If you're surprised by the amount of stuff that people bring with them on a plane in the USA, here's the reason why: on just about every airline, there's a charge to check even your first piece of hold luggage.
No wonder US "road warriors" roll their trusty wheeled luggage down the aisle (and over your toes). But what's an Australian travelling on business to do: beat 'em or join 'em? Here's our guide for dealing with baggage in the USA.
Baggage fees in full
Most major airlines in the US charge even for the first checked bag within the US -- but if you're connecting to or from an international flight on the same ticket, the fee is usually waived.
High-tier members of an airline's frequent flyer programme also usually get free bags, and the deal is extended to their oneworld, Star Alliance or SkyTeam airline partners' most frequent flyers too.
- American, Continental, Delta, United and US Airways all charge $25 for the first bag and $35 for the second. Continental, Delta, United and US Airways give a $2 discount off the first bag and $3 off the second if you prebook your luggage online.
- Alaska Airlines charges $20 each for the first and second bag.
- JetBlue allows one free bag and charges $30 for the second.
- Southwest allows two free bags.
- Virgin America charges $25 per bag (up to ten!) but the first bag may be up to 70 lbs (32 kg).
Generally, each bag must be under 50 lbs (23 kg), although there are exceptions on some airlines from some airports. The exceptions don't really follow a pattern, so check with your airline.
So what can you carry on?
Obviously there's a real incentive to carry everything on board if you can. But what are you actually allowed?
- One carry-on bag, with total dimensions smaller than 45 linear inches (9" x 14" x 22"), which is 114 cm (approx 23 cm x 36 cm x 56 cm).
- One "Personal Item", which the airlines helpfully usually define as one or more of "a briefcase, camera, handbag/purse, laptop in bag, or small book-bag style backpack". Those that do define the Personal Item insist that it be no more than 36 linear inches -- 91 cm.
Yes, that means you can basically take a small suitcase plus a small laptop bag, shoulder bag or large briefcase on board.
You can officially get away with a bag that measures 22" (56 cm) on its longest edge. However, some overhead bins on some airlines aren't a full 22" deep -- meaning that you risk the wrath of passengers and crew by placing your bag lengthways: a big no no.
To avoid fisticuffs or having to stuff the bag under the seat in front of you, try a bag that's 20" (51cm) or 21" (53 cm) on its longest edge. You probably won't miss the extra space inside the luggage, and you won't have to fight to get it in the bins.
Wheels-out and wheels-up is usually the best advice for bags that only just exceed the bin's dimensions. Often, the bin doors curve outwards into the cabin, so there's a couple of extra inches to play with higher in the bin. That's why the old trick of propping up a recalcitrant piece of luggage with a book or rolled up coat works: raise the end of the case and it just might fit.
Other tips for dealing with baggage
Try to board first so that you have your pick of the overhead bins. But don't be that person who shoves a bag in the first row of bins and then walks back to a seat at the back of the plane.
You can also try approaching the gate agents (who are almost omnipotent once a flight is about to depart) and asking to gate check your bag as hold luggage. Yes, it's irritating now that you've dragged it through the airport and past security, but if it's a busy flight and you're boarding late, better to have it put in the hold than have it and your personal item under your feet. Do make sure they give you a baggage tag, and transfer anything vital to your personal item.
Consider saving time at the x-ray machine with a security checkpoint-friendly laptop bag approved by the US TSA (Transportation Security Administration). These unzip and fold out to leave the laptop unobscured by luggage but still in a sleeve.
Carefully check whether your carry-on liquids are in bottles marked 100 ml or 3 oz. Everywhere but the USA uses 100 ml as the standard for carry-on liquids, but that equals 3.4 oz -- 0.4 of an ounce too much for the US limit of 3 oz (88.7 ml)!
Now, most TSA screeners won't notice. Some of the ones that do notice will know that the TSA officially permits 100 ml bottles. But that still leaves some screeners who will confiscate your 100 ml bottles, because the TSA is notoriously ineffective at communicating and enforcing its own rules consistently.
Top tip: if you're heading for a hotel on your first night, decant your 100 ml liquids into the 3 oz bottles that the hotel's own toiletries come in. Use your own the first night and you'll probably have under 100 ml left for decanting anyway.
If you're a really heavy packer, don't forget that you can (technically) wear some of your luggage. We're not suggesting that you get one of those iPad suits, and the 37-pocket SeV vest is only for the most hardened of baggage fee avoiders..
But a good jacket with deep pockets or even a pair of cargo trousers if you're travelling in casual clothes can help you squeeze a book, camera or vital electronic item onto the plane with you.
About John Walton
Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.