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World Travel Is Dirt Cheap … If You Don’t Have Any Baggage

Apparently, the ultimate travel hack is to be able to travel with nothing.

Airplane landing
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ASTORIA, NYC- Searching for flights has never been a very sexy affair. But today it’s kind of like trying to make a genuine friend in a Fez bazaar. In other words, a mine field of confidence tricks, scams, and entities who will try just about anything to separate you from your money.

It’s always a fun game to look at flight prices as they are listed on flight aggregator sites like Skyscanner and then look at what you actually end up paying. By fun, I mean effing sucks.

All too often, the flight prices that you’re shown are little more than feeder rates. The airline doesn’t actually expect you to buy these tickets for the price shown, the low rates merely serve the function of getting you in through the door and onto the booking page …

… where the actual price of the flight begins to reveal itself.

Once there, you will almost inevitably find multiple higher priced booking tiers for you to choose from with threats that if you actually purchase the cheap ticket that you came to buy you will suffer the consequences:

Not being able to travel with any luggage.

Not being able to select your seat.

Having to board the flight last.

Potentially losing the money you spent on the ticket if you don’t buy insurance.

And sometimes not even being permitted to check in at the airport in person.

If you actually want to be treated like anything more than a hunk of biological freight, you have to either upgrade to a more costly pricing tier or add on another $35-$65 per leg fee for a carry on bag, a $60-$80 per leg fee for checked bags, a fee to choose your seat, a fee for travel insurance, another fee for cancelation insurance, and sometimes even a $30 or so dollar customer service fee in case something goes wrong and you need to call the booking agent.

In point, no airline expects anyone to be so brash as to buy a ticket for the price they advertise on aggregator sites. And if anyone does, the airline has gate agents who will try to snipe them as they board and slap on a massive gate check fee if any part of their personal bag peaks outside of the metal rack.

The takeaway here is that airlines no longer make money from selling flights. They make money from selling credit cards, insurance, baggage, seat selections, and customer service. The next time you buy a flight, look at the receipt as to how the expenses break down: the actual ticket fare probably won’t even come close to half of the total price.

When I first began traveling the peak of backpacker cool was to travel long-term with just a carry-on.

Today, the biggest travel hack is to be able to travel with nothing.

And that’s basically what I’m doing on my trip to Panama in a week.

I’m calling the airlines on their bluff and showing up with just a small sling bag.

I’m not sure if this is going to work out. The bag fully complies with the airline’s regulations, so I’m not concerned about that, but I am wondering if I’m going to be able to carry all the stuff that I need. But I did a dry run:

Small personal bag for air travel

iPad, iPhone, a pair of shorts, three t-shirts, two pairs of socks, two pairs of underwear, a toothbrush, toothpaste, charger cables … and it all fit, so I said fuck it and bought just a flight with nothing extra added.

If this works out then I know I can travel all around for relatively cheap. I’m saving $150 on just this trip alone. Added up over a course of a year, that’s a savings that could be measured in four figures.

But this really makes me think of the old days of air travel … where the price that you were shown was the price that you paid … where you could travel comfortably with a personal item, a carry on, and a checked bag all for free… where …

The thing about the good ol’ days is that you can never recognize them while they’re happening.


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Filed under: Air Travel, Panama, Travel Diary

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3716 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

6 comments… add one

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  • Jack April 19, 2024, 3:43 pm

    I had this strange neighbor of my grandparents growing up. He was friendly enough but last I heard he was locked up for child molestation(I still don’t believe it). He was a logger but due to the seasonal work and high pay, he had lots of money and free time. He loved to travel around the US. He also became a private pilot. He used to give me all his old maps.

    Anyways, when he traveled he would take virtually nothing with him. He would just catch a Greyhound bus and take a long trip or rent a plane and go somewhere on a whim. He would say that the easiest thing to do was just to go into the store and buy clothes as he needed them…and throw away the dirty ones. I think we are reaching the point where it’s not only easier but cheaper on short trips. No need to pay for laundry and T-shirts and shorts are cheap.

    I could see how taking a packable backpack could be very handy. Carry it in a pocket and when you arrive, go to a store and pick up a few cheap t-shirts, a pack of underwear and socks, maybe a few shorts and toss them in your backpack. Hard to see that costing more than $30. Wear them on the trip and before you leave, toss them in the garbage or if in poor area, give them away.

    But don’t forget about the fishing vest 🙂

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    • VBJ April 22, 2024, 9:37 pm

      This is very true. You can buy a basic set of travel clothes cheaper in most countries than paying for baggage.

      A packable backpack is a good idea. I will look for one of those as I imagine I’m going to have to stuff my beef jerky and keto bars in my underwear before I walk past the gate agents on my way to the plane 🤣

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  • Rob April 20, 2024, 7:06 am

    I’m looking forward to hearing how the ticket cost went, good luck!

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    • VBJ April 20, 2024, 9:15 pm

      It was $400. Not bad for two flights each way … but my current expectation for flight pricing is all askance because I’m still cerebrally stuck in the one way ticket days. I have to keep reminding myself it’s for two ways 🤣

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  • Bob L April 20, 2024, 11:10 am

    Kinda depends where you are going. I am not a small man, and buying cloths that fit me in many areas can be a bit of a PITA if possible at all. A few months ago I flew out of the Philippines next to a guy that made me look small. He had arrived in PHP a week earlier on a business trip in only his shorts and t-shirt. The airline had lost his luggage. He was unable to find ANYTHING that fit him. He spent the entire week in those same shorts and t-shirt, washing by hand. Lets just say his cloths were not exactly fresh. They did give him his luggage back when he was checking in for his flight out. I suspect they actually had it the entire time.

    I don’t mind the additional fees etc, but I hate the lack of clarity. For ALL tickets it should be simple. 1 bag = $x, 2 bags = $xx etc. Random Seating ticket = $xx. Choosing a seat in the back = XX. Choosing a seat with more leg room =XX. Choosing a Business/First class ticket = XX. A simple list with simple rules. Right now, you leave any ticket purchase wondering if you got a good deal or overpaid. You always feel you were scammed somehow. Heck, even if you fly Business/First class it is never really clear what you get:

    Can I use the Airport Lounge?
    “Not on this ticket……”
    But….. last time I flew this route I was able to use it…
    “Sir, this ticket is an upgrade, so it doesn’t qualify”
    … BUT there was no business class tickets available, until I purchased my ticket, THEN I could upgrade at a cost.
    “Can’t help you sir….. Next!!!”

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    • VBJ April 22, 2024, 9:33 pm

      Yes, that’s just the thing: they seem to be trying to be intentionally complicated. As though they can exhaust people into spending more money.

      Not letting you into the lounge because your ticket was an upgrade instead of buying it outright is just lame. Why do they go so far out of their way to piss their customers off I can’t understand. It is really a race to the bottom.

      That’s funny about that big dude who lost his clothes. That’s why you should always carry at least one change of clothes on board with you. I learned this the hard way on a trip with my wife to Cancun where they lost our bag … and, like the guy that you met, we found our bag when we checked in to leave and we also imagined they had it the entire time 🤣

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