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May 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 26, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Beating Baggage Fees for Dive Gear

Indo-Pacific dive trips are the worst –- but you can lower costs

from the May, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Undercurrent reader and underwater photographer Michael Emerson (Eden Prairie, MN) just returned from Papua New Guinea, where he was charged $565 because his bag was nine kilograms over the 40-kilogram limit on his Air New Guinea flight. "But prior to the flight, I had an e-mail from the airline through my agent which told me how much I could bring. Apparently, they dropped the weight by 10 kilograms between the e-mail and my flight. Nasty." When other Undercurrent subscribers read about his plight in our monthly Dive News e-mail, they sent us their own horror stories about baggage fees.

Trips to Indo-Pacific dive destinations are the worst. Jim Black (Millbrae, CA) is a U.S. airline employee but he no longer receives baggage-fee waivers outside of the U.S., and it's killing him whenever he travels to Asia. "Philippine Airlines cost me $221 from Manilla to Bangkok. Express Jet out of Manado to Sorong cost $300. On Lion Air to Sorong, many times it's over $100. While Indonesians with more luggage were not charged. Cathay Pacific in Hong Kong charged me $75 because my carry-on was overweight by a couple of pounds. I am considering a boycott on diving in Asia any more. It is getting out of hand."

Raja Ampat-bound divers particularly need to be aware of weight limitations when flying to Sarong to board their liveaboards. Frequent traveler Ed Druy (Owings Mills, MD) says, "The various airlines seem to have the same policies. They allow 25 kilograms per passenger for checked luggage (assuming Y class fare), and about 7 kilograms for a carryon. Excess weight over these limits is on the order of $4.50 per kilogram. So if the average diver has 40 kilograms of checked luggage and 15 kilograms of carry-on, the excess charge would be around $100. That heavy camera gear adds up fast."

No Rhyme or Reason

But others readers report varying success on baggage fees in the regions, with fees being waived on one leg of the flight, and hundreds charged for the exact same amount of luggage on the other. "On our last trip to Indonesia, Silk Air flew us, our dive gear and photo equipment from Singapore to Manado for no additional charge," says Bill Boswell (Houston, TX). "When we were leaving two weeks later, we encountered the same situation Michael Emerson encountered. After much haggling, we settled on $175 per person."

Then there's the strange, varying policies about what can be carryon luggage and what must be checked. Jim Heimer (Houston, TX) has this hair-tearing tale about his trip on Singapore Airlines to Bali last October. "My wife had packed her camera lenses and bodies in a backpack, which met the carry-on size requirements. She had a computer bag to carry her laptop, chargers, and other items. Though it was about half the size of a regular carry-on, she was not allowed to take it on board as a personal item because it had wheels and a handle. She had to unload the contents into a shopping bag, which she was then allowed to carry. Her nearly empty computer bag was then gate checked (no additional charge). I was towing a wheeled roll-aboard with my camera gear. The agent did not check the weight, which was well over the 25-pound limit, so I was allowed to take that on board with my over-the-shoulder computer bag. They seemed very picky about carry-on luggage."

The same go-figure policy apparently applies to domestic and Caribbean flights now, too. "On Easy Air from Bonaire to Curacao in June, I was charged for excess weight of five kilos," says Peter Jones (New York, NY). I got to the plane and discovered I was the only passenger. I guess they think all divers are billionaires."

"On a flight from Bonaire to Curacao, I
was charged for excess weight of five kilos
. . . even though I was the only passenger."

And be aware that Caribbean-based airlines may have lower baggage weight allowances than U.S.-based 737s that fly you there. Jan Culbertson (Seattle, WA) mentions Insel Airlines as an example. "Its website says each bag can weigh 20 kilos. Well, not exactly. If you are flying one of its large planes then this is true, but the website doesn't say that if you are flying a smaller plane, you are allowed only one bag and it can't weigh over 20 kilos. We had three bags at 18 kilograms each and had to pay $60 overweight charge from Bonaire to Curacao - - and they wanted cash. So beware of the inter-island flights , and check your plane first."

How can you beat those baggage fees? We gathered these seven tips, which include some good advice from your fellow divers.

Know the Policy

Being aware of how much the airlinescharge for bags is key. Factor in the fees when comparing fares because one airline might have a cheaper ticket but it could be more expensive once you realize how much it charges to check your luggage. FareCompare.com has a good baggage fee chart for domestic airlines (www.farecompare.com/how-to-shop/domestic-baggage-fee-chart.html).

Even if you're going overseas, consider using Southwest or Jet Blue to connect to the airport with your international flight. Southwest lets you check two bags for free, Jet Blue allows one.

Steve M. Dussault (Dover, NH) recommends calling the airline before every trip to get their current policy. "The policy could change (most likely, it did) since the last time you flew with that airline. For example, Continental Airlines has an interesting baggage policy -- the rates are dependent upon your destination. Be sure to bring documentation about the baggage policies so when the ticket agent attempts to overcharge you, you have some ammunition to contest the charges."

Check the Scales

One Way to Lower Baggage Fees:
Wear Your BCD Aboard the Plane

Having a small luggage scale at the ready can help you beat overweight fees, so weigh your bags before going to the airport. Often, airlines, deliberately or otherwise, have problems with their luggage scales. Ron Ross (Hagerstown, MD) used his small, hand-held luggage scale at home and it read 47 pounds for his bag. "At the airport, the same bag weighed 54 pounds. Okay, maybe my scale was off. But I wonder if US Air made a little extra by weighting the scale. What really got me was the overweight charge was $75. If I had another bag to move stuff into, the charge would only have been $25."

Ask the airline to use another scale to weigh your bags, says John Ware (Dallas, TX). "Last April, before heading to Bonaire on Delta, I weighed my camera box using a calibrated scale and adjusted the contents so it weighed 49 pounds. When the box was weighed at the Delta desk in Baltimore, the digital scale indicated 55 pounds. I asked when their scale was last calibrated and was told, 'Our scales are accurate,' and that I was going to be charged $150 for the overweight, though it was only one pound. After discussion, I asked for the camera box to be weighed on a different scale. Guess what? It read 49 pounds. The agent accepted that weight and I wasn't charged. I described this incident in a letter to Delta, which sent a form letter with two $25 discount coupons."

Get With a Program

Many airlines have frequent-flier programs that offer some sort of baggage fee discounts or waivers for elite or preferred members. When flying on Air Pacific to Fiji, Bill Markley (La Canada, CA) was threatened with a fee for his extra bag of dive gear. "I have American Airlines/Qantas Platinum status, and therefore additional baggage weight allowance because of it, so I booked my Fiji flight through Qantas. and was able to get Air Pacific, which code shares with Qantas, to waive the additional fee. Not so with the round-trip Pacific Sun flight to Nadi. It is owned by Air Pacific, but that flight had been booked by the resort I was staying at, so I couldn't get the fee waived."

"On the first digital scale, my camera box
weighed 55 pounds. I asked for it to be
weighed on a different scale. Guess what?
It read 49 pounds."

Frequent fliers with less than elite status should check with their airlines to see if they have a free-baggage program you can pay for. For a $349 annual fee, United's Premier Baggage program lets you and up to eight people check two free bags every time you fly together for a year. Also consider using an airlinebranded credit card. Continental and Delta offer cards that give you free checked-bags. And check with your hotels - - a number of national chains frequently feature bag-fee reimbursement promotions.

Ask for a Discount

Maurine Jones and Burt Shimlock, our resident Indonesia experts, say the standard allowance on almost all domestic carriers there is 20 kilos per person. "However, if you tell the agent at check-in that you are a diver and your bags contain sporting equipment, you can often get a discount. Garuda will give you an extra 15 kilos for a total of 35, which is downright reasonable! Merpati will give an extra 5 to 10 kilos, depending on the agent's mood. Lion Air will usually give you five kilos extra. Express Air are tough nuts, they get our business as a last resort. But if you don't ask, they are not going to volunteer the discount."

Ship it Instead

Depending on the size and weight of your luggage and how far you're traveling, it might be cheaper to groundship your items to and from your destination. Even if it costs a few dollars more, some might find the convenience of not having to lug bags to and from the airport worth the extra expense. Rates and speed of service vary, but rates drop dramatically if you can ship weeks in advance. A couple of shippers that promise quick international delivery cheaper than Federal Express are Luggage Express (www.usxpluggageexpress.com) and Luggage Free (www.luggagefree.com).

Buy a Lighter Bag

It could be a long-term investment to pay extra cash for lightweight luggage. While you may not be able to convert them to carry-ons, they can save you pounds of weight, and zero overweight fees. A few Undercurrent readers recently wrote on our online forum good reviews for Armor's lightweight bags, Mother Lode's eTech Junior bag and Stahlsac's "Jamaican Smuggler" bags. For details, visit the chat on Undercurrent's forum at www.undercurrent.org/diving_forum/index.php/topic,438.0.html

Wear or Rent Your Gear

In past issues, we recommended buying a travel vest to hold your carry-on items and beat airline luggage weight restrictions. And reader Harvey Cohen (Middlefield, NJ) had the cheaper idea of just putting on your BCD over your shirt, wearing it onto the plane, then stowing it in the overhead bin. "I sometimes use the zippered pockets to carry small stuff like snacks or a book. I've never had any comments from airlines or security." To cut the extra bag, consider renting some dive gear at your destination. The cost per day could vastly outweigh what those little airlines want to charge you to bring it on board. Finally, when it's all said and done, just remember: It ain't cheap to be a diver -- but it's well worth it.

- - Vanessa Richardson

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