According to a new Upgraded Points study on U.S. airlines’ baggage fees, American Airlines took in the most baggage fees overall last year, at $1.24 billion. Other lines also took in big bucks for baggage fees, though not over a billion dollars: United was second with $933 million in baggage fees, Delta took in $817 million, and Spirit hit $670 million. All took in more than a half-billion in just baggage fees. At the bottom of the baggage fees ranking is Southwest, which still offers two free checked bags, and took in $50 million in bag fees.
According to the study, “Baggage fees continue to grow as a revenue source for U.S. airlines, which collected a record $5.1 billion in charges over the past year.”
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The Airlines That Make the Most in Baggage Fees
But, those rankings change significantly when you break down revenue according to the airline’s size to find the average baggage fees paid per passenger. In other words, the airlines that charge the most in baggage fees relative to their size are, in order from most bag fees to least: Spirit, Frontier, Allegiant, American, Alaska, United, JetBlue, Hawaiian, Delta, and Southwest.
Tops were $26.61 at Spirit and $17.78 at Allegiant. Among these low-fare lines, baggage fees amount to a big share of total revenues: 19 percent of revenue at Spirit, 16 percent at Frontier, and 14 percent at Allegiant. All three charge for both carry-on and checked baggage; all three also relied on other total ancillary charges for as much as 40 to 44 percent of total revenue.
Among the “Big Three” U.S. airlines (American, Delta, and United) American took in the most per passenger: $9.95. Delta was the “winner” among the top three at $6.30. Compare that to Southwest’s being less than a dollar. Looking at the visual above, it’s clear that Southwest is the only exception to the fact that baggage fees are now an important revenue source for all other airlines.
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What do these figures mean to individual travelers? You can draw several conclusions:
- Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant can offer really low total travel costs for anyone who (1) can travel without either checked or carry-on baggage and (2) don’t mind tight seating.
- If you can travel with a carry-on as your only bag and you’re willing to take random seating, those new “base economy” fares on the giant lines make some sense.
- If you check just one bag on a round-trip journey, Southwest’s free-baggage policy gives it an immediate minimum $60 fare advantage over its competitors.
Other than the obvious “don’t check baggage” advice, you could also avoid baggage fees by using a credit card issued by the respective airline, or you can pay a higher fare class that includes more benefits. (Business fares typically include checked baggage.) Clearly, many travelers on the big three use some combination of these approaches, given the relatively low per-passenger take, comparatively.
But those are special-case options, not available to many ordinary travelers. For them, the caution is obvious: If you need a checked or carry-on bag, or both, be sure to include those costs when you compare flight options. Don’t let an airline nickel-and-dime you to a higher fare than you need.
More from SmarterTravel:
- Airline Fees: The Ultimate Guide
- Is Buying a Second Seat on the Plane Ever Worth It?
- How to Disinfect Your Airplane Seat
Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.