Flying over spring break? Chances are you'll pay at least an extra $15 to $25 each way to check just one bag. For a family of four, the fees can easily add up to the cost of an airline ticket.
And what happens if your bags get damaged or don't show up when you do? Airlines devote yards of fine print to spelling out their liability for lost or damaged luggage — usually the actual value, not to exceed $3,300, with no coverage for valuables such as cameras and jewelry.
In the case of baggage delays, most airlines will reimburse you for small items such as a toothbrush or change of clothes you might need until your luggage arrives.
Yet when it comes to refunding the checked-bag fees airlines began charging last year, policies are surprisingly vague. Bottom line: Refunds for bag fees are rare, even when the "service" provided turns out to be less than you'd expect.
"It's a service charge for the handling and carrying of a checked bag," says Tim Smith, of American Airlines. "That does not imply any other promise."
American doesn't routinely refund checked-bag charges simply because of delays, Smith said.
"However, if the individual situation gets to the point where the customer files a claim seeking reimbursement for any covered loss, they are welcome to include checked-bag charges as part of that claim," said Smith.
That's too vague to suit Kate Hanni of FlyersRights.org, an airline passenger-rights group. Her organization is pushing the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to include checked-bag fee refunds in proposed new consumer-protection rules due out for review in June on airline baggage policies.
"We're hearing a lot of complaints about baggage fees not being refunded," she said. "It should be automatic."
In lieu of refunds, a few airlines offer vouchers for discounts on future travel. Some do it as a matter of policy, others only if a passenger complains.
Not good enough, says Hanni, whose organization has helped some consumers recover baggage fees by filing complaints with the DOT.
"It should be cash for cash."
Airlines, with the exception of Southwest, began charging checked-bag fees last year to boost falling revenues. The top nine U.S. airlines collected $2.5 billion in baggage fees in the 12 months ended Sept. 30, 2009, and are on track to raise more this year.
Fees vary, anywhere from $15 to $25 each way for the first bag and $20-$35 for the second, more for oversized or overweight bags on domestic flights and, in some cases, flights to Canada, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Exempted are elite members of airline frequent-flier programs, first- and business-class passengers and active-duty military personnel traveling on orders.
Reported incidents of mishandled bags have been dropping. Complaints averaged 3.91 per 1,000 passengers among 19 U.S. airlines tracked by the DOT last year, compared with 5.26 in 2008.
But if it's your bag that's delayed or lost, you're not going to feel good about paying for the service.
That was the thinking behind Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air's decision to launch its Baggage Service Guarantee program last July when it began charging for checked bags. The airlines' fees are $15 for the first bag and $25 for a second.
Passengers whose bags don't arrive at baggage claim within 25 minutes of the plane parking at the gate are guaranteed a voucher redeemable online for a $25 discount on a future flight or 2,500 frequent flier miles. Customers can request a voucher (one per passenger, regardless of the number of bags checked) from a service agent at the airport.
The program was due to expire this July, but the airline decided to make it permanent, said Greg Latimer, managing director of marketing.
"We wanted to make sure, when we went with the baggage fees, that people understood that they will be taken care of ... not only about bags not getting lost, but also arriving on time."
Why no refunds?
"It comes down to logistics," said Latimer. "It's a lot easier if we can give you a (voucher) number, where you can go to alaskaair.com and use it like cash."
JetBlue Airways allows the first checked bag free but charges $30 each way for the second. It offers passengers a $30 voucher if bags are misplaced, delayed or lost. Passengers have to file a claims report in order to get voucher.
"Beyond that, we work with customers on a case-by-case basis for additional reimbursement," said spokeswoman Alison Croyle.
US Airways has no written policy on checked-bag fee refunds, but if a bag doesn't arrive at its destination with the passenger, the airline will give a refund for requests processed through its airport baggage services offices, said spokeswoman Valerie Wunder.
Passengers whose flights are canceled by United Airlines are eligible for a bag-fee refund by applying in writing or e-mail. Processing takes about six to eight weeks.
"In the unlikely event that something else happens to the luggage, we will generally take the fee into consideration when we compensate for those instances," said spokeswoman Robin Urbanski.
Virgin America and Delta Air Lines provide reimbursements for interim expenses if a passenger's bag is delayed, but do not directly refund baggage fees.
Continental's policy also "is not to refund baggage fees," said spokeswoman Christen David. "But if a person is overly inconvenienced, Continental will provide goodwill compensation in the form of travel vouchers."
Until either the DOT comes up with new rules or airlines standardize their polices, the easiest way to get a refund on baggage fees might be to dispute the charge through a credit card company.
"As someone who travels a lot myself, it's something I've thought about every time I see someone paying their baggage fees or standing around a carousel," said Greg McBride, senior financial analyst for Bankrate.com, a Web site that provides banking and credit-card advice to consumers.
"It's certainly something that falls under the category of nothing ventured, nothing gained."
Stick to just one checked bag if possible. Pay fees online with a credit card. Some airlines tack on an extra $3-$5 each way if paying at the airport.
Prepay for only one bag if you are undecided as to how many you will bring. Some airlines (Alaska/Horizon is an exception) won't refund prepaid bag fees if you later decide to take fewer bags or not check at all.
Be aware of the weight (usually 50 pounds or less) and size limits. A bag that's one pound over weight could cost an additional $50 to $125 on top of standard fees. See airlines' Web sites for specifics.
Overhead bin space is getting tighter as more people take more carry-ons. Follow the rules: Stick to one carry-on bag no bigger than 22" by 14" by 9" and one personal items such a shoulder bag, purse or laptop.
Don't put cameras, laptops, jewelry, expensive sunglasses etc. in checked bags. Airlines assume no liability for these and other valuables, and won't reimburse you if they are lost, damaged or stolen. Put these in your carry-on.
See www.smartertravel.com for a comparison list of airline fees, weight limits, etc.
Baggage handling complaints can be filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation at http://airconsumer.dot.gov.
The DOT publishes data on how airlines rank on complaints about mishandled bags. Go to http://airconsumer.dot.gov and click on "Air Travel Consumer Report."