10 Ways to Win the Airline Fee War No Matter How You Pack

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Sick of airline bag fees? Be glad your next flight doesn't involve antlers.

Frontier and United charge $100 each way to transport animal horns, which doesn't begin to address the little problem of getting your awkward bundle to the airport in the first place.

We'll stick to less exotic items like carryons and checked bags. And how to save time and money no matter which way you prefer to pack.

For more travel news and insights view Rick's blog at farecompare.com

The airlines have made a seemingly simple system way too complicated, not to mention, expensive. After all, when we travel, we don't go empty handed.

We used to be able to bring whatever we needed on our trip for free, but no more. That stopped in 2008, when American Airlines became the first legacy carrier to charge for a first checked-bag, and boy oh boy, did the floodgates open then. Now, if you want to lug a suitcase, you better add 50 bucks to the price of your airfare to figure the total cost of your flight.

The U.S. Travel Association has your back. This industry advocacy group wants airlines to give everyone a single checked-bag -- for free. Yeah, that'll happen the same day you hear a pilot say, "We're 22nd in line for take-off, but air traffic control has let us cut to the head of the line."

Bag fees generated more than $3 billion for U.S. airlines last year, so you're dreaming if you think carriers will cork up that particular genie bottle.

But at least if you pay for your bag to ride in the hold, the airline will guarantee it gets there. Oh, wait, not they don't...

The closest you'll come to a luggage insurance policy is Alaska Airlines' so called "guarantee," which states that if your bag isn't at the carousel within 20 minutes of your plane's arrival, you get a whopping $20 voucher good for your next flight. Still, it's better than nothing.

For most of us, though, I'm afraid it's every man and woman for him/herself when it comes to saving on bag fees.

But click to the next page to see some ideas to get you started.

Carry-on Bag Packers

You like carry-ons partly because you save a few bucks, but mostly because they save time: you can zip in and out of the airport relatively quickly. But bin space disappears fast. A friend of mine recently flew four Delta flights in two days, and she kept hearing a procession of gate agents literally begging passengers to voluntarily check their carryons. The flights were full, and bin space was that scarce.

A couple of tips for you:

1. Watch the weight: More and more airlines are cracking down on the size and weight of carryon bags. Hawaiian Airlines, for example, charges an overweight fee for hefty hand luggage. Check your airline's website for restrictions before you fly.

2. Check in exactly 24 hours before your flight: Yes, early boarding groups get the bin space and folks just don't adhere to a "share and share alike" philosophy on packed planes -- the phrase "going to the mattresses" is far more apropos.

3. Pay extra for early boarding: Check prices with your airline; some charge a lot for the chance at best bin spots, but Southwest's EarlyBird boarding is a steal at $10.

4. Watch out for fee creep: Spirit Airlines is the only carrier that charges for carryons, and its in-cabin luggage fees can actually cost significantly more than checking a bag. Joining the airline's $9 Fare Club (which costs $59.95) will save you money on fees, but it won't get you free bags. By the way, Allegiant is reportedly also contemplating a carryon fee.

5. Resign yourself to free checked-carryons: If you've drawn a high boarding group for your flight, assume your carry-on will have to be checked, but at least you won't have to pay for it.

For Big Bag Packers:

You pack too much; you know it and you don't care. However, you too can save some money.

A few tips for you:

1. Fly the Free Bag Airlines: JetBlue doesn't advertise this with quite the gusto of Southwest, but it too gives you a free bag (Southwest allows two, and they say it's helped them gain market share). Always check out an airline bag fee chart before you fly.

2. Use an Airline-Branded Credit Card: Continental and Delta offer branded credit cards that give you free checked-bags; see if your airline (or your own premium credit card) can match this (like Amex). Note that even some hotels are offering to reimburse your checked-bag fees.

3. Don't Check Two Bags: Sure, it's free on Southwest, but many airlines now charge from $60 to $70 roundtrip for that second bag. Does anyone really need two?

4. Watch the Weight: Overweight charges can kill your bottom line; you could pay another $300 roundtrip or more for a single bag. Buy a hand-held baggage scale at Target or Wal-Mart for under $20 and use it before you go to the airport.

5. Be Creative: Explore all your options; if you fly a lot, United's "all-you-can-eat" Premier Baggage gives you (and up to eight others in your party) two free bags for a year for $349. Planning to go on vacation and stay put for awhile? Shipping bags ahead via ground transportation could be a cheap alternative.

Bonus advice: No matter how much you pack, do not bring valuables with you. Read the fine print on your airline's website; many will not take responsibility for loss of electronics or jewelry. If you must, wear it or carry it and once you reach your destination, dump it all in a hotel safe.

Or maybe hide it among those antlers. I don't imagine anyone will disturb it there.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website, FareCompare.com, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.