Attack of the Airline Baggage Fees: Can You Escape Paying Big Bucks to Check Bags?


Complicated baggage fees can lead to some frustrated flying. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Providing passengers with easy-to-follow pricing and free checked bags are luxuries many major airlines can no longer afford. Ironically, most airline passengers are finding that they can’t afford any luxuries when they take to the skies.

JetBlue — which began as a low-cost airline determined to “bring humanity back to air travel” — is now elaborating on plans to start charging passengers for checked bags. Currently, all JetBlue passengers check their first bag for free.

Related: Genius or Crazy? Passengers Pile on Clothes to Avoid $130 Baggage Fee

The move makes JetBlue the latest airline to succumb to Wall Street pressure to goose its profits (which were $401 million last year) by adding those dreaded “ancillary fees”: fees for non-ticketing services, such as checked baggage, food and drinks, that used to be included in the base fare.


JetBlue succumbs to Wall Street pressure and will start charging for checked bags next year. (Photo: Thinkstock)

“The base fare buys you arguably 85 percent of what it bought you in the 1990s and even 90% of what it bought you six or seven years ago,” says Vinay Bhaskara, senior business analyst for Airways News. “The base fare has been stripped down steadily toward just being a butt in the seat and access to the bathroom and a glass of water.”

And with U.S. carriers taking in well over $3 billion a year in extra baggage fees alone, JetBlue has decided it can no longer leave that kind of money on the table. Not only is it adding baggage fees, it is joining its competitors in tinkering with its seating classes in a way that can make it even more expensive for you to fly.

Along with the airlines’ profits, passenger frustration levels are also on the rise as we all try to figure out how the new baggage fee rules and complicated seating schemes affect us.



For many JetBlue passengers, the free ride for checked baggage will soon come to an end. (Photo: JetBlue)

JetBlue’s new baggage fee policy is part of a new three-tiered pricing scheme that will take effect in the second quarter of this year. Under the first tier, fliers will be charged for any and all checked bags. Fliers who pay a little extra for the middle level will get one free checked bag. And those who get the most expensive fare will get two free checked bags. The higher tiers come with other perks as well.

Yes, this new structure could benefit some flyers. Says Vinay Bhaskara of Airways News: “If you’re a business traveler who’s traveling on a day trip with just a backpack and nothing else, your total out-of-pocket travel cost in the long run is going to be lower than someone in a family of four who’s checking two bags.”

But the rest of us can expect to pay even more under the new pricing scheme. “That’s just another way for the airlines to extract even more money out of their customers,” says Bhaskara.

WATCH: JetBlue to Add Bag Fees on Cheap Tickets



Many of these luggage tags mean dollar signs for Delta. (Photo: Delta)

Delta leads the industry with $1.67 billion in ancillary fee revenue collected in 2013 (it collected $833 million in baggage fees alone). The airline generally charges $25 for the first checked bag on domestic flights and $35-$40 for the second checked bag (some fees are waived for participants in its elite flier program).

Related: Beware the Baggage Police: Airline Cracks Down on Oversized Carry-Ons

Like JetBlue, Delta is also planning some changes in 2015. Whereas JetBlue is going to a three-tier seating scheme, Delta has already announced plans for a five-tiered scheme: the rock-bottom Basic Economy, where you can’t select your seat or make any flight changes; Main Cabin, where you can select your seat and have some flexibility to change flights; Delta Comfort, where you get four extra inches of legroom, priority boarding and dedicated overhead bin space; and the higher-end First Class and Delta One classes. The new seating plans take effect in March.



(Photo: Thinkstock)

United tries its best to take the guesswork out of baggage fees. It has a website where it tells you exactly how much baggage fees will cost you for any given flight. The first checked bag generally is $25 domestically while the second is $35. MileagePlus Club and Presidential Club Card members get up to two bags checked for free. MileagePlus Explorer Card Members and certain Chase credit card holders get the first bag checked for free.

American Airlines and US Airways


(Photo: Thinkstock)

Since these two airlines merged their baggage policies have too. They have the common $25 fee for the first checked bag and $35 for the second. Passengers with AAdvantage elite status get some of those fees waived, as do US Airways MasterCard or Visa card holders.

Virgin America


(Photo: Thinkstock)

Virgin America’s baggage fee structure is pretty simple: all their fees are $25 for all bags (unless it’s overweight). All classes above its basic Main Cabin category get the first checked bag for free.



How long can Southwest hold out? (Photo: Southwest Airlines)

Once JetBlue changes its policy later this year, Southwest will be the only remaining airline that doesn’t charge for the first or second checked bag (as long as they’re the right size and weight).

Better take advantage of Southwest’s generosity while you can. Despite Southwest CEO Gary Kelly telling USA Today “we have absolutely no plans to charge, especially for bags,” few people expect Southwest to pass up hundreds of millions of dollars in potential revenue by keeping its “Bags Fly Free” policy forever. Bhaskara predicts Southwest “will have no choice” but to start charging baggage fees in order to keep Wall Street happy.

So how do we passengers continue to navigate this increasingly complicated world of airline fees? “Don’t be fooled by base fare,” Bhaskara recommends. “Go to the airline website, take a look at what fees have been added, charges you’ll have to incur for your normal travel pattern — if you normally buy a drink, or if you normally like to buy some food on board, things like that. Take a look at the airlines and see which one is going to offer you the best price.”


Research can save you money on a family vacation. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Yes, in addition to researching the various fares, you’re going to have to become a bit of a fee expert too. But Bhaskara insists it’s worth it: “If you’re looking to ensure that you have the most comfortable and less painful experience, especially on a family vacation, putting in that extra hour, hour-and-a-half, can end up saving you hundreds of dollars for a family of four while giving you a much better travel experience than you would have had otherwise.”

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