Baggage weight: the airlines are serious

You hear all the time about extra fees for snacks, blankets, additional luggage, but you hear about it so much, that it's easy to tune out and forget -- the airlines aren't kidding.

My wife packed our suitcase for our recent trip from the Indianapolis airport to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and she had done a masterful job cramming every item we believed we needed for our vacation into one piece of luggage and one simple carry-on. However, I can't blame her for what any experienced traveler can already guess happened. After all, she was nice enough to do the packing, and I lugged the luggage to our car. I had a fleeting thought that maybe it was too heavy, but then like a wisp of smoke, my worry was gone, replaced, I suppose, by something more substantial.

I'd like to think my mind was on the ongoing crisis in Darfur or the new one between Russia and Georgia, but if I were truthful, I probably suddenly wondered if our airline would be serving any snacks, or I began thinking about the rerun of Law & Order that I had watched the night before.

So we get to the checkout counter at the airport, and we learn that our piece of luggage is overweight. I don't remember how overweight. I just remember hearing the words, "That'll be an extra ninety-eight dollars, sir."
And so here's a tip: If you're flying any time soon, check your individual airline's weight first.

If I had gone to my airline's web site, which in this case was Air Tran, and had read through their baggage information, we could have saved ourselves a big headache. I went just now, and there it is: Fifty pounds or less is free. Between 51 and 70 pounds, it's $29 per bag. After that until 100 pounds, $69. Over 100 pounds and baggage won't be accepted. I guess Air Tran has some goofy policy about not wanting to give airline employees a hernia.

Why was our bag going to cost $98? Well, it wasn't just heavy, it was over-sized, and so if you're packing a lot into a suitcase, you really need to get out your measuring tape and visit your airline's web site and see what they allow. And if you're thinking of packing light and bringing 18 suitcases, well, make sure you can do that, too. Chances are, that's a no-no.

My next tip: If you find yourself in our situation -- facing a $98 charge and being told that we'd be smart to buy another suitcase before the return flight so we can put the extra weight in that and not be charged -- leave your wife and kids at the counter and go see if your airport sells luggage. I found some small suitcase that was on sale for (gasp) $80. And so even though we were obliged to spend a small fortune to have our luggage accompany us, at least we were able to buy a suitcase that we can use indefinitely rather than have a one-time charge foisted on us.

Oh, and lest you think that, "Well, maybe the airlines aren't that serious," CNN.com's currently running a story about the problems that our own American military troops are having with airlines hitting them with fees when they bring heavy baggage when they're flying out to war zones like Iraq. Sheesh.

Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist who obviously needs to travel more. He is also the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).

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