Tips if you have to fly with ski baggage

Posted By: The Ski Channel on January 18, 2010 2:47 pm

Are you looking forward to your ski trip this year, but dreading the flight? Not necessarily because you hate flying, but more because the thought of coughing up extra dough for your baggage peeves you off. And you can’t just have carry-on bags, because you have to, clearly, bring your skis/snowboard if you are to actually enjoy the trip. If you don’t know what to expect come travel day, ask Larry Olmsted. He wrote these tips. Click here or read below for the full article.

“Many frequent fliers are near religious about not checking luggage. This is fine for a short business trip, but not so easy on a ski vacation. Even if you opt to rent skis or snowboards – and more travelers are doing just that in the face of $60 round-trip fees for that second bag — you still need a lot of bulky clothes, and more skiers are wearing helmets. Advanced skiers usually won’t forego their own boots even if they plan on renting, and I could not imagine fitting even the bare minimum for a weekend ski trip, let alone a week-long stay, in a carry on, even with ski boots slung over my shoulder.

My recent trip to California’s Mammoth Mountain shows how convoluted the process can be if you plan to check your gear: My luggage made it the first 3,000 miles from Boston to Los Angeles for free (see below for that trick), but the last leg — less than an hour on a turbo prop — cost me $40 for two checked bags. On the return, for no apparent reason, the same airline charged me just $15 for the same two bags.

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Welcome to the new, always changing, confusing and often capricious world of airline baggage policies. Alas, there is little good news: Just this week, Delta, Continental and United have boosted baggage fees again, now charging as much as $25 for a first bag and $35 for the second. So what’s the skier or snowboarder to do?

Know your airline. Almost all large domestic carriers — American, AirTran, US Airways, Frontier, United, Delta/Northwest, Continental, Alaska/Horizon — now charge for all checked baggage, ranging from $15 for the first piece to $35 for the second. With their latest boosts, US Airways, Delta and Continental now charge $25 and $35 for a whopping total of $120 round trip for two bags (plus $100 each way for a third!). Most, but not American or Frontier, offer slight discounts for online prepayment. At the low end, Airtran charges $15 and $25 without advance online payment.

The most baggage-friendly carriers are Southwest, which does not charge for the first or second checked bag, and JetBlue, which allows one free (the second is $30).

These fees are for travel within Canada and the USA. Skiers headed to Europe on the same airlines typically get the first bag gratis, while the second is $50 (US Airways charges $55). Some foreign airlines, like Swiss, still allow two free checked bags, while others, like British Airways, do just one free.

Pack more bags. Paradox? Sure, but perhaps the best kept secret in aviation is the special winter sports equipment rule almost every major U.S. airline follows. Airlines treat two pieces of ski gear — specifically a separate ski or snowboard bag and boot bag — as only one checked bag. The combined items are applicable to the single bag weight limit of 50 pounds. Most airlines stipulate that boots must be packed in a “ski boot bag.” Once you have packed your boots and skis, get as much other clothing in as you can without going over 50 pounds. Wrapping clothing around your also skis provides extra protection if you don’t have a hard-sided case. I recommend printing the explanation of this rule from your carrier’s website (listed under special baggage) in case airport personnel offer any arbitrary reinterpretation.

Get waived. Baggage fees are generally waived for those who reach elite status in a frequent flier program. And thanks to multi-airline marketing alliances, you usually don’t need to fly your preferred airline to reap this valuable benefit. This is how I was able to use my US Airways status for free bags on my recent United flight to LAX. This also applies to any other Star Alliance member (notably for skiers, Continental, Swiss, Austrian, Air Canada, Lufthansa, and SAS). Significantly, Continental also ups the weight limit for its elite frequent fliers and those of Star Alliance members from 50 to 70 pounds. Those with status on One World members such as British Airways or Qantas can get free baggage on American and Lan Chile, and vice versa. But not all alliances offer this benefit: The merged Delta/Northwest, now the world’s largest airline, does not honor elite status on their Sky Team partner airlines for free baggage, reserving this for Delta’s own Medallion status members.

Just about every airline waives fees for active military and for those traveling in first or business class, and usually for those paying full fare coach (Y Class). Some, like Continental, also waive some or all baggage fees for holders of their branded credit cards. Look at the baggage details page of the site of whatever airline you are considering buying on.

United just introduced an interesting option, a yearly baggage “subscription” called Premier Baggage. You pay $249 a year for free baggage for yourself and up to 8 companions traveling with you. For one couple it could theoretically pay for itself in less than two trips, and for a family in one, but if you would use it a lot you will probably qualify for a frequent flier exemption anyway.

Check it through. Many major airlines, even those not in partnerships, will allow shared baggage tags and transfers. Had I checked my luggage at the United counter in Boston onto the Horizon flight from L.A. to Mammoth, I never would have paid that $40. This is handy anytime you are flying into smaller ski town airports like Eagle, Aspen, Telluride and so on.

Rent gear. I always bring my boots and never carry my skis, but it is not to save on baggage. It is because unlike boots or golf clubs or surfboards, you can rent exactly the same skis you have in almost any major ski destination and it saves the hassle of schlepping them. In addition, conditions vary widely, and if you catch a powder day in Utah, your home skis from New England won’t do you much good anyway. From a financial perspective, renting skis, especially good skis, will not be cheaper than baggage fees, even as a substitute for the more expensive second baggage fee of $60 roundtrip. However, this savings will offset some rental cost and you will have tuned, brand new skis suited for the current conditions without having to try to fit them in your rental car.

Ship it. This is perhaps the fastest growing alternative. It not only avoids baggage fees but avoids baggage altogether. If you check in online and print your boarding passes you go straight to security with no lines or kiosks, and when you arrive you simply get off the plane, do not stop at the carousel, and most importantly, do not worry about lost or delayed baggage. One of my friends on my recent Mammoth trip never saw his bag for our entire stay, despite calling each day and being assured it was about to be delivered, forcing him not only to rent skis and boots, but to buy all new clothing. That’s after you’ve paid them $40 to lose your stuff.

The cheapest alternative is to pack everything up yourself and take it down to UPS or FedEx. Using the least expensive UPS Ground (5 days delivery or less), a 50 pound box will cost you between $10.95 and $39.53 to most places in the continental US. A practical example would be shipping a 50 pound box from Manhattan to Vail, which will cost $34.61 each way, more than any airline except the second bag fee on US Airways, but perhaps a better value in terms of security and convenience. FedEx Ground (4-day) for the same shipment is $57.56.

More expensive but easier to use are the numerous luggage and sports shipping service that have popped up, such as Sports Express/Luggage Forward and Luggage Free. Using its least expensive class of service, Sports Express quoted $217 round trip for the same box – three times as much as UPS — but picks up and delivers at both ends. I’ve used them in the past for my golf clubs, and they are quite good, even providing special packaging for ski and golf gear delivered to your door. But prices are hefty to say the least.

A final option to beating the airlines baggage game comes from an airline itself. United has gotten into direct competition with Sports Express and its brethren through its United Door To Door package delivery service, for which you do not have to be flying United. They are currently offering flat rates of $79-$99 per piece, with home pickup, which they claim is a sizeable discount over the services mentioned above, but this may be a short-lived introductory price.

Beg and argue. Airport counter personnel, while an endangered breed in the face of automated kiosks, do have the ability to waive fees, but usually need a reason. I ask anytime my flight is delayed, basically saying, “You’ve stolen two hours of my life, the least you could do is waive the baggage fee,” and have had good results.

Travelers, share your best ski travel tips below.”