Airlines are resorting to increasingly devious ways to charge you for luggage

By | February 14th, 2016

British Airways shouldn’t have charged Jim Arnold and his wife $400 for their checked bags. After all, the couple were flying from London to Newark in premium economy class. But when they tried to check in, that’s what the computer demanded.

So they forked over their credit card number.

Later at the airport, a representative apologized for the glitch. “I was told that this happens all the time,” says Arnold, a retired chief financial officer who lives in Bellevue, Wash. “I needed to contact customer service at British Airways for a refund.”

The airline representative was right. This happens all the time. When in doubt, an airline charges for bags, because luggage has become a massive source of revenue. The domestic airlines are on track to break last year’s record of $3.5 billion in luggage fees. By comparison, domestic airlines collected only $464 million in such fees eight years ago.

The industry is resorting to increasingly creative tactics in an apparent belief that there’s still room to grow this revenue source. They include everything from simply raising luggage fees to creating complicated pricing menus that confuse customers and prodding them into participating in loyalty programs with the promise of a “free” bag in exchange for signing up for a branded credit card. Fortunately, there are ways around all of that.

First, a little more bad news: The airline industry is probably right about baggage. You and I are willing to pay more than we already are. It’s still considerably more expensive to ship luggage overnight, for starters. Recent studies show baggage revenues continuing to grow aggressively. In fact, two no-frills airlines, Allegiant and Spirit, even raised some of their fees for the holidays to take advantage of high demand. Baggage fees are so profitable that they are spreading outside the United States — for example, in Asia and South America, according to the studies.

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For an idea of how much worse things can get, listen to what happened to Vito Valentinetti when he flew from Copenhagen to Boston on WOW Airlines, an Icelandic budget airline. “I found nearly a month after I booked the ticket that I was only allowed to bring on a single piece of carry-on luggage under 11 pounds,” he says. “I could upgrade for $38 to a single 26-pound carry-on or pay $48 to check the bag.”

Don’t wait too long, the airline warned. If he tried to “upgrade” at the ticket counter, it would cost $48 and $67, respectively.

Another way airlines persuade their passengers to pay more is by making their luggage costs too complicated to understand. The resulting confusion can be expensive, as it was for Johanna Jacobson, a photographer who was flying from Los Angeles to Rome recently on Air France. The luggage fee page on the Air France website was “the most complicated chart I had ever seen,” she says, “and for the life of me I could not figure out the costs.”

But Air France could. Although a representative repeatedly assured Jacobson by phone that her second bag would be “free” and her third bag would cost $100 to check, the actual price came to $100 for the second bag and $285 for the third bag — a grand total of $385 that her credit card company insisted was a legitimate charge, even after she formally disputed it.

“It was completely crazy,” she says.

One established method for avoiding baggage fees — apart from traveling without checked baggage — is to sign up for an airline’s branded credit card. That’s what Stuart Wolfe, an attorney from Irvine, Calif., and a frequent air traveler, does.

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“One of the perks is usually free bags,” he says. “The annual cost of the card is usually far less than the bag cost on a single trip.”

That advice works for frequent air travelers, but branded credit cards with high fees and high interest rates don’t make much financial sense otherwise. Worse, a mileage-earning credit card encourages air travelers to steer all of their business to one airline in an effort to reach an elite level, even when there are more affordable tickets on another carrier. In short, airlines are leveraging their high luggage fees to prod infrequent customers into giving them their unquestioning loyalty.

That loyalty may or may not go both ways. Consider what happened to Bennett Cherry, a college professor from San Marcos, Calif., who booked a flight through Delta Air Lines that was operated by KLM — called a code-share flight — believing that the hard-earned points on his American Express-branded Delta card would entitle him to free luggage.

“I was informed that my status with Delta didn’t matter,” Cherry says. “The cost for my baggage was over $100 each way. Delta couldn’t and didn’t defend that loyalty, despite the repeated communiques to the contrary.”

How do you avoid these luggage fees? Don’t check a bag, if possible. If you do, consult your airline’s website to make sure you understand how much it costs. Airlines actually raise their baggage prices as you check more bags, which is somewhat counterintuitive.

Some travelers take matters into their own hands.

“Whenever possible, I ship materials via overnight delivery,” says Craig Conroy, an aviation expert. Sure, shipping via FedEx or UPS may be more expensive, but the convenience and the guarantee of having the luggage show up at your hotel is worth it, he says.

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Or you could fly on the last airline that still refuses to play luggage games with its customers, Conroy adds. You can buy a ticket on Southwest Airlines.

  • Éamon deValera

    You don’t have to ship luggage overnight, you can ship it days in advance. If you go to the same hotels frequently they’re more than happy to hold packages for you. If you travel to the same cities frequently a local dry cleaner will be able to be your closet away from home and you’ll have clean, pressed clothing when you arrive with just a small carry on bag for your essentials.

  • starrfish479

    Southwest was always my go to airline, even before they were the only airline that doesnt charge for baggage. But I worry that they will start charging for bags soon too.

  • Tom McShane

    I guess this could be slightly off topic. What if airlines let passengers work on the planes to save money? Ryan airlines thought pax would be willing to stand to save money. Passengers could collect trash after beverage service, clean toilets on longer flights and read safety announcements.
    Some groceries let customers bag. Most gas stations have gone to self-service.
    This way when folks say that things like regulating seat size will price travelers out of air travel, one can just point to The Working Passenger Model to get them right back on that jetliner. With more passengers moving around, incidence of deep vein thrombosis would likely drop, too.

  • AJPeabody

    Then, if this works out, they could give a discount off the fuel surcharge for passengers that bring their own jet fuel. Yup, that’ll help keep fees down.

  • Patrica

    Neither I nor my sister were aware that partner airlines did not have to honor the “free” checked luggage with a PAID credit card membership on United Airlines. Not only that, we could not use the United confirmation number to print out the boarding passes …We had to call Hawaiian airlines, get a different # (for some reason, this took 25 minutes of phone time) , and pay an extra fee to have the luggage checked in from Kauai to Maui on Hawaiian. I would like to know if this also applies when you pay for checked luggage? Does the partner airline ALSO again charge for checked luggage when you initially PAY a checked luggage fee? (Just very curious and want to be prepared .)

  • Tom McShane

    Yeah, you know what they say about great minds.
    And in some airports I’ve visited, you have to tote your bag from the check-in counter to the security belt. That saves them from having a high paid airline employee schlepping it. Keeps me fit and saves me scads ‘o $$. What if they let you carry it all the way to a safe enclosure very near the plane where Homeland Security could check it for gunpowder residue. Get almost free baggage and frequent travelers could develop physiques like Lou Ferrigno

  • Asiansm Dan

    By experience, Golfing & Sporting Goods are more cheaper and safer with shipping via FedEx or UPS.
    By the way, never bring your golf equipment checked transiting Paris CDG, you will never see them again. It happened to me twice and the compensation is far less than the value of the lost and it took months before they settled the lost

  • Asiansm Dan

    Yes, we did it, with our Golf bags too.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Damn, Tom… you and AJ are true visionaries (but I think I’m gonna start takin’ the bus). :-)

  • Tom McShane

    Start taking the bus?! And you call US visionaries? If the flying public started taking to the buses with their free baggage and generous legroom and started doing it en masse, we could bring airlines to heel. More legroom, bags fly free, the whole can of Coke would be ours for the asking.

  • Randy Culpepper

    The Air France luggage portal is quite possibly the simplest I’ve ever seen.

  • Patty Young

    As I have said before, “Welcome aboard perversion excursion!” That is the way our airlines are treating us. Like we are programmed robots with little self value and willing to put up with insidious treatment on all levels-starting with the in-humane size of the vile seats. We are being penalized with all kinds of ticket issues regarding being charged for a missed flight (car accident, traffic problems, etc), an emergency health situation where we could not take our flights, changing an original reservation for a valid reason and having to pay more for a rebooking and- you add on what you want to here.
    I loathe what we are being made to accept if we want to fly these days. And it gets worse and worse every day.
    When are we going to start getting organized and gather in Washington, DC, or show up in good numbers in front of airports or the headquarters of the airlines to make them hear our valid objections on air travel and insist on humane and honorable change for passengers??
    No other business treats it’s customers like we are being forced to go through with the airlines ongoing abuse of human beings. If another business did this to millions of people and got away with it they would be hauled into Congress for hearings and made to answer questions from our representatives and the people.
    For Pete’s sake, do something people.
    Patty Young
    Ex-flight attendant for a major airline for 37 1/2 years.

  • Grant Ritchie

    “Perversion excursion”? Damn, I’m gonna have ta write a book. Our commenters crack me up. :-) Well, Patty, welcome to the front lines of the “trying to make things better” club, Chris Elliott, President. I hope you’ll come back and roll a cherry bomb into our phone booth from time to time.

  • pauletteb

    Considering what I’ve seen of bus drivers and the recent spate of accidents in my area, no thanks!

  • John McDonald

    Southwest should YELL about this more & maybe do comparison with other airlines in their advertising, although it costs fuel to carry luggage, even if oil is cheap now. We chartered a plane to the snow & were thinking of taking skis with us. The aircraft was only a 36 seater & for every 4 seats of skis or snowboards carried, it meant one less passenger could fly. Another time we used a slightly bigger aircraft a 50 seater. Weight wasn’t the issue but luggage space was. We were told, if we wanted 50 people to fly, no more than 50% could brings skis/boards with them or they would simply be left behind.

  • AJPeabody

    These are the actions of an industry with no internal competition and no alternatives for the customers. Oligopoly with a monopoly attitude.

  • RightNow9435

    Best solution….Southwest Airlines…….and to really save money on most domestic trips: DRIVE!!

  • RightNow9435

    or even cheaper to drive, and then when you get there. you won’t even have to rent a car(which can cost as much as the airfare these days).

  • RightNow9435

    if there isn’t a large body of water to cross….one can always drive, take the bus or even Amtrak in many cases

  • 42NYC

    I’m pretty sure having to carry your bag to security is an airport or TSA rule and not the airline trying to save 25 cents of labor in having the employee carry your bag all of 10 feet (or in some airports the scale is also a conveyor belt so the employee does nothing except push a button)

  • 42NYC

    I know you’re trying to be sarcastic, but I do wonder how many passengers would be up for it. Imagine on your next flight, say, NYC to Miami the gate agent offered you $50 to ‘help out’ during the flight and do some light work during the 3 hours.

    Obviously this could never be implemented for a variety of reasons, but i’d wager a sizable chunk would be up for it. If I didnt have work to do, or movies to watch, and it was a plane my 6’6″ frame could stand up comfortably on, i’d probably do it too.

  • 42NYC

    yup. if more passengers flocked to SW or chose a car/train/bus vs an airplane it might make a difference. but as long as passengers focus on buying the cheapest ticket possible the nickel and diming will occur.

  • 42NYC

    I love the continued bashing of frequent flyer programs. As a Delta gold medallion I enjoy free same-day flight changes, checked bags, economy plus seating, priority check-in, etc… The flight changes alone have saved me thousands of dollars over the years. Yes, on a recent flight to Puerto Rico I paid $80 extra to fly Delta ( paying for itself several times over in the free checked bag, upgrade to first on the way down, upgrade to economy plus on the way back and the free change to a later flight when I just wasnt ready to head back to cold NYC). On an upcoming trip to Richmond, i didnt think twice about buying Jet Blue’s $250 ticket vs. Delta’s $475 ticket. Short trip, carry on only, who cares about extra legroom on a 60 minute flight?

    My employer asks that I buy the cheapest, reasonable flight (non-stop vs a long layover, preferred flight times, LGA vs EWR, etc….) but also appreciates the value of the loyalty program. They ask that we stick to one airline “if practical” also knowing the company will save in bag fees, change fees and wasted time (last week’s meeting ended early so i flew home early instead of wasting 3 hours at O’hare). They also prohibit travel on Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant.

    And in the meantime, Delta flew my wife and I for free in business class to Brazil last year and will fly us free to Vegas in April.

    Sure, a once a year flyer is foolish to pay $100 more for Delta just because they’re halfway to a free ticket, but please explain how I’m being taken advantage of.

  • Nathan Witt

    You’re only being taken advantage of in the sense that Delta made travel miserable, and then promised to stop if you spent a bunch of money with them. Aside from the free flights, Delta really should be treating all of its passengers well by understanding that people often need to bring things with them when they travel and that sometimes plans change, and that charging people extra for this is a hostile act that communicates just how little it values you as a customer.

  • Lee Delong

    Me thinks the word clever was used where the word devious was applicable.

  • Lee Delong

    don’t worry -be happy.

  • Lee Delong

    CDG won’t ever schedule through there again.

  • judyserienagy

    I’m puzzled by the negative slant on an affinity credit card. My United Visa costs $95 a year and I don’t carry a balance. I make 13 flights a year with a checked bag. What am I missing here?

  • William Leeper

    No Grant. The train, take the train.

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