Dec. 19, 2013 at 2:39 PM ET
A $25 bag fee here. A $5 early-boarding charge there. Then it’s $15 for WiFi, followed by a $12 lunch. No one’s charging for the privilege of using the bathroom yet—but don’t be surprised if it does happen. Last year alone, all of those extra charges added up to a whopping $27.1 billion in revenue for the major airlines.
As the days of being nickel-and-dimed have given way to being fifty-ed-and-hundred-ed, air travelers have been forced to be all the more vigilant about how much they’ll be charged in the long run. Of course, the smartest flyers never pay anything extra at all—and often end up traveling just as comfortably.
So how do they do it?
Just in time for holiday travel, we asked top industry experts to divulge six ways you can avoid getting gouged by airlines.
Most domestic carriers charge extra to check even the first bag, while international flights usually allow only one checked bag for free—with weight limits. The most effective answer to this problem is the simplest: Don’t check a bag. Ever.
If you do need to check a bag and have concerns about being over the weight limit, “put heavy items in your carry-on,” says Scott Grimmer, founder of MileValue.com. “[Carry-ons] technically have a weight limit, but I’ve never had them weighed in all my travels.”
And before you claim that you can’t fit everything into a carry-on, Grimmer has a comeback: You’re probably using the wrong bag. He only ever travels with a rectangular, wheel-free carry-on. With wheeled bags, “the frame takes up about 40% of the volume,” says Grimmer. But once you lose the wheels, you can fit nearly twice as much inside. “I’ve taken eight-month trips with the right bag,” says Grimmer, “without checking any luggage.”
If you simply can’t get everything into a carry-on, “the best way to avoid baggage fees is to choose airlines that offer more free check-in bags should you need them,” says Fareboom.com CEO Marko Cadez. He names Southwest as the best among the U.S. carriers because they let you check in two items for free, including things like golf and ski bags.
“Consider the value of free checked baggage when selecting your airline,” says Cadez. “Typically, the first bag costs $25 and the second one is $35 on domestic flights.” So if you’re going golfing in Arizona and know that you’ll need to check two bags, keep in mind that you’ll pay $120 less in fees on Southwest than with another carrier. Bonus tip: You can compare baggage fees on Kayak’s airline fees chart.
In addition to a sturdy, wheel-free bag, frequent international travelers should invest in a luggage scale—a few bucks up front will save you the hassle of showing up at the airport only to be told that you owe a fee. Weigh your bags at home (most airlines allow up to 50 pounds per checked bag), and if you’re over the limit, move some of that weight into your carry-on—or leave some extraneous items at home.
If you opt for curbside check-in with a skycap, they almost never put your bags on a scale.
Of course, as Grimmer points out, there is some wiggle room: “I’ve never had the agent say anything to me if it’s under 55 pounds.” But while that generally holds true, it’s not a steadfast rule. European low-cost carrier Ryanair, for example, is the champion of annoying service fees—they’d probably charge you for an extra gram of luggage.
If all else fails and you can’t get your bags down to weight, Grimmer recommends going with a more, ahem, personal approach. “If you opt for curbside check-in with a skycap, they almost never put your bags on a scale,” he says. “Get out of the taxi with a $10 bill in hand—and the bigger the bag, the bigger the bill. It’s still going to be cheaper than paying the baggage fee.”
With everyone shifting to carry-ons and hoping to snag that overhead bin space, the next frontier for airline fees is charging for early-boarding access. Several major carriers now charge about $10 for the right to get on the plane before fellow flyers. But with a little legwork, you can make sure that you always board on time—for free.
Bottom line: You don’t have to be first. You just don’t want to be last.
Each airline has its own system for boarding order, says Grimmer. For example, on United, after the elite customers board, they call up everyone with a window seat (starting at the back of the plane), followed by those with middle and aisle seats. So if you select a window seat near the back, you’ll almost always be able to find overhead space. While the system is slightly different for each carrier, the “window seat near the back” rule usually holds true.
Most domestic flights now have the tempting option of in-flight WiFi for … you guessed it, a fee. Gogo Inflight Internet, which now outfits a range of domestic carriers, promises $14 for an “all-day” pass. But how much of the day can you really use it for?
On a three-hour flight from New York to Miami, the first half hour or more is spent taxiing and ascending, and another 30 minutes are set aside for landing. That leaves you with maybe two hours to actually use the WiFi, which almost always hits spotty service throughout the flight. So while it may seem like a good option for business travelers, it’s always going to be cheaper—and more efficient—to take care of your emails before boarding, and download something to work on offline while in the air.
In the race to rack up as many fees as possible, several airlines have the travel insurance box automatically checked when your ticket purchase screen pops up—hoping that you won’t notice the few extra bucks tacked on.
“If you don’t uncheck the box, you will be charged for insurance,” says airline consultant John Thomas. “Instead, consider using insurance through your own private insurance, AAA, or a credit card provider,” which might not cost you anything at all. And don’t forget to uncheck that box!
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.