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And you pay more than just bag fees. Suitcases come with surprising hidden costs—to your wallet, to your precious vacation time, and to your happiness.
I had this epiphany a few years ago in Hong Kong. From the moment I tried to boost my rolling suitcase into the overhead bin (it’s extra-tough, since I’m only 4’10”), my luggage made things miserable.
The airport train got me downtown, but it was a 20-minute walk to the hotel. I huffed my way up Hong Kong’s hilly streets, my suitcase’s wheels snagging on the uneven bricks behind me. I considered hailing a taxi, but I couldn’t admit defeat.
The hotel elevator was broken, so I heaved my bulky bag up the stairs. I was eager to start exploring, but not before I grabbed my portable phone charger. I couldn’t remember whether I left it in my backpack, my purse, or one of my suitcase’s six pockets. After five minutes of searching (and strewing all my clothes on the hotel floor), I found it wedged between a scarf I never ended up wearing and one of my two swimsuits.
Upon checkout, I left my bag with the bellhop to hold until my flight, but there was a line, so the ordeal took 20 minutes. As I waited for the bellhop to return the second time around, I wondered: Do I need two camera lenses? Was it important to bring my hair straightener? Packing Mickey ears for Hong Kong Disneyland wasn’t actually necessary, was it?
I don’t have kids and I’m not packing for a crowd—and I don’t need to act like it. So I made a resolution: I would never use rolling luggage again. In fact, I would never even use the overhead bins again. I would pack just enough to fit in the underseat space.
For this story, imagine a scenario in which you’re heading to San Francisco, where you’re staying in a luxury hotel atop the famous Nob Hill. Here’s how much your luggage could theoretically cost you.
The cost of roller bags
Airline bag fees are rising. In 2018, JetBlue Airways, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and American Airlines all hiked their fees by $5, from $25 to $30 for the first checked bag. For a family of four (each of whom checks a bag) with return tickets, you’d be $240 out of pocket. Some airline credit cards offer free checked bags but typically come with steep annual fees.
If you opt to carry on your luggage but have a roller bag, you’ll need the overhead bin. And if you booked a super-cheap Basic Economy ticket, you’ll likely incur bag fees. Some airlines, like United, impose a handling charge (in United’s case, $25) in addition to the checked-bag fee for Basic Economy passengers who bring full-size carry-on bags to the gate. Basic Economy can be an incredible deal—if you have a personal item only, so all your stuff fits under the seat in front of you.
Cost without luggage: $0
Cost with luggage: $60
Getting to your hotel
The train from the airport to downtown San Francisco costs about $10. After that, it’s either a delightful cable-car ride ($7 one way) or a 20-minute walk to Nob Hill, but the glute burn you get as you haul your suitcase up the steep streets isn’t exactly relaxing.
Instead, you’ll likely find yourself booking a taxi or Uber, which typically runs between $40 and $60. You should probably tip your driver, too (15% to 20% is customary).
Cost without luggage: $17 (including the cable car)
Cost with luggage: $46 to $72 (including tip)
Tipping your bellhop
It’s only noon, so your room isn’t ready. The hotel offers to hold your bags for free, but you should tip the bellhop ($1 to $2 per bag). If you have just a backpack, you don’t need to bother leaving your stuff at the hotel; you can start exploring San Francisco immediately. Of course, the lighter you’ve packed, the less obtrusive it will feel.
Cost without luggage: $0
Cost with luggage: $2
It’s checkout time, but you still have four hours to burn before your flight. If you’ve got a big bag, you could leave it at a luggage storage company as you continue to explore. Sometimes these are literal lockers, while services like LuggageHero (which is available in more than 30 cities) partner with cafés and other businesses to hold your stuff (typically $1 per hour, plus a $2 handling fee). That requires you to hunt down yet another address in an unfamiliar city, and you may need to download an app.
Cost without luggage: $0
Cost with luggage: $6
Missed opportunities to fly standby or profit from overbooked flights
At the gate, the agent announces your flight was overbooked. The airline offers $500 for you to give up your seat and catch a flight that departs 90 minutes later. (This happened to me when I flew from San Francisco to Atlanta.) I’d gladly sit in the Priority Pass lounge (the membership for which I get through my Chase Sapphire Reserve) for another hour and pocket $500.
However, airlines generally require passengers to fly on the plane with their bag, so if you checked your luggage, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to say yes to a last-minute flight change.
Cost without luggage: Net ~$500
Cost with luggage: Hundreds in opportunity costs
Source: NY Times – Wirecutter
Keyword: Don’t Travel With a Rolling Bag: The True Cost of Bulky Luggage