Skiers and riders, excited about the prospect of a long-weekend, a short air trip away or the dream-of-a-lifetime vacation, face the pain of checked luggage fees.

These added, often hidden, costs have lead to the proliferation of “ski concierge” services like Ski Butlers, and the attraction of shipping skis and boards ahead by Fed-Ex or UPS.

A new wrinkle is the response by travelers to carry everything possible onto the plane.

I recently went from Philadelphia with three skiing friends, headed for Alyeska Resort in Alaska, by way of Fairbanks and Anchorage.

We were sitting groggily in Philadelphia International Airport waiting for the first leg on American Eagle when a bright and perky gate agent (this was about 4:45 a.m.) started placing red valet tags on our fully-compliant carry-on bags. As it turned out, we received those bags at 2:30 a.m. Fairbanks time the next day. So we were without our bags from what was 12:45 a.m. Friday morning Fairbanks time to 2:30 a.m. Saturday, almost 26 hours.

No medicine. No jewelry. No laptop. No important papers. No very precious medium-sized black book with all my phone numbers. No warm boots, warm hat and warm gloves. 

None of us took skis, planning to rent. My female companion had paid to check one bag, already full with her helmet and boots, before she started adding enough for 10 days on America’s Last Frontier.

The Consumer Travel Alliance has released a study which shows, “Consumers paid more than $9.2 billion in fees to U.S. airlines in 2010 for checked baggage and other services, but these fees were hidden from most travelers when they purchased their airline tickets, because the airlines refuse to share their fee information with travel agents and other distributors.”

Consumer Travel Alliance (CTA) describes itself as “a non-profit organization promoting consumer interests on travel policy issues.  Information on extra (or ancillary) fees, which are not visible to the more than half of consumers who use third parties to book their travel, was the focus of an analysis of major U.S. airlines' year-end financial reports by CTA, in coordination with Open Allies for Airfare Transparency, a coalition representing hundreds of companies in the managed travel community.

“On average, passengers paid a total of $36.80 in fees for every round trip ticket – nearly $150 for a family of four,” the study found. 

Here’s what some of the airlines riders and skiers use to reach the mountains have to say:

American Airlines, which operates American Eagle, writes: What exactly does your airline mean when it “gate checks” a carry-on bag? “A ‘gate check’ bag is any item taken at the gate which is checked and placed into the cargo hold for transport. Items may be taken at the gate for several reasons, to include excess carry-on pieces (passengers are only allowed 1 carry-on bag and 1 small personal item) or if the item is outside of our maximum carry-on dimensions (22inx14inx9in).” 

How much right does a passenger have to decline? “If the item is outside of our maximum carry-on dimensions or if the passenger is attempting to carry too many items on board, the item must be gate checked due to federal regulations.” (See above.)

When should the passenger expect to get the carry-on piece back when making a trip which involves several legs, even different airlines? “Unless the item is an assistive device (wheelchair, walker, etc) the item will be checked all the way to the passenger’s final destination, even if the passenger is connecting to another airline.  The item can be picked up at baggage claim in that city.”

Same questions posed to a United Airlines representative, who also answered for newly merged Continental, “Regarding gate-checked baggage, agents will check any bag that won’t otherwise fit in the overhead bins, which happens occasionally when flights are full and the bins fill up before the last customers board. On most regional (i.e. United Express and Continental Express) flights, those bags are returned to the customer in the jetbridge immediately upon arrival. On mainline flights, the bags are checked to their final destinations. A frequent flyer myself, I can assure you our flight attendants work very hard to ensure customers place their bags in the bins properly to maximize space for everyone. And I’m glad to say, United and Continental are working on new self-service tools to make it easier for customers in situations like yours to rebook via a Web-enabled mobile device (e.g. a blackberry, an iPhone, an iPad, etc.) or via a self-check-in kiosk so that you can be re-accommodated more quickly.”

Now, here is the response from Air Canada: “Air Canada does not have ‘gate-check’ per se, but offers "Sky Check" on regional flights operated by Jazz due to limited space in the cabin. These aircraft usually are not gated and customers board the aircraft on the ramp. Customers put their carry-on bag on a cart positioned beside the aircraft as they are boarding, and these bags are loaded into the aircraft hold. Air Canada does not tag these bags and the customers simply pick up their bags off the cart as they exit the aircraft. Customers can still take their smaller carry-on items onboard, and all the baggage must be stowed properly on the aircraft.”

More Information: United Airlines; American Airlines