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Best Ways to Avoid Baggage Fees: A Holiday Travel Primer

Baggage fees have certainly been front and center in the news this year. As the holidays approach, there’s no better time to re-acquaint yourself with what charges are in effect, especially if you’re planning on traveling with gifts and extra winter gear this winter.

Before you book your ticket, consult SmarterTravel’s free Airline Fees: The Ultimate Guide and Carry-on Fees: The Ultimate Guide downloadable PDFs. By doing your research in advance, you’ll be able to factor in extra fees for bags, gifts, and anything else that will accompany you onboard. You’ll also avoid surprise charges at the airport.

Remember, there are currently only two airlines that allow a free checked bag: JetBlue (first checked bag free) and Southwest (first and second checked bags free). All other airlines have fees that apply for checked baggage.

As you get ready for your trip, remember the old adage: “When in doubt, leave it out.” This year, it’s not only good packing sense; it will also save you money.


Winter clothing can be bulky and take up precious room in your bags. Reconsider what you’d usually wear to make the most of your limited space.

To avoid checking a bag, re-evaluate what you bring in your carry-on. “Layering is always important,” says Tim Leffel, editor of “It’s easier to pack a few thinner layers than a giant parka. If you are going to take a parka, wear it on the plane.”

Economy is key, says travel writer David Farley. “I roll up my clothes tightly in my carry-on bag,” he says. “You have to select a few outfits—I bring three, including the clothes I’m wearing on the plane—and they should all be versatile enough that you can fit into any situation: from walking around a city to going to a nice restaurant to meeting with people. I bring a few collared shirts, nice jeans or non-wrinkle slacks, and one pair of shoes that are easy to walk miles in but look nice, too. The drawback is I have to wash my clothes in the hotel sinks, but it’s a small price to pay for being able to just walk off the plane and out of the airport without having to wait for my bag to land on the baggage carousel.”

Before you go, pare down your footwear. “Every packing expert will tell you everyone goes wrong with the shoes—packing six pairs of shoes for a five-day trip, for example,” says Leffel. “It’s hard to get by with less than two [pair]. Travelers should plan on taking one comfortable pair [that’s] good for walking around and exploring, and then one dressier pair for going out.”

Travel journalist Andrea Granahan recommends making the most of your personal item—the secondary piece you get to bring onboard along with your carry-on bag. “Don’t make your personal item your purse,” she says in a recent blog post. “Carry something larger that will still fit under the seat in front and put your purse in it. … Carry electronics, jewelry, medications, books, and [a] camera in it, along with stuff you might need on the plane.”

You may want to revisit our photo gallery, Avoid Fees and Hassles With a Well-Packed Bag, to see expert packing strategies, space-saving techniques, consumer packing products, and more.


If you’re traveling with gifts this year, remember these rules of thumb:

Don’t gift-wrap any items before you depart. Screeners will want to know what’s inside any wrapped packages and will request that you unwrap them.

Go small. Gift cards, certificates, and the like take up minimal room in a suitcase or carry-on bag, and sometimes can be delivered online, taking up no space at all.

Determine if it’s cheaper to take your gifts with you on the plane or to ship them in advance. Depending on the size of your gifts, you may find it’s less expensive to send your gifts ahead. Leffel suggests travelers “order things online and have them delivered in your name to where they’re going, and tell relatives in advance not to unpack them.”

Or, plan your shopping in advance. “America has the same stores in every town, so if you’re going to get something from Best Buy [or another national retailer], get it once you get there,” says Leffel. “You can also order gifts online and pick them up locally. You’ll have to deal with the crowds, but you won’t have to carry gifts on [the plane].”

Food Items

Want to bring home Grandma’s signature pumpkin pie, lemon meringue pie, or apple strudel? Unfortunately, if you’re headed to the airport, you’ll probably want to leave any homemade dishes with fillings at home. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) strictly enforces its 3-1-1 liquids and gels rule for carry-on bags, and that restriction applies to food items.

However, if you’re transporting cookies, cakes, or other gel- or filling-free items, you should be in the clear. Regardless of what type of food you’re bringing to the airport, you may want to ship your perishables in advance, or pack them (very) well in your checked luggage for total peace of mind.

Your Turn

Are you a master at avoiding baggage fees? What packing tips have worked well for you, particularly during the busy holiday travel season? Share your expertise by submitting a comment below!

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