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.
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.
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.