If you’ve got to haul your belongings cross-country, cancel that road trip. Who knew checking 500 pounds of luggage was cheaper than shipping? In some cases, moving is packing up the car and driving across town. Unfortunately, that’s just for the easy moves.
For long-distance moves, I’ve always foolishly assumed to go with the airline that gives me the most free checked bags. Or find extremely loving friends and family who were traveling between the two cities to take back baggage piecemeal for me. But Virgin America’s checked baggage policy is so surprisingly generous that it only costs $250 to check 10 standard-sized suitcases on the plane.
But if you’re not in a city that Virgin America services, don’t worry. After Virgin, Southwest, Alaska and JetBlue are the respective runners-up when it comes to the cheapest baggage fees. In fact, we’ve got the full lowdown on total baggage costs—depending on the number of items you plan to check in—across all major domestic airlines, so you can see how these fees stack up in one quick glance instead of calculating how American and United stack up by the time you check the 3rd bag.
Perhaps the only qualification for being the best airline to move with? A reasonable checked bag policy. Because you’ll be bringing lots. After all, this is about making sure everything gets to your destination.
It can get complicated but the baggage allowance you receive generally depends on the cabin you’re flying in, airline status and destination. To make things straightforward as possible, we pulled together a complete list of baggage fees for those flying in economy (or the cheapest) class domestically without any special considerations. The chart below shows the standard charges for each bag:
Baggage fees per bag.
[UPDATE: JetBlue has raised their second bag fee to $50 for all tickets issued after May 21, 2014. JetBlue costs in the second chart are now off by $10 but everything else should still be accurate.]
It should be noted that every airline we contacted except for Southwest did not have a checked bag limit, though JetBlue made it clear this was “subject to airport approval.” Southwest only accepts up to nine bags.
This is all and great, but I’ve always been frustrated on how charts like this don’t give me a clear sense of how baggage charges add up over the course of all the different airlines. So we did some calculations on total costs and took the guesswork out of it:
Total baggage costs, sorted by airline and bags checked. The cheapest is highlighted in red.
For those who are only interested in checking one bag, JetBlue and Southwest are the clear winners — the first bag is free. However, if you’re interested in checking two bags, Southwest should be your preferred airline because they offer the second bag gratis while JetBlue starts to charge for the second item.
It’s when we reach the third bag that the dynamics begin to shift. JetBlue stops being an economical option, jumping to third place behind Virgin America and Southwest. For those who’ve got substantially more baggage, the latter are the best choices with only a total checked bag cost of $75.
The reason that why Virgin America ends up being the best carrier in the long-run is because they only charge a flat $25 fee for each bag that you check, no matter how many suitcases you decide to check. With every other single airline, the price of each bag tends to exponentially increase—in some cases up to $200 per bag!—after the 2nd or 3rd checked bag. That’s the price ceiling, though, and Virgin’s advantage is only amplified with every extra checked item.
To demonstrate the cost differential, let’s take a look at how much it costs to check ten 50-pound bags in total. (That’s 500 pounds of checked baggage.) On American Airlines, after assessing for excess baggage costs, it would cost $1610 in total to check 10 items. On Virgin America, that same amount of luggage would amount to $250, shaving $1360 off the total cost.
That’s a lot of money.
Of course, getting that amount of baggage to the airport can seriously be a hassle, but I’ve always advocated for curbside check-in when you’re dealing with luggage several times your body weight. There are, however, many more options for transporting large amounts of items when you reach your destination.
If you’re moving to a highly metropolitan area like San Francisco or New York, you might want to look into a baggage delivery service like Bags VIP to get the bags to your front door. They pick up your bags from any domestic flight and deliver it to you for a flat fee. According to the website, it only costs $49.95 to deliver 3-8 bags to within 40 miles of the airport; if you choose this route, I highly recommend that you carry at least one bag on so that you have some clothes and toiletries available in the meantime.
In some cases, a taxi can often cost up to this much and more. Bag delivery essentially “frees” you up so you can get to your destination more economically than you would and simultaneously takes the stress out of it. Of course, this depends: there have been times where I’ve just decided to eliminate the delivery step altogether and hail a cab. The decision ultimately rests on various factors like arrival time, cost and how grumpy I think I might be.
Which is all a roundabout way of saying that you should still fly on Virgin.