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Planning your theme park vacation: Save on airline baggage fees

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Published: January 29, 2009 at 12:39 PM

Yeah, call me a cheapstake. But I'm just not going to pay $15-$50 a bag to check my luggage on an airline flight. Especially given the (lack of) care that airlines typically have shown my bags in the past. I believe in Peter Greenberg's theory of airline luggage - that there are two kinds: carry-on and lost.

So when I fly somewhere, I'm packing everything into one carry-on, darn it. And I think that you should, too.

When I flew to Hawaii for the first time ever this month, my wife and I carried on our bags and didn't have to leave any essentials behind. Since flying to Hawaii requires a similar wardrobe to an Orlando or Southern California theme park trip, today I offer my tips on packing carry-on bags, so you can avoid the airlines' checked luggage fees. Plus, you'll save about half an hour at your destination, since you'll get to skip baggage claim. Time is money, too!

1) Pick the correct bag.

You need a bag that's no more than 22" x 14" x 9". And that includes the wheels, handles and anything else sticking outside the main bag. Those also are the maximum dimensions on most airlines when the bag is packed. Waiting the security line for our Hawaii trip, I watched two men get pulled from the line because their otherwise appropriate carry-on bags were so stuffed that they measured at least 12 inches deep, instead of the required nine.

Some airlines are weighing carry-ons as well as measuring them, so you can't exceed 50 pounds in the bad, either. So let's leave the heavy stuff at home, shall we?

2) Be smart about toiletries.

Here, the airlines are not your opponent. The government is. The Transportation Security Agency's "security theater" rules prohibit you taking through the security checkpoint any liquid or gel in a container larger than three ounces. And those must be placed in a single one-quart plastic bag. One bag per passenger. Obviously, you'll need to economize here.

The epiphany for me came when I realized that it was cheaper for me to buy sunscreen in Hawaii than to pay to check my bag. You'll get free shampoo and conditioner at your hotel. Plan to use them. Then stop at a grocery story on the way to your hotel to stock up on sunscreen, toothpaste, saving cream as well as any snacks you might need during your trip. Don't buy these at the airport or the hotel gift shop, because then you might end up spending more than you would have on the checked bag.

[Now, you'll notice that I am assuming that you'll have a rental car on your trip. If you are flying to Disney World and using Disney's Magical Express, which shuttles you from the airport straight to your hotel, you can skip much of this article. You'll have to wait on that Disney bus for your fellow passengers who did check bags, so there's no time advantage to carrying on. Plus, you won't have as many cheap options to buy supplies during your trip. If you're taking DME, I say, check the bag if that's easier on you and consider the extra $15+ bucks per bag the tradeoff for the free bus trips and not having to rent a car. But the packing tips below will help you maximize space in the bag for souvenirs on the return flight, so keep reading. ;-) ]

Save your precious plastic baggie space for make-up, deodorant or other relatively expensive items that the family wouldn't share and use up during the trip. Just make sure that you buy those in containers of three ounces or less.

I'm lucky when visiting the Central Florida parks in that my parents live in Celebration. So I've stashed a "dop kit" of toiletries with them that I use when I visit, allowing me to skip this concern altogether when flying to Orlando. Consider that option if you fly regularly to visit grandparents, etc. It's not like shaving cream and toothpaste spoil in a year.

3) Wear your jacket and bulkiest shoes.

If you can't stick to only one pair of shoes for your entire trip, wear the bulkiest ones on the days that you fly. That way, you can put the easier-to-pack shoes in your bag. If the packed shoes won't fold flat, stuff 'em with socks to maximize packing space.

You can stuff a fair amount of stuff into your jacker pockets, too, since that's an extra item that you carry on and that airlines almost never count against your limit.

4) Roll, roll, roll your clothes.

Never, ever fold your clothes into neat piles when packing luggage. Why?
A) That'll set the crease of the folds into your clothes. Maybe you want that; probably you don't.
B) That creates a lot of surface area for each piece of clothing to rub against its neighbor, creating more wrinkles.
C) It's not the most efficient use of space.

Instead, roll your clothes into little cylinders and pack those snugly into your bag. You'll get more into the bag and have less wrinkled clothing when you arrive. The key is to roll tightly. Fold the sleeves in on your shirts and the legs over on the pants and shorts, then roll as tightly as you can. Socks and undergarments should get the same treatment, too. (Again, load the socks into any packed shoes.)

The only downside? If you're also taking cameras and electric cords in your carry-on, your bag is going to look to the security agent like... a bunch of tight cylinders with cords and wires wrapped around them. Which means that you might end up having to open the bag at security and show them that you're just packing... clothes. So leave yourself five extra minutes and think about the money you're saving.

5) Remember your "personal item."

Thank heavens for second chances. In addition to your carry-on bag, most airlines allow you a second "personal item" to carry on. For ladies, that means your purse. But computer and diaper bags also count. And each person in the family gets one.

I pack my laptop and reservation print-outs in a computer bag, along with my cell phone, charger and other cords. I also use this to carry the book I'll read on the place and whatever snacks I've packed. My wife typically brings another computer bag, into which she's packed her book, snacks, a few extra items... and her purse. (Remember, you can bring as many bags as you want, so long as they fit into the two you are carrying on.)

The carry-on will go in the overhead compartment and the personal item under the seat in front of you, so remember you put anything you'll need during the flight into the personal bag.

Which brings us to my last item of advice.

6) Never book the bulkhead seat.

Because if you do, you won't have a seat in front of you, and you lose that space to stash a personal item. Plus the forward overhead compartments typically contain crew equipment, forcing you to stow your carry-ons behind you on the plane, which becomes a nightmare when you land and try to exit. Use the seat selection tool when you book your tickets and pick another row.

For a family of four checking one bag each on both legs of a trip, checked bags fees can add $200 to the cost of your vacation. That's a couple of hotel nights, or more in some places. Save that money, and save yourself the headache of waiting and wondering if your bags will show at the baggage claim by using these tips to help you carry on.

Readers' Opinions

From Mitchell Botwin on January 29, 2009 at 2:12 PM
Solid advice. I would also recommend looking into shipping home whatever will not fit into your suitcase. Most hotels have connections with FedEx or UPS and will ship it out for you. If you can get to the post office, that is also an option. The hotel shipping is best if you don't have a rental car.
From Deidre Dennis on January 29, 2009 at 8:30 PM
That is so funny because I was telling my family the other day that I want to vacuum seal my clothes to save space and each of us carry on our bags. I'm definitely leaning towards packing less stuff since we generally do laundry one evening we're on vacation anyway.

Anything to save on those fees!

From W McDougal on January 30, 2009 at 12:22 AM
In theory, you're supposed to stow your carry-on up above, and your personal item in the seat in front of you, but I've seen a lot of people put their personal item in the above compartment as well. The airlines are too short-staffed and frazzled to bother checking so if you book the bulkhead, you'll be fine with putting that personal item up above with your carry-on.
From Vickie OConnor on January 30, 2009 at 1:27 PM
I totally agree about taking all of your stuff as carry on luggage or sending it to the hotel ahead of time. That is what I always do. I don't trust the baggage handlers to get my luggage to my destination and I don't feel like standing around for a half hour or so to wait for it to get off the plane.
From Don Neal on February 2, 2009 at 11:06 AM
We pack light as well since we always do laundry while there. So you can pack about half of what you would think you need. We also roll our shirts and stuff. Great pointers Robert.

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