There are restrictions on hand luggage size

Hand baggage regulations get more and more puzzling every day, with airlines holding varying policies on size, weight, carry ons and hold. Now fines are being slapped on at departure gates for those who get their calculations wrong. Lauren Kelly tries to find her way through the mindboggling maze, and escape without an excess baggage charge.

Essential items for preparing your luggage for a 21st-century voyage: scales, calculator, measuring stick, aspirin.

Finding your way through airlines' luggage rules are enough to bring on a headache. Some vow to slap a hefty fine on passengers at the boarding gate, if they have got their calculations wrong. It could even mean passengers end up paying more for their baggage than the price of a flight.

EasyJet passengers who appear at the check-in desk with an oversized carry-on bag are given a £25 fine, according to a new policy. What’s more, if passengers makes their way to the boarding gate and their hand luggage is deemed over-sized or over-weight, a £40 charge is enforced. On both occasions, the passenger’s baggage will be checked into the hold following payment.

EasyJet isn't the only airline to be handing out fines at the gate. Low-cost competitor Ryanair also rejects oversized cabin baggage at the boarding gate, or places it in the hold of the aircraft for a £35 fee when space is available.

When it comes to hand luggage, you’d expect the perceived one-size-fits-all policy of one free item of carry-on luggage to be the rule of thumb. Don't bet on it.

Overhead Luggage Airplane 200There are restrictions on hand luggage size
Hemera / Thinkstock

With all airlines, it is important to heed the size restrictions for carry-on luggage, as failing to do so will have its consequences. Be aware of Spirit Airlines’ policy, for example, whereby you’ll be charged for hand luggage (larger than 40x35x30cm /16x14x12 inches) that does not fit in the under-seat space. This can be up to US$45 per item – a big dent in the budget at the start of your holiday.

Some airlines - such as British Airways - allow you to take a handbag or laptop as well as a seperate bag, dimensions 22 x 18 x 10 inches - others don't allow an additional laptop, for instance, EasyJet. We've also heard reports of crackdowns on the size of duty free shopping bags.

Traveller Peter Payne said: "I bought a box of biscuits at the duty free shop in Barajas Airport in Madrid, adjacent to the boarding gate, beyond the security check. This was placed into a duty free carrier bag, by the cashier. When I got to the boarding gate the Ryanair representative said that I could not board the plane with two hand luggage bags and the duty free bag had to be placed into my normal hand luggage. I was astonished."

But, surprisingly, Ryanair's regulations on its website do state: "Handbag, briefcase, laptop, shop purchases, camera must be carried in your one permitted piece of cabin baggage".

Guide to checked luggage restrictions

If cabin baggage regulations were not confusing enough, the situation gets a little more complicated when it comes to stowed baggage, with greater fluctuation between airlines in baggage fees and restrictions.

British Airways allows all passengers at least one piece of hold baggage for free, but some get to take more dependent on fare, class and destination. Clear as mud then. For some reason passengers going to Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana and travelling from India to the US or Canada get extra allowances, even in economy, and can take two bags on both BA and Virgin. And from this February BA started allowing full fare economy ticket holders (not the cheaper economy tickets) two hold bags instead of one. And if you are travelling one way in a higher class and back in economy you get to use the higher baggage quota in both directions on BA. Extra baggage on BA will cost up to £40 for the first additional bag and up to £90 for any further luggage. Virgin Atlantic has similar fees, with one bag allowed per person in economy, – but it must weigh less than 23kg (50lbs).

Airport Luggage 200Restrictions on hold baggage vary between airlines
Hemera / Thinkstock

BMI’s policy is wholly based on weight. Instead of allowing one piece of stowed baggage for free, the airline allows a passenger unlimited pieces of hold baggage up to a combined weight of 20kg (44lbs). A passenger is then charged per additional kilogram they require, from £9 to £22 depending on the destination.

A passenger’s allowance often depends on their in-air status. A British Airways First Club World or Virgin Atlantic Upper Class passenger, for example, is given an allowance of three free pieces of hold luggage, while a Virgin Atlantic Premium Economy passenger or a British Airways World Traveller Plus passenger has an allowance of two checked bags.

Air France allows one piece of checked luggage of up to 23kg (50lbs) – or two items of up to 32kg (70lbs) in premium classes. KLM follows a similar policy, but two pieces of luggage at a similar weight are allowed on specified routes. Extra baggage penalties on these airlines start from €55 (£48) on most routes, with higher costs for long-haul destinations.

Luggage Trolley Airport 200Extra luggage costs vary between airlines

Lufthansa allows numerous bags on its European flights up to a combined weight of 20kg, and up to two bags weighing a total of 23kg (50lbs) on most non-European routes. The charge for excess baggage can range from €5 (£4) per extra kilogram on domestic German flights to €40 (£35) for long-haul destinations. The German airline provides an especially good option for ski breaks, as it offers to check one ski bag into the hold, free of charge, on routes within Europe and from European destinations.

Generally US-based airlines, such as United Airlines, Delta, Continental and American Airlines, allow either one free stowed item or multiple items up to a specified weight on international flights. With these airlines, an additional item will cost £30-60.

Guide to minimising baggage fees

If you require excess baggage, be sure to pay the charge online as discounts are available ahead of time compared to when it is paid at the airport. Joining a frequent flyer program may also help. One perk is often having your baggage fees waived or baggage allowance increased by the airline when you reach a certain status, or when you have gained a specific number of air miles. While this means you’ll have to commit to using one airline more regularly, the benefits can be well worth it.

Guide to clever packing

When it comes to the task of actually packing, there are a few things to keep in mind so you don’t face any unexpected fees or inconvenience.

Bringing multiple-use items, such as a sarong that can function as a beach towel, scarf, skirt or cover-up, will reduce the number of items you are required to pack and, thus decrease the weight of your suitcase..

Luggage Packing 200Clever packing is essential
Getty Images / Thinkstock

Also, having a lightweight suitcase or carry-on will give you more leeway when packing under weight restrictions. A soft suitcase such as a duffle, meanwhile, is a good option as the bag can be condensed if you’re just short of fitting the airlines size restrictions. Try to wear bulky and heavy items (such as ski jackets or hiking boots).

Buying toiletries once through airport security will allow you to avoid the hassle of removing any liquids when going through security. As long as you don’t go overboard with the quantity you buy, these items can be carried in a duty free plastic bag on most airlines.

The best way to save any hassle or extra cost, however, is to weigh your baggage before heading off to the airport and verify it’s within the size guidelines specified by the airline. It pays to be prepared.

*All prices and policies are correct as of 18 April 2011

Visa and passport information is updated regularly and is correct at the time of publishing. You should verify critical travel information independently with the relevant embassy before you travel.