How to Avoid Airline Bag Fees on Family Trips

Dec 13, 2018

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Using miles and points keeps costs down for our family of eight while traveling. But miles and points can only take you so far. We have a few other tricks up our sleeves to keep down some of the ancillary costs that come along with traveling with a crew.

We’ve already covered a few ways to find free or cheap activities, keep food costs down while traveling, save money renting cars for a large family and identify lodging (using points) that can accommodate more than four people. Now it’s time to deal with all the “stuff” that families need when they travel and find ways to avoid pricy, painful airline baggage fees.

Review Airline Bag Policies

It wasn’t that long ago that nearly all airlines had much more customer-friendly baggage policies, with most tickets including at least one free checked bag. Over the past several years, however, most airlines have swung the pendulum the other way. Now, Southwest stands alone as the only airline that offers a free checked bag (two actually!) with most tickets. It comes as no surprise that Southwest ranked No. 1 as TPG‘s most family-friendly domestic airline in 2018.

A Southwest 737-700 taking off in Atlanta (Photo by Alberto Riva / The Points Guy)
A Southwest 737-700 taking off in Atlanta (Photo by Alberto Riva / The Points Guy)

But these days it is worse than just no included checked bag, as ultra-low cost carriers and basic economy fares complicate things even further with no included full-sized carry-on bags. If you’re not sure what the baggage policy is on the airline you’re looking to fly, you’ll want to start by checking with the airline’s website directly or take a peek at TPG’s guide to avoiding baggage fees.

Here are the cliff notes as things stand today:

  • Southwest leads the way with two free checked bags on all flights.
  • America, Delta, United, Alaska and JetBlue all charge for checked bags (generally $30+). American and United also charge for carry-on bags if you are traveling on a basic economy ticket and don’t have elite status or a co-branded credit card. (Which is one of the reasons that TPG recommends that someone in the family should have a United card.)
  • Spirit, Frontier, Allegiant and other ultra-low-cost carriers (ULCCs) charge for both checked bags and carry-ons that don’t fit under the seat in front of you (i.e., a purse or small backpack). With these ULCCs, you will typically save money by paying your checked or full-size carry-on bag at the time you book the flight. Bag fees with these carriers typically increase the longer you wait to purchase. Or, you can use these tips and just pack in your small carry-on for some trips.

Does that mean Southwest is always the airline to fly if you want to keep your costs down? Not necessarily. Check the fare itself; often a low-cost carrier can be the cheaper alternative, even including baggage fees. This is especially true if the family can share a couple of bags that require fees as opposed to paying a bag fee for each and every person. If you also want things like seat assignments, price out Frontier’s “The Works” bundle as it includes a checked and carry-on bag, in addition to other perks.

Check Credit Cards With Free Bag Benefits

A potentially great way to keep bag fees down is to sign up for the cobranded credit card of the airline that you’re flying.

Here’s a look at the free bag benefits of a few domestic airlines thanks to their cobranded credit cards:

Do note that some of these programs require the card to be used to purchase the ticket in order for the baggage benefits to kick in and that authorized users do not always get the same benefits as primary card holders.

Leverage Airline Fee Credits

If you don’t have any available cobranded credit cards that will waive airline baggage fees, perhaps you have a card that provides an annual airline fee waiver that can be used to cover bag fees.

American Express cards that award annual airline fee credits include:

  • Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express ($250)
  • The Business Platinum Card® from American Express ($200)
  • The Platinum Card® from American Express ($200)
  • American Express® Gold Card ($100)

Some other issuers provide annual travel credits that are even broader than just airline incidental fees, but could certainly still be used to cover checked and carry-on bag fees. These include:

  • Chase Sapphire Reserve ($300)
  • Citi Prestige ($250 air travel credit to become a $250 credit for travel purchases in 2019)
  • U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve Visa Infinite Card ($325)
Your credit card may save you from bag fees. (image courtesy of Shutterstock)
Your credit card may save you from bag fees. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

Elite Status

I won’t dwell on this one as I presume those with airline elite status know they get some number of complimentary checked bags for themselves and potentially other companions on their reservation, but if you aren’t familiar with elite status, that can be a reason to take that final “mileage run” to get you over the hump and qualify. Or, with some programs you can partially or perhaps fully spend your way to elite status and enjoy related perks by just using the co-branded credit card.

Pack Strategically

Once you’ve figured out what airline you’re flying, what perks you have to avoid bag fees, how many bags they allow for free (if any) and how much you’re willing to pay, it’s time to start packing.

TPG Family has previously shared tips on how to pack for vacation. Here are a few of the highlights that can help save you space, and ultimately, money.

  • Start with a packing list. I highly recommend printing out a hard copy of your packing list that you can physically check off. We keep ours with the suitcases and then check things off as they go into the bags. You can use these same lists when re-packing to head home so you don’t forget that errant charger next to the bed or jacket in the hotel closet.
  • Consider packing your clothes by day instead of by person. We pack for our family by day. In a plastic grocery bag (or two), we pack everyone’s clothes for each particular day. You may prefer to use packing cubes or space saver bags for this purpose.
  • Find the right balance (especially with baby and kid stuff). It is important to find the right balance of bringing the baby and kid stuff that many families travel with without bringing too much. It may take a couple of trips to get this balance right.  You don’t want to forget the necessities, but you also don’t want to go overboard and pack your entire home just to take care of a little one. Here are a few tips for gear within that age range
Packing cubes.(Image courtesy of Amazon.)
Packing cubes.(Image courtesy of Amazon.)

If you follow these basic tips, you may be able to consolidate our luggage and save some of those fees. If you only take one of those tips to heart, try packing the whole family by day and see how much easier it is to not over-pack.

Join #TeamCarryon

Of course, the ultimate in space saving and luggage consolidation is not checking any bags at all. While it might sound crazy, even our large family has actually joined #TeamCarryon lately. Our last couple of family vacations have come and gone with zero checked bags. It’s amazing how far eight carry-ons and eight personal items can take you. Heck, Mommy Points’ even did an around-the-world trip in just a carry-on, so it can be done, especially when traveling to warmer weather destinations or places where you plan to do laundry.

What strategies does your family use to avoid bag fees on flights?

Featured image by Mark Edward Atkinson/Tracey Lee / Getty Images

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