How To Avoid Luggage Fees And Work Your Way Around The Airlines For Free

Luggage fees are a bane that travelers can avoid with thoughtful preparation, a positive attitude, and some luck. By using the airline’s rules against them you don’t have to get caught up in the airline feeding frenzy and can weave your way around ever increasing charges and fees.

two suitcases at airport

Find Out What You’re Up Against

Most of the exact weight limits and carry on restrictions vary across airlines as well as between domestic and international flights. Don’t assume you know what they are, even if you have a rough idea – you don’t want to be caught 5 kilograms over and $75 short because you didn’t do your homework.

You’ll also want to know what the airline defines as carry-on luggage as opposed to “personal item or baggage”. In addition to the weights, make sure your bags fit (or look like they do) the rough dimension requirements as well.

woman at airline check inHave An Extra Bag At Check Out

In general it’s best to stick to a single carry on when possible, but have a second bag with you when you check in for your flight. This bag will be used to temporarily dump any extra weight your suitcase is carrying during the weigh in process. It doesn’t have to be a fancy bag either, large plastic shopping bags seem to work best. (They also don’t tend to get weighed by airline staff for some reason.)

If your checked bag does happen to be overweight, take out the heaviest items and place them in your temporary bag. Ask to have the bag re-weighed and don’t worry about holding up your fellow passengers. Once the bag is under the luggage limit and the fee avoided, you can try putting the items back into the larger bag, check both, or take the temporary bag with you on the plane.

Airline luggage restrictions are almost always per bag. They don’t consider total weight so having a small temporary bag with you is does the trick in most cases. Also, never check your electronics or valuables in your checked baggage – if it can’t be avoided, be sure to pack them low and under clothes to obscure them.

airline hostessesCharm Yourself A Few Grams

You may yourself have had that unspoken negotiation with an airline employee; quiet eye contact pleading your case when your suitcase is just slightly over a baggage weight limit. Using your charm and friendly attitude you might just be able to get away with it, so long as you get your relationship off to a good start.

  • Be TactfulUse Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War to win battles at the ticket counter.
  • Compliment Then Complain – Make the employee your ally against the unscrupulous airline try to charge you more money.
  • Be Friendly From The Start – It’s easy to be nice when you want something, but you’ll come across more genuine if you start out a conversation that way.
  • Put Them In Your Shoes – Try asking politely in any number of words, “if you were in my shoes, would you want to pay for a few extra grams or kilos?” Another good one is, “if I were your mother/father…”
  • Plead Your Case (And Maybe Fudge The Truth) – You’re on a budget, had to book a last minute flight to see an ailing friend, or had your wallet recently stolen.
  • Flirt – Sometimes there is chemistry there and if it saves you a few bucks, all the better.

Just how much over you can be is often up to the airline employee but at 10% you’ve got a pretty good chance and with some luck and charm 20% isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

carry on limitBe Discrete With Your Handbag

Some airlines have begun looking for over-sized carry-on bags (and charging you for them) at the boarding gate. If your bag is over-sized or won’t fit into the small display common in many airports now, make sure you don’t draw any unwanted attention to it.

  • Backpacks up to 50 liters, like the GoLite Pursuit, meet most dimension requirements although can’t often be contorted to fit into those rectangular displays. Keep your backpack on your bag giving it a smaller, lighter appearance rather than lugging it by hand.

It’s also a good idea to board when it’s busiest – your slightly bulging backpack is less likely to be noticed in a crowd.

Avoid The Fees By Traveling Light

That seems simple enough but when packing it’s tempting to try and fit just one more souvenir paperweight or bottle of wine. Give yourself some slack before departure and keep your suitcase weight under 80% of the limit if possible. That will give you some room for things to bring home on the way back.

baggage claim

Despite your best efforts though, sometimes baggage fees just can’t be avoided so you should include them in your simple travel budget. Any money you don’t pay for fees can be added to your savings or for a fancy night out – at least you’ll have it to spend on something else! For multi-city flights or RTW trips just be sure to lighten the load before your next flight so you don’t keep paying over and over again.

[photos by: Live And Basic (two suitcases at airport), juicyrai (woman at airline check out), Giorgio Montersino (airline hostesses), mil8 (carry on limit), p0ps Harlow (baggage claim)]

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  1. Donna Hull says:

    The end of your article gets to the heart of the matter. Resist the urge to overpack. Bring less, you won’t miss it.

    (1)
  2. Aditi L (gaytravel.com/blog) says:

    The digital weight reader thing you recommend is incredible! I can’t believe I didn’t know about this before!

    (1)
  3. In Europe an unforseen extra charge because you’re outside the luggage allowance can turn a bargain price flight into a rather expensive one – That’s how they make their profit. It does pay to read the small print carefully – I can tell you that Easyjet is a little more generous and forgiving than Ryanair who will apply the rules to the letter. In these cases don’t waste your time with charm – it won’t work – just wear all your heavy clothes and stuff the pockets instead.

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    • Anil P. says:

      I too think Ryanair is definitely the strictest of all the budget airlines and perhaps overall – though I think your suggestion would work to get around even them :)

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  4. Miss Stella says:

    What if my checked baggage is like 1/2 inch, or 1 inch, over the limit? I’ll be flying American Airlines to Europe and back. Would they really charge $150 each way for a 62.5 inch suitcase?

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    • Anil P. says:

      They might but it’s not very likely. Airlines are much more strict about weight requirements than size requirements; especially ones that are so little over the limit.

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  5. Renato says:

    Great post! I like the shopping bag idea and it works well, I find the IKEA ones the best for that (you can even put the hand luggage inside). But I would suggest to wear something with a few pockets as well, you might be uncorfortable for a few minutes but you can easily add a few heavy bits while waiting at the check in

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  6. My wife and I just got through 3 EasyJet flights with a pretty strict luggage policy of only one carry on and 20kg per checked luggage.

    The way airlines enforce the luggage policies is very subjective. I have seen some people carry multiple bags while attendants forced others to put small personal items into their main carry on bag. Your advice on going when it is busy is very good.

    I was quite surprised to see a few full sized guitars allowed as carry on. Even on EasyJet, it seems possible to bring on a guitar despite its size.

    Some other tips to consider:
    1. What you wear doesn’t matter. Wear your heaviest clothes, along with a sweater and jacket if you are over your luggage allowance. It can save a couple of kilos in your check in luggage.

    2. Fill the pockets of your jacket with heavy items like books, hard drives or electric adapters. I got an extra four kilos on board like this. Try to chose a jacket with lots of zip up pockets.

    3. Duty Free doesn’t count in your carry on allowance. Buy a little duty free but ask for a big bag to put in other items.

    4. Carry a big book or other items in your hand. They don’t seem to count small things like pillows, wallets or books.

    (1)
    • Anil P. says:

      Excellent advice – and you’re right it is all quite subjective. Something heavy in your hand or in your pockets doesn’t count against you but a kilo over in your suitcase is worth $$$. What makes it annoying is that it has nothing to do with safety and isn’t logically enforced. Ah well, good thing we can keep up with the airlines :)

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  7. Dave and Deb says:

    Great post, advice and comments all around.
    We were charged for overweight luggage for the first time when we went to Alaska on a cruise this summer. We had never packed for a cruise before so we went heavier than usual. Never again, I was so mad about having to pay. Especially when I saw how much everyone was carrying on with them, I should have just grabbed one of our bags off the scale and carried it on with me. The few flights I have taken since, I have noticed that people are taking everything with them as a carry on. Two bags, shopping bags, duty free bags… It is crazy. I think I will stick to backpacking and travelling light from now on.

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  8. Sofia says:

    Great advice, also in the comment section! I second John Bardos, wear your heavy bulky clothes, and put them back in the bag once on the plane.

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  9. Priyank says:

    Hi Anil, absolutely fantastic post!

    I’ve noticed that often the weighing belt at the check in counter is overused and not accurate. If you dump your bags on the belt, it is likely that the weight will increase. Gently loading the bags helps. Also, if the place is crowded, you could leave one end of the bag on the metal frame outside the belt – it worked two times for me. :)

    Several USA airlines offer a small discount if you checkin your bags online.

    Believe it or not, I even said, “But I weigh only 65kgs! Look at that guy!”, to the amusement of the clerk, who let me go. ^_^

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    • Anil P. says:

      LOL, great tips but loved the story about the end! I guess humor too comes in handy (I’ll have to try that one :)

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    • Jeydon says:

      I can’t believe that airlines don’t put in maximum body weight and then charge extra per kilo. Rather than luggage weight, they should allow say 100kg per person and charge extra if your total body weight plus luggage exceeds that. They could offer a discount if you pay online, say $20/5kg online, or $20/kg at the airport. Surely that would give them a more accurate weight for calculating total weight of the plane. Would also mean that passenger weight could be more evenly distributed.

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      • Anil P. says:

        I can’t imagine that going over very well with customers. Rather, just increase ticket prices by $2 and let people check in 1 bag. The weight restrictions and fees have much more to do with revenue than safety unfortunately.

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  10. Emily says:

    My favorite way to avoid the fees is to to use my Continental business credit card. I have it for my freelance writing biz, and one of the best benefits is that it gives me my first checked bag for free when I fly with them. It doesn’t help if I’m checking more than one bag, and only works when I fly Continental, but I think it’s a big perk. I also get two Presidents Club passes every year on my anniversary, which is pretty sweet.

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    • Anil P. says:

      Good to know – I think United has a similar program and if you keep a minimum number of frequent flyer miles they typically waive fees too. That fee for the first checked bag does get under my skin though…

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  11. Earl says:

    I’ll sometimes take a light jacket with me on the plane, only to stuff its pockets with extra stuff that would otherwise make my checked luggage too heavy. In some cases, I’ll lay the jacket down, put even more stuff on top of it and roll it into a ball, tying the arms into a knot. Nobody questions a jacket even when you have it rolled up under your arm!

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  12. Shannon says:

    Excellent points and suggestions. I try not to check luggage, if at all possible, but on some trips it’s inevitable. I end up shopping and checking a bag on the way back home. And yes, I’ve had to pull out a few items so that I wasn’t over the weight limit.

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  13. Smartchick says:

    Try this next time you fly Alaska

    I check in online, tell them im going to pay my baggage fee at the counter, then go to the outside counter pay the $3.00/bag. They ask you if you paid online to check your bags, you say yes. However give them your confirmation number, and have them print out a boarding pass for you there.

    Their systems outside are not as current as the systems inside. They cannot tell if you have paid the fee or not. ;)

    Goodluck!

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  14. Jamie says:

    Great write up Anil! I’m heading out on my first solo trip in September and all your helpful tips have been amazing.
    I once flirted my way out of a jam with an american airlines employee, sometimes you just gotta! :)

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  15. @AlexBerger says:

    Top notch writeup! Well done!

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  16. Alston says:

    Hey! Do you use Myspace? I would love prefer to follow you if that has to be ok. So i am certainly enjoying your blog and look forward to new articles.

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  17. Dina says:

    Nice tips on having extra plastic bag when checking in luggage – simple but never thought of it. Since we’ve been on the road, we never have the luxury of a scale, so we just predicted the weight.

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  18. Ant Stone says:

    Great post Anil, I’ve never had any trouble with baggage fees but it seems to becoming a hot topic in the mainstream media. Your post will help me get prepared the next time I jump on a plane.

    (Might get a clip round the ear from my girlfriend for “quiet eye contact pleading” with the check-in girl though — oh well!)

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  19. Erica says:

    I like your tips! Didn’t know that luggage restrictions are often per bag though rather than the total weight. I’ve been charged for overweight in the past and not managed to get out of having to pay. But if someone can charm their way out of it, good for them!

    Reminds me of a book I recently read in which a twentysomething girl (who had about 10kg overweight) opened her bag, started to take out clothes and put them on… one t-shirt, a shirt, another shirt, a whole jacket, a scarf… The man behind the desk couldn’t help but laugh and let her pass plus upgraded her to business class.

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  20. Mark H says:

    Some good thoughts. For those airlines who charge for checked luggage, most charge less if the fee is paid before time (via the internet). Most importantly, try hard to travel lighter.

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  21. The Groupawn says:

    Great writeup, I’ll be sure to try out that extra bag method. I’ve also heard that If your carryon bag is too large, they may make you check it at the plane. Anyone had this happen to them?

    (0)
    • Anil P. says:

      I’ve seen it happen to many people on various airlines. It’s more common on budget airlines.

      (0)
      • I have seen it several times on EasyJet. The check in staff can be strict at times. I have seen them ask many people to prove their carry on can fit in the maximum baggage size container that is all over European airports. If it doesn’t fit, it costs an extra 30 euro to check it in.

        My carry on backpack is definitely too large so I always wear a baggy jacket to disguise it and try not to show my back to the clerk. Luckily I have never been asked to prove the size.

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  22. Audrey says:

    I second the recommendation for carrying a shopping bag full of stuff that it too heavy/big for your checked bag. For whatever reason, airlines seem to put shopping bags in a completely different category and never check them. Perhaps they have been told to promote local shopping? Whatever the reason, we’ve carried kilos and kilos of books in shopping bags without anyone blinking twice.

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  23. Finding the right backpack has been my most difficult task lately. I used to travel with an STM backpack but it finally fell apart and they are hard to find in the US. Went through a couple others and dumped them for one reason or another – usually design related. Recently I bought a Brenthaven expandable trekbackpack and so far so good – fingers crossed that it will be what I need for my upcoming Asia trip. It’s a little bigger than I’m used to, but it’s the first bag I’ve ever found that lets me carry the laptop in a padded sleeve and also allows my camera to lie flat on the bottom, rather than shoving it in sideways.

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    • Anil P. says:

      I still wish (and am looking for) a site that will let you design your own custom backpack or luggage. I can’t believe such a service isn’t already out there…

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  24. islandmomma says:

    Here’s something with which I always seem to have a problem. Lots of places I go I stay with friends, and always take a gift, of course. If it’s a trip to several places then that can get quite heavy. I like to take something local. Wondering how anyone else deals with this packing-wise??

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    • Anil P. says:

      I have a no-gift rule personal policy but know that’s hard in many cases. I suppose one way to go is to hold a minimum number of frequent flyer miles so you can check 2 suitcases without paying any fees.

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  25. Be charming lol!! Should I bring roses with me to the airport? What if I have to try and use charm on a male employee? no es bueno! lol

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  26. Sherry Ott says:

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to ‘charm’ my way past luggage fees in Asia! Many of the Asia budget airlines are notoriously stingy on luggage weight. I tend to always put my heaviest things in my carry on as they normally don’t ever weight it – plus if you act like it’s light – then that comes in handy too.
    I also put my big slr camera and lenses slung around me and then carry a backpack. For some reason airlines generally don’t look at the camera as a separate carry on item…not sure why as it’s big enough to be a purse!

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  27. james says:

    I’ve always wondered what an agent would do if you simply said “I don’t have any money” at the desk. Or something like “I left my only credit card at home” And only were able to show $10 cash.

    Would they waive the fee? Or refund your full ticket? You can’t exactly leave a big suitcase at the airport. An you’re there, ready to fly. It puts the responsibility on them by acting like an ill-informed schmuck. (note acting.)

    I use the phrase “I don’t have any money” constantly, from dodging street beggers to MLM offerings. It’s clear, to the point – and for some reason it works, even if it’s obvious I do have a few bank accounts and credit cards.

    (-1)
    • Anil P. says:

      Once in Iceland, I was almost in that very situation. The fee took me totally by surprise but of course I made it work.

      I’d be happy to test this out though. I wonder if I could get my bag heavy enough, then pay for the plane ticket in cash and claim to not have a credit card. Seriously, now that you’ve brought it up, I wonder what would they do?

      (-1)
      • Sriram says:

        The airlines simply will add to the creditcard (ask you to sign a creditcard voucher) which you used to book the ticket at the first place, and they charge you. It happened to me once :(

        (1)
        • Anil P. says:

          Good point, I suppose booking without a credit card is impossible these days. Now wondering if that gets declined… probably then a tricky situation getting on that flight if at all.

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  28. tony says:

    how about if on spirit airlines i dont show the carry-on bags at the ticket counter. I can leave them behind with whoever is dropping me off at the airport until im done checking in.
    Then i dont have to pay for them. Just take them in as normal thru the passenger check point.
    I heard a relative of mine say they did it and didnt pay. Any thoughts?

    (-1)
    • Anil P. says:

      I haven’t tried anything with Spirit but it’s worth a try. You can see if they’re tagging carry-ons as paid at the check out but if they’re not, it’s likely to work. Let me know how it goes!

      (0)
      • Cate says:

        Flown with spirit many times they charge u Fifty bucks American if your bag is over fifty lbs. no negotiations and you’re already paying 24 with two free small carry ins thats why the tickets are so cheap and I’m a member…I’ve only been screwed once and my bag was 3 lbs overweight they wouldn’t let me take anything out or refund my ticket I’m flying back with the same baggage in a few days and I guess I’ll be screwed again cause all I have is essential

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