United Increasing Checked Bag Fees – Unless You Prepay Online

Last month JetBlue increased its first checked bag fee to $35 but kept it at $30 if prepaid online. Now United has announced they’re matching the move on domestic and short haul Latin America and Caribbean routes,

We are making changes to our checked bag fee on certain flights, effective for travel on and after March 6. The changes do not apply to customers who booked their trips before February 21, and will not apply to customers who prepay online before check-in. As always, MileagePlus Premier customers and those who purchase tickets with an eligible MileagePlus credit card will continue to receive complimentary checked luggage.

There are (3) ways this benefits United:

  • This will mean fewer transactions at the airport, saving time and staff

  • And some customers may pay for bags, planning for the savings, and not wind up checking one – fees therefore that United wouldn’t otherwise earn

  • Plus customers who check bags at the airport will pay more

In the meantime, until American matches and Delta matches, there’s some risk that customers at the margin book away. United hasn’t minded taking that risk with Basic Economy, where they acknowledged that getting out ahead of American cost them about $100 million and where they remain the only airline to completely ban basic economy customers from bringing a carry on bag on board (and they also ban basic economy customers without checked bags from online check-in, requiring them to wait in line at the airport to check in).

A year and a half ago JetBlue was first to raise its checked bag fee from $25 to $30 and other airlines. Now JetBlue is clearly ‘the new fee leader’ raising bag fees, and signaling to competitors to follow.

For its part American just rolled out prepaying checked bags online, a feature that really only make sense if there’s an incentive for customers to pay early like a discount.

Domestically ‘full service’ airlines are becoming like their ultra low cost carrier brethren. Spirit Airlines charges its lowest fees for checked bags online. Fees go up at the airport. And they’re higher still if a customer has to check a bag at the gate. They’re using fees not just to generate revenue, but to drive channel customer behavior in ways that lowers the airline’s costs.

Higher checked bag fees mean an even greater incentive for customers to bring their life’s belongings on board. That in turn causes delays, both because bags take longer to stow and because more bags than a plane can handle means taking the time to gate check bags.

United is getting rid of bag sizers at the gate and higher bag fees may exacerbate the ‘bring everything on board’ mentality.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. A fourth way that United Airlines benefits from prepaid checked baggage fees is quicker access to — and longer use of — the money of its customers, which increases cash flow in a positive direction.

  2. Gary, thanks for the article but it is riddled with editorial errors!

    Couple of examples:
    “ And some customers may pay for bags, planning for the savings, and not wind up checking one – fees therefore that JetBlue wouldn’t otherwise earn”
    You mean United?

    “ they remain the only airline to completely basic economy customers from bringing a carry on bag on board”
    Missing the word “ban”?

    I noticed a couple of others.

  3. Theyre just making it easier for people to book ULCC.

    Why do people hate Spirit etc? Because theres a maze of rules and gotchas to get you to hand over the most money possible if you dont read every line of text on the website.

    By replicating that, United is simply saying Spirit is no worse.

  4. Another use for prepaying baggage fees is to use up an AMEX Platinum fee credit toward the end of the year for a flight that will happen after the first of the year, or to use up a credit on a future flight when planning to cancel that card. I wish I could have done that in December 2019.

  5. This approach will spread to other US airlines and will hit more and more passengers on international long-haul flights to and from the US too.

    Unfortunately, the customers are going to continue to be subject to paying for this race to the bottom unless and until regulators enter the picture somehow — unlikely as that is to happen in any positive way for consumers given how much of government is captured in some way by the country’s biggest and richest players.

  6. If I didn’t have a United Credit Card to get free checked bags, and value United Miles for international travel – Spirit actually is no worse.

    My mom is older, and takes maybe 2-3 flights a year. She has zero interest in credit cards (despite me trying to convince her) and gives zero fucks about accruing miles. We fly out of Newark, and she almost always goes with Spirit and the Big Front Seat. Which to her makes perfect sense, as the prices are identical – And the Big Front Seat is WORLDS better than United economy class. I’d argue that it’s even better then United Domestic Business class…..

  7. Despite people’s reactions to the headline, I think this is a positive as it will shorten the time spend at checkin machines and the line go faster.

  8. United’s fares have been very competitive lately, which indicates they are risking not selling enough tickets. Recently, they were matching SWA fares for same day/next day tickets for the same routes, but charged for luggage, and carry-ons (i.e. Basic Economy.) Since this was a one-way ticket, I didn’t mind paying $25-$30 for luggage, but the carry on policy had me worried. Like, how does someone travel without a carry on?? It took some time, but I think I figured my carry on was small enough.
    Anyway, if they want to attract customers, how about clarifying policies, and not turning typical travel terms into fine print?

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