A $25 bag fee here. A $5 early-boarding charge there. Then it’s $15 for WiFi, followed by a $12 lunch. No one’s charging for the privilege of using the bathroom yet—but don’t be surprised if it does happen.
Last year alone, all of those extra charges added up to a whopping $27.1 billion in revenue for the major airlines.
As the days of being nickel-and-dimed have given way to being fifty-ed-and-hundred-ed, air travelers have been forced to be all the more vigilant about how much they’ll be charged in the long run. Of course, the smartest flyers never pay anything extra at all—and often end up traveling just as comfortably.
So how do they do it?
Just in time for holiday travel, we asked top industry experts to divulge six ways you can avoid getting gouged by airlines.
1. Carry Everything
Most domestic carriers charge extra to check even the first bag, while international flights usually allow only one checked bag for free—with weight limits. The most effective answer to this problem is the simplest: Don’t check a bag. Ever.
If you do need to check a bag and have concerns about being over the weight limit, “put heavy items in your carry-on,” says Scott Grimmer, founder of MileValue.com. “[Carry-ons] technically have a weight limit, but I’ve never had them weighed in all my travels.”
And before you claim that you can’t fit everything into a carry-on, Grimmer has a comeback: You’re probably using the wrong bag. He only ever travels with a rectangular, wheel-free carry-on. With wheeled bags, “the frame takes up about 40% of the volume,” says Grimmer. But once you lose the wheels, you can fit nearly twice as much inside. “I’ve taken eight-month trips with the right bag,” says Grimmer, “without checking any luggage.”
2. Check the Fees First
If you simply can’t get everything into a carry-on, “the best way to avoid baggage fees is to choose airlines that offer more free check-in bags should you need them,” says Fareboom.com CEO Marko Cadez. He names Southwest as the best among the U.S. carriers because they let you check in two items for free, including things like golf and ski bags.
“Consider the value of free checked baggage when selecting your airline,” says Cadez. “Typically, the first bag costs $25 and the second one is $35 on domestic flights.” So if you’re going golfing in Arizona and know that you’ll need to check two bags, keep in mind that you’ll pay $120 less in fees on Southwest than with another carrier. Bonus tip: You can compare baggage fees on Kayak’s airline fees chart.
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