Michael Strickland's blog on all things travel: news, deals, destinations, dreams and more.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Watch your weight

If you're flying, traveling can be stressful. Arriving to the airport on time (especially if your flight departs at the crack of dawn), negotiating the check-in process, slogging through long security lines with travelers who don't know what "3-1-1" means.... It can sometimes be enough to make you want to turn around and go home.

And nothing compounds this stress like putting your luggage on the scale and finding out it's overweight. As a scuba diver whose bags of dive gear sometimes push the limit, I know what it's like to do the "underwear shuffle," moving stuff between bags at the check-in counter to get under the weight limit. It sucks—though not as much as paying the overweight fee (up to $125 per overweight bag on some airlines).

Here are some practical tips for "watching your weight":

Know the weight limits. First of all, you have to know how much is too much. For many domestic carriers, you're allowed two checked bags of 50 lbs each, free of charge, with a fee if your bag goes over. That's hardly a blanket rule, however. United just announced new rules that allow you to check only one bag for free (the second bag will cost you $25 each way). Some small commuter planes have a "hard" limit at 50 lbs per bag (you can't exceed the limit, even by paying a fee), and the space for carry-ons in the cabin is minimal. And if you're traveling outside the U.S., the international norm is a 20 kg limit (about 44 lbs).

Take an extra empty bag. If you don't have a scale at home, and you're concerned you might be close to the limit, take along a lightweight collapsible bag, empty plastic bag or pillowcase. That way, if you have to do the "underwear shuffle," you can quickly stuff items into the extra bag and carry it on, rather than try to move things between suitcases.

Choose luggage carefully. Do you always find yourself close to the weight limit? Maybe it's your luggage. Pick a bag that's not going to steal 20 percent of your weight allowance before you even a pair of socks in it.

Do you really need it? Of course, the weight of your luggage is directly related to how much crap you bring. The site 43 Folders makes some very obvious but practical observations: the amount of stuff you think you need is directly proportional to the size of your suitcase (i.e. fake yourself out by using a smaller bag); there's little difference between packing for a week and packing for a month; and, a tip I've come across many times: rip out the pages that you'll need from your guidebook, instead of taking the whole 5-lb Europe 2008 book (guidebooks don't have a long shelf life anyway, so don't worry about ruining it).

Lastly, here's a handy chart from USA Today that details U.S. airlines' charges for overweight bags. Watch your weight!


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