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If you do it right, you can save a lot of money on low-cost airlines. These airlines receive a lot of criticism from people who believe they nickel and dime you for everything. This is true, but I prefer to think of it like I’m only paying for things I use. If I fly Southwest Airlines and don’t plan on checking a bag even though it’s "free," part of my ticket price is going unused. In this post, I'm going to give you eight tips for packing light and avoiding pesky baggage fees.
If you can use our tips to book a cheap flight on one of these budget airlines, there are absolutely ways that you avoid upcharges and can keep those savings. First, let's go over some basic need-to-know about low-cost airlines and baggage fees.
Baggage Fees and Personal Items
Low-cost airlines infamously will charge extra for checked bags and carry-ons. Oftentimes, the cost of these bags will more than offset the cost of just buying a ticket on an airline that would have given them to you with out the extra charge. Legacy carriers have even gotten into this game with "basic economy" fares that charge you different baggage fees than regular economy fares.
But no low-cost airlines at the moment charge for personal items. So our choice hack is perfecting our packing to fit in a personal item. Most people think of purses, laptop bags, or souvenir bags from the airport as the quintessential "personal items," but when we travel we often turn the personal item into our main piece of luggage!
What is a personal item?
Roughly defined, a personal item is a single bag that will fit under the seat in front of you. Each airline has it’s own dimensions, but it’s roughly 18 x 14 x 8 inches. My favorite personal item is the JanSport Digibreak backpack.
Do I Always Get a Personal Item?
Actually, NO! There are a few airlines that don't allow you a personal item, but we've only seen this with flights where you got a free carry-on. Emirates is the most notable of these (though the agent did allow me, as a female, to have a purse). I'm not aware of any airline that charges for both carry-ons and personal items. Every low-cost airline I'm aware of allows a free personal item.
Also, it's worth noting that United's "basic economy" personal item size is ridiculously small. It would be tough to apply this post to flying basic economy for a trip of more than a night or two.
How Far Can Your Personal Item Really Get You?
Really far. I did a ten-day trip to Europe with just my JanSport, including having to bring running gear for a marathon! More importantly, when you're flying as a family you get as many personal items as you have fare-paying family members. So each kid gets a full-size personal item. Also, as we talk about in our guide to low-cost airlines, packing your personal item is only one way to save on baggage fees. A family of four that pays for one carry-on is often still better off flying a low-cost airlines.
What Should I Pack?
I discuss this a tad in the tips below, but I have been on a fair amount of Disney trips in recent memory which means I have my packing list pretty much down. If you don’t want to feel like you’re forgetting something, I do recommend taking a look at a detailed Disney packing list. Go through the list carefully and take note of anything that is essential for you (keeping in mind my recommendations below). You won’t be able to bring everything on this list in your backpack, but it’s a great way to be sure you’ve evaluated everything and have the essentials.
My Top Eight Tips for Packing Light To Avoid Baggage Fees
Okay, now that we understand the rules and what a personal item is, let's go over our tips.
1. Bring matching, interchangeable pieces, not outfits
I try to bring solid colored pieces on top and solid black bottoms, so all my tops match all my bottoms.
2. Accept the risk of outfit repeats
I know, you might have to post to instagram in the same outfit twice on the same trip, but it will be okay. If the weather on your trip is a bit unpredictable, you might wind up having to repeat an outfit.
3. Do laundry on the go
A bigger concern for longer trips, this can alleviate some of your concerns over outfit repeats. Most hotels offer dry cleaning or laundry of some kind (at a cost), but I also recommend these laundry sheets which can be a lifesaver for a quick refresh from your hotel room for a fraction of the price. Most Walt Disney World hotels have laundry machines that you can use (for a cost) as well.
4. Fold your Clothes efficiently
Scroll back up to the picture of what I packed for one trip. Notice how it's all folded neatly into the same shape? We swear by the KonMari method of folding and packing, made famous in the amazing Marie Kondo book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. We use the same method to pack for a Disney cruise in a small backpack, or to pack for a ten-day trip to Europe in the same backpack, or to pack for a year of travel around the world in our larger Osprey backpacks. And every time we think we can't fit more stuff, we make sure we KonMari everything and then it magically fits!
5. Don’t pack for all of the what-ifs
It might rain, but if it does, at most places you can pick up a cheap umbrella at a convenience store. If you're on a Disney vacation, you might have to splurge a little on rain gear, or you can try to avoid attractions that force you to be outdoors.
Similarly, you might get a headache or a bug bite or a sunburn, but don’t bring your entire medicine cabinet, a few pills will do. Also know that most basic medicines can be acquired from Disney first aid for free.
You’ve got to hedge your bets on what you think is essential and then be open to the possibility of having to buy things along the way. Remember, though, that packing light is a means to the end of saving money. If rain is scheduled for your entire trip, maybe ditch a t-shirt for a poncho.
6. Wear your bulkiest items on the plane
Always wear your jeans, tennis shoes and all outerwear so it doesn’t take up space in your bag.
7. Limit loose items
Ensure every item has a place. You don’t want to have things falling out when you take out your laptop for security (although if you planned ahead and enrolled in TSA PreCheck you won't have to remove your laptop).
I recommend picking up a set of packing cubes. I have these Bagail packing cubes, but tend to only use the smallest cube because I’m usually only packing a backpack. These Yuhan Pretty cubes are an alternative with more smaller options.
Packing cubes (that are themselves lightweight) are also good because they make it a little easier to implement the KonMari method from tip four. Rather than have to pack an entire bag perfectly at once, you can focus on smaller bits.
8. Wear your Mouse Ears!
No backpack has a great option for safely packing your ears. One option for some ears is to use a carabiner to clip them onto your bag, but I usually just wear them. Everyone on your flight will certainly understand. Seriously. Even if you're not going to Disney you probably should bring your Mouse Ears and wear them.
Final Tips for A Successful Journey
If the airline flags you and says your personal item is too big and constitutes a carry-on, you're going to be hit with big fees. Be prepared for this, and try the following:
- Check the airline website for their personal item dimensions and compare them to your item.
- Think of ways to cut down on what's in your bag, including silly things like throwing on an extra layer of clothes (it's never come to that for us).
- If there are multiple people in your party, know who has the most and least space in their bags in case you need to shuffle.
- At the airport, discreetly try to fit your item into the personal item-sized box at a gate other than the one you'll be using. Don't let your gate agents see you trying to make it fit, you'll look like fresh meat to those lions.
- Get in line as early as possible so you'll have time to adjust your packing if you get flagged.
- Keep yourself balanced and composed in line. If you're falling over and corralling a bunch of stuff, you're likely to get flagged.
- When you hand over your boarding pass, smile, say good morning/afternoon/evening, and say thank you.
- Finally, remember that paying for one carry-on is cheaper than have four people flagged for "personal items" that are actually carry-ons. Sometimes its best to just pay one small fee at the start, especially if you have a credit card that reimburses those fees.