Airline baggage policies can be complicated. A lot depends on which carrier you fly, the route you are taking, your status with the airline, if you carry a particular credit card and even the time of year you are flying.
As a general rule, most major airlines allow passengers to take a carry-on and a personal item on board with them for free, and most currently charge for checked bags, but that varies by airline, destination and type of seat booked.
It gets even trickier though, because all airlines have their own size and weight restrictions when it comes to carry-on and checked baggage. Further complicating the issue is what counts as a personal item and whether things like strollers or sports equipment count as part of your checked bag allowance. You might decide to leave that surfboard at home when you realize how much it is going to cost you to take it on your trip.
If you fly primarily on one airline and travel light, baggage rules may not be an issue, but if you fly multiple carriers, it’s hard to keep track of what is allowed. It’s important to check on the baggage policy requirements for the airline you are flying before you pack.
Be sure to weigh and measure the luggage you plan to check before you get to the airport so you can avoid the extra fees involved or the embarrassing situation of shifting things in your luggage at the check-in counter to avoid baggage fees.
Southwest Airlines Luggage Rules
Southwest Airlines, a low-cost airline that primarily flies throughout the US, has one of the most generous policies when it comes to checked bags. They allow two pieces of luggage per ticketed customer for free, while most major domestic carriers charge $30 or more for the first checked bag and even bigger fees for second and third bags.
Booking a seat in first, business or another premium class or having elite status with an airline will often get you a free checked bag or two. But Southwest doesn’t offer first class on its planes, and its A-List elite status program does not include any extra baggage perks.
Airline co-branded credit cards may also offer extra baggage allowance for the carrier they are affiliated with, but even though Southwest offers a number of personal and business Chase Rapid Rewards Visa credit cards, a luggage benefit is not included on any of them. There are some credit cards that will reimburse you for travel expenses like checked bags, but more on that later.
In this article, we are going to outline what you can and can’t take on board a Southwest flight, what you can check, and what size and weight those items can be. We’ll also discuss the fees for overweight, oversized and excess baggage, and tips on how to avoid paying those charges.
You are allowed to bring one carry-on suitcase and one personal item on board the plane with you. The carry-on should be stored in the overhead bin, and it can not be bigger than 10 x 16 x 24 inches. If it is larger than that, you will have to check it at the gate, and if you already have two checked bags, you will have to pay an excess baggage fee of $75.
You can bring your liquids, creams, gels and toothpaste in a quart-sized clear bag in your carry-on luggage as long as none are more than 3.4 ounces. You can also bring one lighter, an e-cigarette, 15 electronic devices and up to 20 batteries, but they must all be in your carry-on.
You are also allowed one personal item on board, which might be a purse, backpack, briefcase, laptop/case, camera or food containers. This item should fit under the seat in front of you, and should not be bigger than 18.5 x 8.5 x 13.5 inches.
There are some things you are allowed to bring on board that won’t count as a personal or carry-on item including your coat or jacket, food in disposable packaging, assistive or mobility devices for disabled individuals, canes and umbrellas.
Carry-On Rules for Toddlers and Children
When you travel with your family, that can mean a lot of extra gear. Let’s walk through the rules on what you can bring on board the plane or check when you have kids in tow.
You can check one stroller and one car seat or child restraint system (CRS) per child for free in addition to your free baggage allowance. You can check these curbside, at the ticket counter or at the gate.
You can also bring a safety seat for a child with a reserved seat, but booster seats with no back are not allowed nor are devices that tie the child to a parent because they cannot be used during takeoff and landing.
A CRS is recommended for any child that is under 40 pounds when flying. Southwest plane seats are 15.5-17.8 inches wide depending on the aircraft and seat assignment, so check what equipment you are flying on and measure the child seat to make sure it will fit.
If you plan to bring a harness-type restraint, only the CARES CRS is approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for travel on aircraft. Also, when selecting seats, keep in mind that you cannot use a child seat in an aisle seat or one located in an emergency row exit or the row behind or in front of that exit.
If you have a lap infant that does not have a reserved seat (the child must be between two weeks and two years to qualify), you will have to include any carry-on and personal items for the baby in your allowance.
If you are breastfeeding, you can bring a bag containing a breast pump and/or breast milk in addition to your carry-on and personal item, but that’s all that is allowed in that bag. You can also bring baby formula or food in carry-on bags, but be sure to remove it for screening.
Bringing Pets Onboard
You can bring a small vaccinated dog or cat with you in the cabin on domestic flights, but you need to keep the pet in a carrier under the seat in front of you and it is counted as either a personal or carry-on item. You can check a pet crate at no charge, and it is not included in your checked bag allowance.
The carrier can contain two cats or two dogs if there are two passengers, but not one of each. And the animal/s must be able to stand in the carrier and move around in it. They are not allowed on international flights, and are not permitted as checked baggage.
Carriers should not be bigger than 18.5’’ long x 8.5” high x 13.5” wide. Both soft and hard pet carriers are fine, just make sure it’s well ventilated and doesn’t leak. If you don’t have a suitable carrier that will fit under the seat or you forget to bring it to the airport, Southwest has one that goes for $58, and it can be purchased online or at the ticket counter.
Additional Rules and Cost of Pet Fare
Pets must remain in the carrier, including head and tail, prior to boarding and during the flight. Trained service animals traveling with customers with disabilities are not subject to the same rules.
There is a $95 pet fare per animal each way, and you need to check in at the ticket counter and pay that fare even if you already have a boarding pass. Only one pet is allowed per passenger and there is a limit of six per flight. Pets are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. You can’t book a seat in an exit row or one that does not have storage under the seat in front of it.
If you’ve got items that are easily broken like camera equipment and artifacts you’re bringing home from your trip, or if you want to take a garment bag with an outfit for a special occasion like a wedding dress, then you’ll probably want to take them on the plane with you.
Artifacts and other fragile items can go in your carry-on bag, or they might also be carried as your personal item depending on size. A garment bag can count as your carry-on, and you can ask the flight attendant to hang it in a closet.
The screening equipment at the airport can damage undeveloped film, so it’s best to pack that in your carry-on luggage. If you’re toting a camcorder and a carry-on bag, then you need to count the camcorder as a personal item as long as it is not over the size limit.
Media cameras are exempt from the carry-on size restrictions, but if it is going in a seat, a ticket needs to be purchased. A media representative needs to present cameras, film, video, lighting and sound equipment for it to be allowed, and there is a fee of $75 for each piece beyond the free baggage allowance, though there are no oversized or overweight charges.
Checked Baggage Allowance
Passengers ticketed on Southwest for flights to one of the 111 destinations they serve in the US, or flights to its international destinations in the Carribean, Central America and Mexico, are allowed to check two pieces of luggage.
The bag cannot weigh more than 50 pounds or be more than 62 inches when you add the length, width and height of the suitcase together (L+W+H). If your bag weighs more and/or is bigger than what is allowed (but less than 80 inches), you will be charged $75 each way as long as it does not exceed 100 pounds.
You will only get charged one $75 fee if the bag is both overweight and oversized. If it weighs more than 100 pounds though, you need to ship it as air cargo.
Excess Baggage Fees
If you have more than two checked bags, you will pay $75 each way for each extra checked bag. Excess bags must also follow the same rules on weight and size as the first two bags outlined above.
If the third checked bag is also overweight or oversized, you will also be charged a $75 fee for that in addition to the $75 fee for a third bag. Consider using a smaller bag if luggage size is the problem, or swapping heavier items into your carry-on which doesn’t get weighed or into one of your other pieces of luggage that may be under the weight limit of 50 pounds.
If you’re going camping, hunting, fishing, golfing, surfing, skiing or you are planning other activities that require equipment, you might want to bring your gear with you rather than renting at your destination.
Most sports equipment can be checked instead of a free bag, but if the item is over the size and/or weight limit you might be charged $75. You can bring most balls used for sports like baseballs, basketballs and footballs on the plane or in your checked bag, but baseball bats or golf clubs can not be brought on board and must be stowed in your checked bag.
The following items can be checked with suitable containers as one of the two free checked bags, but if they are over 50 pounds or 62 inches (L+H+W) then the $75 excess weight or size charge will apply.
- Archery equipment including bow, arrows and target
- Baseball/softball equipment in one bag for one passenger
- Boogie board
- Bowling bag, ball/s and shoes
- Bicycles (single seat and no motor) with pedals and handlebars removed
- Fishing rod in a case (can be up to 91 inches in length and three inches in diameter) and tackle box
- Golf bag in hard-sided case including clubs, balls and shoes
- Hockey and/or lacrosse sticks taped together or stowed with other equipment in a bag (two bags allowed as one bag)
- Knives, sabers and swords
- Parachutes are allowed in checked or carry-on baggage
- Scuba equipment with empty air tanks
- Skateboard may be substituted for a carry-on or checked bag
- Snow ski equipment including skis or snowboards, boots, poles (two bags allowed as one bag and they are not subject to excess size charges, but there is a fee if overweight)
- Surfboard when traveling on flights between the islands of Hawaii (keels and fins removed and packed in luggage; size restrictions do not apply, but there is a fee if overweight)
- Tennis rackets should be carried on the plane as a carry-on or personal item
- Water ski equipment including no more than one pair of water skis and one life preserver or vest (no excess size fee, but overweight charges may apply)
Additionally, the following items can be checked for $75 each:
- Javelins in a single bag
- Kayak with the paddles secured
- Kiteboard (keels and fins removed and placed in baggage)
- Life Raft (self-inflating cartridges are not allowed)
- Surfboard for any flights other than flights between the islands of Hawaii
- Vaulting poles in a single bag
- Windsurfing board (keels removed and placed in baggage)
Hunting, Guns and Ammunition
If you plan to go hunting or you are bringing guns and ammo for security reasons, they need to go in your checked bags. Firearms must be unloaded and declared at check-in. They also need to be packed in a locked hard-sided container, though that can be packed in soft-sided luggage.
Ammunition must be securely packed in fiber, wood or a metal box and limited to 11 pounds.
Holsters can be put in your carry-on or checked luggage. The firearm/s can be counted as one of the two free pieces of baggage.
Camping gear follows similar rules to sports equipment. You can check your tent as a substitute for a free bag, or carry it on if it’s small enough. Don’t carry the pegs on though, as they will likely be confiscated. Put them in your checked bag.
To light the campfire, you can bring one book of safety matches or a lighter on your person. Strike anywhere matches, torch lighters, lighter fluid and fire starter are prohibited on the aircraft. Stoves and lanterns fueled by flammable liquids or gas can not be brought on board either, unless the equipment is brand new and still in the manufacturers packaging.
Gas-fueled equipment can be checked or carried on the plane as long as there is no fuel cylinder, which is prohibited. Sharp objects like knives and axes can be stored in checked luggage with blades protected.
Maybe you want to bring your guitar to play around the campfire. Or perhaps you have a gig and need your brass instrument to perform. If it’s not bigger in its case than 10” x 6” x 24”, you can bring it on board as your carry-on.
If it’s bigger than that and you want to carry it with you on the plane, but it won’t fit in the overhead bin or under a seat, you need to purchase a ticket for the instrument. It must fit in the seat in the first row next to the window and secured with a seatbelt. It also can’t block any signage or customers.
The ticket charge will be no greater than a child’s fare, which is $50 each way, and you do need to make a reservation. A free companion pass will not work to get that extra seat.
Or you can check it as one of your free bags, but if it’s in a soft-sided case the carrier assumes no liability. Some instruments like the double bass or cello cannot be secured in a seat so they must be checked, and the overweight or oversize fee will be charged if it’s between 62-150 inches or weighs between 51-165 pounds including the case.
If the instrument exceeds 150 inches (L+H+W) or is more than 165 pounds, it will not be accepted on the plane.
Now that we’ve gone over what you can check in your luggage and bring on a Southwest flight and some things that are not allowed, let’s go over some other items that you can’t bring on board or in checked luggage either, according to Transportation and Safety Administration (TSA) rules.
Alcoholic beverages with more than 70% alcohol (140 proof) cannot be taken on the plane or checked. You can take up to 5 liters of alcohol under 70% in your checked luggage, but it must be unopened in retail packaging. Wine does not count in this limit. You can take mini-bottles of alcohol on the plane, but it must fit in the quart-sized bag that other liquids and creams are in.
These items are not allowed on board or in checked bags:
- Arc, plasma and electric lighters
- Cooking spray
- Chlorine for pools and spas
- Flares and flare guns
- Flammable liquids and other hazardous material
- Gun lighters and gunpowder
- Gunpowder and primers or percussion caps
- Internal combustion engines
- Loose ammunition or loose loaded magazines and/or clips are not allowed
- Medical oxygen
- Motor oils and fluids
- Smart bags with non-removable lithium batteries
- Wet cell batteries (except for those used in wheelchairs)
Some other items are allowed, but have restrictions. For example, aerosol insecticide not labeled as hazardous material can go in your checked bag. In general, you can’t bring anything on the plane that can be used as a weapon, but If you’re not sure about an item, you can check the TSA site or @AskTSA on Twitter or Facebook.
When to Pay for Baggage
If you follow the rules regarding size and weight of luggage and strategize what you are packing in checked luggage and what you are bringing on board, you should be able to avoid baggage fees since you get two free checked bags, a carry-on and a personal item.
It’s important to plan what you are bringing on board and what you might need to check. For example, if you have a purse, a laptop and a carry-on, you can check the carry-on if you don’t have two other pieces of luggage already, or bring a purse or backpack that is big enough to fit your laptop as long as it is not bigger than the maximum size allowed for a personal item.
Tips on How to Avoid Fees
Be sure to measure your luggage before you pack. You would be better off with two smaller suitcases since both are free, than one big oversized one that will incur a $75 fee.
If your suitcases are jam-packed with gifts/donations on the way to your destination or souvenirs and other purchases on your return fight, you might find yourself facing that same $75 fee for an overweight bag, so weigh the packed suitcase before you get to the airport. Consider getting a second bag if one is overweight, and split the contents, especially if you only have one bag to check since you get two for free.
If you have a lengthy stay and have to pack a lot of clothes and personal items, or if you are traveling with sports equipment like golf clubs or scuba equipment, musical instruments like a guitar, or you have some other reason to pack multiple bags with other equipment or items, you may need more than two checked bags.
Keep in mind that you can always have someone else on your reservation check something like your golf clubs for you if they aren’t using their two-bag allowance. And if you are traveling with your family, be sure to distribute the checked bags, carry-ons and personal items among the family members to meet requirements.
🔎 Related: Remember to check out Southwest Airlines Low Fare Calendar to get the best deals!
Credit Cards That Reimburse You For Checked Baggage Fees
Even with a generous baggage allowance policy and careful planning, you still might end up with a fee. But if you carry the right card in your wallet, you can get reimbursed for the charge.
In all of the cases outlined below, you need to charge the baggage fees on the credit card with the benefit to get it reimbursed.
There are two main ways to get the charges paid using a credit card. Some premium cards that cost from $450 to $550 a year, offer an annual travel credit that lets you pay for baggage fees, upgrades, and food and beverages. And flexible points cards let you use miles to points you have accrued through sign-up bonuses and spending to remove the airline charges from your statement.
Premium Credit Cards
The personal and business American Express Platinum cards come with a $200 annual credit for airline incidentals. The Chase Sapphire Reserve and the Chase Ritz Carlton cards each offer a $300 annual travel credit. Citi Prestige offers $250 for either tickets, checked baggage or onboard purchases. You need to charge the fee on the card and call the customer service to apply the travel credit.
Flexible Points Credit Cards
There are also flexible points credit cards like Capital One VentureOne Rewards or Venture Rewards cards, that allow you to use the miles earned by spending on that card to erase the baggage fees on your statement. There is a minimum redemption amount of 2,500 miles which is equal to $25, and you can use miles for a full or partial credit.
Barclays Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard is another option that works the same way. The minimum redemption is even less at 1,000 points for $10. For both of these cards, you would need to use 7,500 points to cover a $75 fee on Southwest.
Exclusions & Waivers
There are some exceptions to the Southwest baggage rules. Military service members on active duty or those that are changing stations, can take more than two pieces of luggage as long as they don’t exceed 100 pounds and are no more than 80 inches (L+W+H). They will not be charged fees for excess, overweight and oversized baggage as long as the luggage is under the limits noted.
International travelers that have picked up liquor, perfume or other liquids in a duty-free shop, can bring those items in their carry-on luggage even if they exceed the 3.4 ounce rule as long as they are packaged securely in tamper-evident bags. They can also be put in your checked luggage if you have a connecting flight entering the US where you pick up your checked bags before boarding the next flight.
Most business and leisure travelers on Southwest can avoid baggage fees because of the airline’s generous policy of allowing two free checked bags. As long as you make sure those checked bags and your carry-on and personal items don’t exceed the limits, checking your bags should not cost you anything on Southwest Airlines.
But if you know you are going to check more than two bags, or the size or weight are going to be over the limits, then be sure to check the airline credit allowances on credit cards you carry so you can use the right card to pay the fees and get reimbursed for those charges.