The Luggage Loophole That Isn’t

Air travel is a safe, quick way to travel across long distances. But it can also be expensive. If you’re taking a vacation to a far-away destination, the cost of getting there is often a larger percentage of the overall cost. So if you’re looking to take a trip without also destroying your finances, you may want to look into so-called “low-cost airlines.” These carriers, as Wikipedia nicely summarizes, “offer generally low fares in exchange for eliminating many traditional passenger services” like in-flight food, extra legroom, clean toilets (okay, they usually have those), and no-fee baggage allowances. If that works for you, these bargain flights can be a great way to get from point A to point B without spending lots of cash.

But once you need one of those services, watch out. Add-on fees can make a very cheap flight into a not-quite-as-cheap one, and quickly. For example, if you want to fly from Reykjavik to London, British low-cost airline easyJet can get you there for as low as $25 on certain dates. But if you get to the airport and unexpectedly have to check a bag, your budget is going to not be happy with you: there’s a per-item fee of at least $35 (and potentially twice that). The cost of your flight can more than double if you don’t plan ahead.

Just ask musician and designer Ryan Hawaii. He learned that the hard way.

In January of 2018, Hawaii went to board a British Airways flight from Reykjavik to London, expecting to return home without incident. But when he arrived at the airport, he was told that he had to check his bag — and pay a price to do so. He refused. But he still needed to get home. That meant getting rid of a lot of the stuff in his luggage, and that proved difficult. But some quick thinking led him to a creative solution: if he couldn’t carry all the stuff with him, maybe he could wear it. As Vice explains, “the Brit put on the ten shirts and eight pairs of pants weighing his luggage down, planning to just stroll onto his flight.” 

A great idea — but it didn’t work. One cannot simply walk onto a plane wearing a week’s worth of clothes, at least not without being noticed, and the airline wasn’t okay with this. He was denied a boarding pass and, ultimately, found himself on the wrong end of some pepper spray; per a local press report, he claimed that he had “been polite during all of this” but British Airways claimed that “he was rude and he was asked to leave the flight desk” and refused. Either way, Hawaii’s great idea backfired — he wasn’t allowed on the flight dressed in all of his clothes. He wasn’t trying to pull a scam, he’d later claim on Twitter: “I was EVADING excess baggage fees….I couldn’t AFFORD the fee (£90) as a result of being left homeless in Iceland for over a week,” he told anyone listening. 

That may seem like an overreaction by the airline, but as it turns out, there actually are safety reasons for not letting an over-clothed passenger on board. In 2015, a teenage boyband member named James McElvar boarded an easyJet flight and, wanted to avoid $75 in baggage fees. (Apparently, his boyband wasn’t a very successful one.) So, McElvar “donned a total of six T-shirts, five sweaters, three pairs of jeans, two layers of joggers, two jackets, and two hats” according to GQ — and almost died in the process. According to the Huffington Post, “the heat soon got to McElvar, who hurriedly began shedding layers as soon as the plane was airborne. But it was too late. Already sweating profusely and feeling light-headed, McElvar was violently sick at a height of 37,000 feet.” An off-duty paramedic on his flight was able to help him, and he was ultimately okay, but many airlines no longer allow you to wear all your luggage as a result.

It’s unlikely Hawaii knew this at the time, but in any event, he didn’t try to pull the stunt again. It didn’t matter at first; the day after British Airways turned him away, he booked a flight on easyJet, expecting to be able to get home safely and without incident. Despite being appropriately dressed, he was again rebuffed; as Vice continues, “this time he was able to get a boarding pass and through security, but when he got up to the gate, an attendant reportedly told him that he wouldn’t be able to board based on the incident that happened the day before. Williams said he was then stranded at the Iceland airport, without any money, as his bags flew to the London airport without him.” 

He wasn’t doomed to live in the Reykjavik airport forever, though. Ultimately, both British Airways and easyJet refunded Hawaii’s money; Hawaii — and all of his luggage — made it back to London a couple of days later. 

Bonus fact: Another baggage fee avoidance trick that doesn’t work? Faking a pregnancy. That’s what a traveler named Rebecca Andrews tried in 2019, as the New Zealand Herald reported: “Flying from Melbourne to Sydney, Rebecca Andrews decided to fake being pregnant after she suspected her luggage may tip over the weight requirements. The airline only allows travelers to bring a 7kg [16 pound] bag as hand luggage, otherwise, they charge a A$60 fee. So in a bizarre bid to avoid the extra charge, the travel writer stuffed her belongings down the front of her jumpsuit to form a pregnancy ‘bump.'” The airline caught her scam upon boarding — she was a late arrival to the gate, due to her attempted subterfuge — but was ultimately allowed to board. Andrews, given a chance to slim her bag down to the acceptable weight limit, was able to do so before boarding.

From the Archives: Unchecked Baggage: A baggage-based airport security exercise that went wrong.