Excess baggage charges — how much is too much?


It wasn’t that long ago that the biggest hassles with checked luggage were worrying about potential loss, or long delays at the baggage carousel.

And until 2008, most airlines allowed passengers to bring at least one bag free. Now, baggage fees are so ubiquitous that Southwest, one of the last holdouts, uses their lack of fees as a marketing point. Plus, other carriers market some of their branded credit cards as being a way to save on fees.

Now, with higher fuel costs, it certainly makes sense for airlines to pass on some of the cost of transporting extra weight on to customers. However, at this point some of the fees, even for domestic flights, are rivaling the cost of a ticket.

A USA Today story got a lot of attention with international fees reaching up to $450 for an overweight international bag. American Airlines has begun billing customers that staggering amount for an oversize bag weighing between 71lbs and 100lbs. United Continental charges $400.

The truth of the matter is that the high fees kick in much earlier.

For a domestic flight, most carriers charge $25 for a first bag, $35 for a second. But the third checked bag, of any size, is usually $100, and $150 on American Airlines. And any bag over 50 pounds is $100 and up. (All of these numbers of course, are subject to change, and generally to an increase.)

Realistically, there are not that many trips where travelers need three bags, although, at this time of year college students no doubt end up paying plenty of extra fees, along with anyone coming back from an extended summer vacation. (Yes, shipping packages is probably now a cheaper option, but many travelers, unused to the relatively new higher fees, don’t think about that in advance.)

Again, airlines need to make money to stay in business. So I’m not unsympathetic to the need to charge some fees, and to unbundle. But, these fees are in many ways so arbitrary; They are the same for a short flight within the state of California as for a cross country trip.

Moreover, as a personal pet peeve. The fees are the same regardless of passenger size. Of course, there are discrimination issues of charging more for heavy people. On the other hand, isn’t it also unfair to charge a 100-pound woman $100 for a 52 pound bag, or for a third 30 pound bag, when a 250-pound man with carry-on pays nothing?

For that matter, even a toddler with a paid seat faces the same extra baggage fees.

Even if one accepts the fairness of the fees, they’re not obvious. Or even close. Some clients today wanted information about baggage fees as they are flying to Asia to work on a move and will have excess bags, along with separate tickets from Boston to Los Angeles and Los Angeles to Bangkok. American Airlines gave some very basic information on their site, but the site referred further questions to American reservations. (Where three different agents gave three very different answers.)

Thai Airways, while helpful on the phone, also has a site where three of us couldn’t come close to figuring the rules.

What do you think, Consumer Traveler readers? Should airline baggage fees be whatever the market will bear? Or should they be standardized? And should a passenger’s weight be taken into account?

Finally how important is it to you that the government push transparency in these fees? Should at least the fee for the first bag pop up when booking a ticket?

Some airline personnel, even executives, do read Consumer Traveler, so comments and vents might be read by people with the power to at least bring the suggestions to the powers that be. If nothing else, venting is cathartic.