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A Guide to Navigating Baggage Fees

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If you’re not a road warrior with status across every airline or have a wallet full of credit cards, it may become inevitable that you’ll have to cough up a few bucks to pay for checked baggage. These fees may or may not be avoidable, so consider this guide on the general practice of dealing with airline fees on any carrier.

Guaranteed Ways to Skip Baggage Fees

If you fly with any U.S. carrier (other than Southwest who lets you check two bags for free), you’re looking at fees on checked baggage unless you meet the following criteria:

  • You have status with that particular airline or another airline in their alliance.
  • You have the airline’s co-branded credit card that offers a free bag.
  • You’re flying in business or first class.
  • You don’t check a bag.

I’ll admit, if I take a quick weekend trip and can squeeze my stuff into a small carry-on, it is nice not having to wait at baggage claim. But most of the time, I need a larger suitcase. Let’s take a look at what to do when you plan to check your luggage.

Credit Cards are Great

A common benefit with airline co-branded credit cards is getting your first checked bag fee waived for you and your companions. But if you’re like most Americans who only fly a couple times each year, you might have thought the annual fee may not justify the expense. I’ll use myself as an example to show you how it can.

Avoid Baggage Fees with airline co-branded credit cards.png

I have the Barclays Red Aviator card which has an annual fee of $95. My fiancé and I fly American at least twice each year from New York (usually once to Pittsburgh and once to Asheville). Here’s the breakdown on our potential fees if we didn’t have the card.

2 people X 1 bag/person X 4 flights (two roundtrips) X $25/bag = $200

By paying the $95 annual fee, I actually save at least $105 each year compared to not have an American Airlines card. Where I use the card or not for purchases, I’m already getting value out of this card regardless.

Here’s a rundown of all the airline cards that offer a bag waiver.

AirlineBankCards That Waive Baggage Fees# of companionsAnnual Fee
AlaskaBank of AmericaAlaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card,

Alaska Airlines Visa® Business Card
Primary plus 6Personal - $75

Business - $50 per company, $25 per card (Business Level Earning Plan). $0 per company, $75 per card (Individual Level Earning Plan).

AmericanCitiCiti® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®,

CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Mastercard®,

Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®
Primary plus 4 on Platinum Selects, Primary plus 8 on Executive ElitePlatinum Selects -Annual Fee: $99 (Fee waived for the first 12 months).

Executive Elite - Annual Fee $450.
BarclaysAviator Red, Silver, and BusinessPrimary plus 3 on Red and Business, Primary plus 7 on SilverRed and Business ($95),

Silver ($195).

Note, only the Red version is currently open to new applicants
DeltaAmerican ExpressGold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express,

Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card,

Delta Reserve Credit Card and Delta Reserve for Business Credit Card
Primary plus 8 on all cardsGold - $0 intro annual fee for the first year, then $95.,

Platinum - Annual Membership Fee of $195.

Reserve - Annual Fee $450.
JetBlueBarclaysPlus Card and BusinessPrimary plus 3$99 for both cards
UnitedChaseChase United℠Explorer Credit Card and Chase United MileagePlus® Explorer Business Card,

Chase United MileagePlus® Club Card
Primary plus 1 on Explorer cards, Primary plus 1 get 1st and 2nd bags waived on Club cardExplorer cards - $0 Intro fee for the first year. After that, $95,

Club - $450 Annual Fee.

What if you only fly a couple times each year and always on different carriers? Fortunately, all the major credit card companies offer a premium card(s) that include travel credits to help offset the annual fee. Here’s a rundown of those cards.
Citi Prestige® Card

Credit Card IssuerCardTravel CreditDetails
AMEXThe Platinum Card® from American Express (Business or Personal)$200 per calendar yearMust pre-select one airline, baggage fees reimbursed automatically
American Express Gold Card (Business or Personal)$100 per calendar yearMust pre-select one airline, baggage fees reimbursed automatically
ChaseChase Sapphire Reserve®$300 per calendar yearTravel credit good toward any purchase on any airline, fees reimbursed automatically
Ritz Carlton$300 per calendar yearTravel credit good on any airline, must call customer service to request reimbursement
CitiCiti Prestige® Card$250 per calendar yearTravel credit good toward any airline or hotel purchase, fees reimbursed automatically

A few notes about the above charts:

  • Not all airline cards are shown because I excluded the cards that DO NOT offer a free bag waiver.
  • Some cards above offer great benefits in addition to waiving baggage fees. I didn’t include them in this post, so do a search on RewardExpert to learn about all the features and benefits if you’re considering one of these cards.
  • You’ll notice with American Express’ cards that you have to declare a single airline to have their fees reimbursed, but with Chase and Citi, their travel credits work on any airline.
  • If you have status on an airline or multiple credit cards with one airline, the free bag benefit does not stack (meaning if you have status and a baggage fee-waiving card or two such cards, that doesn’t translate into two free bags).

Sometimes First Class is an Option

Another consideration when buying airfare is the overall cost of baggage fees, and I’ll share another real-life story. I have a friend who was moving from Miami to New Orleans and basically just had clothes to take (but she had a lot of them). She needed to check three bags on her one-way flight, two of which were overweight.

When she got to the airport, her total baggage fees would’ve been $310 as she had no status or credit cards to ease the pain. However, there was space available to pay to upgrade to first class for only $170. She was able to save money and have a more enjoyable flight by simply inquiring with the agent and weighing the costs.

Add Up the Total Cost of your Ticket

Once again, consider the price of your ticket and your individual situation. Let’s say you want to travel between Chicago and Salt Lake City, and United is offering your ticket at $210 roundtrip per person and there’s four people in your group. That price doesn’t include luggage fees, so before you finish your purchase, you have to pay $25 per person per leg. That’s an extra $200.

At the same time, Delta flies the same route and their price is currently $240 per person. Your instinct is probably to book United since their fare is cheaper, but if you’re eligible for free bags on Delta, you’ll actually come out ahead. Let’s look at the math.

United: $210/person + $50 in baggage/person = $1,040 total

Delta: $240/person + $0 in baggage = $960 total

As you can see, you can save a nice chunk of change, but sometimes you have to look past the obvious price to calculate your total cost.

Taking this idea a step further, be sure to look at all the other fees you may have to pay. Low-cost carriers are notorious for advertising low fares and tacking on the fees later (including hefty ones when it comes to bags). Additionally, if you book your tickets through certain online travel agencies like Expedia or Orbitz, these fees aren’t always calculated at the time of purchase, so you end up paying them once you get to the airport. Also, remember that these same carriers charge money to pick your seats or print your boarding pass, so like in our above example, calculate the entire price before deciding on which airline you’ll fly.

Baggage fees are an unfortunate part of travel, but with some careful planning, you can figure them into your total travel cost, save some money, or avoid them altogether. For more detailed information on individual airlines, be sure to check out our posts on avoiding fees on Alaska, America, Delta, JetBlue, and United.

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