How to Manage Your (Suitcase’s) Weight

Convenient small and lightweight devices can help you avoid hefty overweight bag fees.

We all know the sad truth of jokes about gaining weight while on a vacation.  That is never a good thing, but there’s one sort of weight gain you want to be particularly careful to avoid – the risk of having your suitcase grow in weight and exceed the 50lb maximum imposed by most airlines when you come to fly home again.  You could be up for a greedy $100 per bag per flight if it breaks the weight limit on domestic flights, and an outrageous $200 on international flights.

In the past, with a standard 70lb per bag allowance, plus two or three suitcases allowed for free, and no-one too worried about charging for moderate amounts overweight, weight was never a problem.  Now, with zero or one suitcase free, a 50lb per bag limit, and the airlines eager to charge three figure sums as soon as your bags go overweight, managing your baggage and its weight has become a big challenge.

It is much worse that it seems.  Subtract 10 – 15 pounds as being the weight of the suitcase, and that leaves with you with under 40lbs of effective carrying capacity.  And when you allow for the necessary essentials of any journey – clothes, shoes, toiletries – your available weight for discretionary items shrinks still further.  Many of us end up needing most of the 50lb allowance, even though we are only using a very few pounds for ‘luxury’ items.  And now allow a few more pounds to buy a gift or souvenir or two while traveling, and it becomes even harder to keep within the 50lb limit.

There are two ways to manage your suitcase’s weight, quite apart from a draconian refusal to buy any souvenirs at all while traveling.

The first is to simply travel with a portable suitcase scale.  This is good, but commits you to the space and weight of the scale being added to your bag – fortunately these considerations are minor with modern lightweight scales.

The second is to know your weight when starting your journey and to guesstimate its changes while traveling.

Using Regular/Bathroom Scales

Some people use bathroom scales to weigh their suitcase before traveling.  If your bathroom scales are accurate, and/or if you’re not planning on packing close to the limit, that is a reasonable strategy to adopt.

Bathroom scales are only likely to be accurate if they are placed on a hard floor surface to start with and correctly zeroed.  Don’t be mislead into thinking that a scale is accurate just because it displays a weight in tenths of a pound on a digital display.  That is a bit like thinking ‘my car has a speedometer that reads up to 180 mph, therefore it can go at speeds up to 180 mph’, and also thinking ‘your car’s speedo will only read up to 160 mph, so therefore, your car is slower than mine’.

Here, for example, is a scale for sale on Amazon that displays weights to an apparent exactness of 0.2 lbs and refers to having high precision German sensors.  What’s not to love about that?  Well, read the reviews, which reveal the scale to be close to useless, with weights varying by 3 – 7 lbs each time!

Clearly, there is no relationship between the precision of the readout on a scale and the accuracy of the number.  On the other hand, there possibly is a relationship between accuracy and price, and it is fair to say that the $11 price pretty much guarantees that the scale won’t be sufficiently accurate for your suitcase weighing purposes.

Note also the ‘auto-calibration’ it refers to is only an automatic setting of the zero weight point.  It is not a calibration that, for example, a 50 lb object will display correctly as 50lbs.

The Essential Need for Accuracy

Why is it so important to be certain your scale is very accurate?  Because if you’re the sort of person who fills their suitcase close to the weight limit, you need to be certain that your weight is half a pound or so under the limit, not half a pound or so over the limit.  A one pound variation on a 50lb weight – a variation that might cost you up to $200 in excess baggage fees, is only a very small 2% variation, and that’s a high degree of accuracy that many scales can’t provide.

How can you tell if a scale is accurate or not?  Certainly, reading reviews can be very helpful.  But only by weighing something of known weight, and ideally, around the weight that you are most focused on, can you fairly establish the reliability of the scale.  Just because a scale is accurate at 10 lbs, or at 300 lbs, doesn’t mean it is also accurate at 50lbs, which is the region that you’ll be most focused on.

We suggest you create a ‘standard weight’ for calibration purposes.  Perhaps it is a suitcase that you’ve filled with cans or bottles of drink or something else – something you can recreate from time to time if you need to check the calibration of your scale.  Another good way of doing this is to get a 6 or 7 gallon water container (such as these) and fill it.  Water weighs 8.34 lbs/US gallon, so you’re going to be close to almost exactly the 50lb test point, and this is something you can easily recreate simply by filling the container with water to the same level in the future.

You could also use a water container to measure other weights, simply by adding or removing a known amount of water.  Each pint is going to adjust the weight by 1.045lbs (ie 1 lb 0.75 oz).

Go to your doctor’s office (or your vet’s office) and ask if you can weigh it on their scale.  Make sure your test object is about 50lbs for the test (it doesn’t really matter if it is 45lbs or 55lbs, and it surely is easier to handle if it is 45 lbs), then place your standard weight on and off the scale several times to see if the weight is always the same.  Maybe one time, get on the scale yourself, see your weight, then add the standard weight to the scale too and see if it changes by the appropriate amount, then get off, and quickly put the standard weight back on and confirm that after a much heavier weight (ie you) it still shows the same reading when the lighter standard weight is placed on it.

Once you’re confident you have a known standard weight, you can then check the accuracy of your suitcase measuring scale.  Does it show the correct weight, and does it always consistently show the same weight?

It would be acceptable if your suitcase measuring scale always reported the same wrong weight because you can then simply adjust, saying, perhaps, ‘when the scale reads 52.4 lbs I know I actually have 49.6 lbs’ or whatever.  But it is not acceptable if sometimes the scale shows 48 lbs and sometimes 53 lbs for something that is always the same weight.  That is something you can’t adjust for.

Dedicated Luggage Scales

We like using bathroom type scales, because most designs make it easy to just place your suitcase on the scale, then read the weight that is displayed.  But their accuracy can be problematic.  Portable luggage scales are more awkward to use, but in theory are designed to be more accurate.

With a portable scale, you need to lift up the suitcase using the scale, and read the weight off the scale.  Sometimes the scale will ‘lock’ at what it determines to be the weight, but if it doesn’t do that, it can be very difficult to see the weight simultaneously while lifting a possibly heavy suitcase.

We quite like Amazon’s own private label scale.  Sure, it is a bit flimsy, but if you’re careful with it, you shouldn’t have any problems, and while we preferred a scale that takes AA or AAA batteries (which we always have at home or can buy on the road) the CR2032 battery it uses has a very long life and is not impossible to replace at short notice if needed.  The scale is small and light, making it practical to take with you, because it doesn’t use up too much of your weight allowance.

It is reasonably easy to use, and will lock the weight on the display once it has settled and decided what the weight is.  Best of all, it is a mere $8.99.

If you prefer an analog dial, and like the thought of no batteries, this is another alternative.

How Heavy to Fill Your Suitcase

You not only need to be sure that your scale is not going to trip you up by registering too light, but you also don’t want to have a problem if the airport scale registers too heavy.

For that reason, to avoid airport arguments, we generally recommend you keep your weight down to 49.5 lbs maximum, because if you get into a weight argument at the airport, you know who will win and who will lose that argument, don’t you.  Or, at the very least, you’re doing to delay your checking in process considerably, and still might lose the argument.

Tracking Your Suitcase Weight for the Return Journey

If you’re not going to travel with your scale, then it helps to keep a record of what your suitcase probably weighs during your travels.  This is easier than it seems.

Note the suitcase weight at the start of the journey, and then simply keep a tally of everything that you either take out of the suitcase or add to it.  If you have gifts or other items you know you’ll be leaving behind, weigh them before you travel so you know exactly how much weight will be removed.

In terms of adding items, sometimes you’ll have to guess at their weights.  If you’re going to be getting bottles of wine, as a quite rule of thumb, a 750ml bottle of wine weighs probably an ounce or so over 2 1/2 lbs depending on the weight of the bottle; champagne would be closer to 3 lbs/bottle.  A paperback book weighs about 1/2 lb.

But with a portable scale weighing less than half a pound, and even being something you could stuff into a carry-on that the airlines won’t weigh, we think that although the scale might add to the weight, it also means you can fill your suitcase closer to the maximum with confidence, therefore more than compensating for the weight of the scale.

What About Suitcases with Built-in Scales

We think these are a gimmick, and usually are found on massively overpriced bags.

A built-in scale is no more accurate than an external scale, and probably, if anything, less accurate.  It is also less generally useful, because you can’t conveniently use it for weighing other things.  And whereas a portable scale can be used to weigh every suitcase you are traveling with, a built-in scale only works for the one suitcase it is contained within.

Plus, if it ever should break, then it becomes useless and dead weight, making your suitcase heavier than needed.

Save your money, and don’t pay a hefty premium for this unwanted non-feature.

What to do if the Airline Scale is Wrong

As far as we are aware, not all airports require their airline tenants to calibrate their check-in scales, and similarly, there are no FAA regulations specifying how accurate such scales may be.  Although most states have departments that enforce the accuracy of the weights and measures of some sorts of things in some businesses (petrol pumps, for example), airlines are generally subject to federal not state scrutiny.  Some states/cities/airports do check the scales – for example, Los Angeles County checks all the scales at all the airports within its jurisdiction each year.  In my state of WA, the airport scales are only checked (by the WA Dept of Agriculture) once every 36 months.  With the amount of use – and abuse – that airport scales get, and with sometimes significant numbers of scales being found to be inaccurate when checked (some reports tell of 35% or more of a terminal’s scales being out of tolerance), even annual checks are not necessarily sufficient to guarantee their accuracy.

The problem is at least as prevalent in other countries as it is in the US, as this UK report notes.  In particular, it is not unheard of for the check-in staff to be paid bonuses based on the amount of luggage fees they collect, which is all the more reason not to automatically accept an alleged overweight situation.

So there’s no guarantee that the airport’s scale is accurate, and occasional stories highlight ones that definitely are not.  Indeed, it may even be an unclear situation about who owns the scale that is measuring your bag, and who is responsible for keeping it correct.  Maybe the airport owns it, maybe the airline owns it, maybe a third-party airport services company owns it.

Who also knows how old and accurate the airport scales are.  In some cases, they might be decades old, and may have never been accurate, right from day one, and never been checked.  But just like how there is an automatic assumption that a high-tech scale with digital display is as exactly correct as its display allows, there is a similar assumption, by the check-in agent, that the weight on ‘their’ scale is correct, combined with an automatic assumption that if you dispute that weight, you are simply trying to cause trouble and cheat the system.

If you disagree with the airport scale’s weight, there are some simple things you could do, though, and the best strategy of all is to try and prevent the conflict from occurring.  Before you place a bag on the scale, check it is reading zero.  If it is, then place your bag on the scale and if the weight is over 50lbs, immediately try moving the bag on the scale to one edge or the other.  The scale might read higher or lower on one side or the other.  You can do this before the agent even looks at the weight.

If the scale is not reading zero, say nothing if it then shows a weight under 50 lbs, but if it shows a weight over 50 lbs, ask for the scale to be zeroed first and recalibrated.  Don’t just agree that the amount over 0.0 lbs that it is reading be subtracted from the displayed weight (unless of course that reduction is all you need to get under 50 lbs!).  Instead, say ‘If your scale is reading x.x lbs instead of zero, it is clearly broken, and who only knows what the actual weight is now that it is displaying xx.x lbs’.  That’s a reasonable concern to express.

Assuming that the airport scale is merely a pound or two over your own weight, you could simply and calmly (stay calm and cooperative, whatever you do, so as to encourage the check-in agent to want to help you out) advise that you weighed your suitcase on a calibrated scale at home and that its weight then was (refer to a piece of paper) however much – give it in an accurate form such as ‘49.65 lbs’ or whatever.  And if you brought a portable scale with you, you can demonstrate its weight in front of the agent.

Demonstrating in front of the agent sets them up for what follows.  They’ll probably sneer at your tiny little plastic thing, compared to the huge monstrous digital scale built in to their check-in station.  That’s okay.  Ask if you could see the calibration certificate for the scale.  Of course, there is a good chance they’ll have any such thing.  Don’t just accept their assurance that their scales are tested.  You need to know when the scale was last tested, and also if it passed its test or not.

If there is no certificate forthcoming, ask them to calibrate it right now, with their ‘check weight’.  This is an officially stamped, marked, object of officially checked weight, and should be 50lb or very close to it.  There is almost no chance they’ll have such a thing, but by asking for it in a spirit of positive friendliness and expectation that they’ll pull it out from underneath the counter helps to give you more of the moral high ground.  You can then express a sense of surprise – ‘You’re asking me to pay $100 (or $200!) based on an uncorroborated and disputed measurement from an uncalibrated scale that you’re refusing to check now?  That doesn’t strike me as very fair, don’t you agree?’

You could also ask how old their scales are.  Chances are they either don’t know, or the answer will be some number of years.

At that point, as non-confrontationally as possible, ask if you could be given the benefit of the doubt, seeing as how it is only the slightest bit over maximum weight.  Or, if the numbers will work in your favor, suggest you ‘split the difference’ between your scale and their scale.  So if your scale says 49.2 and theirs says 50.6, the average is 49.9, which means no fee.

You could also helpfully say ‘this is only a x% discrepancy, and that’s probably simply within the scale’s tolerance’.  You don’t want to make this into a ‘pissing competition’ between you and the check-in agent.

There’s also an interesting thing with some airline tariffs that might help you.  They say that a bag weighing under 50 lbs is free, and a bag weighing over 51 lbs is charged.  But what about the range between 50.0 and 51.0 lbs – that one pound in the middle?  Isn’t that their way of saying ‘we give you a 1 lb benefit of the doubt?

This – from Delta’s website – clearly suggests that fees only apply for bags over 51lbs, not for bags over 50lbs.

If there is a larger discrepancy, or if your first approach doesn’t work, ask if you could weigh the suitcase on the next check-in agent’s scale just to confirm the weight.  That’s a totally reasonable request that only takes a minute or so to carry out, and remember that if you’re about to be charged an excess baggage charge, you could be looking at a $100+ fee.

If the check-in agent can’t show you a credible and recent (within the last 12 months) calibration certificate, refuses to give you and your scale the benefit of the doubt, can’t product a check weight to calibrate the scale on the spot, and refuses to allow you to weigh it on another of their own scales (ie another scale at another of their positions), then that isn’t reasonable and you’d well be within your rights to ask if you could speak to the ‘Duty Airport Manager’ at that point.  They’ll try to avoid that – you might be allowed to speak to a so-called supervisor, who as likely as not is just another regular agent, but they really don’t want to get the Duty Airport Manager involved.  This is probably the point at which you also want to start video taping your conversation.  Here’s an account of an agent who refused to reweigh the bag unless the passenger went to the end of the check-in line to get a second turn only after another long wait.

If that still doesn’t get you anywhere, give in politely, pay the fee, then subsequently complain to the airline’s customer service people about the fee (and the probable refusal to allow you to appeal to the airport duty manager – this gives you more moral high ground which is why you asked for that person) and ask for a refund and compensation, and if that gets you nowhere, complain to your local paper’s consumer advocate, to your local congressman and senator, to the DOT, and file a small claim court action to get the fee you paid back again.

We’ve never had to do this (yet), and the chances are you won’t, either.

3 thoughts on “How to Manage Your (Suitcase’s) Weight”

  1. Tip: if you may buy stuff while traveling, bring throw away old clothes and discard them as your vacation proceed. Do same with paper guide books and maps, toiletries, etc.

  2. I also discard old clothing when I travel after wearing it. Keeps weight down, and provides room.
    Also – If you can’t afford ultra-light wheeled suitcases, consider just traveling with a duffle bag or a zip top tote bag. It’s far lighter than most suitcases, and keeps your weight allowance down from the start.

  3. Pingback: Weekly Roundup, Friday 21 July, 2017 - The Travel Insider

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