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No more stupid bag fees

May 13, 2010 | | Comments (2)

Baggage fees are yet another example of “gotcha capitalism,” where companies pretend to compete on price and then stick you with all kinds of extra fees. (For more on this widespread phenomenon, read Bob Sullivan’s excellent book “Gotcha Capitalism” and his recent follow-up, “Stop Getting Ripped Off.”)

Below are some ideas for reducing or eliminating bag fees. But what we really need to do is kick our government into action, as travel columnist Christopher Elliott pointed out recently:

… our government can say, “enough!” It wouldn’t take much. The Transportation Department could rule that the price of an airline ticket must include at least one piece of checked luggage, and that would pretty much end this debate.Will it? If the government hears from enough air travelers, sure. Here’s how to contact them: http://www.dot.gov/contact.html.

In the meantime, here’s how to save money:

Use a good carryon. For most trips, I use a Delsey Helium Fusion suiter trolley which is light and surprisingly tough. It comes with an attachable “personal bag” that’s big enough to carry my laptop, a small purse and other sundries (that counts as my second “personal bag”). For tips on how to pack 10 days of clothes into one, check out this excellent slide-show tutorial at the New York Times site.

Gate check. Family trips entail bringing more stuff. Rather than pay baggage fees, we take our carry-ons through security and then ask for a “gate check.” We get a special tag, attach it to the bags, drop them off in the jet bridge just before entering the plane door, and pick them up at the baggage carousel at our destination. It sure beats jockeying for limited overhead bin space with all the other folks trying to avoid baggage fees, and gate agents have so far been delighted to accommodate us, since it means less hassle and faster boarding.

Pay online. If you have to check a bag, you get a few bucks off if you pay the fee online. Just remember to print out and bring your receipt to prove you paid .

Fly Southwest or JetBlue. Southwest lets you check two bags free. JetBlue allows one.

Avoid Spirit Airlines. This carrier will be the first to start charging for carryons that don’t fit under the seat in front of you. Starting Aug. 1, flyers would have to pay as much as $45 per carryon.

Look for other exceptions. First- and business-class tickets usually waive bag fees for the first two items, but some airlines also waive fees for members of their elite frequent fliers (typically travelers who fly more than 25,000 miles with the airline). Military personnel may get one or two bags free. Your credit card may offer relief, as well: users of the American Express Delta SkyMiles card, for example, will get a waiver on the first bag they check on Delta starting June 1.

Ultimately, though, the best solution is to level the playing field by requiring all airlines to include one checked bag with each ticket. Use the DOT link to find the address where you can write your regulators a letter urging them to get on it.

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Response below from DoT:

Thank you for your recent message concerning fees for checked baggage. We can appreciate your interest in this issue.

Congress deregulated air fares a number of years ago. The Department of Transportation has no authority to regulate the prices that airlines charge for air transportation services, including fees for checked bags. Transporting a checked bag costs an airline more than transporting a carry-on bag, and some airlines and individuals feel that passengers who do not check a bag should not be required to share the cost of checked baggage. A similar ‘unbundling” concept for services and prices has appeared for in-flight meals and beverages, and for purchasing a ticket from a reservations agent (as opposed to online).

As indicated above, DOT cannot regulate the amount an airline charges for checked baggage, whether or not those charges are included in the advertised fare, and currently there are no regulations that prohibit airlines from charging separately for checked baggage. However, DOT has taken steps to ensure that consumers are not misled by airlines in the charges they assess for baggage. In this regard, on May 13, 2008, DOT’s Aviation Enforcement Office issued detailed guidance to the airline industry designed to ensure that prospective air travelers receive timely and effective notice about charges for checked bags. See http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/rules/guidance.htm. We also have a rule that prohibits airlines from charging for assistive devices tendered as checked baggage by passengers with disabilities (e.g., a wheelchair or walker).

Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.


So we’ll get to work on our lawmakers.