It still costs a premium to ship your luggage ahead, instead of checking it at the airport. But as airlines continue to hike their baggage fees, bag-shipping services look ever more appealing because they're so much more convenient.
The biggest drawback, besides cost, is the delay. For a reasonably priced delivery, you have to wait up to three business days for your luggage to arrive. Sigh.
These services work best domestically. Don't try to ship a bag overseas, or it may be detained by customs and you may be hit with duties and other charges.
The most impressive third-party service for budget travelers is Luggage Free's luggagefreeeconomy.com. For $70 each way, you can send a bag weighing up to 50 pounds cross-country. (Some types of bags and itineraries cost a bit more.) The service includes free courier pick-up from your home at a specific time. The bag is delivered within three business days, to a residence, hotel, or cruise line.
The service is well regarded. Wall Street Journal, for instance, tested the major luggage shipping services, and their top pick was Luggage Free.
You can generally save even more money by dropping your bag off at a FedEx, UPS, or similar shipping service, skipping the courier service. As a rule, if your bag (or baggage collectively) weighs more than 55 pounds, it is generally just as cheap to ship your bag as it is to check it in, domestically.
Case in point: On a New York City to Chicago route, UPS Ground, 2-business-day service is about $30 each way. FedEx Ground is about $20 each way. In comparison, Delta charges $23 each way for your first checked bag, and $35 for your second.
(See AirfareWatchdog's shipping price comparison chart for more examples.)
FedEx, UPS, and other shippers will deliver directly to a residence or hotel (if you call ahead to make sure a manager will sign for receipt; the hotel may charge a small fee for storing your bag). You can save more with these shippers if you pack your belongings in a box instead of a piece of luggage.
Wrap your bag in advance in a cardboard box or a very sturdy plastic bag; otherwise, your bag may become dirty and handles and zippers may break. Most shippers will not pay damages for luggage that was not shipped to protect it.
Address your bag to the hotel itself. Then call a hotel desk employee in advance. They can make a note in your reservation file. When shipping to a hotel, make sure the name of the person booking the room and their arrival date is on the package. When the bag arrives, they'll sign for it, after checking your hotel reservation record, and they'll store the bag for you.
Keep in mind that, as of today, JetBlue doesn't charge for your first checked bag. And Southwest doesn't charge for your first or second checked bags. Thank goodness at least a couple of airlines aren't nickel-and-diming us to death.
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