This Clark Howard travel hack could save you a ton on baggage fees

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I remember many years ago listening to Clark Howard muse about the unique way he skirts airline baggage fees.

My memory is a tad foggy — so don’t want to put words in his mouth — but essentially he would decline to pay for a bag by leaving most of his clothes at home. Then, when he lands at his destination, he pops over to the local Goodwill or Salvation Army equivalent and buys a temporary wardrobe for like $15.

The guy will do anything to save a few bucks (I love him for that). And now in my 30s, I still practice this trick when I know it’ll save me money.

Checked bags with major airlines aren’t difficult to get for free if you have a qualifying airline credit card. But this is a fun practice for other airlines — particularly low-cost carriers where baggage fees are nearly unavoidable.

I’ll give some more explanation, and describe how it burned me during one of my last pre-coronavirus trips.

You won’t have to wait at the airport for your bags and will save some money with this travel tip. (Photo by Saul Martinez/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Leave your clothes at home to avoid airline baggage fees

Best airlines for this trick

Let me start by giving you a table of airlines for which this trick is most useful. The below carriers charge for both carry-on and checked bags (sometimes carry-on bags can even be more expensive than a checked bag!):

AirlineCarry-on baggage fee (round-trip)Checked baggage fees
Frontier$78+ domestic, $96+ international (depending on route)$78+ domestic and international (depending on route)
Spirit Airlines$78 domestic, $96 international$68 domestic, $86 international

As you can see, if you’re traveling somewhere other than North and South America, these airlines don’t really apply to you. They fly mostly domestic, with Frontier and Spirit flying south of the border, to areas like Mexico and Peru.

Before the coronavirus, airlines like Norwegian and WOW Air flew across the Atlantic for insanely cheap — while charging an arm and a leg for baggage. We don’t really see those types of low-cost carriers serving the U.S. anymore, and probably won’t for some time. The inception of Norse Atlantic Airways may be the next time we get the opportunity to fly a low-cost carrier to Europe.

How to know when to use it

Examining the table above, we can get an idea of which situation it would be beneficial to use this trick. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does my airline charge exorbitantly for bags?
  • Is the climate warm?
  • Is the money I’ll save in fees worth the effort to buy a wardrobe when I touch down?

You’ve pretty much got to answer “yes” to all three bullets for this to be worthwhile. And the more people you’re traveling with, the more money you can save. As an example, if my family of two flies to Florida on Frontier, we could easily spend $156 on baggage. I can quickly google a map of thrift stores in the area and pick up some cheap shorts, shirts and sundresses. Warm weather means we’re wearing flip-flops most of the time, and we don’t need quality clothing to keep us warm.

Also, remember to allocate a few dollars for detergent and a wash/dry cycle at the laundromat — and anything else you didn’t pack into your personal item, like toothpaste. All-in, we could easily save $100 by making a pit stop at the thrift store and an inconvenient trip to the laundromat. After your trip, you can even swing by the thrift store again and re-donate the clothes.

I’ve got to say, while this is undeniably more effort, it’s such a fun way to pick up a souvenir or two from your trip. Clothing makes the absolute best memorabilia. Some people prefer fridge magnets, some people prefer whittled figurines. I’ve got shoes from Mexico, a hat from Peru, and a shirt from Dubai, just to name a few. And I remember all the good times whenever I put them on.

I’ve still got a bright orange shirt from the thrift store during my first-ever visit to Maui.

The Salvation Army in Kihei, Maui, where I spent about $22 in clothes for a 13-day vacation. That’s a whole other story. (Photo by Joseph Hostetler/Million Mile Secrets)

Research your destination to ensure you’ll save money

The one time this strategy horribly backfired was during a trip to Iceland. I had purchased a flight on WOW Air, a since-defunct low-cost Icelandic airline. I brought only a personal item and figured to buy the necessities once arriving in Reykjavik.

I did not anticipate the nightmarishly high clothing prices of all secondhand stores — jackets and pants selling for literally $70+. Not only that, but I needed warm clothes, so I couldn’t settle for a couple pairs of board shorts and t-shirts. I remember the chill in my veins when I first began glancing at prices and coming to the realization that I was about to spend more money on clothes than I had spent on my airfare.

The back room at Fatamarkaðurinn Second Hand Market in Reykjavik. (Photo by Joseph Hostetler/Million Mile Secrets)

I probably hit four different thrift stores (they’ve got a Salvation Army over there), but there was no way I’d be saving money during this trip. Scandinavia is expensive, and I should have done rudimentary research before decided to leave my bags at home.

Bottom line

Legacy carriers like American Airlines and Delta offer airline credit cards that waive your checked baggage fees. But low-cost airlines can charge such little money for flights because they know you’re going to pony up for bags — to the tune of potentially several hundred dollars, depending on the size of your family! You can save a ton of money by leaving your wardrobe at home and scooting over to the thrift store when you arrive.

When low-cost options return for flights to Europe and beyond, remember this tip! My general advice would be to only enact this strategy when traveling somewhere warm.

Let me know if you’ve ever done this yourself! And subscribe to our newsletter for travel tips, tricks, and ideas delivered to your inbox once per day.

Joseph Hostetler is a full-time writer for Million Mile Secrets, covering miles and points tips and tricks, as well as helpful travel-related news and deals. He has also authored and edited for The Points Guy.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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