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There’s something about paying a luggage fee that has always bothered me. As someone who’s old enough to remember when all airlines included at least one free checked bag and one free carry-on, I can’t stand paying for things that used to be free. So I’ve decided to refuse to pay luggage fees, and my family has developed several successful strategies for avoiding them. In dozens of domestic and overseas trips in the last 20 years, my family of five has never paid a luggage fee. Here's what you need to know about baggage fees and how to avoid them.

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Southwest Is the Only U.S. Domestic Airline With Free Checked Bags

When I shop for domestic flights, and I know I’ll need to check a bag, I investigate the luggage fees before choosing an airline. In the U.S., one airline always rises to the top: Southwest. Not only is it the last remaining U.S. carrier that doesn’t charge for a checked bag, it offers all passengers two free checked bags.

And since Southwest passengers can check bags for free, fewer may be carrying on. I've found there’s usually more space in the overhead, boarding speeds up and flight attendants are less inclined to intercept people carrying on a slightly oversized bag.

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Airline Baggage Fees

There isn't a universal fee for checking a bag—every airline sets its price. And if you check more than one bag, you may pay a different price per bag. For example, it may be $30 for the first standard checked bag and $40 for the second, each way on domestic flights.

When checking a bag for a domestic flight on a major U.S. airline, such as Delta or American, expect to pay around $30, unless you are flying Southwest since it allows each passenger to check two bags for free. If you don't purchase the bag during booking or before check-in, however, the price may be higher.

If you're flying on an ultra-low-cost carrier, you may pay more per bag, and on Frontier, you may encounter the highest checked bag fee of all U.S. airlines: around $50 or more. The price varies based on the route and when you purchase the checked bag. And on these airlines, you'll also have to pay a similar cost for a carry-on that doesn't fit under the seat.

Airlines That Check Bags for Free on International Flights

checking bags at airport

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If you're flying international, you have a good shot at getting your bags checked for free. Below are airlines that will check your luggage for free on international flights—no matter which class you are flying, your credit card or your frequent flier program.

  • Air Astana: 1 free bag between 50-70 lbs (23-32 kgs), depending on the ticket

    Air China: 1-2 free bags, up to 50 lbs (23 kgs) each, depending on the route

    Air India: 1-2 free bags, up to 50 lbs (23 kgs) each

    Air New Zealand: 1-2 free bags, up to 50 lbs (23 kgs) each

    All Nippon Airways: 2-3 free bags, 50-70 lbs (23-32 kgs) each, depending on the ticket

    Asiana: 1-2 free bags, up to 50-70 lbs (23-32 kgs) each, depending on the route/ticket

    Bangkok Airways: 1 free bag, up to 44-88 lbs (20-40 kgs), depending on the ticket

    Cathay Pacific: 1-2 free checked bags up to 50 lbs (23 kgs) each, depending on route/ticket

    China Airlines: 1-2 bags, up to 50 lbs (23 kgs) each, depending on the ticket

    China Eastern: 1-2 free bags, up to 50-70 lbs (23-32 kgs) each, depending on the ticket

    EL AL: 1-2 free bags, up to 50-70 lbs (23-32 kgs) each, depending on the ticket

    Emirates: 1-2 free bags, up to 50 lbs (23 kgs) each, depending on the ticket

    Etihad: 2 free bags, up to 50 lbs (23 kgs) each

    Hawaiian Airlines: 2 free bags, up to 50 lbs (23 kgs) each

    Korean Air: 2 free bags, up to 50-70 lbs (23-32 kgs), depending on the ticket

    Lufthansa: 1-4 free bags, up to 50-70 lbs (23-32 kgs) each, depending on the ticket and/or status/membership

    Qantas: 1-3 free bags, up to 70 lbs (32 kgs) each, depending on the ticket

    Qatar Airlines: 1-2 bags, up to 50-70 lbs (23-32 kgs) each, depending on the ticket

    Singapore Airlines: 2 free bags, up to 50-70 lbs (23-32 kgs) each, depending on the ticket

    SriLankan Airlines: 1-2 free bags, up to 50-70 lbs (23-32 kgs) each, depending on the ticket

    Thai Airways: 2 free bags, up to 50-70 lbs (23-32 kgs) each, depending on the ticket

    Turkish Airlines: 2 free bags, up to 50-70 lbs (23-32 kgs), depending on the ticket

Choose the Right Airline Credit Card

Many airline credit cards offer cardholders a free checked bag for themselves and at least one other person traveling on the same reservation. For example, some cards offer two free bags for yourself and a companion, but some no-annual-fee airline cards don’t include this benefit.

If it looks like I'll have no choice but to pay a bag fee for one or more future trips, I’ll get a new credit card that includes a free checked bag and enjoy a valuable welcome bonus while avoiding luggage fees.

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Maximize Your Carry-Ons

Most airlines offer each passenger both a carry-on and a personal item that can fit underneath the seat in front of you. You’d be amazed how much stuff can fit into those two bags. For example, on a 10-day trip to Hawaii, me, my wife and our three children each had a full-size carry-on bag, plus a backpack. In fact, I strapped several of the carry-ons together so that I could wheel them through the airport with ease. But before boarding, I asked the gate agent if we could gate check all five of our carry-on suitcases. She was more than happy to do so, leaving each of us with a small backpack with our in-flight entertainment, food and valuables.

In fact, airline representatives often make announcements encouraging passengers to gate-check their bags to save time boarding and to make more room in the overhead compartments.

Read the Rules Carefully

As I see it, airline baggage fees are a game, and the way to win at any game is to know the rules. For example, while airlines will accept skis and snowboards as checked bags, often without an additional oversize fee, their rules vary on what can be in a bag. And if you’re traveling with a child, you’re permitted at no extra charge to carry on a diaper bag, breast pump and milk, as well as a government-approved child seat (infant carrying seat or car seat). And note that Alaska, American, United, and Delta now allow you to check a bicycle as a regular bag, and in some cases, you might not face extra charges.

Also, most airlines accept a child car seat as checked luggage. To protect the car seat, I suggest putting it in a duffle bag. And I find that If I include some spare diapers, beach towels, winter coats or other bulky but lightweight items in the duffle, underneath the seat, the airline will never know or care. I’ve even strapped bottles of wine into our children’s car seats, which does as good of a job protecting them as it does my children.

Book Award Tickets

Even when you fly in economy class, the tickets you book with your frequent flyer miles still count as standard economy, and on most airlines, you can have a carry-on and personal item. And when you pay with miles, it’s often economical to fly in business class where each passenger can check more than one bag. That's because, in my experience, a business class ticket that costs four times the price of an economy seat may often only require twice as many miles.

Travel this way as a family, and your biggest challenge will be getting a large enough vehicle to carry you and your stuff to and from the airport.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Yes, to enjoy your airline card’s free checked bag benefit, you will need to pay for your ticket with the card. If your card also allows free checked luggage for your companions, then they must be on the same booking as you.

  • On a major U.S. airline, around $30 is the common checked baggage fee for the first bag. Yet, the cost of additional luggage may rise per bag—for example, you may pay $40 for the second and $150 for a third. Also, if a paid checked bag exceeds the airline’s weight allowance (a maximum of around 50 pounds), expect to pay extra.

  • Many U.S.-based airlines give you at least one checked bag for free on transatlantic flights unless you are flying in basic economy or similar. If you have a second bag to check, you may have to pay—a common charge is $100.

JS

Jason Steele

Jason Steele is a journalist who specializes in covering credit cards, award travel and other areas of personal finance. As one of the nation’s leading experts in the credit card industry, Jason’s work has been featured at mainstream outlets such as Yahoo! Finance, MSN Money and Business Insider.