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Avoid Airline Fees with Trench Coats an Vacuum-Seal Bags

8 February 2012

Let’s face it: Those dreaded airline fees are now as much a part of the traveling experience as long security lines. But that does not necessarily mean that passengers always have to pay them. As the airlines come up with ever more inventive fees, travelers are figuring out creative ways to avoid them. The fee for checked bags seems to vex passengers the most. To avoid it, some travelers stuff as many items as possible into a carry-on bag and then fight with other passengers for space in the overhead bin. Others, like Eileen Ogintz, will drive 50 or 100 miles to an airport served by Southwest Airlines or JetBlue. Southwest makes the first two checked bags free, and JetBlue allows the first bag.

Mrs. Ogintz was helping her daughter, Melanie, move to Colorado for college in the fall of 2009 and quickly discovered that the price of hauling the baggage across the country was almost as much as buying another ticket. “I would have easily spent hundreds of dollars” getting six bags from Westport, Conn., to Denver, Mrs. Ogintz said. That was when she discovered that Southwest Airlines did not charge for the first two bags. So rather than fly out of La Guardia Airport in New York, as she originally planned, Mrs. Ogintz, her husband and daughter drove an extra 25 miles to fly out of Hartford, at the time the closest airport to offer Southwest flights. “We were able to check all six bags for free between the three of us,” she said.

Mrs. Ogintz, a blogger who specializes in travel, has been writing and campaigning against the fees ever since. Other travelers are avoiding baggage and other fees by taking out an airline-branded credit card, where the benefits include checking the first bag free, getting free access to special airport lounges (a perk that can cost up to $100 for two passes), receiving double-mileage points for every mile flown on that airline, and priority boarding before other travelers, eliminating the battle for overhead storage space. Some cards offer sign-up bonuses of as much as 40,000 miles, annual $99 companion certificates and 20 percent discounts on in-flight food, beverages and entertainment. But passengers need to weigh the benefits carefully, since many of these cards charge an annual fee that ranges from as low as $55 to as much as $450. An entire cottage industry has emerged for products that help people evade the baggage-check fees, according to Kate Hanni, director of FlyersRights.org, a consumer organization that represents airline passengers. Ms. Hanni uses vacuum-seal bags inside her carry-on bags, she said; the bags, which shrink down to a compact package when air is pulled out by a vacuum cleaner, allow her to fit considerably more items in a carry-on than would normally be possible.

“I can fit three times the amount of clothes in a carry-on than I used to be able to,” she said. There is also the Scottevest line of travel clothing in which trench coats, vests and other garments are made with large built-in pockets that allow people to carry everything from folded shirts to an iPad. “You can fit all of your folded shirts, iPad, cellphone, iPod, sunglasses, camera, passport, keys — you can put everything in the jacket that you would put in a carry-on, and you won’t have to pay a carry-on fee,” Ms. Hanni said. “People are so angry about the bag fees, and I know a lot of people have bought them. It’s sort of sweet justice.” Fees vary from airline to airline, with Southwest and JetBlue levying the fewest fees among carriers in the United States, and Spirit Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines the most. Southwest, for example, does not charge passengers for changing a reservation, although it does require that passengers pay any difference in the fares.

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