Baggage Fees, Economy Plus, and Fedex

Airlines have started "un-bundling" services — ostensibly making base ticket prices cheaper and then allowing people to pay to add things like checked bags, early boarding, seats with more legroom, etc. Many of these little perks are free to people with some kind of Elite status, but if you don't have status you're going to have to cough up some money (or spend more miles to sit in First, where most of these perks are included).

If flying First isn't an option, you might want to consider FedEx (or the US Postal Service) as an alternative to paying to check a bag. Maybe someday Japan's amazing Takkyubin delivery service will launch in the US, but until then FedEx will have to do. Depending on the size and weight of your bags, it can be as cheap (or cheaper) than paying the airlines' fees. Plus it gets dropped at your destination versus waiting around the airport and then schlepping it home. Shipping can be especially cost-effective if NOT having a big bag enables you to take public transport on either end of your trip versus an Uber or Taxi!

I decided to do some comparisons based on two sample items:


  • It's always cheaper to check the bag if you're flying internationally
  • If your bag HAS to be there the next day, it's ALWAYS cheaper to check it
  • If you can fit your stuff into the USPS flat rate Large Box, it's cheaper than a checked bag
  • But maybe you can pack differently so your big bag can show up 2 days after you and your carry-on?
  • For short flights (e.g., LAX – SFO), FedEx Ground is the same price as a checked bag and it shows up in 2 days
  • For long distances (e.g., SFO – JFK), FedEx Ground is a bit more than a checked bag and takes 5 days. 
  • If you decide to do it, set up a FedEx account and print everything out at home. The walk-up rate in the store is much higher and filling out those forms by hand is no fun. 
  • Factor in external costs (how will you get the box to FedEx? can you take the train to the airport now that you have no big bags to carry?)
  • Buying up to Economy Plus seating doesn't get you a free checked bag

The details

First off, how are you going to get the box to FedEd or the Post Office and how much will that cost you? FedEx will pick it up for $3 if you request the pickup electronically with at least a day's notice ($4 for same day), but if that's not convenient you might need to drive/cab/lug it to the nearest Fedex dropoff point. Remember to do this thinking for both ends of the trip.

Coast-to-Coast FedEx

The coast-to-coast proposition isn't great – $50.90 to ship a bag that will take 5 days to show up. All of the speedier options are vastly more expensive than checking a bag. But 5 days isn't a deal-breaker in all cases: I personally have a scenario where we're going to do it. My entire family is coming here for Christmas: think lots of presents and heavy clothes for an East Coast winter that you don't need for West Coast winter. This is exactly the kind of thing that can spend 5 days in transit. Given that 6 people each checking a bag is $300 ($25/person each way), this gives quite a budget for shipping. As you can see below, the price for a big box doesn't really go up between 30 and 50 pounds. And jumping it up to 60 pounds only brings the price up another $3. And given the chaos of 2 adults, 2 seniors, and 2 kids navigating Newark Airport and into Manhattan, I think the trip will be a lot simpler this way.

(I also included the price of a box the size of a carry-on, so you could see the effect that smaller volume has on prices.) 

United largest checked bag, 50 pounds, coast-to-coast
United largest checked bag, 30 pounds, coast-to-coast (the lighter weight didn't affect the price at all)
United carry-on bag, 30 pounds, coast-to-coast
United carry-on bag, 50 pounds, coast-to-coast

Short Haul

For short haul flights, FedEx is a lot more appealing — much shorter delivery times and much lower prices. As above, 30 pounds and 50 pounds are the same price, and a smaller box saves you even more.

United largest checked bag, 30 pounds, San Francisco - Portland

United largest checked bag, 50 pounds, San Francisco - Portland
United carry-on bag, 30 pounds, San Francisco - Portland
United carry-on, 50 pounds, San Francisco - Portland


This is your best best at USPS

I tried a whole bunch of option on the USPS website and nearly all of them were priced way above FedEx's rates. The lone exception I could find was the Large Flat Rate Box option, which is $18.75 for any weight up to 50 pounds. This box is 38.5 linear inches, but keep in mind the largest legal carry-on is 45 linear inches. This could still come in handy depending on your baggage situation.


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