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With new rules, it pays to travel light

Times Staff Writer

Tom and Jean Craft received quite a shocker last summer when they checked in at Rome’s Da Vinci airport for a post-cruise flight to Paris: a $332 charge for excess baggage.

Volare Airlines, one of Europe’s many low-cost carriers, allowed each passenger only 33 pounds (15 kilograms) of free baggage, including carry-ons, Tom said. Toting two roll-aboards each plus two carry-ons, the Thousand Oaks couple were way over the limit for Volare, which has since stopped flying. Tom has been left with this lesson: “Be careful with whom you book. Next time we have flights, luggage restrictions are high on my list to check.”

They should be high on your list too, especially when flying to and within Europe. The rules are changing, even in the U.S., and violating them can cost hundreds of dollars.

Among things to watch for:

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The dozens of low-cost carriers in Europe set different luggage limits. Complicating matters, those limits usually are expressed in kilograms; 1 kilogram is about 2.2 pounds.

Although Volare’s limits appear extreme, the free baggage allowance for Dublin-based Ryanair, for instance, is about 33 pounds (15 kilograms) for checked bags and 22 pounds (10 kilograms) for a carry-on. Its excess fees are about $2.63 per pound. London-based EasyJet limits free checked baggage to 44 pounds (20 kilograms); excess fees are about $3.40 per pound.

Major European carriers tend to be more generous -- but not always. Ireland’s Aer Lingus, for instance, limits coach passengers to 44 pounds of free checked baggage, except on transatlantic routes. On those, following industry practice, it allows up to two bags, within certain size limits, providing none weighs more than 70 pounds (32 kilograms). Excess fees are $2.93 per pound; on transatlantic routes, they’re $70 for each extra bag.

British Airways has a similar transatlantic policy. On its other international routes, coach passengers can check 51 pounds (23 kilograms) of luggage for free; within Britain, they can check one piece, up to 70 pounds. Excess fees vary by route and fare.

European airports are starting to restrict the weight of checked bags. London’s Heathrow Airport last year began rejecting checked bags heavier than 70 pounds. England’s Manchester Airport, citing an increasing rate of injuries to baggage handlers, did the same April 1.

“I think more airports will move to this standard,” said a spokesman for the airlines’ International Air Transport Assn. (IATA), based in Geneva.

Some U.S. carriers are cracking down too. American Airlines last month dropped its weight limit for free checked bags on international flights from 70 to 50 pounds per bag, matching its domestic limit. (It bans bags heavier than 70 pounds from flights to Europe and Asia.) Fees for overweight bags start at $25. Fees for checking more than two bags start at $80 per bag.

On April 1, Southwest, which does not fly internationally, dropped its free allowance from 70 to 50 pounds per checked bag. Fees for overweight bags start at $25. Southwest still allows up to three free checked bags per person -- more than many competitors do; each extra bag, up to nine, costs $50.

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Airlines and industry observers cite several reasons for tough limits. Extra-heavy bags, they say, injure baggage handlers and flight attendants, hurt fuel economy by adding weight and slow turnaround times because they require special handling.

Airlines deny that hefty excess-baggage fees drive their luggage policies. The fees do bring in a tidy sum -- more than $259 million for U.S. carriers in 2003, the last full year for which federal figures were available, and that sum is increasing. But that’s hardly enough to slow the flow of red ink the industry spills each year. “This isn’t just another attempt to find a new fee,” said Tim Smith, an American Airlines spokesman. “We’re looking in terms of injury to employees.” By setting the same limit for domestic and international flights, he added, the airline also hopes to make the rules less confusing.

Although it’s hard to find statistics on the number of pieces of baggage and their weight, many industry insiders say they’re seeing more and heavier luggage as leisure travel increases and wheeled bags proliferate.

As for carry-ons, the International Air Transport Assn. recommends that the combined length, width and depth of the bag be limited to 45 inches. Many but not all carriers follow this; Continental Airlines, for instance, bumps the limit up to 51 inches.

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Airlines commonly set weight as well as size limits. But only foreign carriers seem inclined to reject carry-ons based on weight. Within Europe and when flying internationally anywhere, the limit can be as little as 13 pounds, or about 6 kilograms.

Not so in the U.S., in my experience. I’ve never had an airline put my carry-on on a scale.

“We do not routinely weigh carry-ons,” said American’s Smith, even though the airline’s official limit for these is 40 pounds per bag.

Weighing each bag takes too much time, he explained, although it may be done if ticket agents spot “some sort of issue” with the bag. The size limit set by the airline -- 45 inches for the combined length, width and height of the carry-on -- tends to control weight too, he added.

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Even experts can’t keep up with the changing rules. A spokesman for the European division of the industry’s Airports Council International hadn’t heard about Manchester Airport’s new limit. A Southwest spokeswoman was grateful to learn about American’s change; she was flying that airline the next day.

Don’t expect the confusion to end soon. Saying baggage limits are a commercial matter, government regulators in the U.S. and Europe let airlines set their own rules. The International Air Transport Assn. recommends but doesn’t enforce guidelines.

“It’s the Wild West” on bag rules, the IATA spokesman said.

Here’s how to avoid a showdown at the ticket counter:

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Know before you go: Call the airline or consult its website. The IATA site offers handy links to nearly 100 airlines’ policies; go to www.iata.org/ps/services/bags/links.htm.

Divide and conquer: Split your belongings between two bags. Just because you can wheel it to the ticket counter doesn’t mean your bag will fly.

Devise a Plan B: What will you do if the airline makes you check your only piece of luggage, which you had planned to carry with you on a 17-hour journey?

That happened to my partner and me on a recent trip, when we ran afoul of a 15-pound carry-on limit on China Airlines. We frantically repacked in line at the LAX ticket counter, cramming inflatable pillows, eyeshades and more into our purses. I already had put needed medicines in my purse. What if I had forgotten them?

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Take less stuff: There’s no substitute for traveling light. For tips on how and what to pack, go to www.travelsense.org; click on “Travel Tips” and “Packing” (American Society of Travel Agents) and www.ricksteves.com; click on “Plan Your Trip” and “Travel Tips” (Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Back Door tour company).

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Hear more tips from Jane Engle on Travel Insider topics at latimes.com/engle. She welcomes comments but can’t respond individually to letters and calls. Write to Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, or e-mail jane.engle@latimes.com.


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