Regulations for airline baggage on domestic flights are tougher than ever, and if you don't plan carefully you can get slugged significantly. Road Worrier rounds up the current rules on the four major domestic carriers, and looks at how you can get more bang for your luggage buck.
Qantas' recent adjustment to its baggage rules (dropping the number of bags you can check in) is just the latest in an ongoing wave of change which has seen baggage fees become one of the major sources of income for most airlines. This trend is particularly prevalent with discount airlines (such as Jetstar and Tiger locally, or Ryanair or Southwest overseas). However, even "premium" carriers are taking a harder line with luggage.
The advantage of this tactic for airlines is primarily that it allows them to quote lower fares, and secondarily that it encourages people to travel with less luggage (which can reduce fuel bills). The disadvantage for passengers is that it can make calculating your travel budget trickier.
Below we've summarised the current rules for checked luggage and hand luggage on the major domestic carriers (Jetstar, Qantas, Tiger and Virgin Australia), then offered some hints on how to not get slugged with unexpected charges. (We haven't specifically covered international flights, though the same general principles apply.) Allowances often vary depending on the type of ticket you buy and your frequent flyer status (if any) with the relevant airline.
Note that when checking multiple bags, health and safety rules generally mean no individual bag can weigh more than 32kg even if you're entitled to or have paid for more weight. Hand luggage rules on all these airlines generally restrict you to one bag of a defined maximum size plus one small item, a rule which tends to be more rigorously enforced on cheaper airlines.
Discounted starter fares include only 10kg of hand luggage. Additional baggage allowance of between 15kg and 40kg can be purchased in 5kg increments. The cheapest option of a a 15kg bag costs $8 on a short-haul domestic flight, or $12 on a long-haul trip, if booked with the ticket. If booked before reaching the airport, that fee rises to $35 (both long and short haul). Charges for higher values are listed at the link above (Jetstar does have the most complicated options of anyone we're discussing here). At the airport, the only option is an $80 fee for a 20kg bag. Business-class fares include 20kg of hang luggage and 30kg of checked luggage. Excess baggage above your allowance is charged at $15 a kilogram.
Qantas allows a maximum of 1 free piece of checked luggage. For general passengers, the maximum weight is 23kg; for Qantas Club members and business class passengers, the maximum weight is 32kg; Silver and Gold business class passengers, and Platinum flyers in any class, are allowed two free pieces each of no more than 32kg. Additional pieces of luggage (with a maximum weight of 23kg) cost $20 per item if purchased in advance, or $30 for the first piece and $60 for subsequent pieces if purchased at the airport. Hand luggage allowance on Qantas flights is a maximum of 2 pieces, each weighing no more than 7kg. (Regional QantasLink flights have tighter restrictions.)
Discounted starter fares include only 10kg of hand luggage (two bag maximum, and 7kg maximum per bag). If you don't check-in online with this option, you'll be charged $12.50 for airport check-in even without luggage. A 15kg checked bag costs $15; 30kg costs $70. At the airport, the only option is a single 15kg checked bag for $70.
Saver fares only include hand luggage (no more than two items and a total weight of up to 7kg). For $12 at the time of booking, you can add a bag of up to 23kg. At the airport, this fee is $40. Velocity Gold and Silver members don't pay this fee. Flexi fares include allowance for 23kg of checked luggage; premium economy and business allow up to 69kg (though no single bag may weigh more than 32kg).
Tactics to adopt
Pack as little as possible. While I don't think many people would directly re-enact No Luggage Week,it does demonstrate that you can travel even for work with a lot less gear than you might expect. Keeping your luggage to a minimum single carry-on bag will keep your costs low and save time at the airport. Tiger in particular has very OTT baggage charges.
Plan to buy luggage allowance in advance. If you do know you'll want to travel with checked baggage -- it's a long trip, you're a fashion tragic, or you have a lot of work equipment to carry -- then pay in advance if your air fare or status doesn't entitle you to free options. The at-airport options are much more expensive.
Think bulk, not weight, when packing checked luggage. Though exceptions apply (particularly at small regional airports), airlines often don't weigh hand luggage providing it meets size requirements. In some instances, carrying heavy items while packing bulkier goods (such as winter clothes) into your luggage can make for a better balance.
Make allowance for any shopping you'll do. If you're going to go shopping on your trip, make sure you've got both room for those goods and have made allowance for their weight on the return flight. Discount shopping isn't such a discount if you get slugged to ship it home.
Be especially cautious on regional flights. Regional airports often enforce luggage rules more strictly: smaller planes have tighter hand luggage requirements, and if there's no automated check-in options, your chances of sneaking on board with a heavier case are a lot lower.
Remember baggage charges are only one element of the price. Paying for baggage isn't necessarily the end of the world; if your total fare is lower than the equivalent on a deal that does include baggage, remember you'll come out ahead. By the same token, while Qantas has copped a lot of flak over its stricter one-piece rule, it is the only domestic airline that offers some free baggage even on its most discounted fares. The total price and service are what you need to consider, not just a single factor.
What are your favourite tactics for ensuring no extra baggage charges? Tell us in the comments.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman is not planning on checking any baggage for a while. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.