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.

  • MVFLyer

    I think basing the fees on distance would make a confusing issue even more confusing.  And I’m sure the airlines would argue that handling the bags cost the same regardless of distance (and they would be right).

    Transparency and consumer awareness are vital–there should be no surprises when a passenger arrives at the airport and is told to fork over more money.  They should know up front, at the time of ticket purchase, what it will cost per person to bring one, two, three bags, and asked prior to committing if this is acceptable.  To the traveler, a $200 fare plus $100 in baggage fees still costs $300, regardless of how the airline parses it out.  Don’t entice the passenger with a $200 fare, and then, oh yeah, if you want to bring your bags, it’ll cost you.

  • Santafetraveler

    It’s travel, not commuting. We need clothing etc. when we are away from home for at least one night. I think that at least the first bag should be free. People bringing on unwieldy “carry-ons” on the plane is potentially dangerous and definitely slows boarding and deplaning. As you can gate-check the really big ones, is this more a way to get us to pay for the baggage handlers in the long run as tipping gets the consumer to pay the wages of servers? And if they do charge fees, they should be reasonable. $400 should be a fare  not a baggage charge.

  • Julie

    I understand that higher fuel costs are putting pressure on airlines to increase baggage fees but I think that the airlines should be required to transparently inform travelers of these fees at the time they are booking the flight. Travelers can find ways to avoid overweight baggage fees, such as by using luggage scales (http://www.travelproducts.com/store/luggage-scales.htm) but many travelers are unaware of the actual cost of their first checked bag & that’s something they should be made aware of before they reach the airport.

  • Mike in ABQ

    Janice, the passenger weight issue you raise is valid, and I say that as a “customer of size” who regularly purchases two seats.  However, can you imagine the scenario at the airport when everyone has to step on a scale at check-in? The thought is not attractive. And then there’s the people who will claim that the scale — any scale — is incorrect. We already see that with bags, for goodness sake.  Most memorable — a passenger placed a bag on the scale and it weighed 65 pounds.  When told they’d have to pay a fee for an overweight bag the passenger immediately countered that the scale was wrong and the bag weighed “under 50 pounds” at home.  No joke. Now imagine that with people. ~shudder~  I agree with MVFLyer that fees — ALL fees — need to be completely transparent and fully disclosed up-front BEFORE you have the ability to click “Purchase” on the airline website. 

  • Wprdiver

    Yes, I think the WEIGHT of a pax./ SHOULD be taken into consideration!.   And the ‘overweight’ bags, etc. costs are insane-  I paid $200.00 for 3 extra lbs. on CO, plus the $50.00 fee for International.  Also, when you use a particular airlines c/c, one bag is supposed to go ‘FREE’.  Well, ONE BAG goes fee anyhow w/ an INTERNATIONAL flight, so to me this would allow for two bags!.  No such!  CO claimed that their FREE bag is for ‘domestic” ( CONUS) only!!!    It IS IMPOSSIBLE to figure out just what will get socked to you at the check in desk!.

  • Anonymous

    So if you have an American Express Platinum (real one, not a co-branded Optima or DL Skymiles) they will reimburse you up to $200 a year (statement credit) on baggage fees or other airline fees – like drinks on the plane.

  • Eagle lover

    I believe that fees should be based on the total weight of the passenger + carry-ons+checked baggage, with a certain number of pounds “free,” and above that threshold a scaled charge.

  • KF

    Having been on two many flights lately that have been been oversold and overhead bins packed to max (with some people having to gate check), I’d like to see one of two things:

    1) As suggested by a few people – an overall weight allowance for pax+checked luggage + carry on

    2) Airlines reducing carry ons permitted to one – and smaller than what is permitted now (I’ve seen way too much abuse with the personal item) or taking a cue from European and Asian airlines, limiting the carry on weight allowance to a smaller amount, say 15 or 20 pounds, and forcing everyone to weigh their carry ons (probably faster than the bag sizer).

  • Anonymous

    I take the position that handling baggage represents an extra expense to the airline and not just in fuel usage, but through all stages of the process. Some passengers want and need it, while some don’t. A fee structure is a perfectly reasonable way to have the people who want this service pay for it, and it is also perfectly reasonable for passengers to choose flights based in part on these factors. If its fees are too high, an airline will lose business to competitors.

  • janice

    I realize it’s probably unworkable, although when I flew Cape Air last month out of Boston they weighed every bag AND asked your weight.    Still, it’s annoying.  Saw a tiny gal who probably weighed 100 pounds max brought almost to tears by a United agent who was charging her for a 60 lb bag.

  • http://hcgactivatordiet.com/ HCG Activator

    the airlines need to bring transparency when it comes to billing. Most of the times, the consumer is unaware of how much he is billed on those extra bags his taking with himself on a very good afternoon. Airlines should start consumer awareness programs

  • Pingback: Fed Up, Man Seizes Opportunity In Spirit Carry-On Fees - Flight Wisdom | Flight Wisdom()