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Don’t Buy This: Never Pay to Check a Bag at the Airport

Remember, you never need more than seven days worth of clothing — all of which should easily fit in a carry-on bag.
Checked baggage versus carry-on luggage.
Photos by Getty Images

Checking bags on an airplane is for tech billionaires and overpacking chumps. Not only does checking your bag mean you have to wait in a line to drop your luggage off with the airline, but then on the other end of the flight you get to wait again. Instead of heading out into the world and starting your vacation already, you have to stand around baggage claim watching other people’s bags slowly snake around the terminal hoping that your bag didn’t get lost somewhere along the way. Between those two life-questioning events, you get to fork over your hard-earned cash to an airline that already charged you an arm and a leg and an elbow or two for your plane ticket.


If that’s not enough reason to skip checking bags, only traveling with carry-on luggage has the extra benefit of giving you flexibility and security if your flight is delayed or cancelled or you are making tight connections in that your belongings are always with you and not tucked in a cargo hold in Tallahassee.

Fees! Fees! Fees!

To add insult to injury, airlines have been steadily raising their checked baggage fees. American, United, Delta, Air Canada, Spirit, Allegiant, WestJet, and JetBlue all charge $30 for the first checked bag and even more cash for the second (most ask $40). Alaska charges $25, which sounds almost reasonable in the context. Of course on Southwest, you can check a bag for free, which is part of the reason Southwest usually ends up on top of consumer satisfaction surveys for low-cost airlines.

Why do baggage fees keep going up? According to one exec, it’s because airlines are passing along the costs of rising fuel prices to consumers. “Fuel prices are up over 33 percent this year,” JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes explained earlier this year. “You end up having to pass those on. We’re about low fares. We hate increasing fares. But we had a couple of fare increases, and then we made the decision to increase the bag fee to $30 if you don’t buy it in the fare.” While most of the airlines ensure that their loyalty members are eligible for free checked bags, if you’re not part of the club, it’s like they don’t want you to check a bag at all—and maybe you should take the hint.


How to pack a carry-on bag

The internet is full of how-to guides for effectively packing a carry-on bag. Seriously, Google it, but most of the articles boil down to this: the trick is just to be brutally realistic about your fashion needs. Outside of swimwear and shorts, if you don’t wear it at home, you’re probably not going to wear it on vacation either. Of course, some of it depends on the nature of your trip. A ski vacation requires bulkier gear, a work trip may require (ugh) suits and heels, while a casual vacation could mean four bikinis and two beach cover ups.

Remember, you never need more than seven days worth of clothing. If your trip is longer than that, just wash your clothes either in the hotel bathroom or have the hotel do it for you. A very fashionable friend went on a two-week African safari with just a carry-on bag, so anything is possible. The trick is to optimize your bag space by packing just the basics and not giving yourself any options. Four shirts, two pairs of pants, a sweater or jacket, underthings, socks, sneakers, one other pair of shoes, travel sized toiletries, and that’s it. Just wear your bulkiest items (boots, hoodies) on the plane and it can be done.

The downside to not checking a bag

The only downside to only traveling with carry-on is that you can’t bring a case of wine home with you as a souvenir. It’s strangely difficult to ship wine, beer, or other spirits, unfortunately. Thanks to some lingering effects of Prohibition, you can’t do it at all through the U.S. Postal Service. For the same reason, it’s also tricky through UPS and FedEx. According to the travel pros at Fodor’s the best way to ship wine home is by… checking a bag.

How to work the system

If you enjoy finding new ways to stick it to the man, there are ways to avoid the checked baggage fee. For starters, find a bag that is perhaps slightly too large for the overhead compartment. Less the steamer trunk your grandparents carried over from the homeland, more a roller bag that is larger than the carry-on standard of 14 x 22 inches (simply stuffing it until it bulges will usually do the trick, too). Tote the bag through security and let the gate agent get a good gander at it or wait until you’re on the plane blocking up the aisle trying to shoe-horn your too large suitcase into the compartment. Usually at that point a crew member will roll their eyes and suggest they tag your bag and leave it on the jet bridge—no charge, of course.

Similarly, as more people eschew checking bags and more people carry them on, overhead bins tend to fill up quickly. Some airlines try to nip this problem in the bud in the boarding area by offering to check bags for free. Listen for announcements in the gate area before your flight or ask the gate agent if they will let you gate check your bag. If they say no, wait to board the plane until the last minute to ensure the overhead bin space is full. Board the plane, look around for a place to stick your bag, and if you can’t find one, the flight attendant will check it for you free of charge. While you’ll still have to wait at baggage claim, you won’t have to elbow for overhead bin space, and you can save the $30 to spend on a bag of potato chips on the plane.


On the flip side, if you’re really determined not to check your carry-on bag, a writer for Inc. suggests telling the flight crew that you’re carrying something expensive and/or breakable like camera equipment or expensive electronics. Airlines won’t want to risk the cost of breaking something pricey and will usually let you keep the item as carry on.

The right bag

Domestic airlines like American, Delta, and United set the standard carry-on bag dimensions at around 22 inches tall, 14 inches wide, and 9 inches deep. Though these size restrictions are not always enforced, sometimes they are, so it’s best to be prepared.

It gets tricky though when you’re flying internationally. Many of the European airlines require checking any bag that is larger than, say, the average Cheesecake Factory salad, particularly if you buy one of the cheaper class tickets or fly a low-cost carrier. (Business and First Class passengers can put 50 pounds of gold bullion in an overhead bin and no one will blink.)

Low-cost European carriers like Ryanair set the carry on limit at 21 inches x 15 inches x 7 inches and frequently limit economy passengers to one-piece of carry on and that includes your purse or laptop bag. Other airlines also require checking bags that weigh more than 8 or 10 kgs (or 17 or 22 lbs), which requires expert level carry-on packing. That includes airlines like Norwegian, Finnair, SAS, and WOW, which means that you either need to either take a page out of this hero’s book and wear all your clothing, pack next to nothing and buy new underwear when you arrive, or just suck it up and pay to check the bag.

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