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How to Pack Like a Ninja to Avoid Baggage Fees

Published: February 23, 2012

Remember the good old days when the price of your airline ticket included a snack, a drink, and a checked bag? It doesn’t look like those perks are coming back any time soon; these days, you’re lucky if your checked bags are being moved by humans and not by robotic baggage handlers. Luckily, inventive air travelers have come up with all kinds of creative ways to make the baggage process easier, from packing with airport security in mind to simply wearing all your electronics in a many-pocketed jacket.

Any savvy traveler knows it’s best not to check bags if you can help it; besides saving a few bucks on checked bag fees, you’re also spared the hassle of figuring out how to track down a lost suitcase. With that in mind, here are some expert tips to help you avoid checking luggage on your next trip.

1. Measure your bag.
You know those metal suitcase-measuring racks in front of the airline ticket counter? They aren’t just for decoration; airline employees can (and will) make you stuff your suitcase inside to make sure it conforms to the maximum dimensions allowed. So before you get start your ninja packing job, do yourself a favor and measure your bag. Maximum carry-on dimensions can vary by airline and unfortunately seem to be getting less generous all the time. Don’t assume that because your bag was allowed last time, it’s still good to go.

2. Wear bulky or heavy items.
We’re not suggesting you pile on your wardrobe for your entire trip, but think a little about the things you plan on taking before you start trying to cram them into your suitcase. Do you want to pack cowboy boots, a heavy sweater, and your belt with the license plate-sized metal buckle? Consider wearing those items on the day you fly; that way, you’ll have them with you but you won’t have to waste valuable packing space on items that take up more than their share of space and weight.

Wearing the heaviest items is especially worth considering if you plan on taking two of the same thing (think two pairs of shoes or two jackets). Which one is more of a pain to pack? Voila¬† –¬†that’s the one you should wear to the airport.

3. Eliminate unnecessary items.
Think about where you’re going. If you’re staying at a hotel or with friends, you may not need to bring your own hair dryer. If you’re going to be gone for a long time, it might make more sense to pick up soap and shampoo at your destination rather than trying to fit 10 days’ worth into your carry-on bag.

This raises another good point: Make sure to brush up on the Transportation Security Administration’s list of no-fly items for carry-on luggage. There’s nothing more frustrating than doing an outstanding job of packing only to have to throw away your favorite lotion at security because the container is larger than 3 ounces.

4. Use carry-on freebies to your advantage.
Consult your airline’s website to find out exactly what the rules for carry-on luggage are. Some airlines allow you only one piece of baggage plus the outfit you’re wearing; some, like European budget carrier RyanAir, even make you cram your purse into that one suitcase. Other airlines are considerably more lenient and allow one suitcase and one personal item like a small backpack, laptop case, or purse. Doublecheck the maximum dimensions. If you’re lucky, you may be able to stuff a few things into your personal item and free up a little extra room in your suitcase.

5. Pack like a ninja.

Try a try a roll-up vacuum-sealed garment bag.

Now comes the fun part. You want the inside of your suitcase to look like a successful game of Tetris, with every piece fitting neatly into the piece beside it and no wasted space. Use socks, pajamas, and other items that can get wrinkled to fill in the otherwise useless crannies of space within your bag. If you’re packing shoes, don’t let the space inside go to waste; stuff some socks inside. If you’re really dedicated to maximizing your space, try a roll-up vacuum-sealed garment bag (though you should be prepared for your clothes to come out looking a bit wrinkled).

6. Weigh your bag.
Just because you’ve succeeded in maximizing every atom of space in your suitcase doesn’t mean you’re ready to hit the airport. Some airlines’ allowances for carry-on bags are very generous (read: any heavier and you’d barely be able to lift it into the overhead compartment). Others, though, restrict the weight to 20, 25, or 30 pounds. Weigh your bag on your home scale to avoid unpleasant surprises at the airport. If your suitcase is just a little over the allowed weight, try shifting heavier items from your carry-on bag to your personal item. Otherwise, it’s back to the drawing board.

7. Know when to give in.
We’ve all fumed at those irritating travelers with carry-on bags so big they have to be smashed into the overhead compartment by flight attendants. Don’t be that person. If you’ve packed your carry-on like a minimalist rock star and your suitcase is still too big or too heavy, it’s time to bite the bullet and pay for a checked bag.

If you’re traveling with someone else, you can reduce the damage by combining your stuff into one checked bag and one or two carry-ons. If you’re traveling on your own, try to think practically. Would you rather pay to check a bag and have everything you need for your trip, or end up having to buy a heavier coat because it’s rainy and there wasn’t room in your suitcase for bad weather attire? That’s what we thought.

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