Cheapest Destinations Blog is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

U.S. Legacy Airlines, Hidden Baggage Fees, and Better Choices

If you fly to Panama on American Airlines, you will not pay to check a bag on your economy class international flight unless you are in Basic Economy and it will be $45. If you fly to Mexico you will pay $35 either way. If you fly in the USA you will pay $40, but to Canada a checked bag costs $35. Europe is free if you’re not in Basic Economy, but if you’re in that n0-frills class from Europe you will pay $75.

It’s not any better on United or Delta: the big 3 legacy airlines in the USA have tried to make their baggage policies as complicated as a budget airline’s and now you can expect about the same experience with customer service as well. They’ve all raced to the bottom on fees, including smaller Alaska, JetBlue, and Hawaiian. Thankfully you have much better options if you choose a foreign carrier when traveling abroad.

don't fly the legacy USA airlines

If you have an AA credit card from Citi, that gets your bag fee waived on American, “but it only applies to domestic flights.” The same goes for Delta’s (but not United’s card, which covers all of the flights). So you’re often screwed with a fee regardless unless you join all the passengers trying to shove their carry-on into the limited overhead space. On some airlines, a carry-on will cost you even more

It is clear that with the 3 remaining legacy airlines in the USA, we are not customers, but cargo. If you want to feel like you’re reading a Kafka novel, go check out American’s baggage fees explanation here. It’s comically complicated, on purpose I’m sure. Kudos to Delta for not matching American’s recent price increase (a $5 savings), but theirs is so complicated that you have to put in your route to figure it out, like you would on Allegiant or Spirit. 

Some good news came out from the U.S. Department of Transportation this week that they government is cracking down on bad practices from the airlines, including all the hidden and murky fees. So we may see some relief and transparency by the end of the year. Biden has been trying to push this through since the Obama days though, so I’m not holding my breath. Those airline lobbyists have a lot of money to pay people off with. Money from you, actually. 

 

Which Airlines Still Let You Check a Bag for Free?

Compare that complicated page in the link above to Southwest’s one-sentence policy: “Each Customer is allowed two free checked bags1. Golf bags and skis count toward your free checked bag if they are within the weight limit.” I don’t need to link to their baggage page because that’s really all there is to it, domestic or international.

Southwest does have some international routes, so you can fly them to Mexican beaches, Belize, or Costa Rica, for example. Otherwise, you’re usually much better off with a foreign carrier.

legacy airlines in the USA charge for checked bags

As best I can tell, you can’t fly anywhere in the Americas on United in economy class without getting hit with a checked bag fee. If you a better foreign airline from the U.S. or Canada though, you don’t have to consult any complicated chart to see if you can check a suitcase. If you’re headed to Latin America, these airlines will all let you check one bag for free: 

Aerolineas Argentina

Aeromexico

Avianca

Copa

LATAM

If you’re flying elsewhere in the world, here are a few airlines that keep it simple and include a checked bag in your ticket no matter where you’re headed abroad. I’m starting with what is, in my experience, the best airline in the world in nearly every respect. The second one is a close second and these two airlines are based in two of the world’s best airports as well. (Though I had a terrible time trying to find an electrical outlet anywhere in Dubai’s…)

meal when flying Emirates

What airplane food looks like on Emirates

Air Emirates

Singapore Air (2 bags on most routes, none free for “economy lite”)

ANA (2 bags on most routes)

Asiana (2 bags on most routes)

Aegean (except “economy GoLight”)

Air France (except “economy basic”)

Air Italy (except “economy light”)

Alitalia (except “economy light”)

Austrian Airlines (except “economy light”)

EVA Air

China Airlines

Cathay Pacific

Egypt Air (2 bags on many routes)

El Al

Gulf Air (2 bags on many routes)

Iceland Air (except “economy light”)

Kenyan Airways

Korean Air

Royal Air Maroc (2 bags between the USA and Morocco)

Royal Jordanian (except “economy light”)

Lufthansa (but not in basic economy)

SAS Scandinavian Airlines (except “go light”)

Malaysia Airways

Thai Airways (2 bags on some routes)

Sky Airline

SriLankan Airlines

South African Airways

Swiss International (except for “economy light”)

Turkish Airlines

Vietnam Airlines

Qantas

Air New Zealand

Qatar

This good news is, this is not even a comprehensive list. I just picked ones that have more than one or two flights out of the USA.

Keep in mind though that domestic flights have different policies than international ones, plus weight restrictions are not universal. On some airlines the free bag can be up to 60 pounds, but 50 (or the equivalent in kilos) is more common and some cap it at 38 or 40. 

You’ll Also Get More on Board

If you fly those foreign airlines on any of these routes that American, Delta, or United flies, you will get a real meal, hydration, entertainment, even a cocktail or a glass of wine as part of your ticket. On American Airlines you will get a small bag of pretzels and some water if you’re lucky. Oh, and the privilege of paying for an $9 snack box or a $8 beer. In order to watch a movie or TV show, you may need to swipe your credit card and pay. 

fly a foreign airline

So why exactly does anyone fly American elsewhere in the Americas? Apart from scheduling necessities, it’s hard to say. I’m guessing most of them who are not using mileage just don’t know any better.

My wife flew down to Central America on Copa Air and back on American once for a trip because she couldn’t get an afternoon flight back on the former. The difference was like living in a luxury condo and then being sent to the slums. Plus she got socked with a bag fee that was not disclosed in the booking process or in the e-mail confirmation.

And Copa isn’t even as nice as the Asian or Middle Eastern airlines, so if you’re crossing an ocean you have even less incentive to go domestic. Some of them even let you check two bags as part of your fare, which is a huge help if it’s a business trip and you need to do presentations. Or you’re a musician or you need to bring photography/video equipment.

Do NOT Buy the Cheapest Flight Ticket!

They don’t make it easy, but when I do a search on Kayak or Skyscanner, I filter out all the “basic economy options” so I don’t see these cruel bait-and-switch fares. Many infrequent travelers buy these by mistake because they don’t know any better or they’re used to the old days when flight tickets were created equal. 

Not you have to navigate a minefield of fees when you’re purchasing a flight and the airlines have made it extremely difficult to comparison shop without going through the actual booking process to see what the fees are. On Kayak there’s a way to include a bag in your search, but then they make you do it again every time you change the date or destination and search again. It’s maddening. 

The easy rule of thumb though is to avoid even thinking about a ticket that has words like basic, light, or lite in the name of it. That is worse than a bad bus ticket because at least on a bus you can toss your luggage underneath. You generally give up any seat choice, any baggage, and any dignity when booking those ticket and you probably won’t be sitting with your loved ones. 

Help May Be on the Way

Many of these deceptive gotcha fee practices were supposed to go away after the DOJ imposed rules on the industry to force them to be transparent, many years ago The problem is, the legacy airlines are going to do everything they can to fight measures in the courts and delay implementation, so nothing really happened. Then tRump came into power and consumer protections all went out the window, alternatives sold off to the highest bidders or favor-granters.

This administration has had a lot of success fighting big business interests though and this week they announced measures to get rid of hidden fees. The airlines have time to comply, so they’ll do everything they can to avoid transparency in their pricing, but fingers crossed. 

They also announced that airlines will need to give cash refunds, not expiring vouchers or credits, which would go a long way in easing anger when things go wrong.

Other countries haven’t had much luck getting airlines to be more honest in their pricing outside of the EU. Mexico announced that airlines could no longer charge for a carry-on but years later, most of them are still doing it. They basically ignore the law and said, “Sue us. We don’t need no stinking bag laws.”

The Big 3 legacy airlines consistently rank near the bottom around the world in customer service surveys. In the annual Skytraxx rankings of worst airlines in the world, none of the U.S. legacy airlines shows up anywhere in the top 50, much less near the top of the hill. 

Going by their actions, they really don’t care that most people now hate to fly with them. Individual employees may care, but they’re hobbled by the greedy execs and are constantly having to reply to customer ire with empty apologies.

The individual employees love to say on the loudspeaker, “Let us know if we can do anything to make your flight more comfortable,” but now I see passengers openly laughing when they hear that, or asking, “Can I get some legroom?” “Can I sit with my family?” It’s an empty platitude, like “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims.”

They don’t really have the power to fix problems resulting from greedy policies and they often don’t even have a logical explanation about why one flight incurs bag fees and another one doesn’t, or why a family of three can’t sit together without begging other passengers for a favor. They have to shrug and apologize.

On one northeastern U.S. flight I was on last year with a legacy airline, a flustered mother was asking the flight attendant what to do since her family of four got seated in three different rows. (She probably bought those stupid “basic economy” flights.) It got loud and other passengers started making suggestions on what she should do: “Fly Southwest!” “Take Amtrak!” “You’d be better off on Megabus!” That’s how bad it has gotten. Universal disdain for the service they have purchased.

What You Can Do About Rising Baggage Fees

Until the government comes to our aid, we’re on our own. Since the big consolidated airlines continue to show they consider all of us faceless cargo with no rights unless we bought last-minute business class seats for big bucks or we’ve gone mega-platinum lifetime elite status, there’s really one action that will make a difference.

You can vote with your wallet. Here are my suggestions.

With Avianca Airlines you don't pay a checked bag fee

Forget loyalty and fly the cheap seats.

If the legacy airlines are going to keep sliding to the bottom to compete with Allegiant, then just fly on Allegiant and pay a lot less for the same product. I’ve been on their planes more than the Big 3’s the past year and it was not just cheaper, but more pleasant, honestly. After all, I only earned about 1,000 “miles” on United going Tampa-Houston-Panama, so there’s little point anymore in being loyal in terms of point earnings unless you’re at a high elite level. Even the budget Mexican airlines are going to treat you better than the established legacy U.S. ones.

Only fly the legacy airlines when it’s free

When I first put up this post, I was flying Delta back from Belize after going down on Southwest. The return flight was on points earned via a credit card though, so I only had to pay the taxes. Play the travel hacking game right and you’ll only fly the Big 3 when you’re flying them for free. (Well almost free—I had to pay $77 in taxes.) Even better, use a premium card from Chase and you can fly any airline, anytime.

I’m flying American back from the USA to Mexico this summer, but that’s because I cashed in a mere 8,000 miles and paid $46 in taxes. Quite a deal. I did buy a flight up on United, but it’s a short one, I get a free bag from my credit card, and I had a $75 credit that was about to expire. Within the USA I’ll be on Southwest, checking my bag for nothing, thank you very much. 

Fly Southwest to Mexico and Central America.

Southwest goes a lot more places than they used to. I have used them to fly to parts of Mexico, Costa Rica, and Belize. If you’re going to a Mexican beach resort with luggage, they could save you hundreds of dollars in fees.

Get their credit card and you’ll earn easy-to-understand and easy-to-book mileage credit with them too.

Book with a foreign airline

Get on virtually any foreign airline departing from our shores and you’re almost sure to enjoy a better experience. I really saw this first-hand last year when I flew Turkish Air all the way to Kyrgyzstan, then got crammed into a lousy United flight coming back. It was night and day.

My flight on Emirates back from Thailand reminded me of what it used to be like on international airlines in the 1990s and it made me realize how far we’ve fallen since with the likes of American and Delta.

I deleted the old comments from when I first put this post up last decade, but this quote from a reader says it all: 

Every time I fly on a foreign airline, going back to the U.S. ones feels like being sent to the principal’s office for punishment. Recently flew Turkish, Qatar, Thai Airways, and Avianca. Then I had to come home on United and I can’t think of one good thing to say about it.

The big U.S. ones are all budget airlines now (except Southwest, ironically), so explore every alternative to the legacy airlines before rewarding bad behavior. Or just book with a budget airline, pick the best option for every fee, and give yourself an upgrade. 

 

bestflat-vilas

Monday 15th of July 2024

I appreceate for providing such a useful blog commenting sites

Ready to move in flat in Mohali

Trakaff

Thursday 16th of May 2024

Affiliate marketing has evolved itself into a profitable industry. In this, it is extremely important to expand an affiliate network for success. One powerful strategy is mass mailing. In this blog post, we will discuss how mass mailing can help you in your affiliate network growth, examining the benefits, best practices and potential challenges associated with this marketing approach.Definition and evolution of mass mailing