Travel Light and Save Money: How to Avoid Paying Baggage Fees

airline baggage fees
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If you fly American Airlines with their limit of 10 checked bags, your round trip baggage fees will total $3,240.

That’s an extreme example — who would travel with that many bags? — but most airlines charge for baggage, typically $25 each way for the first checked bag. The easiest way to save that money is to travel with carry-on bags only. An added bonus: No time checking bags or waiting at baggage carousels.

Of course, some airlines charge fees even for carry-on bags. So going with just carry-on is a good start, but if you want to travel really inexpensively, you might have to travel even lighter. When I flew out to Colorado last fall to climb some mountains, I managed to avoid even the carry-on fee, and I’ll explain how I did that in a moment. But first let’s look at how to travel with carry-on only.

How Much Are You Allowed to Carry?

Airlines set their own policies in regard to carry-on bag dimensions, weight and related rules, but they don’t vary too much from one to the next. For example, both the American Airlines website and the Delta website specify that you can bring a bag onboard if the combined length, width and height is 45 inches and the dimensions do not exceed 22 by 14 by 9 inches (56 x 36 x 23 cm). Southwest Airlines allows a bigger bag, up to 24 by 16 by 10 inches.

Weight restrictions are usually not specified for carry-on bags, perhaps because you’ll be the one doing the carrying.

When you shop for the perfect piece of carry-on luggage, remember to bring a tape measure. If you need all the space you can get, aim to get as close as you can to these measurements:

The Perfect Carry-On Bag: 22 by 14 by 9 inches.

That’s not a lot of space, but there are ways to make it work. My wife and I once went to Ecuador for a month with just carry-on bags. Here are four strategies for traveling light:

1. Bring Only What You Need

Think back to previous trips and recall the things you never used. Don’t pack them the next time. Carefully consider what you need to have a great trip and leave behind the unnecessary things.

2. Pack the Smallest Item That Suits the Purpose

The second strategy is also simple. For example, if you’re going someplace cool, bring a highly compressible down jacket rather than a heavy wool sweater. An electronic book reader can replace many paper books. Light and stylish travel pants roll up much smaller than jeans.

Over time, buy travel items that take very little space, and eventually you’ll be able to easily pack everything in one small bag.

3. Buy Where You Go Rather Than Bring It With You

The third strategy is to leave behind things you can easily obtain while traveling. Hotels have shampoo, for example. Batteries for cameras and such are available in stores around the world. Not sure if you’ll need a winter hat? Wait and see. You can buy it if necessary and you’ll have a souvenir too.

4. Take Advantage of All the Space You Can

Finally, use all the space you’re allowed. Carry a big purse or briefcase and fill it.

If you still need to bring more things, go one step further. Wear a jacket onto the plane, and make it one that has four or more pockets. Fill those pockets with small items so you can free up more space in your carry-on bag or personal item.

Wait, There’s More You Can Take!

You’re typically allowed one “personal item” that doesn’t count as a carry-on bag. You also get to take other “approved items.” The policies vary from airline to airline, so you’ll have to check online before you pack. But, for example, a personal item can usually be any of the following:

  • Purse
  • Briefcase
  • Camera bag
  • Diaper bag
  • Laptop computer
  • Anything smaller than one of these

If you’re reading between the lines here, you may have already considered that a briefcase doesn’t have to be full of work-related things. It can carry clothing or anything else you might take on a personal trip — and the laptop can fit inside it along with these other travel items.

To qualify, your personal item generally has to fit under the seat in front of you, so soft-sided items that can conform to that space, like a big purse, may be a better bet. Check the airline’s website for any other rules.

Other approved items that do not count toward your allowance of a carry-on bag or personal item are allowed. Here are some typical examples:

  • Jacket
  • Book
  • Hat
  • Food or drink bought after clearing the security checkpoints

Some airlines also allow strollers, diaper bags, walkers and canes as extra approved items. Check the airline’s website for the latest rules before you start packing.

How to Travel Light and Cheap

If you forget to pay for that carry-on bag when you book your ticket with Spirit Airlines, and show up at the gate with it, you’ll pay a fee of $100 each way! That might help explain why Spirit Airlines is the most hated airline in the U.S (and the most profitable). But other airlines are starting to charge for carry-on bags.

When I took my hiking/climbing trip last fall, I flew from Tampa to Denver for $285 round trip on Frontier Airlines. It was a great deal, but its baggage fees confused me. The airline charges different rates for a carry-on bag, depending on when and where you pay. I discovered too late that I should have paid at the moment I booked my flight to get the lowest rate.

I could have saved $5 if I joined the “Discount Den.” That was even free to join, but only if I was already member of the “Early Returns” program. I’m not making this up. There was even a “Classic Plus” discount, but I never did figure out what that was or how to get it. If I showed up at the gate with my carry-on, it would cost $100 round trip, so I’m pretty sure Frontier wants to confuse passengers.

Faced with a fee of $70 round trip if I paid online, I removed my small sleeping bag from my backpack and squeezed the rest (including a laptop) down to meet the allowable personal item dimensions (a generous 18 by 14 by 8 inches). Voilà! I traveled without paying any additional fees at all. Of course, I also wore a jacket with loaded pockets. Yes I’m that cheap. Fortunately Florida airports are very well air-conditioned.

I planned to sleep in the rental car for two nights at trailheads, so I bought a $15 sleeping bag at a Walmart the morning I landed.  On the last day of the trip, I gave it to a homeless man in Denver. Net savings after buying the sleeping bag: $55.

Read the airline websites’ baggage rules before your next trip, and you might save some money.

Want to learn more about saving money on travel? Join the Travel Hacking Cartel, a community of expert travel hackers.

Your Turn: Do you ever fly with carry-on only, or with even less?

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Steve Gillman is the author of “101 Weird Ways to Make Money” and creator of He’s been a repo-man, walking stick carver, search engine evaluator, house flipper, tram driver, process server, mock juror, and roulette croupier, but of more than 100 ways he has made money, writing is his favorite (so far).