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Flier's guide to new airport hassles

How to avoid higher checked-bag fees and longer security lines.

By Karen Datko Jan 20, 2010 2:40PM

This Deal of the Day comes from Kelli B. Grant at partner site SmartMoney.


Continental raised fees earlier this month from $18 to $25 for a first checked bag and $27 to $35 for a second. Delta, United, American and US Airways all swiftly followed suit.


“There are now three things certain in life: death, taxes and airlines fees,” says Terry Trippler, the chief executive of, which tracks airline policies. During the third quarter of 2009, airline fees generated $2 billion, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That’s a 36% increase over the previous year.

Airlines need the revenue amid rising fuel prices and slumping travel, but they’re also positioned to take advantage of increased numbers of checked bags amid new security restrictions following the attempted bombing of a Northwest flight on Christmas Day. The Transportation Security Administration added new screening methods for U.S.-bound international flights, and cautioned consumers that lines may be longer than usual. On U.S.-bound flights from Canada, there’s a temporary ban on carry-on bags. Passengers are allowed only a small personal item such as a purse or laptop computer.


Here’s how to limit the hassles of bag fees and long security lines at every stage of your trip:



Travel off-peak. Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday are the best days for air travel, says George Hobica, the founder of Airfare Watchdog, an airfare-tracking site. You’ll find shorter security lines and lower fares to offset bag fees.

Compare airlines. A handful of smaller airlines, including JetBlue and Southwest, still allow passengers to check one bag free.


Pay with the right credit card. Many airline rewards cards offer benefits to make air travel smoother, Trippler says. When you redeem points for a reward ticket, U.S. Bank FlexPerks Travel Rewards will give you a $25 allowance toward checked-bag fees, in-flight food and other airline fees. Continental’s Presidential Plus card benefits include free first and second checked bags, priority check-in lines and express security lines where available.


Before you leave

Ship your bags. UPS or FedEx ground shipping can be less expensive than checking a bag, Hobica says. For example, shipping a 60-pound box from New York to Dallas via UPS Ground would cost $40.70 and take an estimated three days. On United you’d pay as much as $150 -- $25 for a first bag and $35 for a second; or $25 for one and a whopping $125 for an overweight bag fee.


Of course, this works only if you can pack up to a week in advance to ensure your stuff is waiting for you upon arrival. Check with your hotel, too. Some charge a fee of about $10 to accept and/or hold a package.


Review airport maps. When security lines are wrapped around the terminal, it pays to know what your options are. In many airports, any security checkpoint gets you access to all gates, says Harriet Baskas, the author of “Stuck at the Airport.” Check the map online before you leave home so you know whether you have to stick it out in line or you can run to hunt for a shorter one. Detroit, for example, often has short wait times at the checkpoint located in its attached hotel, the Westin Detroit Metropolitan Airport, she says.


Prepay. Checking a bag can be cheaper if you pay for it online before you arrive at the airport. Spirit, for example, charges $19 instead of $25.


At the airport

Tout status. Business- and first-class passengers and frequent-flier members with elite status often get preferential treatment at the airport. Most airlines waive first, and even second checked-bag fees for such passengers. US Airways also waives first and second checked-bag fees for military personnel with ID, unaccompanied minors, and passengers traveling to or from South America or the Middle East. That would save someone checking two bags $60.


Some airlines also host separate security lines for elite travelers and first-class passengers, Baskas says. (The TSA controls the screening process, but it’s up to the airlines to dictate how passengers are sorted before that point.) Delta has special access lines in 19 city airports, including Atlanta, Denver and San Diego.


Get past the curb. Curbside check-in costs an extra $2 to $3 per bag (plus tip) at many airports. Look for the bag drop inside.


Pay your way in. When you check in at United, you can pay for Premier Line service, which gets you faster check-in, access to a separate security line where available and priority boarding. Prices start at $19; separate security lines are available at 17 city airports, including Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Washington Dulles.


Related reading at SmartMoney:

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