7 Ways to Avoid Paying to Check Bags When Flying

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Confused couple holding luggage preparing for flight on vacation
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Looking ahead to flying off on a big summer vacation? Make sure you’ve budgeted for the inevitable extra airline fees. Choosing your seat, gaining a little extra leg room, boarding early – all of these little airplane niceties that once were free now come with a cost.

Perhaps the most galling of these airline fees is the one travelers now must pay to check luggage. But if you plan ahead, you can avoid those fees and pocket the cash – perhaps to feed right back into your vacation budget. Those souvenirs and show tickets aren’t going to pay for themselves.

Following are several ways you can avoid paying for luggage on your next flight.

1. Use the biggest carry-on allowed

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The simplest way to avoid checked bag fees is to use carry-on only luggage instead. (With the exception of some low-cost airlines, such as Spirit and Frontier, which do charge for carry-on bags.) But that means you may have to leave some clothing or other items at home, since carry-on bags are limited in size.

Check with your airline to determine which size carry-on bags they allow, and find the biggest luggage within their dimensions. According to Travel + Leisure, the major airlines don’t differ much in their requirements. The standard domestic carry-on luggage size is 22 inches by 14 inches by 9 inches, including the handle and the wheels.

2. Wear your extra items

Excited happy woman traveler in an airport holding a passport for international trip
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Think creatively — wear the heaviest and bulkiest clothing items you are bringing, which frees up space in your luggage. Wear the heavy hiking boots to the airport, pack the slim sandals. Wear the bulkiest jacket you’re bringing on the plane — you can take it off once in your seat if you get hot.

Believe it or not, there are even jackets designed for carrying a full-size tablet or small laptop.

3. Weigh and measure at home

Luggage bag being weighed on a scale
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Most airlines don’t weigh your carry-on luggage — if you can lift it into the overhead bin, you’re OK. But checked bags have to come in under a certain weight limit, or their owner must pay a fee.

You may have seen frantic travelers opening up their luggage at the ticket counter, trying to divide their belongings among two or three bags after being told one was too heavy. Avoid that hassle, plus the wallet pain of having to pay for overweight baggage, by weighing your bags at home. Digital luggage scales are inexpensive, or simply weigh yourself without and then with your luggage.

Note, too, that your flight status may affect how heavy your luggage can be. Delta notes on its site that basic economy, main cabin, Delta Comfort+ and Delta Premium Select passengers must stick to a 50-pound weight limit, while those in Delta One, first class, and business class can go as high as 70 pound per piece of luggage.

4. Stick to airlines that won’t charge for bags

Southwest Airlines
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Southwest Airlines allows each traveler two free checked bags, weighing up to 50 pounds each, and fitting into certain size requirements. For some, that makes this low-fare carrier too good to pass up.

Note that you won’t have an assigned seat on Southwest, though. You’re assigned to a boarding group, and once you get on, it’s first-come, first-serve.

5. Use a credit card with free bag benefits

Woman shopping online
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You probably have at least one credit card. If you travel a good deal, consider getting your favorite airline’s credit card.

Many airlines award cardholders extra frequent-flyer miles when they use the airline’s card, plus offer perks, such as free bag benefits. Alaska Airlines, for example, lets its VISA cardholders and up to six guests traveling on the same reservation check one bag free of charge on qualifying reservations. (You must use your card to buy the airfare, however.)

6. Plan to do laundry

Man shopping for laundry detergent
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You can take a smaller bag, and perhaps meet that carry-on size limit, if you’re just a judicious packer. Once you’ve arrived at your destination, you can always wash your clothes. Hotels often have guest laundry, Airbnbs usually have a laundry room and public laundromats abound.

Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson says that if you’re going to Europe for a 10-day trip, pack five days of clothing, and just do your laundry while there.

7. Gate-check your bag for free

Businessman waiting at the airport lobby in airport terminal waiting for flight with plane delays
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Most everyone else on your plane would also like to avoid carry-on fees, so many passengers show up at the gate with the ubiquitous roller bag. That’s why gate agents often ask for volunteers to turn in the carry-on they’ve hauled through security. At this point, they won’t charge you the checked bag fee, as an attempted inducement to lighten the load.

On the negative side, you won’t have access to your bag during the flight. But on the positive side, not only did you avoid checked-bag fees, you may also be placed into an earlier boarding group because you volunteered your bag. Happy travels!

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