What Your Luggage Really Costs You

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Luggage costsWhen choosing new luggage for a trip, many people start with the basic questions: Carry-on or checked? Basic black or easy-to-spot plaids, stripes, or scream-in-the-dark neon? On sale or full price?

It might not seem more complicated than that, but with carry-on and checked bag fees ranging from $14.99 to $200, if you buy the wrong bag, that great sale price suddenly won't look so cheap.

Never Pay Full Price for Luggage

For the seasoned traveler, buying a new piece of luggage can be akin to buying a new car. Features, discounts, comparison-shopping, intended use -- all come into play. Wheeled or carried, pockets or no, extending handle ... the list goes on. But these days, those decisions aren't as important as how much the bag weighs when empty, whether the manufacturer's definition of "carry-on" is the same as the airlines' (2 inches may be enough to boot your bag from overhead compartment to checked luggage), and whether it will be tough enough to withstand potentially rough treatment from ground crew.

Luggage types can run the gamut from suitable for trekking in the Himalayas to perfect for the urban weekend getaway. But whether you want the Cadillac of luggage or the Camry, skip the specialty shops, especially when traveling. Discount retailers that carry last season's clothing and home furnishings often offer name-brand luggage at great rates.

Keep in mind, luggage manufacturers roll out new products each year to follow the latest fashions. Sometimes, these new pieces take into account the latest in travel regulations, too, but more often than not, they're simply updated versions of last year's model, color, or features.

Finally, when you've narrowed it down to a specific brand and style, a quick Internet search will provide a list of competition-undercutting luggage sites, and many offer free shipping.

Save Big with Retro Travel

Those who remember the fashion of the 1980s (even if they'd like to forget) may remember the clothing line Multiples. The concept? A series of versatile clothing items that could be worn different ways and mixed-and-matched, for a full wardrobe with a minimum of pieces.

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Now, while no one wants to go back to '80s-era fashion, the concept remains a good one. Pack a few key pieces, like a blazer or cardigan that can be mixed with jeans or nicer slacks, and you'll minimize the weight of your luggage. Most hotels have laundry or dry cleaning on site or nearby, and the costs for cleaning one or two pieces will often be less than checked baggage fees on most airlines.

Also, skip stashing several pairs of extra socks in your shoes. Packing for weight, rather than space, will help keep your luggage under the 50-pound limit imposed by many airlines, which will keep your fees in check.

Laugh in the Face of Baggage Fees

While booking a flight to match your luggage choice may seem counterintuitive, knowing how much you'll carry when you fly can make a huge difference. Flying with only a carry-on? Don't book on Allegiant (ALGT) or Spirit (SAVE), which will charge for the privilege. One carry-on and one checked bag fly for free on JetBlue (JBLU) and Southwest (LUV). Other than those, most U.S. carriers charge $25 for the first checked bag. Fees vary dramatically depending on whether luggage allowances are purchased at the time of booking, before airport arrival, at the airport, or at the gate itself.

An airline's posted baggage allowance is often just a starting point. Savings can often be had through loyalty programs, military agreements, or promotions. Airlines may also reward passengers unexpectedly; Alaska Airlines (ALK), for instance, guarantees bags will be waiting at baggage claim within 20 minutes of a flight's arrival, or it will give each passenger a $20 discount code for a future flight or 2,000 bonus miles.

Want to save even more? Stay on the ground. As of this month, Amtrak allows each passenger four checked bags: two for free, and two for $20 each. Bolt Bus, with its transit between urban centers, allows one bag of any size beneath the carriage -- including oversize items like bicycles -- included in its ticket price, which averages $15.

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What Your Luggage Really Costs You

The shortest path between two points may be a straight line, but rarely does that seem to apply to airline routes. You might not be surprised by a layover in Chicago if you're flying from Boston to Seattle, but rarely will you find so obvious a route, especially on discounted and last-minute tickets.

Flying from New York to Dallas? JetBlue (JBLU) will make you lay over in Boston. Taking a short hop across the Adriatic Sea from Dubrovnik, Croatia to Venice, Italy on Iberia? Expect to lay over in Barcelona, Spain. That's because most airlines have hubs that they operate many more flights through, which make them cheaper. For example, American Airlines (AAL) has its largest hub in Dallas-Fort Worth, while United Continental (UAL) now has its largest hub in Houston (United's top hub was Chicago O'Hare before the merger).

If the 2005 Wes Craven thriller Red Eye has led you to pass on booking overnight flights, you might be missing out on some bargains.

A round-trip flight on British Airways from New York City to London on an afternoon in early July can cost approximately $1,500. An evening flight (after 6 p.m., although it varies by airline), however, can cost less than $1,000. And it's not just the transatlantic route. Red-eye flights are traditionally less expensive, not as full, and offer shorter lines at check-in and through security. And after all, time is money.

Travel newsletters like Johnny Jet, websites like Airfare Watchdog, or airline-specific social media feeds often provide flash and last-minute deals. Some sites, like Kayak, will automatically prompt you to set up an alert for a particular destination once you've done a couple of searches with the same departure and destination locations.

While many blogs and websites theorize on the best time or day to buy an airfare, there is no magic formula. Only by regularly comparing fares against other dates and airlines will you know when to make your purchase.

A good indicator of how easy an airline is to fly is its policies on changes and cancellations. While the policies are as varied as the quality of the in-flight meals, the information is easier to quantify. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics publishes an annual list of fees generated by each airline. In 2011, Delta (DAL) charged a whopping $766 million in change and cancellation fees. Alaska Airlines (ALK) charged a mere $10 million (And lest you attribute the big difference to the relative sizes of the carriers, Delta only carried nine times as many passengers as Alaska Airlines.)

While the cost of flying may be increasing, airfare deals can always be had with a little patience, persistence, and research. Whether you're traveling alone, with colleagues, or with your family, you can save hundreds or even thousands of dollars on your flights this summer. Maybe even enough for another trip.

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Molly McCluskey recently traveled around the world and only paid one baggage fee. Follow her travel and finance tweets on Twitter @MollyEMcCluskey. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Southwest Airlines.


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