Travelling only with hand luggage saves you valuable time, but domestic airlines in Australia are getting much stricter about enforcing their baggage limits. Here's the current state of play for Qantas, Virgin, Jetstar and Tigerair, and the best tactics to use to avoid unwanted hassles or excess luggage fees.
Being forced to check luggage you were hoping to take on board can be an expensive exercise, as our round-up of baggage fees shows. Charges are generally much higher if you have to pay at the airport than if you've paid in advance. So it pays to familiarise yourself with the limits that apply before you start packing and head to the airport.
The basic rule of thumb is that you can take on up to 7kg in carry-on in a bag whose dimension (length plus width plus depth) add up to less than 105cm. You're also sometimes allowed to take one additional small item such as a jacket, handbag or computer, though this is less common on bargain airlines (Jetstar and Tigerair). If you require items for medical purposes or extra equipment for babies, you can usually take them as well.
Even with that common ground, the details and the enforcement differ significantly between each of the four major Australian domestic airlines. Here's what you need to know. We're sticking to the rules for economy class here; in business class you can generally get away with a little more.
One other thing: we're not arguing at all that it's a terrible thing that these limits are enforced. When everyone on a plane tries to bring multiple bags on board, it slows down boarding, delays flights and makes everyone cranky — especially people who do bother to observe the rules. Flying in the US in the 1990s and early 2000s was horrific for just this reason. (It's now horrific because the airlines are so cheap and nasty, but that's a different story.)
Qantas has the most generous general carry-on allowances: you can take on up to two bags, each of which weighs 7kg. The one exception is QantasLink regional flights, where the limit is a single bag weighing up to 7kg.
Qantas doesn't generally check the weight and size of bags, unless you're trying to board with something obviously oversized. On busy flights, however, staff will pull up passengers carrying two bags during boarding, and tag the smaller bag with a label indicating it must go under the seat in front of the passenger, not in the overhead bin. If you have more than the two bags, you'll be asked to check the extras (and you won't be promised it will be on the same flight).
This doesn't happen every single flight, but you can't assume it won't happen to you. It's also not unreasonable: if you want the convenience of not collecting checked baggage, the trade-off is using the room under the seat in front of you.
Virgin lets you take up to two bags on board, but the total weight combined must be less than 7kg. We've not noticed any specific enforcement policies in place, beyond trying to board with something obviously oversized or overweight. Picture: Getty Images
Jetstar has become much narkier about carry-on items in the past year. As well as dropping the allowance for your single carry-on bag from 10kg to 7kg, it now has staff checking to make sure you're not trying to exceed those limits — an unsurprising tactic given that you can check in online and never see any staff until you reach the gate.
Tigerair has followed the same approach as Jetstar: it has chopped its overall limit from 10kg to 7kg, and it checks at the gate to make sure you're not exceeding weight or item count limits. It will optionally let you pay an extra fee, known as Cabin+, to increase the total weight of your carry-on items from 7kg to $12. This costs $18 for shorter flights and $23 for longer flights when purchased in advance; at the airport, that cost goes up to $36 and $46. With all those fees in place, don't expect to get away with an overweight bag!
How To Stay Under The Limits
Especially if you're travelling with a cut-price airline, you'll need to pack carefully to avoid exceeding that weight limit. We have a detailed guide on how to make the most of your available space and weight.
The most important principle is not to pack anything you're not absolutely sure you'll need. Your suitcase or bag doesn't need to be filled to the brim, you don't need five outfits every day, and you don't need to travel with 10 gadgets if your phone can do the job of most of them. I've travelled for a week and done my job with no luggage whatsoever on more than one occasion — you don't have to be that extreme, but it shows that you don't need multiple bags all the time.
The other key tactic is to make good use of available coat and suit pockets, especially in winter. Items that are heavy but compact (like computer chargers) might be better off in your pockets than in your bag.