Airline Baggage Fees Are Soaring: Here's How to Avoid Them

A price hike by American Airlines means you can now shell out $40 for a checked bag. Read on for ways around the fee.

Melissa Perenson
4 min read

Many airline passengers refuse to check bags, in part because fees keep going up.

Ralf Geithe/Getty Images

Traveling isn't getting any easier — or cheaper. And now fees for checked baggage are on the rise again. On Feb. 20, American Airlines became the latest carrier to hike its checked bag fees this year, bumping the price up by $10 for bags checked at the airport. Now the first checked bag on an American domestic flight will cost you $35 if you pay online, and $40 if you wait till you get to the airport to pay. The second checked bag for a domestic flight is $45, whether purchased online or at the airport.

American's fee hike comes four years after its last increase, in 2018. And American isn't alone. JetBlue and Alaska Airlines have also had recent price hikes for bags. Now that American has paved the way to a $40 checked bag, it's likely we'll see other US airlines catch up. They're making money off baggage fees, so don't expect the charges to go away anytime soon. You'll have to work them into your travel budget, unless you can find an alternative.

The basics of bag fees

It's always cheaper to pay for a first checked bag online. And a second checked bag always costs more. Baggage fees can also vary depending on your ticket type and class of service. And fees jump even more if you're traveling internationally.

Some travelers consider carry-on bags practically a religion — you know who you are — and will just shrug off these changes. It's easy to see why. Not only is carry-on luggage generally free, but once you land, you don't have to wait around at baggage claim, or run the risk of the airline losing your bag. (Pro tip: The Federal Aviation Administration now says you can include Apple AirTags and similar trackers in your checked bag). 

Other travelers rely on a checked bag. It allows them to carry more in a larger container, and to pack certain toiletries that are over the allowed carry-on size. And it means they don't have to drag a bag through the security check, and fight for overhead-bin space. 

With airlines charging fees for everything from aisle or window seats to extra legroom, another rise in baggage fees takes the cost of travel even higher. This is especially true if you travel with more than one checked bag, or have multiple family members, each with their own checked bag.

Savvy travelers find ways around checked bag fees. Here are six tips for avoiding — or at the least, mitigating — unwanted baggage fees.

Get an airline credit card

If you've flown in recent years, you've probably tuned out flight attendants advertising an airline credit card. Next time, listen up — or better still, apply for an airline credit card before you fly.  Grabbing an airline credit card is the easiest path to avoiding baggage fees. Most of these cards charge an annual fee, but it's worth it if you'll travel a few times in a year. Airline cards vary in their terms, but they typically provide at least one free checked bag (and some extend that benefit to additional travelers booked under your reservation). They also provide other benefits, like preferred boarding groups and accrual of frequent flyer/loyalty points.

Aim for airline elite status

This option only makes sense if you're actually a regular traveler. If you are, elite status is the holy grail. Frequent flyers in the know stick with one airline when they fly, to build up miles, and they use the airlines' credit card to maximize points earned. All of this typically counts toward airline elite status. Most airlines base status on a combination of miles flown and points earned through airline-branded credit cards, hotels, car rentals, dining, shopping and other promotions.

With elite status, you get an array of benefits, like preboarding, better seat selection at no charge, free upgrades, and of course, free checked baggage. You can even earn miles at a faster pace, so you can nab a free flight sooner. Baseline elite status typically provides one free checked bag. The higher status tiers typically give you one or even two additional checked bags. 

Book in business or first class

The higher your class of service, the better the included benefits, whether that's free food and drink, or baggage allowance. Most airlines provide at least one free checked bag to passengers flying in business or first class. Though the cost of the better seat may not match the cost of your checked bags, you'll also get greater comfort and amenities. Plus, you'll earn more miles on a business or first class ticket, so the bonuses just keep piling on.

Offer your bag for free gate check

This option works best on full flights. Invariably, a flight's gate agent is under pressure to have an on-time departure. If a flight has a full passenger load, gate agents will announce they're looking for volunteers to check bags for free before boarding starts, to avoid hassles with overhead bins. 

If you think you might volunteer at the gate, make sure to keep any battery-operated electronics, medication and keys handy when you pack your carry-on, so you can remove those items quickly if you wind up checking the bag.

Consider flying Southwest

This isn't an option for many travelers and itineraries, but Southwest remains the only airline to provide two free checked bags with its fares. That alone keeps the airline in the conversation for some travelers.

Know the rules

To ensure your carry-on stays with you, confirm it'll fit in the airline's sizer bin and that it can stand upright, book style, in the newer overhead bins designed to pack more bags onto a flight.

And if after all this you're going to check a bag, double-check your carriers' rules. Make sure your checked bag matches the maximum dimensions and weight specified, to avoid overage charges. Watch out for bags that have protruding pockets, and make sure you account for wheels and handles when you measure the bag — just to be safe.