A growing number of fliers are finding there's a price to pay for checking bags. Airlines are charging for bags that once were free to check and raising prices for fliers with lots of luggage, overweight bags and oversized bags.
In May, United Airlines will become the first of the big traditional U.S. carriers to switch from two free checked bags to one. Last month, Southwest Airlines and ATA Airlines switched from three free checked bags to two.
"As they look for ways to boost profitability, we'll see more airlines … charging for items that were previously included in the cost of a ticket," says Kevin Maguire, president of the National Business Travel Association, which represents about 2,500 travel managers and suppliers.
Most airlines allow two free checked bags. Spirit Airlines, the Florida-based discounter, is an exception, charging for every checked bag. Beginning Wednesday, Spirit will boost its prices from $5 to $10 per checked bag for fliers paying in advance online and from $10 to $20 per bag for fliers paying at an airport.
Also starting Wednesday, Spirit will start charging more for overweight bags.
Those from 51 pounds to 70 pounds carry an extra $25 charge. Spirit has been the only carrier without an overweight charge for bags in that weight range.
For bags weighing 71 to 99 pounds, Spirit will start charging $100, up from the current $50.
"Instead of raising every fare in response to ever increasing fuel prices, our new luggage policy gives passengers the opportunity to control their cost of travel by packing lighter," says Barry Biffle, Spirit's senior vice president.
Beginning May 5, United will charge passengers with non-refundable tickets on domestic flights $25 for a second checked bag and $100 per bag for a third, fourth and fifth checked bag. United now charges $85 for a third checked bag, the highest rate of any airline.
Not all United fliers will pay for a second bag. Passengers flying in first or business class and those who have elite status in United's frequent-flier program or its Star Alliance partner program will not be charged.
Also on May 5, the airline will increase its overweight-bag rate (for bags weighing more than 50 pounds) from $50 to $100.
United says that one of every four passengers checks a second bag.
The policy and rate changes are expected to generate $100 million annually in revenue and cost savings, spokeswoman Robin Urbanski says.
Most of the cost savings will come from burning less fuel because of fewer bags and reduced weight in the cargo hold.
Northwest has the highest overweight-bag rate: $125 for a bag weighing 51 to 70 pounds. JetBlue has the cheapest rate, $20, for such a bag.
Most airlines charge the most for bags weighing 71 to 100 pounds. Four airlines — Aloha, Continental, Hawaiian and Northwest — do not allow such bags to be checked.
Business travelers, including many who usually travel with only carry-on bags, have mixed opinions about the rising rates.
Art Van Bodegraven, a management consultant in Powell, Ohio, who checked more than one bag on a trip to Europe last year, says "it's high time" United began charging.
"Overweight vacationers on bargain fares, sloppy packers and poor planners have been riding free, baggage-wise, for too long," he says.
Lawrence Devereux, a manager for an automotive company in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., checked more than one bag on three business trips last year.
He says United's decision to begin charging for a second checked bag is "absolute rubbish" and a reason "not to fly United."
United's Urbanski says the airline hopes its new policy will not cause fliers with more than one checked bag to use competitors. Other perks, such as substantial legroom, are more important to most customers, she says.
Some fliers say increased checked-bag rates will affect passenger behavior.
Rich Mizia, of Concord, Mass., says he "can foresee utter chaos in the cabin because casual travelers are going to stuff their carry-ons until they burst."
He says there will be more late departures because overstuffed carry-on bags will have to be put in the cargo hold at the last minute by disgruntled flight attendants.
Mizia, a sales manager for a manufacturer, says his job requires him to travel with two checked bags, including one with sophisticated leak-detection equipment.
"There is no way I can carry that on," he says. "The TSA (Transportation Security Administration) people would have a stroke when it goes through the scanner."
Susan Gurley, executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, which represents about 2,500 corporate travel managers and suppliers, says that higher bag charges will increase travelers' expectations.
"If you are going to charge extra to carry additional bags, you can bet that passengers will be less tolerant of lost baggage, or damaged and delayed bags," she says.