It was bad enough when airlines started charging for bags, and worse when they dropped the limit for a “standard” bag from 70lbs to 50lbs. But now some of the worst airlines are reducing the standard weight down to 40lbs.
When we could travel with two or three bags for free, each weighing up to 70lbs, no-one really bothered about weighing them. The weight test we used was simple : If they were too heavy to lift, they were too heavy. If we could lift them, they were okay. The airlines were also very forgiving, and seldom/never charged for overweight bags (and as often as not, you could get away not only with three heavy bags, but sometimes they’d waive the fees on a fourth bag too). Ah, for the “good old days”…..
But when the standard weight dropped to 50lb, the “too heavy to lift” test was no longer reliable, and getting it right became more important, because the airlines started weighing every bag, and would charge as much as a $100 penalty, each way, if a bag was even a mere one pound over the limit.
Flash forward to the new lower 40lb limit on Frontier, Spirit and Allegiant, and getting the weight right becomes even harder. Some people use bathroom scales to weigh their bags. But the bathroom scales are not always very accurate, and could weight too heavy or too light by several pounds – meaning either a large impact in what you can pack, or potentially a $100 overweight fee.
Why a 10 lb Reduction in Weight Allowance is So Impactful
Losing 10 lbs of your luggage allowance is more impactful than the numbers by themselves suggest. Abstractly, going from 50 lbs to 40 lbs looks like a 20% reduction in weight allowance. But that understates the impact on you and your packing.
First, your empty suitcase probably weighs the best part of 15 lbs. So that leaves you only 35 or 25 lbs for packing.
Second, there is a certain minimum amount of “essential stuff” that you’ll need to pack. Some basic clothing. Shoes. Toiletries. Miscellaneous “travel essentials” ranging from travel chargers and possibly plug adapters to (in my case) some eating utensils, a Swiss Army Knife, and so on. That is probably another 10 lbs – 20 lbs. Let’s say, 15 lbs.
In other words, before you start to pack anything else like gifts to bring with you, or souvenirs/gifts to take home, or some extra “just in case” clothing, you already have about 30 lbs spoken for – your suitcase’s empty weight and the “essential stuff” you need to take with you.
So your remaining “discretionary weight” has actually halved. Before, with a gross 50 lbs allowance, you had 20 lbs of “everything else” capacity available. Now you only have 10 lbs for everything else.
With a single pound over weight costing you up to $100 in extra weight fees, and with leaving the suitcase light to ensure you don’t have weight problems and didn’t guess wrong representing a massive chunk of your available “discretionary weight”, the value of a lightweight portable scale quickly becomes obvious.
New Luggage Scales – Lighter and Cheaper than Ever Before
I’ve occasionally written about luggage scales before, but they have been moderately big and bulky, weighing over 8 oz, sometimes getting closer to a pound in weight, and costing $30 – $40. I’ve never traveled with one, because each precious pound needs to be saved for highest priority items – instead, I weigh everything before I go, then keep track, while traveling, on the weight of items I’m leaving behind, and make best guess estimates of the weight of things I’m adding into my suitcase. That works, more or less, but is bothersome and it is dangerously easy to forget something, or to arrive at the airport and find you’ve been too conservative and you actually still have three or four pounds of available weight, meaning that the item you’d really wanted to buy, but didn’t for fear of going over your limit, could have been bought after all.
But prior to my next journey, which includes a couple of flights on Spirit with their 40lb weight limit, I realized it was time to change this strategy. Happily, over the years, prices have dropped, sizes have reduced, and so too has the weight of the scales.
I simply purchased the cheapest Amazon Basics Scale – a week ago it cost slightly over $10, and as I write this, the price is now slightly below $10.
This small unit measures about 5″ in length and 1.5″ wide and 1″ deep, other than for the “sticking out bit” where the scale attaches to a bag. It weighs 3.3 ounces. That makes it easy to take it with you when traveling, so you can weigh your bag not only before heading away, but also before returning again. Worst case scenario, it is so small you could stick it in a pocket.
It is easy to use. Loop the strap around the bag you’re weighing, lift it off the floor, wait a few seconds for the weight to steady – it will beep and flash once it has locked in the weight, and there you are – the weight, displayed in tenths of a pound (or if you prefer, tenths of a kilogram), is shown on the scale. You can use it single handed, or if the bag is heavy, two handed, with one hand each side of the center attachment.
It is easier to use than other scales I’ve owned – both easier to hold when weighing a heavier bag, and easier to see the scale, because it is facing directly up in a part of the scale that isn’t obscured when holding it most normal ways.
One important thing to note – you need to hold the scale as close to horizontal as possible. If the scale isn’t reasonably horizontal, the weight will change (think back to high school physics and trigonometry for the reason why).
It is rated to measure weights up to 110 lbs (50 kg), so should be good for all normal purposes.
The scale is of course useless if the weight it displays is not accurate.
A big question is how accurate the scale is. Just because it displays weights to 1/10th of a pound does not mean it is accurate to that same degree (any more than a car with a speedo going up to 160 mph is capable of traveling at that speed).
I don’t have any type of officially calibrated alternate scale, or item of exact known weight, to check it against, so that remains somewhat of a mystery. But I did the best I could to get close to an answer – please keep reading.
I repeatedly weighed my suitcase with light, medium and heavy loads. The scale displayed these as being 21.6 lbs, 41.1 lbs and 53.9 lbs. The scale locked at the same exact weight each time, which was encouraging.
I also used an older scale I have to use as a “second opinion”, and it showed the same 21.6 lbs for the light weight. It read 41.2 lbs for the intermediate weight, and I wasn’t able to get a reading at the heavy weight because it just wasn’t easy or convenient to use it, and it was so slow to lock in a weight that I gave up before the weight steadied.
So the scale gives consistent results, and at least at the lower end of the range of likely weights, agrees with a second scale, and is within 0.1 lbs at the middle weight (and who is to say which scale is more correct).
Of course, consistent results, while good to see, don’t also mean exact results. The scale might be consistently under or over-weighing. I read through the reviews on Amazon, and the general consensus of the credible reviews seemed to be it was within one, maybe two tenths of a pound of agreeing with airport scales. That’s good enough for me, and I’ll simply not pack much over 49 lbs other than “in an emergency” to avoid airport arguments.
That raises another issue – how accurate are airport scales? Occasionally, consumer rights type television programs have gone to test airport check-in scales, and while many scales have been close to exact, others have been several pounds off. By some strange twist of fate, the wrongly-reading scales often seem to be reading a too-high weight, not a too-low weight.
So if you get into a weight disagreement at an airport, and if your scale is showing a lower weight, ask the agent to double check with a second scale to confirm the accuracy of the scale at her position. If he/she refuses, weigh your bag with your scale to show you’re not just making up your claim, and ask for a supervisor to help resolve the problem. That’s probably the point at which they’ll grudgingly make a “one-off exception” just to get you out of their face, but if not, stand your ground and wait for the supervisor. Note – do not move away from the check-in position, or else the supervisor may never come. Understand that it is not you who is inconveniencing and delaying the people in line behind you, it is the check-in agent.
The agent might tell you that their scale is officially calibrated and officially checked. If they try that route, calmly ask to see the calibration certificate, and then point out that the calibration test was however long ago in the past; it was not at the start of the agent’s shift. You might also note what weights the scale was calibrated for, and perhaps those aren’t your weights. Maybe they’ll instead point to an inspector’s stamp on the scale – again, ask when it was inspected, and what weights it was inspected for, and what the results were. Maybe it is considered ascceptable if it is +/- 1 lb – that is a 2% accuracy which is really very good, but if the disputed weight of your bag is within that range, you deserve either the benefit of the doubt or to have your case weighed on another scale to confirm.
As a comparison, a police officer has to exactly calibrate his radar/laser speed gun at the start and end of every shift with tuning forks, and internally every time he stops someone, plus in most jurisdictions they are required to “round down” the speed by two or three mph. Any fair airline should similarly automatically give you the benefit of the doubt for a 51 or 52 lb display on their scales, but fair airlines and fair staff are becoming harder to find.
For the first few times I’m checking my bag, I’ll carefully note the scale weight at the airport and compare it to the weight my scale shows, so as to get a sense for how accurate my scale probably is; you should do the same.
This portable digital luggage scale is an easy to use inexpensive device that probably shows you the weight of your suitcase to within about a pound. Its $10 cost could be returned to you, ten-fold, the first time it saves you from an up-to-$100 excess weight fee.
It also benefits you the other way. You don’t have to guess and “play it safe” with your weight. You can load your bag up close to your weight allowance, confident that you’re still within the airline limit.