Let me save you the trouble of reading this whole column with two words: pack light.
As you play Santa this holiday season, you're probably loading yourself down with gifts and luggage. I know I am; I'm headed out to Tucson with a baby and all the accoutrements that typically go along with one. But if you don't pay attention to airline luggage limits, you're going to get socked with excess baggage fees that will leave you feeling stuck in the chimney. Here's a guide to help you follow the airlines' baggage rules.
U.S. airlines all follow the "1+1" rule for carry-ons -- one carry-on bag that fits in an airplane's overhead compartment, plus one "personal item" -- a laptop bag, handbag, diaper bag or such. (You can almost always push the limits by cramming extra stuff into your "laptop bag," which can be a small backpack with a laptop in it.)
The acceptable size of this bag varies by airline (see chart), as does its weight. Here's where a lot of people start to run into trouble, because mainland U.S. airlines typically allow heavier carry-on bags than foreign or Hawaiian airlines. This won't be a problem if you're flying a single, connecting ticket using a code-share. But if you're genuinely transferring airlines, you're transferring baggage limits as well.
An example: to escape the cold, you fly on ATA from Chicago to Maui. You can take a 40-pound carry-on bag. But you then hop an Aloha Airlines flight to Kaua'i. You better make sure your bag fits Aloha's 20-pound limit.
Foreign airlines generally have much lower limits than U.S. airlines, even for flights leaving the U.S. Icelandair restricts carry-on bags to 13 pounds, and Lufthansa to 15 pounds -- they're extreme, but close to typical. If that's important to you, try to book your flight on a U.S.-based airline. Your carry-on almost certainly won't be weighed at the gate, but you never know.
If you're traveling out of the UK, you only get one bag -- no extra laptop bag. But you got the extra laptop bag when you were traveling in to the U.K. You see the problem that will develop here.
Interlude: The Liquid Situation
The international hysteria over liquid bombs has led to some annoying regulations: anything containing a liquid or gel (i.e. most toiletries) needs to be in a 3-ounce-or-less container and stuffed into a single, quart-size (not gallon-size) Ziploc bag.
The containers must originally have contained less than 3 ounces (i.e. no half-full, rolled-up toothpaste tubes.) Solid cosmetics are exempt. As a frequent traveler, I've just started buying all my toiletries at my destination.
As with so many TSA regulations, this is subject to widely varying and unpredictable interpretation by self-important TSA agents. Are pumpkin pies permitted? Sometimes. No way to know. How about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? Sometimes.
One exception you can count on: baby food, formula, breast milk, pacifiers and teethers are OK. TSA agents can inspect them, but they can't force you to taste them. Medications including eye drops, saline solution and liquids needed to prevent diabetics from having a really bad flight are also OK. All that stuff doesn't need to be in the Ziploc, but you should have it grouped together to be inspected.
You can also now buy drinks past security and carry them onto the plane.
There's a full list of what's allowed and what isn't (barring the annoying exceptions like pies) at www.tsa.gov.
Similar rules now apply for travel around, into or out of Europe -- same clear plastic bag, same small containers, in this case 100ml (about 3.5 oz) because they use the metric system.
Air India forbids all liquids and gels in the cabin, no matter where you're going.
Duty free items create a problem if you're transferring airlines or even switching terminals in the U.S. European regulations let you buy duty-free alcohol and carry it on board. But if you have to switch flights in the U.S., in most airports you will have to claim your bags and exit and re-enter security. Doing so, you'll find that you won't be able to carry your duty-free with you through security. The solution: leave extra room in your checked luggage for your duty-free purchases and insert them before checking your bags through to their final destination.
Like so many "security" regulations, these seem to be more for effect than effectiveness. It isn't like terrorists couldn't mix up some explosive baby food, jam bombs into body cavities, or, for that matter, just penetrate the hideously insecure air cargo system through corrupting baggage handlers. But making all of us keep our shampoo in Ziplocs is a way for the airlines and our government to convince us they're doing something to keep us safe.
Here's where you really have to pay attention to weight. Carry-ons are usually only weighed if a flight attendant thinks she's going to get a hernia from your box of bricks. But checked bags are weighed at the check-in counter, resulting in all sorts of embarrassing unpacking-and-repacking incidents in the airport. You really don't want that happening to you.
Generally, you can follow a few rules with your checked bags.
If you're traveling to, from or within the U.S. or Canada, including connecting flights on the same airline, you usually get two checked bags per person, up to 50 pounds each, each of whose total dimensions (length+width+height) doesn't exceed 62 inches. Lap children generally get one, 22-pound bag. You'll have to pay excess baggage charges above that, and airlines won't carry any bags at all that are over 70 or 99 pounds, depending on the airline. Don't go over 70.
Some exceptions: Southwest lets you check three bags, not two. WestJet lets you pack 60 pounds into each bag. Aloha Airlines requires that both bags total under 50 pounds. And low-fare airline Allegiant charges you $50 for each checked bag, even if it's under 50 pounds.
Heavy packers heading for Europe might want to book a flight on British Airways. They allow you 70 pounds per bag before excess baggage charges kick in.
If you're traveling between most other destinations (not on an immediately connecting ticket from the U.S. or Canada), you usually can bring any number of checked bags, but they can't total over 44 pounds. Yes, you read right -- your total allowance is less than you got with one bag on a U.S./Canada flight. Watch out!
Foreign low-fare airlines are even stingier. Most famously European giant Ryanair. Ryanair charges you £3.50 for every bag you check, but then also tacks on excess baggage fees if your bags total over 33 pounds. Low-fare Asian airline Air Asia is similarly stingy at 33. European low-fare major carrier EasyJet is a little better, allowing you 44 pounds.
If you're taking off for Brazil or across the Pacific, on the other hand, you may have a higher baggage allowance. Northwest and United both bump their checked allowances up to 70 pounds per bag if you're going to Brazil, the Philippines or Japan, and on Northwest (but not United) to Hong Kong or China. Singapore Airlines flights top out at 65 pounds per bag, and Qantas and Air India allow you 70.
There are exceptions, always, to everything. El Al gives doctors an extra carry-on bag. Several airlines, such as Air France, give their elite frequent fliers increased baggage allowances. And if you're flying on a regional airline partner -- one of those "operated by" deals on the ticket, where it's really Bob's Airline flying the plane and not British Airways -- expect those smaller planes to have an even lower baggage allowance.
As one airline says, "you will receive the most generous allowance on connecting journeys." So yes, there is a reason to buy that through ticket on BA rather than switching to Ryanair in London.
Need more help figuring this out? Speak with other Frommers.com readers on the Air Travel Message Boards.