It’s 2023, and travel is back in a big way. But things aren’t quite what they used to be when it comes to airline baggage fees. I’m old enough to remember when one free checked bag was sort of a given. And when only the discount airlines charged you fees for bringing a carry-on.
But if you haven’t flown in a while, you may be surprised to learn that some airlines are hammering travelers with baggage fees — while others don’t even allow carry-ons for certain fares.
Of course, some airlines’ baggage policies are better than others. I’m thinking of one in particular — Southwest Airlines, cough, cough — who still gives us those old-school baggage privileges. If you’re planning a getaway any time in the near future, here’s what you need to know about how the major airlines rank in terms of their baggage fees and restrictions. I’ve also included a few tips on how to reduce or even avoid airline baggage fees altogether.
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How much are baggage fees?
For the six major airlines we researched, we found that checked baggage fees can range from free all the way up to $45 or more per flight. Carry-on fees vary widely depending on the airline but range from free to $65 (or more for discount airlines like Spirit).
Are baggage fees per flight or per trip?
Remember: Baggage fees apply to each one-way flight, not for your entire trip. And if your one-way flight consists of multiple connecting flights or stops, you only get charged one time. Think of it like each final destination having one baggage fee.
So if you book a round-trip flight, prepare to pay the baggage fee twice — once for the journey there (one final destination), and once for the journey back home (one final destination).
Our ranking of the best (and worst) airline baggage fees and policies:
1. Only one airline rules when it comes to free checked bags: Southwest Airlines.
Of all the domestic airlines we investigated, Southwest came out on top as the airline with the most customer-friendly baggage policies. Not only can you carry on one bag and one personal item with Southwest Airlines, but you also get two — yes, two! — free checked bags.
Pair that awesome baggage policy with our tips for hacking Southwest’s Low Fare Calendar and you can score some pretty wallet-friendly flights.
Related: Beat sky-high airline prices with these 19 tricks for finding cheap flights.
2. And the worst baggage policy goes to Spirit (no surprise there).
Sorry, Spirit Airlines, but you win this category, and it’s not even close. Yeah, we know you call yourself a no-frills discount airline, but you charge us for carry-ons, and you have the lowest weight limit for checked bags of all the airlines we researched (just 40 pounds).
Also annoying? Spirit Airlines baggage fees aren’t easy to figure out, as they don’t give you a handy chart that shows you what they charge for the first and second checked bags. And the baggage fees change depending on when you decide to fork over the money.
TIP: You’ll lock in the cheapest Spirit baggage fees if you add them at the same time as you book your flight. The Spirit Airlines baggage fees only go up if you wait until later — increasing by as much as 50% if you check your bags at the gate.
3. JetBlue and United don’t allow carry-ons with basic fares.
We’ve already established that Spirit has the least customer-friendly baggage policy overall. But the JetBlue baggage fees and the United Airlines baggage fees get an honorable mention for their stingy carry-on policies for basic fares.
If you fly JetBlue’s Blue Basic fare (their cheapest option), they only allow you one personal item — and it must fit under the seat in front of you. So no, you can’t carry both a purse and a laptop bag.
The same goes for United’s Basic Economy fare. If you get to the gate with a carry-on because you didn’t realize what you signed up for, United will charge an additional $25 fee above the standard bag fee of $60, while JetBlue charges $65.
4. Pack carefully — oversized bag fees kick in after just 40 pounds with Spirit Airlines.
For the most part, you don’t want to go over 50 pounds when packing your luggage because it will cost you anywhere from $75 – $200 in oversize baggage fees.
While just about every airline considers 50 pounds to be the maximum weight limit before you have to pay the oversized bag fee, Spirit’s weight limit is just 40 pounds.
A portable luggage scale like this one is pretty handy so you never overpack — or overpay — for your checked bags again:
5. Always check the fine print if you travel with skis, instruments, or other gear.
Most airlines will count things like golf bags, skis, and musical instruments as checked bags, but they must fit within the weight and size limits.
If you have odd-shaped items, you may want to get in touch with the airline to ask about their policy just so there are no surprises.
6. Prepay for your checked baggage to get a discount.
With United and JetBlue, if you pay for your bags more than 24 hours before your flight (online or through your app), you can save $5 on each of your first two checked bags.
A family of four with two checked bags each would save $40 by prepaying for their bags. Hey, every little bit counts, right?
7. Elite status can earn you free bags with Delta, American, and United.
If you’re a frequent flyer and part of an airline loyalty program, you can earn a bunch of perks and benefits as you move up into the higher tier levels.
Here are some examples of perks that’ll save you money (or give you more leeway) on baggage policies:
- American Airlines: Get up to three free checked bags if you have AAdvantage status.
- Delta: SkyMiles Medallion Members get their first standard checked bag free.
- United: As a Premier Gold member, you get two free bags, and each bag can weigh up to 70 pounds.
Related: We’ve uncovered a few more tricks to help you find Delta SkyMiles deals.
8. Certain credit cards offer free bags or airline fee credits.
If you get an airline-specific credit card or a general travel credit card, they can sometimes include perks that make baggage fees cheaper.
Here are a few credit cards to consider:
- JetBlue Plus Card: Get the first checked bag free for you and up to three companions on the same reservation.
- United Explorer Card: Score one free bag each for you and a traveling companion.
- Delta SkyMiles American Express Cards: The first checked bag for you and up to eight passengers on your reservation is free with any Delta credit card.
- Platinum Card from American Express: You won’t get free checked bags, but you will get up to $200 each year in airline fee credits for the airline of your choice.
Related: We compared fees and perks and found the best travel rewards credit cards to sign up for.