Checking your bags has become more expensive across multiple major airlines. American Airlines this week announced that domestic bag fees would increase by as much as 33%. For domestic flights, the old $30 fee for the first checked bag is now $35 if purchased online or $40 if purchased at the airport.

It is the latest in a series of hikes in fees among major airlines. In January, Alaska Airlines bag fees increased by $5, bringing the cost to $35 for the first bag and $45 for the second bag.

JetBlue Airways also swooped in with a bag fee increase this month for passengers who don’t plan ahead. The first checked bag is still $35 if you pay for it 24 hours before departure. But if you wait until within 24 hours of departure to check a bag, the fee has increased from $40 to $45.

It’s all part of the ongoing trend of unbundling airfare, as seen with the proliferation of basic economy fares. These no-frills fares often guarantee you a seat on the plane, but not much else. Basic economy fares can cost far less than main cabin, but in basic economy, the ability to select your seat, check a bag or be among the first to board almost always incurs an extra fee. You may even have to pay to carry on more than a personal item.

For passengers who check bags, the price hikes can feel unsettling. But it’s not all bad news. American Airlines lowered some checked luggage fees for bags that are barely overweight or oversized. Starting April 17, a bag that weighs from 50 to 53 pounds will cost $30 extra, instead of the typical $100 to $200 fee for any bag over 50 pounds.

And if you don’t need to check a bag, you might be able to get cheaper tickets than you would have in the past.

Airfares are getting cheaper, data shows

While fees are indeed on the rise, airfares have seen a significant decrease not just in recent months, but over many years. Average fares for flights from the U.S. in January 2024 fell 6% compared with January 2023, according to consumer price index data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics published in February. Fare costs are even down 15% versus a decade ago.

Growing demand for basic economy fares could be contributing to lower average airfares. For example, United Airlines reported in its fourth quarter 2023 financial results that its basic economy option saw a 20% revenue increase compared with the fourth quarter in 2022.

United’s basic economy airfares average 22.3% cheaper than standard economy airfares, according to NerdWallet’s analysis for its annual best airline awards. Most other airlines offer similar basic economy discounts. For example, American Airlines’ basic economy fares averaged 24.7% cheaper than economy, based on the same analysis.

Meanwhile, fees are a growing revenue stream: Airlines worldwide collected $33.3 billion in baggage fee revenue in 2023, according to an analysis of airlines’ ancillary revenue disclosures by the consulting firm IdeaWorksCompany. This means bag fees comprised 4.1% of overall airline revenue, compared with 3.7% of 2019 revenue, the IdeaWorksCompany analysis found.

How to save on bag fees

The trend of rising bag fees but lower airfares might be a net win for passengers who don’t mind having just the bare essentials that come with basic economy. Traveling without a checked bag can be one of the best ways to save.

But even if you need to check a bag, you might still be able to do so for free. For starters, book flights with airlines that offer free baggage. Southwest Airlines offers two free checked bags to all passengers, no matter your fare class. Other airlines, including American Airlines, offer free checked bags — but only to loyal customers. Travelers who hold elite status in the American Airlines AAdvantage loyalty program receive complimentary bags. Most American Airlines-branded credit cards also offer cardholders their first checked bag free on domestic flights.

Featured photo courtesy of American Airlines.

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