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When Is an International Flight not an International Flight? (Hint: when it involves baggage fees.)

luggage fees U.S. airlines

I fly a lot between the USA and Mexico and each time I need to go through customs and get my passport stamped. According to American Airlines though, flying to Mexico does not constitute an international flight when it comes to one allowed checked bag.

Well, it sort of does, but only if you fly to certain cities. Here’s exactly how an American rep answered my inquiry asking for clarity.

For coach travel on American Airlines between the U.S. and Mexico (except Guadalajara, Leon, Mexico City and Monterrey), customers may check one bag for $25 and a second bag for $40 each way within the size and weight limitations.

Confusion Means More Fees

What this accomplishes, of course, is confusing the hell out of customers and tricking them into thinking they’ll got a free baggage allowance when they really don’t. I have flown out of Leon/Guanajuato a lot, and naturally assumed that all flights in and out of Mexico are considered international flights. But no, only those four airports.

United puts another step in the mix to surprise you into paying. If you go on their baggage fees page, you need to put in a specific itinerary to find out whether you’ll be charged or not. After spending five minutes punching in city pairs, I found out their policy is as nutty as American’s. Tampa to Cancun requires a $25 fee. Tampa to Leon does not. Flying to Los Cabos will cost you an extra baggage fee. Flying to one of Mexico’s three largest cities will not require a fee, but flying to #4 Puebla will.

This inconsistency from United extends into Central America, where there’s a free checked bag to Guatemala, but you’ll get socked $25 for the first bag checked to Costa Rica. Belize bags require a fee, Panama City ones do not.

When you look at Delta’s baggage fees page, the confusion goes up a further notch. There’s nothing intuitive or clear about it and the exceptions part is as long as the regular part. The Mexico grab/not grab pattern we start to see is similar across these three airlines, which shows that as usual they’re quite content to follow each other’s spiral to the bottom in tandem. You’ll pay a first bag fee to most places Delta flies, but not to Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey, or Leon/Guanajuato. Central America is a mixed bag again, with a free allowed bag in six destinations, but not the others. In the Caribbean there’s no charge for Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, or Haiti, but yes elswhere.

The 51st State?

It might come as news to Canada that they’re part of the USA, but they are according to the baggage policies of the legacy airlines. If you look at the American Airlines baggage fees section to see what’s classified as “domestic,” Canada is on that list. You may think you’re flying to another country, but AA thinks it’s the 51st state, on par with Puerto Rica.

checked luggageIn theory if you have the right American Air credit card from Citi, you are allowed to check one bag on domestic flights with no charge. So if Canada is listed as domestic, your perk would apply. That won’t help for Mexico though since, as the gate agent said to me, “That’s not a domestic flight.” It’s also not really an international flight like one to Europe would be, so you’re left in purgatory if you’re headed to the beach, with no way to avoid fees.

When I mentioned all these inconsistencies on Twitter, @AmericanAir replied back that all I had to do was look at their baggage fees page. But that page doesn’t have the Mexico exclusions. It also says Guatemala flights require a baggage fee, which didn’t come up in the system when I flew to Guatemala and back a week ago. I checked with someone I know who lives there and she said, “I’ve never paid a baggage fee on any airline out of Guatemala and I’ve flown on all of them.”

What’s the Solution?

The most obvious solution is to avoid the airlines that force people to travel with a carry-on (or reach a high elite status) in order to avoid extra fees. This is a leading indicator: these same airlines are usually going to charge a family to sit together and do other insidious things to extract more money from you. There’s a reason these companies show up at the bottom in surveys of customer satisfaction and why they’re lucky to even break the top-50 of top airlines around the world. Their practices are also why so many people look at flying as the most unpleasant part of their vacation—or a reason to drive to a vacation spot instead of traveling abroad.

Give your business to the foreign airlines like Copa, Aeromexico, Interjet, and Avianca when heading south, or cheer the continued expansion of Southwest. On these airlines the boarding process goes much faster since people have checked their bags with no fees and the service is usually better too.

The only other way to consistently avoid these fees if you’re flying with a legacy airline is to pack light and join the throngs trying to shove everything in the overhead bins. As you’ve probably noticed, half the time that means your bag gets checked anyway at the gate because there’s not enough room for all the baggage-fee-avoiders. Buy lightweight clothing that can be sink washed, make sure all your clothes can go with each other, and choose double-duty footwear. (See more details here.) Would you rather buy new shoes, or give that money to a corporation trying to extract more and more extra fees?

Joe Honest

Tuesday 13th of February 2024

I just flew on Avianca. They advertise very low fares, but those “teaser” fares won’t allow carry-on luggage. Just whatever fits under the seat in front of you.

Annoyed, I instead lived out of my *daypack* for a week. It went fine. It’s not like we need all that much anyway.

Lou Quillio

Tuesday 29th of September 2015

But what accounts for the differences? It can't be that they're sloppy gougers. Do some origins/destinations prohibit baggage fees? Are there origins where surcharges defy custom and would be bad for business? Is there a knowable system, even if it's complex?

Probably it's just a matter of what the traffic will bear. Americans are now conditioned to surcharges, and the wider world is next.

Still, if regulation figures anywhere in here, that would be worth knowing.



Friday 4th of December 2015

I think it's because business is done in those cities and they have heavy competition from Aeromexico. If they charged baggage fees there, nobody would book with them unless they had to. When it's just tourists, gouge away!

Tim Leffel

Wednesday 30th of September 2015

I don't think the people responding to customer complaints even know the answers to those questions. The idea is to daze and confuse and keep counting the cash. The U.S. airlines now make more from fees than they do for delivering their essential service, so that's where their priorities are. They're basically glorified cargo carriers now. Their business model is based on making more money from inert cargo than they make from the breathing human cargo.

Pedro B

Tuesday 29th of September 2015

This is the key strategy: "Give your business to the foreign airlines like Copa, Aeromexico, Interjet, and Avianca when heading south, or cheer the continued expansion of Southwest."

My last two flights to Latin America were on Southwest and Avianca. I checked two bags with each and didn't have to pay $65 to bring gifts to my family. It's like booking with Scrooge to go on United, Delta, or American.

Tuesday 29th of September 2015

Thanks for this article. Something to think about when booking a flight and trying to find a "deal." Like you said some of the airlines really try to get you with the up charges and that can kill a budget when travelling. If you get a minute I would love for you to checkout my article on the best travel sites and get your feedback.