Luggage tips that will make you a happier flier

August 4, 2014

How big? How many? How heavy? How much? These are the four key questions for understanding airlines' byzantine luggage rules.

Unfortunately, there’s no universal standard—each airline sets and enforces its own rules. Your best bet? Check with your airline before you pick and pack your bag every time you travel. To cover all your bases, look for answers to these four questions.

How big?

Carry-on: Airlines are cracking down on passengers who try to stuff an oversized bag into the overhead bin. To avoid having to check a bag that you intended to keep with you, know the exact allowable size for a carry-on bag (typically expressed as height x depth x width). When shopping for luggage, don’t accept the advertised dimensions at face value. Bring your own tape measure.

Checked baggage: Does your airline charge for any checked bags, regardless of size? Is there an extra charge past a certain size threshold? What about odd-shaped items? Know before you go.

Check our luggage buying guide before you shop. And know your airline’s carry-on rules before you fly.

How heavy?

Carry-on: Most U.S. domestic airlines do not specify a weight limit. But some do. Even with no stated limit, don’t assume you can pack 100 pounds of bricks inside your carry-on bag. If you can’t lift it into the overhead bin, you’ll probably be asked to check it. As always, check before you pack.

Checked baggage: There's usually a weight limit for bags you're checking, so you'll have to pay a fee for an overweight bag. Outside the U.S., restrictions on total cumulative weight of your checked luggage might apply. Some foreign carriers even have minimum size and weight rules. Ask your carrier. Learn the best way to pack a suitcase.

How many?

Ask about any limits on the number of checked pieces. Can you check in as many as you want? Or just one? For carry-on bags (stored in the cabin’s overhead bin) and personal items (stowed beneath the seat in front of you), the limits are pretty well established at one apiece, although some budget airlines may allow just one or the other. Also ask about any exempted items, such as medical equipment or child safety seats, which have no limits.

How much does it cost?

Domestically, a checked bag can run you $25 to $100—and up to $200 additional if the bag is overweight or oversize. This is an area where flouting the rules truly can cost you.

—Susan Feinstein

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