These are the best tips about travel from nearly 2 decades on the road
Whether you are a seasoned traveller or a backpacker about to leave for a gap-year trip of a lifetime, nobody likes to pay excess luggage fees. For instance, I will never forget something I saw at Eindhoven Airport, a notorious low-cost airport in the South of the Netherlands. A family at the check-in counter was having a complete meltdown, as the parents were opening suitcases left and right, throwing away toys, diapers, food, drinks and other perishables while their three children were crying, seeing their candy and toys being thrown away.
Whether the crying children were an advanced “distract the ground-crew” tactic or not, I am certain this family was trying to avoid excess luggage fees by Basiq Air, who at the time were particularly savage when it came to squeezing their passengers.
Air Travel Tips to keep those costs down
From my time working for one of the bigger windsurfing companies in the world, I learned all about the struggles travellers face when transporting unusual luggage. Back in the old days, airliners really didn’t enforce their rules about excessive luggage weight, but once the low-budget companies stepped in, “creative luggage pricing” became a fast and easy way to make some extra bucks from travellers.
And if that is only for a few kilos, imagine the pain and suffering professional athletes have to go through, hauling around hundreds of kilogram in sports equipment. Windsurfers especially rack up ridiculous amounts of excess baggage costs, as they can easily carry four to seven board bags, filled with boards, sails, masts, booms and tons of equipment.
And unlike Formula 1, where the incomes are astronomical, windsurfers are not quite the millionaires, so every penny counts. As a result, these athletes are the uncrowned kings of getting around the excess baggage regulations. I like to think that spending a few years with these experts has rubbed off on me, and I will discuss some of their techniques on how to avoid excess luggage fees in the article below.
Do your research
Different airlines tend to have different rules about their excess luggage fees. Expect most budget airlines to use the luggage as an easy way to “upsell” their customers. Their management will instruct their staff to keep a lookout for the bigger luggage, weigh it, and slap it with additional fees wherever possible. There are exceptions of course, and generally speaking a smile can go a really long way at the counter. However, nothing beats preparation when it comes to dealing with low-cost airlines and their pricing systems.
As mentioned previously, the low-budget carriers are likely to squeeze you, and unfortunately they will often fly to that one destination nobody else is flying to, because they figured they could make some money on that trajectory. Lucky you…
Know the luggage policy of your airline
The regular airliners are different from budget companies in the sense that their luggage regulations vary drastically. This is an advanced technique, because those websites that compare tickets are a great tool to see the initial prices, but when it comes to excess baggage, they won’t tell you anything.
So even though one ticket may be 50 USD cheaper than the other one, that difference in price becomes insignificant if it turns out that “Southwest” allows for two free checked bags per person (they really do that!), and Singapore Airlines will slap an excess fee on anything over 7kg (they also REALLY do that!). I can think of many things I’d rather do with my time than comparing luggage policies, but fact is that you can save a LOT of money by reading up on the different luggage policies of the top 3 airlines you are considering for a trip. Especially when you are bringing a lot of luggage, this is one of the most valuable air travel tips I can think of.
Likewise, airliners will often make a point to promote certain sports, events or activities. Allowing their guests to carry free golf bags allows these airliners to look very good in a range of Golf Magazines, offering a lot of advertising opportunities for instance. I’m am not saying that you should, but in theory that would mean your golf bags are free of charge, regardless of what’s in side them, am I right?
The same goes for the surfboards, where it is not uncommon for an airliner to “Proudly sponsor the Summer Olympics” or any other event. As a result, these guys will transport your equipment at a highly reduced rate. And once an airliner allows certain equipment to be transported for a reduced fee, all you have to do is convince the staff at the check-in that those enormous bags that you are traveling with in fact, DO contain camping gear/photography equipment/bass drums for that special event you are going to attend. And as long as they do not open the bag, you are going to be fine.
Mail vs. excess luggage fees
This doesn’t apply to all scenarios, but can be a real life-saver sometime. Let’s say you’ve travelled around Asia for three months, gradually collecting more and more souvenirs, gifts, equipment and other priceless items you simply cannot leave behind. Looking at all that stuff, you know the airline company is going to make a killing once you try to check in all of it, and you are already at the end of your budget.
In this situation, mailing the better part of your luggage to yourself is a great solution. And this doesn’t just work in a “traveling home” situation. Hotels, convention centres and resorts are perfectly okay with receiving packages on your behalf, if you just give them a heads-up. So a little preparation will allow you to save a lot of money.
Get a carry-on suitcase
I realize this is not really an option for backpackers, but you will be amazed at the amount of stuff you can really cram into a carry-on suitcase. And while the official weight for carry-on luggage usually hovers between 7kg to 12kg, hardly anyone every checks carry-on luggage for weight. So putting the heaviest stuff in your carry-on luggage is smart for several reasons. First of all, you are paying less, but you also get to keep your valuables close to your heart (I am looking at you, professional photographers!).
This also extends to clothing by the way – when everything counts, make sure you wear the bulky stuff on your flight, because you won’t get charged for it.
Get into a frequent flyer program
Like any other business, airlines love repeat customers enough to give them special privileges. These privileges will extend beyond business lounges with free coffee and WiFi. Have a look at their small print, or simply drop them an email inquiring about upgrading your luggage allowance. You will be surprised at how much lenience a few credits can get you.
Buying additional luggage space vs. possible excess baggage fees
Have you ever noticed how a normal sandwich costs three times as much on an airport than anywhere else? My stepmother, who worked as a purser for several years, jokingly referred to the price hike on airport grounds as “airport tax”, and it applies to luggage especially.
When you buy your ticket, checking the box for a few kg extra is not going to break the bank. But when that same 20kg is discovered at the check-in counter, it can potentially set you back hundreds of dollars. So sometimes, spending a little extra when buying the ticket can save you a lot of money down the line.
But you already bought the ticket – what now?
Okay, so you are at the airport, and just getting there was a major pain as nobody wanted to transport you in the first place and you had to rent a minivan to get there. Before you start queuing up at the next best check in counter, think.
The back-of-the-line method
One of the best ways to get out of paying for your excess luggage is by taking advantage of the time constraints airliners have to deal with. There is a thing called tarmac fines, and they are very, very important. What it means is that an airliner gets fined for additional time they spend on the tarmac and runways outside of their (tight) schedule. Especially around holiday season this can be a real lifesaver.
What you do, is find a spot close to the check-in. But make sure you are out of sight of anyone who works for your airline and works at the check-in counters! This is crucial! Next up, you keep a very close eye on the check-in and choose an opportune moment where there are still a lot of people waiting to check in, but the counter is about to close.
Approach the counter with one of your oversized suitcases, flight cases or whatever it is you are carrying and leave the rest out of sight. This may require a buddy to keep an eye on all your stuff, but if it works, it this is going to be well worth it. Next up, try to pick the counter where the check-in staff looks particularly stressed out and approach them with the friendliest smile you can think of.
Stall the conversation as hard as you can, and remain friendly throughout the process with little jokes and compliments until it is time to weigh your luggage. This is the part where you start negotiating hard and pull out all the stops. “I really did NOT expect to pay that much…” “Isn’t there some special deal you can make me?”, “But I can’t possibly afford that, considering the follow-up flights we are going on…”.
The point of this approach is to play for time. The staff knows they are going to incur tarmac fines, and your checking-in is delaying them even further. However, you are being friendly and there is no possible way for them to speed things up.
And just when they think they are completely done, you smack your head and remember that you still have “all the other bags with your buddy around the corner”. In this situation, there is a very big change that your additional luggage will get waved through, as the line behind you is getting restless, and the stewardess is having a really bad day. Alternatively, he/she will just apply the same tariff you just negotiated really hard over and this will still save you some hard-earned cash. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it effin’ sweet.
Manipulating the scales at the check-in
This doesn’t work at every airport, but depending on the size of your luggage and the field of view of the ground crew, there are moneysaving opportunities. For instance, a big weekend bag that rests partially on the scales and partially on the side of it will weigh considerably less than one that is perfectly placed in the middle of the scale.
And who says you can’t sneak a foot in there either, lifting your bag a little either? It’s an advanced technique, but especially with the bigger packages it is easy to get away with it.
Now, granted that cheating the scales is a pretty desperate move, but I’ve seen it being pulled off in front of me repeatedly so it does actually work. Never forget that the ground crew checking you in actually has a lot of decision-making power, so whatever you can do to “tip the scales in your favour” is fair game.
The worst thing that can happen is being told to “please take your foot away from under the bag Sir!”, and the knowledge that you’ve been made. Don’t expect anymore sympathy from that person anymore, and maybe accept that you won’t avoid excess luggage fees for this particular flight. But maybe they have an exit seat available with extra leg room – can’t hurt to ask, am I right?
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Sacha Albarda is an copywriter/online media expert living in South-east Asia for the better part of a decade. Asked what he likes best about living there, he usually answers that it’s “the tightly organized anarchy”.