cover-up that can also be used as a wrap. Plan to do one wash midway through the trip so you can cut your clothing haul in half.
  • Pack smart. Put your shoes in first after stuffing them with underwear and socks. (Wear one comfy pair like sneakers and restrict everyone to one additional pair, plus flip-flops.) Roll garments to prevent wrinkles and tuck smaller items into the nooks and crannies. Spread a waterproof shell jacket on top to protect your items—and yourself—in case it rains.
  • Wear your bulkiest clothing on the plane. Even if it’s warm outside, don an extra layer like a sweatshirt or light coat on the flight. It can be used as a pillow (since airlines usually charge for the luxury), and in case the cabin air is cold. Plan to wear the same outfit on your return flight.
  • Nix the shampoo, conditioner, body lotion and hair dryer. Most hotels stock the basics. If you’re not staying at a facility with freebies, bring one bottle of product per family—as long as it’s less than 3 ounces. Pack towelette versions of insect repellent, sunscreen and makeup remover. (They’re lightweight, spill-proof and can make it past airport security.)

Fast Fact: Airlines raked in nearly $3 billion from baggage fees last year (so don’t count on them going away).

4 More Ways to Avoid Charges

  1. Choose a no-fee airline. Your first checked bag flies free on JetBlue; on Southwest Airlines, you get two bags free per person.
  2. Take advantage of exemptions. Many airlines waive fees for elite-level frequent fliers and their companions, and for active military.
  3. Consider an airline-branded credit card. Delta’s Sky Miles Gold American Express allows up to nine people on the cardholder’s reservation to check one bag gratis for an annual fee of $95. Love Continental Airlines? Check out OnePass Chase MasterCard.
  4. Sleep and save. Some hotels reimburse baggage fees if you stay a certain number of nights; check websites for current promotions.

The 3-1-1 Rule for Liquids and Gels

When trying to decide what’s okay to carry on, remember the Transportation Security Administration’s 3-1-1 rule: Pack liquids and gels in 3-ounce or smaller containers and place them inside a 1-quart ziptop plastic bag (one bag per traveler is allowed). Medications exceeding 3 ounces are acceptable in “reasonable quantities.” Declare these items for inspection at the security checkpoint.

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