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Luggage fees hit overseas flights

That second bag may cost you as airlines tack on stiff charges. Solution? Pack light or carry on more.

September 27, 2009|Jane Engle

Planning to check two bags on your next flight to London, Rome or Paris? Pay up. In a little-publicized trend, airlines are cracking down on transatlantic luggage, dinging coach fliers $50 or more each way for a second checked bag -- about twice the going rate of domestic flights.

By Thanksgiving, four of the five airlines that fly nonstop between LAX and London, for instance, will be charging the new fee. Only Air New Zealand, as of last week, was still honoring the treasured two-bag tradition on that route, with "no plans that I know of" to change, said spokeswoman Sarah Miller-Reeves.

As for the rest, well, talk about Scrooges. The new fees arrive just in time for the heavily traveled holidays, when passengers board jets bearing gifts for loved ones. Or not, once they calculate the costs.

"It's just another slap in the face of consumers," said Michael Clewer, vice president of the Continental Travel Shop, a Santa Monica travel agency that caters to British expats. Because few clients seem to know about the changes, he predicted "a lot of surprises" for holiday fliers.

Insult or not, the fees address a crisis in the airline business, which is bleeding red ink.

Earlier this month, the industry's International Air Transport Assn. more than doubled its forecast of losses for European and North American airlines to a combined total of $6.4 billion for 2009. It blamed the shortfall on falling demand, lower fares and recent increases in fuel prices.

"With the state of the world economy, we're looking at ways to enhance our revenue," said Tim Wagner, spokesman for American Airlines, which on Sept. 14 began charging coach customers $50 for a second checked bag on most transatlantic flights.

Wagner said American expected to earn "a significant amount" from the new fees, but he declined to give a figure.

The International Air Transport Assn. also predicts financial losses for next year, so you're likely to see more baggage fees to more long-haul destinations, such as Africa and Asia, that frequently still allow coach fliers to check two bags for free. Can $15 or $20 for the first bag, which most U.S. carriers charge for domestic flights, be far behind?

So, transatlantic fliers, it's time to get real about your baggage. Steps that may or may not cut your costs include packing lighter, carrying on more, choosing another airline, getting an upgrade or paying fees online. Each has its upsides and downsides.

One strategy that's a sure loser: shipping your stuff overseas. Even using rates that allow up to five business days for delivery, the cost to ship a 40-pound bag from Los Angeles to London hovered around $300 based on recent FedEx and UPS website prices.

A closer look at your options:

Lighten up: When told about the second-bag fees, Gillian Neufeld, 77, of Santa Monica, who spends nearly three months in England every year, said, "That's all right with me because I don't take much." She travels with one medium-sized suitcase and a large handbag, she said.

Neufeld's secret: She keeps clothes at her cottage in Yorkshire.

Travelers who lack an English cottage would be wise to make do with less stuff. Many sources offer tips on packing light. Search for "travel packing" on websites such as www.ehow .com and travel guru Rick Steves' www.ricksteves.com.

If you pack lightly and your companion doesn't, think about taking some of his/her stuff in your bag. But watch the dimensions and weight: Airlines typically limit checked bags to 50 pounds each on transatlantic routes; any heavier and you may pay extra charges of $50 or more.

Carry on: Take more onboard and check less. Sounds simple. But besides the usual size restrictions and one-bag limit, some carriers strictly restrict carry-on weight for overseas travel. For transatlantic coach passengers, the limit on Virgin Atlantic, for instance, is 13 pounds; on Lufthansa, it's 8 kilograms, or a little more than 17 1/2 pounds.

Be prepared to convert kilograms into pounds and, sometimes, centimeters into inches to calculate your allowance, and be sure to weigh your carry-on before leaving home.

And, of course, the overhead bins may fill up, forcing you to check your intended carry-on bag at the last minute. The upside: You may be spared a second-bag fee, some fliers report. The downside: For various reasons, the bag in this case may be more apt to be misrouted, luggage experts say.

Choose another airline: Well, there's Air New Zealand, at least for now, to London out of LAX. But even with multiple airlines flying transatlantic routes, the list of those that allow a second checked bag for free is dwindling.

Get an upgrade: Typically, you won't pay a fee for a second checked bag if you're flying in first or business class or a premium economy class that has more legroom or other perks.

Policies vary by airline. High-mileage frequent fliers may be exempt, and even some coach fliers who buy full-fare, refundable tickets, which often cost hundreds more than the cheapest fares.

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