2. Weigh your bag options.
Your opportunity to avoid luggage fees occurs before you start packing. “The physical weight of the bag when empty makes a difference,” says Mary Chong, executive editor of online travel magazine CalculatedTraveller.com. “I’ve seen ‘lightweight’ carry-on luggage weighing in at almost eight pounds, whereas others weigh four pounds.” Imagine what you could pack with four pounds to spare.
Spending a little more on a well-made, lightweight bag can save you money in baggage fees. This is especially true for checked luggage: larger bags can weigh more than 11 pounds empty. It can also apply to carry-on bags. “If you don’t keep your eye on the scale, your carry-on can quickly go over the weight limit [where applicable], and you could be forced to check your luggage,” Chong says.
“Lightweight” is a relative term. When shopping for luggage, check a suitcase’s weight (usually listed on the tag or under “specifications” online) before you buy. Check its dimensions too. If you’re shopping in person, bring a tape measure.
Keep in mind that bags can expand past the allowance when full, advises Tom Wahlin, founder of Pack Hacker, a gear review and travel advice site. Measure your bag after you pack it, every time, as well.
Regardless of size, pay close attention to a bag’s materials and number of wheels. Hard-sided luggage, while often seen as more secure, is typically heavier than soft-sided luggage. Soft-sided bags are also more malleable, which makes them easier to squeeze into tight spaces. And although four wheels may make a bag easier to maneuver, two wheels weigh half as much. Duffels and backpacks without wheels can be exceptionally lightweight. They also have the added benefit of keeping your hands free, says Wahlin, who traveled full time out of a 40L backpack for a year and a half.
3. Choose airlines and ticket classes wisely.
Southwest Airlines is the only major domestic airline that still offers free checked bags with every ticket. However, other airlines often waive the checked baggage fee for non-economy tickets, and a few offer discounts if you pay when booking or checking-in online rather than waiting until you get to the airport.
Although seemingly counterintuitive, a pricier fare may help you cut costs. For instance, if you’d pay a $45 fee to check one bag with a basic economy ticket but only $30 more for a premium economy ticket that includes one checked bag, the upgrade is a better deal. What’s more, premium tickets often come with other perks, such as being able to choose your seat or getting priority boarding.
4. Use an airline credit card or join a frequent flyer program.
Loyalty goes a long way with airlines. Passengers who either carry an airline’s co-branded credit card or have a certain status level with the frequent flyer program often get perks such as free checked bags, including your travel companions. If loyalty alone doesn’t get you a free bag, try using frequent flyer miles to upgrade to a class that offers a checked bag or two with your ticket.
“A free checked bag is a standard perk on airline credit cards, regardless of what class of ticket you bought,” says Scott Keyes, co-founder and CEO of Scott’s Cheap Flights. “For a family of four with four checked bags, an airline credit card could save $240 in bag fees on a roundtrip flight,” which pays for the yearly fee—typically $75 to $250—on most airline credit cards if you travel at least once a year on that airline.
Some non-airline credit cards offer an annual airline credit that you can use to offset the price of checking a bag. Chase Sapphire Reserve, for instance, lets you use a yearly $300 travel credit to reimburse purchases such as bag fees and airline tickets. However, with a $450 yearly fee, you only come out ahead if you are a traveler who accrues—and uses—points, would pay foreign transaction fees with any other card, or would otherwise pay for things that are free with the card, such as airport lounge access, Global Entry, or TSA PreCheck.
In general, when is a travel rewards credit card worth the annual fee? If you use a card that gives points for daily purchases such as gas, groceries, and meals out, you can likely accrue enough points to offset the fee—or make your whole trip free—according to Matthew Kepnes, author of New York Times best seller How to Travel the World on $50 a Day and the writer behind Nomadic Matt.
“In the end, the best travel card for me might not be the best one for you, so you’ll want to do some research to make sure you’re optimizing your results,” says Kepnes. “I know it can seem like a hassle, but a free trip is worth the work, isn’t it?”