How to lessen the sting of airline baggage fees

Few things get air travellers more irritated than baggage fees and constantly changing rules. Yet airlines seem quite content to let customers stew about fees because they have become so lucrative.

Costs can add up. While there are variations, it’s usually around $25 each way for flights in Canada, the United States and other destinations.

A family of four, with each person having one checked bag, ends up forking over an extra $200 plus taxes.

Want to break up your journey with a few days stopover along the way? You’ll pay separate fees for each leg of the trip.

How airlines charge for checked bags can be confusing. For travel within Canada or to the U.S., it’s almost universal that airlines charge for bags.

Travelling farther afield gets complicated, and rules are constantly in flux. When we went to Mexico City earlier this year, Air Canada allowed one checked bag free, but now they charge.

The airline charges for baggage for most, though not all, Caribbean destinations. However, if you’re on an Air Canada Vacations package, you may be allowed a free bag.

For Europe, Air Canada generally allows the first checked bag free, yet for parts of South America, Asia or Africa, it’s two free checked bags.

Other airlines have their own spin on the rules, though most are equally convoluted. At least with Air Canada, it’s reasonably easy to look up the rules on its website. You can enter your departure point and destination and see the baggage allowance and cost.

On an international ticket using different airlines, things can get murky. As a general rule, for flights originating or ending in Canada or the U.S., it is usually the first airline you fly with that determines the baggage rules.

For much of the world, baggage rules are set by the most significant carrier for multi-airline tickets. It’s not always straightforward, so for complex itineraries, it’s best to get clarity from an airline or travel agent.

Travellers can sometimes avoid or lessen the sting of baggage fees using co-branded credit cards. The most useful one in Canada is the WestJet Mastercard, issued by RBC, which allows one free checked bag for the card holder and up to eight other people travelling on the same reservation.

The card has a yearly fee ($119 as of Nov. 1), so you have to balance this against the saving from not paying baggage fees.

The card also comes with 250 introductory WestJet dollars, so it is almost always worth getting if you plan to fly WestJet.

You also get a free first bag with certain Aeroplan credit cards, such as those issued by CIBC and TD Canada Trust. However, they are much more restrictive.

The baggage fee is waived only if you fly on Air Canada, and in some cases, only if you’re flying on an Aeroplan ticket.

In addition, it only applies to the card holder, and not to anyone else on the same ticket.

For a couple travelling together, it is advantageous for each to book separate tickets using their own Aeroplan accounts, and for each to pay with their own Aeroplan-branded credit card.

Some U.S.-based airlines have co-branded credit cards that offer a free checked bag, but none are available in Canada.

With many airlines, the baggage fee is waived if you buy a more expensive fare or if you have status with the airline’s frequent flyer program. The latter is usually only available to those who fly a significant amount with an airline and who don’t always book the cheapest fares.

When you can’t avoid a baggage fee, another strategy is for a couple to check one large bag (assuming of course that you can stay within the size and weight limit), rather than each person checking a smaller bag.

So-called no-frills or low-cost airlines usually have different rules again.

On Flair Airlines, which flies to a few western Canadian cities, the only free luggage is one small personal carry-on that fits under your seat and weighs less than 10 kilograms.

Even a regular carry-on bag that fits in the overhead compartment triggers a fee. Interestingly, it costs less for a 23 kg checked bag than for a 10 kg carry-on bag.

For some airlines, it may cost slightly less if you pay for your bags in advance online rather than at the airport. For Flair, the difference in paying on its website or at the airport is significant.

Baggage rules and fees will likely continue to change. Some critics argue that they are purposely complex, so that it’s difficult for travellers to know upfront what the final tab will be.

When we’re looking for the best airfare deal, it’s important to re-search the baggage rules and ask questions when things aren’t clear, so that we don’t end up with nasty and expensive surprises.

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