Avoid Airline Fees: 11 Ways to Get Free Checked Bags and Flight Changes

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Between ticket fees, taxes, security fees, baggage fees, flight change fees and pricey airport meals, flying is an expensive way to travel.

Sure, you can find inexpensive ways to fly private, but if you’re stuck flying on a commercial airline, you’ll want to find ways to save some cash.

We can’t help you with taxes, but the easiest fees to eliminate are those for flight changes and checked bags. Here’s how to knock those out of your budget so you have more money to spend on your actual trip.

Save Money on Baggage Fees

In 2014, U.S. airlines charged their passengers $3.35 billion in baggage fees, and Delta alone collected $833 million from suitcase-saddled passengers.

But you don’t always have to pay to bring more than a toothbrush along on your trip. Here are a few ways to skip the baggage fees.

1. Fly Southwest

Everyone knows Southwest has good deals, but did you know they’ll also let you bring two checked bags, free of charge?

Keep this in mind when shopping for tickets. If you bring a couple of checked bags with you, you’ll pay $100 round-trip on many airlines. But if you fly Southwest, paying $50 more on your fare will still save you $50, since you won’t pay a penny for your baggage.

Be sure to read all airline policies on sizes, weight restrictions and fees for luggage before basing a travel decision on baggage fees alone.

2. Join a Frequent Flyer Program

When you rack up the frequent flyer miles, airlines are more inclined to help you, since you’re one of their best customers.

Joining an airline loyalty program and attaining preferred status (typically by flying a certain number of miles a year) can help you get certain perks, which can include free or reduced-price checked bags. Be sure to read all rules and regulations and know the fine print before taking advantage of this technique.

3. Get an Airline Credit Card

If you’re a frequent flyer loyal to a particular airline, it often pays to get that airline’s credit card. While many of these airline credit cards have fees and other restrictions, if you frequently check bags, the cost of the card may be worthwhile.

For example, the Delta SkyMiles card could get you a free bag when you fly on the airline, and the United MileagePlus Club card gets you two free bags. Of course, fees and restrictions apply and the rules change often, so be sure to read the fine print.

4. Ship Your Bags

After a long flight, do you dread waiting at the luggage carousel to pick up your bags? Do you wonder how it’s possible yours is always the last one unloaded from the plane?

Skip the hassle and ship your bags directly to your hotel via FedEx, UPS or another delivery service. You can ship several days ahead of your flight and skip the last-minute rush of lugging bags around, and potentially also save you money.

While prices vary based on the size and weight of your bag, shop around to see if you can find a carrier to deliver your bags for less than the cost of checking it with the airline.

You’ll save the most money with lighter bags shipped over shorter distances, since carriers charge by weight and distance, but airlines charge you a flat baggage fee regardless of weight. For example, shipping a 30-pound package with FedEx from San Francisco to Los Angeles costs less than $23 each way, versus the $25 fee to check that bag on most airlines.

You might only save a few dollars, but you’ll also avoid the hassle of checking bags. When you arrive at your destination, your bag will be waiting for you at the hotel and you won’t have to lug it anywhere.

5. Pack Light

A simple way to avoid baggage fees is to avoid having any bags. While not everyone can master the art of the “no baggage challenge,” the less you carry, the less you pay for.

See if you can fit all your necessary items into a carry-on bag and consider doing laundry halfway through your trip.

Bringing a carry-on bag isn’t a sure-fire way to avoid baggage fees, since some airlines, including Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant, charge for them, so you’ll want to check your carrier’s fine print. If you’re on one of these airlines, you can often bring a purse or small personal item that fits under the seat in front of you for free.

6. Make Sure Your Bag Makes Weight

Weigh your bag before leaving for the airport to make sure it’s within your airline’s limit, since overweight baggage fees can quickly add up. If it’s close, consider trying it on a different scale to make sure, or plan to wear or carry heavier items like hiking boots or jeans.

Save Money on Flight Changes

Most major U.S. airlines charge $200 or more for a flight change, though many let you change your flight on the day of travel for a reduced (but still pricey) rate. Here are a few tips and techniques to help you dodge fees when you want to change your flight.

Plus, keep in mind that preferred frequent flyer members can often switch flights for free, so if that’s you, be sure to ask.

7. Change Your Mind Early

If you book a flight and your plans change or you decide a different flight works better, you generally have 24 hours to change or cancel your ticket without a fee.

Other rules apply, though, including the fact it has to be a non-refundable ticket booked at least seven days ahead of your flight. Of course, if you switch to a different flight, you’ll have to pay the difference in cost.

8. Fly Southwest

Once again, flying Southwest is a great way to save money. You can change your mind at any time and get credit for future travel within the next year. Of course, if the flight price goes up, you’ll have to pay the difference.

9. Book Directly With the Airline

Using third-party services can make it difficult to change your flight or save on fees when doing so. Booking directly with airlines generally gives you the greatest number of options.

10. Hope for a Delay

Read the full contract of carriage for your airline, specifically the section about “involuntary refunds.” If the airline delays your flight or it’s canceled, you can often apply for a full refund, but you do have to check in for the flight to take advantage of this rule.

Also, if the airline changes your flight time, puts you on a different connection or makes another schedule change, you may be able to get a refund or free flight change.

11. Ask at the Gate

If you see an earlier flight that would fit your schedule better, ask at the gate and see what the gate agent may be able to do for you. Many airlines charge less for same-day flight changes, but they need a good reason to fully waive fees. While the airline doesn’t care about your schedule, it does care about things that might cost it money.

Check the status of connecting flights and, if you might miss a connection due to a delay or a plane headed to you is running late, see if you can get on an earlier flight. This is a lot easier to pull off if you’re traveling carry-on only.

Above all, be kind to gate agents. They hear a lot of complaints they can’t do anything about. If you’re kind, they’ll likely be happy to help you if they can.

Your Turn: How do you save money on baggage and flight-change fees?

Kristen Pope is a freelance writer and editor in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.