Air travellers have to cope with two separate baggage allowance arrangements: the piece system, used primarily on north American routes, and the weight allowance system. To complicate things further, individual airlines often have their own rules which are quite different from the industry norms.
Some airlines are getting tougher in ensuring that baggage limits are observed. 'Airlines have the discretion not to charge,' says Clare Tallboys of the Air Transport Users' Committee. 'However, increasingly airlines may be trying to impose charges, because the economic situation for them is so bad.'
Travellers to North America and the Caribbean are served best, partly due to past pressure from US consumer organisations for more generous allowances. The normal industry allowance is two pieces of baggage per passenger, plus cabin luggage, with restrictions on weight and maximum dimensions. Any excess is charged per item, typically pounds 50- pounds 80 for North American flights.
Elsewhere in the world, allowances are by weight, and are tighter. The norm is 20kg (well under three stone) for economy class travellers (BA permits 23kg), 30kg for business class and 40kg for first class. The standard excess charge is 1 per cent of the one-way first class air fare for each kilo.
Given that a first class ticket from Heathrow to, say, Sydney costs over pounds 3,000, this means that 10 extra kilograms could cost as much as pounds 300. In fact both BA and Qantas operate a lower tariff of pounds 15 per kilo for flights to Australia.
There are alternatives to paying an excess charge. Some airlines will permit baggage to be sent unaccompanied. BA has a special desk handling unaccompanied baggage at Heathrow terminal 4. Taking the London-Sydney example, it would charge pounds 6.87 per kilo (minimum pounds 50) plus a pounds 12.60 handling charge. Qantas's charges are similar, though baggage has to be taken to a separate cargo centre at the airport.
'For security reasons, no one can guarantee that your unaccompanied baggage will go on a particular flight,' says Charles Loxley, managing director of the London Baggage Company. In other words, it won't emerge with your ordinary luggage on the conveyor belt and you may have to return to the airport a day or two later to retrieve it.
Mr Loxley's company, which he describes as a 'bucket shop for baggage', buys up excess cargo space on flights at discounted prices and undercuts the airlines' own rates. He quotes a rate of pounds 6.20 per kilo for London-Sydney. The London Baggage Company has depots at Heathrow, Gatwick and the Victoria air terminal in London. It will pick up baggage elsewhere on request.
'If you want the cheapest possible option there are cargo agents who send personal effects at cargo rates,' Mr Loxley says. Sending baggage in this way needs advance planning. One of the largest air freight handlers, Air Express International, accepts personal baggage, though security precautions are tight. 'We have very strict guidelines, and we would need a very detailed packing list,' says Graham Manson, export manager.
He quotes pounds 2.62 per kilo for the cheapest London-Sydney freight service (minimum pounds 35), plus a handling charge, typically about pounds 45 for London, and optional insurance. He says air frieght tends to be cheaper than sea freight for smaller loads.
Other firms, including courier companies such as UPS, choose not to handle personal baggage, on the grounds of security and the cost of handling small cash accounts.
If you know in advance that your baggage will be over the limit, it may be worth asking your airline for their suggestion. Qantas, for example, offers a door-to-door 'Luggage Connections' service, obtainable through most travel agents, which for a flat pounds 120 will take a piece of baggage up to 23kg from a UK address to anywhere in Australia.
The London Baggage Company 071-828 2400