Avoid increasing airline fees: Tips for traveling with carry on luggage only

Airlines’ already suck, and now they are adding one more burden to travelers: higher fees for checked luggage. American announced last Friday that the first checked bag will cost $20, up from $15, and the second bag $30, up from $25. The fees don’t apply to members of their loyalty program gold or higher, but effect everyone else immediately. Other airlines are likely to follow.

American is the third largest carrier serving Hawaii, and most people who come on vacation check bags. Likewise, residents traveling off island laden with gifts and heavier clothing usually do, too. How can you beat the checked bag fees? In this post, I’ll update a post I wrote last year on the topic and share some of my strategies and those of other frequent fliers who travel with only carry-on luggage.

Commit to Carry-on

Unless your traveling with children, the first step may be the hardest: committing to carry everything you need on board the plane. This means no full-sized bottles of shampoo or perfume, no large or bulky items, and forget about that third pair of shoes.

Tip: With the money you’ll save in checked bag fees, you can always buy more shampoo or shoes if needed at your destination.

If you’re still not sure about going carry-on or travel with children, find a way to become a tiered member of your preferred airline’s frequent flier program (such as Gold with American or Premier with United). Once you have that status, the airlines will waive checked luggage fees for now.

Tip: Most airlines waive checked bag fees for tiered members of their loyalty programs.

But it’s important to keep in mind that cash-strapped airlines have been cutting back on freebies to loyalty members for years, and eventually, checked bag fees could apply to all passengers. So if you can make the commitment to carry on now, you’ll be ahead of the game.

It Takes Two

Now that you’re going carry-on-only, you’re allowed only two pieces of luggage: one that fits in the overhead bin (the “carry-on”) and one that fits under the seat in front of you (your “personal item”).

Tip: You can also bring a coat, an umbrella and a sack lunch in addition to your carry-on and personal items.

Don’t waste precious luggage space with these free-pass items. For example, carry your coat, even if it’s summer where you are and winter where you are going. (NOTE: this does not apply at Heathrow International Airport. If you’re flying to or through Heathrow, you’re only allowed one item through security, period.)

Use the overhead bin for carry-on luggage

Use the overhead bin for carry-on luggage

Depending on which airlines you fly and the types of aircraft they operate, finding the right luggage can get a bit tricky.  Almost certainly, you’re old checked luggage won’t fit in the over head bin. If you’re not sure, measure your existing luggage and compare it against overhead bin sizes.

Tip: The first step is to check your airline of choice’s carry-on size restrictions.

Once you know the dimensions of the overhead bin, you can find suitable luggage either by shopping for a new or used bag or digging out an old, smaller bag from the back of the closet.

Finding out the dimensions of the underseat area is a bit trickier than bin space. Underseat spaces vary in size. You might get more specifics if you call and ask the airline directly.

Tip: A bag with the dimensions of 16 x 15 x 9 in will generally fit under the seat in front on most aircraft.

Examples include Eagle Creek’s wheeled in-flight tote (the bag I use), Travelon’s underseat tote, TravelPro’s Crew 7 rolling tote, and most rolling backpacks (just be careful not to overstuff).

Often at the aisle there are railings under the seats that make the space too narrow. Sometimes there are objects including electronics bolted under the seats, decreasing the amount of storage space.

Tip: Check with SeatGuru.com: Select a specific airline, aircraft and they will give you warnings on the seats that have no storage (bulkheads) and those that have limited storage due to a box or other hardware protruding down from the seat.

To Bring or Not to Bring

Now that you have the correct luggage, how you pack makes a huge difference in your comfort carrying the bags around and how easily they fit into their designated spots on the airplane.

Tip: Start by asking yourself this question for each item: How will I use this and is there something else in my bag that already serves this purpose? If so, eliminate items that serve the same need.

For example, during most vacations typical travelers only need only one dressy item, such as slacks, a skirt or dress. If you’re packing both a skirt and a dress, leave one at home. Instead, bring an extra set of accessories to change the look if you’ll be attending multiple dressy events.

Do I really need this one, too?

Do I really need this one, too?

An easy way to overpack is with casual clothes for daytime. At home, you probably wear a clean shirt and pants everyday, and when you’re packing you think you need the same for each day of your trip. But consider some alternatives to packing 7, 10 or 14 casual shirts.

Tip: Do laundry — Pack enough clothes for 3 days only and plan to wash your clothes either in the sink or at a laundromat. You’ll be amazed how much bulk you’ll shed. Dressing in layers helps to eliminate the feeling of wearing the same thing every day.

Tip: Shop there — If you’re going somewhere with great shopping, plan to buy a few more things there. Don’t load up your suitcase in advance.

Finally, organizing your packing is critical to maximizing space. A few years ago, I discovered packing cubes and folders and now find them utterly indispensable. I organize my clothes according to three categories: t-shirts, socks/underwear and larger folded items (such as jeans, button-down shirts, and jackets).

Using cubes also saves time packing because I already know where to put everything. They  save time retrieving items because I know where to find everything. No more pulling out all my clothes to find a pair of socks. End of packing chaos.

Tip: Use packing cubes and folders to maximize space and save time packing.

Skip It or Ship It

If you can’t fit an item (or 10) into your luggage either before you depart or before you come home, consider shipping it ahead of yourself.

Large Priority Mail flat rate boxes cost about $14 to ship without a weight limit

Large Priority Mail flat rate boxes cost about $14 to ship without a weight limit

Tip: Shipping a large flat-rate Priority Mail box with the US Postal Service costs about $14, and you can stuff it to the top with any items that might put you over the airline’s size or weight limits.  Plus, USPS will pick up your package for free at most residences.

If you decide to ship items, even internationally, you’ll still save money if you don’t have to check a bag. And that adds up to more money for your trip.

Happy travels!

One Response

  1. Awesome tips! Thanks! Esp loved the shipping idea!

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