Carry-on baggage, worth the hassle?
March 18, 2013 11:55 AM   Subscribe

I have always checked baggage when flying due to a large suitcase. And there is something so liberating about just dumping the bag during check-in, and then jaunting through the terminal sans baggage. Tomorrow, I am going for a short trip and could pack everything into a regulation-size wheeled suitcase and thus do carry on. Both planes (+ 1 connection), are full to capacity. Is it worth the hassle of trying to find overhead? Schlepping it through two airports? Compared to the potential of losing my bag for the duration of my trip, which recently happened? What do you do? Strategies?
posted by nanook to Travel & Transportation (34 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
If you've got the time between flights, volunteer to gate-check your bag. You'll need to wait on the jet bridge after you land, but you'll have no hassle finding a spot for your carry on.
posted by dobi at 11:57 AM on March 18, 2013 [7 favorites]

Recently, when I have been on full flights, the gate agents have asked people to volunteer to gate-check their bags. It's an option I like to take advantage of when I can, especially if it is with an airline with a checked bag fee - these bags seem less likely to get lost, as their carried directly from the gate to the plane and are unloaded first at layovers.

Depending on the airline you'll have to get your bag either on the jetway after each flight or at baggage claim at the end of the itinerary.
posted by muddgirl at 11:59 AM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is the conundrum of the modern traveler.

I too ADORE checking bags. I live in Atlanta and travel through Hartsfield and getting the bag from the car, through the parking, through security, down the escalator, into the train, up the escalator and then down the mile long walk to the gate...FWEW! I'm exhausted just thinking about it.

But, there's nothing like having all of your stuff and being able to breeze on out of there once you reach your destination.

Here's my thing, Carry On on the outbound, where if they lose the bag you'll be screwed, but check it on the way back, where if it gets lost, no biggie, you have all your stuff at home.

No matter what though, I always pack extra undies in my computer bag, just in case.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:00 PM on March 18, 2013 [11 favorites]

Give it a try! Worst case scenario, it will be kind of annoying and it will make it even more satisfying next time you check your bag.

Oh, unless you think you are likely to hit delays; I am a carry-on enthusiast, and carry on pretty much always (even for weeks-long trips), but I really hate having a long delay and having to keep an eye on my bag for hours when I could be wandering around the terminal aimlessly.
posted by mskyle at 12:01 PM on March 18, 2013

I virtually always check, because I have a low personal tolerance for lugging bags around, trying to find space in the overhead, etc. I travel a lot, and the instances of lost bags are vanishingly small (though I also very rarely have connections, which increase the opportunity for errors). The only times I carry everything on are either if it's a single day trip (out in the morning, back at night) or sometimes when I'm flying first class because that makes things a little easier to deal with (though even then I usually check).
posted by primethyme at 12:01 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

In my experience, when the gate crew announces that the flight is really full today, folks! they will ask for volunteers to gate-check overhead-bin-sized bags and they will waive any fees. So do that: it's free, and your bag is much more likely to end up on your plane and not another one, since they carry it down the steps and chuck it in the baggage hold.

And seconding Ruthless Bunny's suggestion to carry a change of clothes (or at least underwear) in your under-the-seat carryon, just in case. I've done this ever since my suitcase vanished for five days on a flight from SFO to PDX.
posted by rtha at 12:03 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you don't have frequent flier status I probably wouldn't bother. Boarding groups nowadays are usually in the order of 1) first class, 2) frequent flier groups, 3) branded credit card holders, 4) everyone else, in the order of window seats followed by middle seats followed by aisles.

If you know the flight is full and you're going to be towards the end of the boarding call, I don't see much of a reason to try to carry on. Check it and bring an extra bottle of sunscreen.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:05 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

We wound up doing the gate check thing when we went to my son's wedding. What you do is wait till they offer it. You do want to gate check it if they offer especially if you will wind up on a smaller plane, as those overhead bins are a pita if your bag isn't squishy. (Ask me how I know this....)

Also, depending on what airline you fly, just doing carryon saves a decent chunk of change. Not all airlines give you that first suitcase free.

Finally, make SURE your carryon is regulationsized if you do this.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:15 PM on March 18, 2013

Huh. I'm not a frequent traveler, but I love knowing where my stuff is, and I never never check luggage. In the last few years every flight I've been on has been fully booked, but as long as I board promptly when my zone is called (not elbowing people out of the way, just heading for the line right away when it's time) there's always been overhead space right near my seat, or a few in front. I do tend to end up with seats towards the back of the plane, which usually means boarding earlier and getting first pick of the overheads.

My vote is, if you have nice rolling luggage that won't be a pain to haul around an airport and as long as you feel ok about lifting it over your head to shove it into a bin, you should go for carry-on only. I've never used the gate check option, but that's been offered on almost all the flights I've taken in the past few years.
posted by Secretariat at 12:18 PM on March 18, 2013

In my most recent trips on south-west flights (usually through American Airlines / American Eagle, though also on United), all passengers were asked to gate-check their items that technically qualified as carry-on luggage, and this was also on some flights that weren't full. I'm frugal enough that I don't mind lugging around everything, and I like knowing that my luggage is actually on the same flight that I am, even if it's gate-checked. Then again, I also feel like my life is too soft, and I need to exert myself, so I also value having to haul my stuff when I travel.

Gate check stinks because it's not the easy on-and-off of stowing your own luggage, but its still faster than checking in (and paying for) your luggage at time of getting your tickets. Also, if there's some flight mix-up, you'll have your luggage with you, without significant delay or question.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:26 PM on March 18, 2013

I travel frequently, and always carry-on. As others have said, airline status means that there is always space available for my bag in the overhead; the same can't be said for those near the back of the line. I think it's worth carrying on, especially since I hate waiting around once I reach my destination; I love the feeling of going straight to the taxi/rental car/etc.

As for other tips, realize that gate checking often means you'll get your bag at the baggage carousel unless you're on a small regional jet. Use a standard size carry-on and load it wheels-first if you can. Use the area under your seat for your coat and a smaller bag containing the things you want on-hand like a book, ipod, etc.

Oh, and make sure you keep your car keys on your person.
posted by craven_morhead at 12:26 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I fly standby, and I check luggage all the time. But I carry a small bag with one change of clothes and survival kit. The bag can also hold your books, music, food and water, and you can hopefully shove it under the seat in front of you. If you're not among the first group on a plane, getting a real suitcase into an overhead can be a major hassle. Flight attendants love you for not putting them through that, too.
posted by BibiRose at 12:42 PM on March 18, 2013

I think the overall experience of flying would be much improved if more people checked their bags. Security lines would be faster, people would be less stressed out about flying, and the process of boarding and deboarding planes would be so much faster and easier if you didn't have a 22" x 14" x 9" roller bag to worry about.

Lost luggage is rare nowadays due to those fancy-ass tags they put on every bag. Waiting around for 10 minutes for your bags to show up after the flight? Barely even a hassle if you consider all that you're able to give up.

Sometimes I think the checked bag fees are actually worth it for how much easier it is to fly without a big carryon.

That said, I'm cheap and I don't want to pay to check a bag. I pack everything in a carryon-sized backpack/suitcase (I highly recommend the MEI Convertible or Voyageur and my wife loves her Osprey Porter 46) and bring it through security myself, then gate-check it for free so I don't have to worry about it again until I arrive.

Airlines should start charging for carryons instead. More people should check their bags.
posted by sportbucket at 12:42 PM on March 18, 2013 [11 favorites]

As for other tips, realize that gate checking often means you'll get your bag at the baggage carousel unless you're on a small regional jet.

Yes, this. They usually will specify that it's going to the baggage claim when they ask for people to gate check. If you do this on your first flight, make sure you get a look at the tag to see that they've checked it through to your destination.

Even tagged correctly, my bag went to the baggage claim at LaGuardia instead of onto my next flight this summer. (If this happens, don't say you gate checked your bag, as you then have to convince whoever you're talking to that, no, you weren't supposed to pick it up at the gate, as if the fact you have claim ticket wasn't an indication.)
posted by hoyland at 12:45 PM on March 18, 2013

I usually prefer going carry-on only, for these reasons:

- I check in online and print the boarding pass at home. Carry-on only means I don't have to stand in any line at the airport; I just go to the gate.

- I often fly through an airport that has very slow delivery of checked baggage. I don't enjoy standing around for 40 minutes waiting for my suitcase to be walked on by a drug-sniffing dog.

- Everything is with me at all times; I no longer open my suitcase to find everything rummaged around (and, once, broken) with a "love" note from the TSA left inside.

My carry-on is a small wheeled case, smaller than the maximum US carry-on, so I never have trouble with it even on small jets. I usually get an aisle seat in the middle of the plane and so far haven't had trouble finding bin space, though I'm assertive about getting in line as soon as I suspect that my section is next to board.
posted by ceiba at 12:46 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best tip for carrying on aside from what's been mentioned, if you don't want to have to gate check your bag (i.e. close connections)

- check in as early as possible as this usually puts you in the earlier boarding group. If you can check in online 24 hours ahead, try to check in right at the 24 hour mark to make the most of this.
- hover by the jetway door so you can be first to board in your boarding group.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 12:56 PM on March 18, 2013

It's kind of six of one half a dozen of the other, depending on your priorities. I do lean towards carrying on when possible, here's my reasons:

* Cheaper when I'm not flying my regular airline (I get a free first checked bag with my regular one because I have a CC).

* On arrival, it is really, really nice to not have to wait at the baggage claim for my bag to show up. Combined with the great sadness that I have experienced when I have waited and waited just to find out that my bag didn't make my connection and is elsewhere, the piece of mind of just having it with me is nice.

* Depending on the airport/airline, departure is much less of a pain in the ass when you aren't checking luggage. At MSP, flying Delta, I can print my boarding pass at home (or even have it sent to my phone, but I'm too much of a luddite for that), and go straight to security without having to deal with an airline rep to get the stupid baggage tag, or stand in the _second_ line to get my checked bag xrayed.

* No weight limits. If I can lift it, I can carry it on. I am a dense packer who has hit the 40lb limit on checked baggage before, but I can lift 50lbs no problem (and no one ever weighs my carry-on)

* Flexibility for standbys. If there is an earlier flight to my same destination, and there is room on it, I can walk to the gate for that flight and ask the gate agent to let me on. If I didn't check a bag, the answer is almost always "yes", even 5 mins before takeoff. If I did check a bag, they tend to be fairly reluctant (because it's hard to get your bag moved from one flight to another, and for safety reasons they can't let you choose to leave your bag on the other flight).

There are downsides however:
* Much bigger hassle at security, and you need to pack knowing that you plan to carry on. You need travel size versions of all of your toiletries, for example. This can be mitigated by planning -- I have a travel toiletry bag where I've decanted my essential products into smaller containers.

* The lugging around the airport. Can't really be avoided, but it's made a little nicer with a fancy spinner bag. Also, it is most airline's policy to automatically gatecheck any roller bags on planes where overhead space is an issue. Gate check is a wonderful thing -- it's like checking a bag for free and getting concierge service so that you can pick it up right away.

* The finding space in the overhead bin. Actually, I think that other answerers are making too much of a big deal with this one. If the flight is relatively full and the bins are small, your bag will be gate checked, no biggie.

I agree with the advice of the answerer who suggested carrying on on your way out (because you'll be more screwed without your luggage at the remote destination, than when you get home), and then checking on the way back. It splits the difference between the methods (cost and hassle wise), and gives you an idea for whether you like it or not.
posted by sparklemotion at 12:57 PM on March 18, 2013

I always carry on. Not with a rollaboard, though, but a duffel. Then if overhead is full, I can put it under the seat if necessary.

I haven't seen anyone mention liquids. If you don't check a bag, make sure your toiletries and other liquids are in 3.4 oz or smaller containers and that all of them fit inside a quart-sized baggie. TSA is still stupid strict about this, IME. If you can't pare down you will have to check the bag.
posted by payoto at 1:00 PM on March 18, 2013

I hate the feeling in the pit of my stomach after I land at my final destination and that pain in realizing they could have lost my luggage again. And of course its a major deal for me since I only pack the best when I travel.. have to make a great impression, ya know. So screw that! No matter how inconvenient (which it never really is) I ALWAYS carry on. It helps me leave the crap at home since I want to pack light and make sure to still leave space for purchases and gifts. And it's no one's fault if the luggage is lost but my own.
posted by xicana63 at 1:04 PM on March 18, 2013

I carry on if I can because I hate waiting around for my bags after landing. Also, the rollaboard is a much nicer place for my laptop than my shoulder or back, and I'm carrying that on regardless. I make an exception for this if I'm flying on an airline that has priority luggage delivery for certain passengers, I'm entitled to that service, and I'm arriving at an airport where bags typically begin to arrive reasonably quickly.

Why would anyone want to hang around the airport baggage claim for an extra 10-30 minutes if they didn't have to? Much nicer to beat the rush to the car rental counters or parking shuttle or whatever.
posted by wierdo at 1:04 PM on March 18, 2013

I am a die-hard carry-on person. I have not checked a bag since before 9/11, and that includes traveling for three months around Asia with snorkeling gear in tow on the outbound flight, and two and a half weeks through Europe with a toddler in tow, and travel for fancy dress events.

But I pack ruthlessly. Pare down to the essentials. Shoes take up a huge amount of space and add a lot of weight. I tend to pack for four days and then do laundry during the trip. I don't use a rollerbag, but a bag that converts between a soft-sided suitcase and a backpack. I prefer to have my hands free, and not having the wheelie bag means stairs are not a problem, while everyone else is filing up for the escalator, I can take the stairs.

Surprised no one has linked this yet: One Bag!
posted by ambrosia at 1:15 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I can't stand being burdened by a rolling suitcase when I'm changing through multiple connections, so I'm pretty much always a die-hard "check-in" person. Particularly if it's an international flight, and there'll be a bottle neck at customs anyway meaning by the time I get through customs, my bag is already waiting for me on the carousel.
posted by modernnomad at 1:30 PM on March 18, 2013

First off, there's a major distinction between valet check (bags returned at aircraft door or jetbridge when you get off the flight, usually only offered on smaller planes with limited overhead space and unavoidable in those situations) vs. gate check (bags returned at baggage claim of your final destination).

As a frequent traveler, I have been burned too many times to recommend checking a bag. I'd be particularly leery of gate-checking a bag through a connection, since gate-checked bags often have handwritten tags and may not be trackable if they get lost/delayed/etc. at the connection point.
posted by backupjesus at 1:38 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

I love checking my bag. It is distinctive, and it is never lost. I've never waited for any significant amount of time to retrieve it, or been slowed in getting to my rental car or hotel van. I carry on my electronics, a paperback book for take off and landing, my jewelry, and cash/credit cards. Everything fits neatly under the seat in front of me.

I truly hate gate check. I get why airlines do it, and why smart MeFis take advantage, but it is unfair to everyone who dutifully checks their bag. I personally think the people with enormo-carry one and gate check folks should be charged a higher fee to get their bags on board than check in people pay. I'd add that if weight is significant for checked baggage, it should be assessed for carry on/gate check too. Either weight matters or it doesn't.
posted by bearwife at 3:34 PM on March 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

If I were you, I would use a softsided duffel bag (easier to squeeze into overhead bins) and carry it on.
posted by brainwane at 4:15 PM on March 18, 2013

Personally i hate dealing with luggage in general, but the first question i'd ask is "Could this stuff conceivably fit in a backpack?"

Brainwane and payoto are on about the same page as me here. I only like carry ons that you can either throw on your back, or at least actually carry. No cumbersome wheelie-bags. I never, ever check luggage.

I'd see if i could whittle it down to a small-medium duffle bag or large backpack and just carry that on.

The best short trip traveling experiences i had all involved me stuffing what i'd need for a few days of life in a large backpack, like a roll-top messenger bag. I also found i brought way less stuff i didn't actually need, and one time had a generally entertaining side-track after arrival when i realized i had forgotten shorts and went to a goodwill and got some nice ones for $8 which gave me an excuse to walk around a part of the city i otherwise wouldn't have.

Generally though, i just noticed that i had a much better time arriving in town, getting to the hotel, etc just having a backpack though. And that was cemented by watching friends schlep around cumbersome big bags and general "travel" suitcase type things. I never even wanted to go straight to the hotel because it wasn't a bother to just walk around with the pack.

Another way to phrase it is, What do you really need in a short trip that you couldn't fit in a backpack? I easily fit a couple changes of clothes, soap/toothbrush/etc, laptop, phone stuff, light jacket(or, if it's that time of year, a heavy jacket tightly rolled or folded), and depending on the trip even a different kind of shoes/boots, a fancy change of clothes, a bunch of camera gear if i want that, etc. I've yet to actually have a trip where i hit some point where i went "Aww crap, i'm gonna need an actual suitcase" to the point that i don't even own one.

I feel like i'm approaching this backwards, but that it makes me more efficient. You need to look at it not as "What's everything i could possibly need", but more "Besides everything i absolutely need that's just basics, how much more that i'll possibly need can i fit in this backpack?". This has the added bonus of making the trip extremely flexible too, of course in that you could conceivably alter your itinerary and stay almost anywhere since you're not just wheeling suitcases to a hotel. Get an offer to stay at a friend/relatives guest room or something after the first night? throw your pack on and hop on public transit and you've got everything you need right there. Other than the shorts, this has never ever failed me.
posted by emptythought at 5:48 PM on March 18, 2013

I never check my bags unless I have to. Two main reasons:

1) Checking is the hassle. Checking my bags has resulted in the TSA taking apart my belongings that are not designed to be assembled/dissembled, placing it back into the bag and having it spill all over my belongings. A family member and her luggage crushed and destroyed and the items inside were ruined. There was also that time when my bag didn't arrive with me so I had to go back to the airport the next day, which was fun. Not worth the risk and some airlines charge for checked bags. Oh, and sometimes you have to wonder what they are doing in the back that makes it take so long for your bags to arrive on the belt.

2) Carry-ons are easy. How difficult is it to find overhead space? Um, not very. How hard is it to wheel your luggage with you to your terminal and sit down while you wait to board the plane? Again, not very. I assume you've never actually used the carry-on option because there is nothing difficult about it. Sure, wheeling your bag into the bathroom stall with you if you need to go is annoying, but I've endured far more annoying things. I bring one carry-on luggage and as large a "personal bag" (purse, backpack, tote) as I can. I easily fit everything I need for just under a week-long stay. And I don't need to wait in any lines - I print my ticket at home so when I get to the airport I go directly through security and to my gate.
posted by AppleTurnover at 6:28 PM on March 18, 2013

For what it's worth, my gate-check strategy depends on the fact that my bag is a perfectly legal check-on bag. Many times, gate check is not an option and I stow my bag as required. If my bag was oversized then this wouldn't work - the bag wouldn't fit in the overhead bin! Gate check is just a nice bonus when it's offered.
posted by muddgirl at 6:33 PM on March 18, 2013

I'm a hardcore carry-on traveler, but honestly I feel like the "Never Check A Bag" thing is overblown. I often check my perfectly carry-on-able bag, just because I don't feel like schlepping it, or because I have time, it's a direct flight, it's free, etc.

I kind of don't get why people get so worried about lost luggage. It's something that happens very rarely (I fly several times a year and it has never happened to me in ~ 15 years of travel), and I mean, what was in your bag that was so irreplaceable in the first place? Am I just a pleb who travels with mostly changes of underwear and shampoo and other stuff that I wouldn't die if I never saw it again? What is in all these people's luggage?

If you like checking luggage, keep doing it. If you feel like you got burned when the airline lost your luggage recently and you're not ready to trust again, carry on. I feel like people apply a value judgment to this that just isn't worth worrying about.
posted by Sara C. at 8:41 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

I nearly always check a bag. I’ve only had a bag lost once and they found it and delivered it my house. I arrived late at night and the bag was there before I woke up in the morning.

Dragging a freaking bag around is a ridiculous hassle. I carry a laptop bag with all the important stuff in it, and if the worst happened and my clothes were to be permanently lost I could go to the store and pickup something to wear. I’m not going to put my computer or any sensitive information in my checked luggage though. But I can put lighters, multi tools, knives, and other things that get taken away if I forget and leave them in my laptop bag.

I often stay somewhere for a week or three at a time though and rarely one or two day trips.
posted by bongo_x at 12:59 AM on March 19, 2013

I hate checking a bag. If you have one with and extendable handle and wheels, I can't see a reason not to carry it on. I love not waiting for checked luggage to show up on the carousel.
posted by troywestfield at 6:26 AM on March 19, 2013

I feel like I need to clarify my position: As much as it sucks to wait in the security line and lug my bag around, it sucks more to wait the check-in line to hand over my bag, THEN go through security with everyone and their bags.

I don't check my bag (aside from gate-checking when possible) because (a) I don't want to pay for it, and (b) it wouldn't make my flying experience any easier, as everyone else is still mucking about with their carryons.

I have developed elaborate strategies to avoid checking bags:
  • Is there a powdered toothpaste?
  • Can't I buy shampoo when I get there?
  • Is there a corkscrew that doesn't have a knife?
  • What if I need something to cut with, will EMT shears work?
  • Can I mail that souvenir bottle of rum?
  • Is it worth it to bring only two pairs of underwear and do laundry in the sink every night?
The answer to all of these questions is YES (or at least PROBABLY). If you're the kind of person who likes doing research and enjoys working around arcane restrictions, you can win at air travel. It can be fun! But it takes planning, and sacrifice. I absolutely do not expect everyone to do it.

But all the planning in the world won't make other people better at packing, or reduce the time I spend waiting for other people to manage their bags. My assertion that "more people should check their bags" is more of a macro-level thing based on a few observations:
  1. People have no idea how terrible they are at packing. They bring way too much stuff, and have trouble moving through the airport or lifting their bags into the overhead bins. Or they bring the wrong stuff, because they don't know the rules and/or don't know what they actually need, and end up slowing down the security line, getting in everyone's way, and clogging up the aisle when boarding/leaving the plane. These people should check their bags.
  2. People get stressed out when they have a lot of stuff to keep track of. Someone mentioned the "peace of mind" that occurs when you have your stuff by your side, but I think the opposite is true in most real-life travel situations. Constantly keeping track of your bags, rifling through 10-20 different pockets to find something, unpacking and re-packing at the whim of a TSA agent... these things greatly multiply the stress of traveling. (I didn't realize the full extent of this until I took a trip with my sister and her family. To save money, each of the 5 kids (and each adult) had a carry-on roller bag with their stuff. This saved them real money in checked bag fees, but now you've got to keep track of a 3-year-old's roller bag in addition to everything else. UTTER CHAOS in the security line. A family with 5 young kids is an extreme example, perhaps, but this same kind of thing is happening all around you every time you fly.)
  3. Much of the drama of boarding and de-boarding is luggage related. Not only is there not enough space for your over-stuffed bag, but the whole process would go so much faster if we didn't have to wait for each and every person to wrangle their 30-pound roller bag out of the overhead bin and down the aisle.
To be clear: I'm not blaming people for being bad at packing or wanting to save money. But we'd all be better off if more people checked their bags.
posted by sportbucket at 12:24 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Is it an option to travel light? I usually take one backpack/day pack which holds laptop/ipad, chargers, toilet articles and whatever I may read on the plane. Then, a soft side bag that contains only clothes - this is easy to squish into an overhead and light enough to carry on my arm or shoulder.
posted by bendy at 1:55 PM on March 19, 2013

I check mine, unless I'm traveling with just one bag that I would bring on anyway, because I'm an anxious person when it comes to airports and I worry that there won't be room on the plane for my bag.

I've flown roughly one bazillion miles and between me and everyone I've traveled with, I can't think of any time a bag has completely disappeared. There have been a few times when people's bags have been delayed a day, but only two that I can think of in the last decade.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:58 PM on March 19, 2013

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