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Beating back that luggage fee

June 29, 2008|Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

First there was no free lunch -- or dinner. Then it cost extra to book an air ticket by phone. Now you can't even check your luggage for free.

Facing record fuel costs, many major airlines charge $25 each way to check a second bag on a domestic flight, while at least three charge $15 for a first bag. So it can cost $80 to take two bags on a round-trip flight; more if they're overweight or you use curbside check-in.

What's a flier to do? You could pay the bag fees, switch to a carrier that doesn't charge them, cram more into carry-ons, pack lighter or ship your stuff. Each has its pluses and minuses. Whatever you do, flying with luggage is a whole new bag.

Some fliers seem resigned to the situation.

The new fees are "outrageous," said Joleen Garnett of Los Angeles, who recently flew American from LAX. "But what can you do? Otherwise, airlines would be filing for bankruptcy."

Others are not.

"I think it's crazy," said Kristyn Csiszar, a flight attendant from Long Beach. "For the first bag, it should be free." (She declined to identify her employer.)

Here are ways to cope:

Pay the fee: For infrequent travelers, paying $15 or $25 may not be a big burden.

The new fee "doesn't bother me much because I don't travel much," said Rick Pierson of Buena Park.

Heading recently with his two children from LAX to Texas for a two-week trip, he added, "We couldn't do this with one carry-on."

Choose a different carrier: At deadline Friday, among big airlines, only American, United and US Airways had announced charges of $15 each way to check a first bag. (Effective dates vary based on booking and travel dates.) Several others charged only for a second bag, and Southwest Airlines still allowed up to two free checked bags.

Watch for updates. Airlines must give advance notice of these fees in print ads and online, the U.S. Department of Transportation has ruled. But they haven't always done so. After talks with the DOT this month, Delta agreed to refund fees for second checked bags to some fliers who bought tickets before the new policy was adopted.

Become a premium customer: Not always practical. But if you're a high-mileage frequent flier, buy a full-fare economy ticket or travel in first or business class, you're usually exempt from the new fee.

Bring more onboard: This can be tricky because some carriers are cracking down.

American Airlines earlier this month said it was enforcing its 40-pound weight limit for a carry-on bag. When I was at LAX recently, I saw staff turn back customers who tried to bring aboard more than one bag and one personal item, requiring them to check an item.

Enforcement seemed spotty. Some fliers got through with three items. But one man, blocked because he had a bag, a tote and a book that looked too big to pack, shouted, "You pay me $15, buddy!" and bolted up the stairs toward security checkpoints.

Expect delays, ruffled feelings and possibly being asked to check your carry-on at the last minute if the cabin's luggage bins fill up.

Pack lighter: "You can control what you pay by how you pack," said Amy Rippy of San Diego, who was vacationing with her family. this month. "We tried to get everything into one bag [each]."

She had a point. By packing multifunctional clothes and quick-drying underwear, plus wearing bulky items on the plane, many fliers can get by with one bag for a weeklong vacation.

Watch the weight. Besides carry-on limits, some airlines charge $80 or more for each checked bag weighing more than 50 pounds.

Ship your luggage: It would be great if this were cheaper.

When I recently called Federal Express, they quoted $40 to ship a 30-pound bag one way from Los Angeles to New York, with arrival in four days; UPS quoted $47 for a similar service. For both, faster delivery more than doubled the cost.

With specialized luggage-shipping services, you experience door-to-door convenience, for a price -- typically more than $100 per bag, each way.

--

jane.engle@latimes.com. To watch a video on how to pack lightly, go to latimes.com/packing.

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