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Why airlines should charge for carry-ons

It wouldn't be the same financial boon to airlines as luggage fees, but it'd make your travel quicker and easier.

Posted by Money Staff Wednesday, November 17, 2010 5:46:33 PM

This post comes from MSN Money's Liz Pulliam Weston.


In some ways, air travelers' experiences are far better than in the past.


Airlines are less likely to bump you or lose your luggage and more likely to stick to their schedule than in previous years, according to U.S. Department of Transportation reports. And thanks to hefty new fines, you probably won’t get stuck on the tarmac for hours with overflowing toilets and no food.

But most airlines still make travel unnecessarily annoying because of their absolutely backward approach to luggage fees.


As you probably know, most airlines now charge for the first checked bag, with the charges ranging from $20 to $35; $25 is the most common. Many airlines charge even more for the second bag, with $35 being a common charge. (The exceptions: JetBlue gives you one free checked bag per flier, and Southwest gives you two.)


Luggage fees make trying to compare flights based on price unnecessarily complex. Personally, I wish these fees would go away entirely, but that's unlikely: Fee revenue has helped restore airlines to profitability. Airlines raked in $13.5 billion in fees in 2009, airline consultant IdeaWorks said, a 43% jump from a year earlier.


What airlines really should be doing is charging for certain carry-ons -- specifically, those roll-aboard suitcases with wheels, or any other large bag that can’t fit under the seat -- while allowing at least one checked bag per ticket for free.

That would end the cabin chaos that's become commonplace since the fees were first imposed two years ago. Nearly every flight I've taken in recent years has been marked by too many inexperienced fliers trying to cram too many bags into too little space as they try to avoid the fees. Some drag their roll-aboards onto the plane even when they're among the last to board and have absolutely no hope of finding space. (Experienced fliers, by contrast, know they should gate-check their bag in that situation -- essentially checking it at the gate, for free, before they board the plane.)


If fees were dropped for the first checked bag, then people who primarily want low fares could get them without this frantic hunt for space. They could still bring on their purses, small backpacks, computer bags, diaper bags and similar personal items that fit under the seat, without cost.


By contrast, those of us who spend a lot of time traveling would happily (or at least grudgingly) pay a fee to carry on our roll-aboards. That way, we would avoid spending half of our lives in check-in lines and waiting at the carousel. Those two lines add at least half an hour and usually an hour to every trip. Multiply by a few flights a month and you could spend literally days each year just waiting on your bag. (Watch the movie "Up in the Air" for George Clooney’s tutorial on why frequent fliers must avoid these delays.)


Charging for big carry-ons, rather than for checked luggage, probably would not raise as much revenue. But it almost certainly would reduce boarding times and make the whole flying experience quite a bit more pleasant.


What's more likely to happen, of course, is the Spirit Airlines approach, where airlines start charging both for checked bags and for carry-ons that don't fit under the seat. If that happens, you might want to investigate the possibilities of baggage-free travel, where everything you need is carried on your person in specially-designed clothes. Or you could just ship your bags to your destination.


In the meantime, here are my best travel-tested tips for surviving airline travel in the new fee-frenzied age:


Pack light. Duh, right? But bags that are too big or heavy will cost you extra. It's doable -- I've traveled for a week with just a carry-on, and others have gone further with less. The key with clothes is to make sure your pieces coordinate so you can make more outfits from fewer items. I typically pick one color theme, such as black, brown or navy, and build around that. I used to wear slip-on shoes through security, but now I typically wear zip-up boots, because they don’t take that much longer to take off and put on but it saves a ton of space to wear them.


Know before you go. Take a minute before you pack to check the airline's website for allowable dimensions on carry-ons. Many inexperienced travelers don’t understand that a bag that fits easily in one airline’s overhead bin may not fit in another. Save yourself considerable aggravation by confirming dimensions in advance. If you make it to the gate with a bag that won't fit, or if you’re among the last to board, ask to gate check your bag but make sure you first remove your valuables, including computers, electronics and jewelry, along with any medications or other stuff you’re likely to need.


Bring food -- or a credit card. Don't leave for the airport hungry, because you may encounter delays that prevent you from grabbing that planned snack before you board. Also, many cabins are cash-free these days, which means if you don't have a debit or credit card, you can’t buy food on board -- and even when you can, they may run out of the stuff you want before the cart gets to you. So bring some food of your own. Calorie-dense snacks like peanuts and nutrition bars are ideal for traveling since they don’t take up much space.


Value your sanity. If you're traveling with small children, check a bag or four. It’s hard enough to manage all the stuff you have to have with you -- strollers, car seats, diaper bags, snacks, entertainment -- without adding suitcases to the mix. If the kids are older, they can wheel or carry their own bags, but you still may want to check bags rather than try to herd a bunch of roll-aboards through security.


Got any other tips for traveling? Share them in the comments.


Liz Pulliam Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy." Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. She also helps middle-class families cope at Building a Brighter Future.


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11/18/2010 5:26 PM

As a musician I'm just a little bit sensitive about getting nickeled-and-dimed for trying to protect my livelihood and my "best friend."  Of course we'd rather pay than risk going through a horror like the United Breaks Guitars (search it on Youtube) debacle, but I think paying up out of fear amounts to extortion and I'm tired of it.  I don't care how "unlikely" loss or damage is, it only takes one incompetent, uncaring person or machine malfunction.

(P.S. Hey MSN, a Youtube link to reinforce my point is not spam!  I wish someone with a brain was doing the filtering!)

The only sensible way to charge for tickets is by weighing traveler with baggage and charging accordingly
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