When it comes to the carry-on vs. checked bag debate, I seem to be one of the rare frequent travelers who says, “It depends.”
There are some who see the decision whether to wheel a carry-on bag onto a plane or check a bag instead as a black or white, binary decision with no middle ground. Especially among many frequent travelers in their 40s and older, there’s an almost cult-like devotion to avoiding a checked bag at all costs.
The flying environment is very different than it was 20 years ago though and many who spout out declarations like, “Carry-on is the only way to travel” are saying that because of long-held beliefs that are no longer so black and white–or maybe not even true at all anymore.
At the same time, people who feel they must check a bag no matter what have a long list of excuses for this, usually involving the number of full-sized shoes or toiletries they must take with them on every trip. Or “I have to dress up too much on business trips.” Most of these blanket beliefs are also not so robust when held up to scrutiny.
Or which side you fall on can just be one of those identity pegs that Seth Godin talks about so much: “People like us do things like this.” Anthony Bourdain once said in an interview, “I check my luggage. I hate the people struggling to cram their luggage in an overhead bin, so I don’t want to be one of those people.”
Others brag about the time they save with their carry-on bag, then will spend an hour getting more than they need to in order to get to their hotel to save 10 bucks on transportation. There’s an image and a self-identity factor at play that sometimes has no basis in logic.
Just like most of the political issues people argue about, there are shades of gray and “What if” scenarios that can easily tip the decision to one side or the other if you really look at it objectively.
Truly savvy travelers know that the right bag choice for one trip may not be the right one for another. Flexibility pays off–and pays back in real savings.
I’m going to run through these in detail, but here are a few pros and cons for each method.
The Pros and Cons of Carry-on Bags
The pros of carry-on bags: fewer chances to lose your luggage (unless you have to gate-check it), no waiting at the baggage carousel (unless you have to gate-check it), sometimes a quicker line at the check-in counter, sometimes no or low baggage fee, no worries about luggage making it on time if you’re departing the arrival city quickly, sometimes lighter to pick up than a larger checked bag.
The cons of carry-on bags: often limited bin space, have to carry it through each airport, hard to run for the gate if the connection gets tight, have to keep track of it at dining places and lounges, have to take it onto a packed airport bus sometimes at international airports, sometimes a higher bag fee than a checked one on budget airlines, strict space limits on what you can bring back from your trip, small liquids/toiletries only, can’t carry anything sharp, like a Swiss Army Knife or corkscrew, can’t buy duty-free liquor. Plus it’s really tough to do carry-on only if you have a baby or toddler.
Understand that there’s no worldwide standard for a carry-on bag size. In the USA it’s generally 45 linear inches when you add width by height by thickness. If you bulge out the sides of it so it won’t fit in the sizer near the check-in counter or the departure gate, the airline can make you pay to check it. In Europe and Asia, the limits on size can be stricter, especially on budget airlines.
The good news is, they usually won’t weigh it, which is especially important for photographers and others carrying lots of gear.
One last thing: a carry-on is not the same as a “personal item.” The latter will always be free if it can meet the airline’s requirements of what fits under the seat in front of you. So a small backpack, purse, or laptop bag is fine if you only bring one.
The Pros and Cons of Checked Bags
The pros of checked bags: bring whatever clothing you want, bring whatever tech/gadgets you need, no rush to get onto the plane and claim bin space, no heaving lifting of your bag into an overhead bin, no toiletry size limitations, can pack sharp items like a corkscrew, move through airports without dragging luggage, sometimes lower bag fee on budget airlines, move abroad with what you need, return from trips with purchases or conference swag, fewer items to put through security screening.
The cons of checked bags: slight risk of lost/delayed luggage, extra risk when immediately departing arrival city, theft of contents risk, waiting time at the baggage carousel, sometimes longer wait at airline check-in counter, sometimes add-on/higher fees for checking a bag, a heavier bag to lift or carry up flights of stairs.
The legacy airlines in the USA usually allow you to check up to 50 pounds and if your bag is not a strange size, you’ll be fine. Many budget airlines only allow 40 pounds or the metric equivalent though, so check carefully when you book. You might want to invest in a luggage scale. I bought this one for 12 bucks and it’s small enough to pack if necessary.
What Has Changed in the World of Baggage Fees
Back when I first started traveling, for business and for pleasure, no airline charged you to check a bag. Boarding was fast, there was no shortage of bin space ever, and we exited the plane quickly after landing when the doors opened. Ah, the good ole days when people actually liked flying.
Back then, before the advent of “base fare only” budget airlines and the legacy airlines’ race to the bottom to join them, you had very little incentive to lug around a carry-on bag. You only did it for these reasons:
1) You were leaving the city you were landing in immediately or had a tight connection at a hub.
2) You had valuables or cash and were worried about theft or your bag getting lost.
3) You were a flight attendant or pilot.
4) You were carrying heavy/fragile equipment such as camera gear, a musical instrument, or a presentation projector.
5) It was a short trip of a night or two and it was easier to just sling an overnight bag on your shoulder.
All that changed less than two decades ago when a few budget airlines cropped up and started charging to check a bag. American Airlines was the first to announce that they could be crappy to their customers too and also started charging a fee in 2008.
Naturally all the other formerly “full service” airlines eventually piled on, first for domestic flights and then on many international ones as well. The more hated the airline, the quicker they were to implement and then raise these fees–which started at $15 and have escalated multiple times since. Checking a bag can now add 50% or more to the price of a trip on low-priced sale tickets.
They couldn’t leave it at that though when there was another chance to pickpocket their customers. So first the budget airlines like Spirit and Allegiant also started charging for a carry-on bag as well. That led me to several experiments where I traveled with just a small under-seat bag on Allegiant and on Spirit to see if I could get away with no extra fees at all. (Spoiler alert, I did.)
The legacy airlines couldn’t resist being hated as much as Spirit if it meant higher executive bonuses, so they followed suit with something called “basic economy,” a choice you should leave out of your searches on Kayak or Skyscanner because it’s a demeaning way to save a few dollars. Choosing that ticket means you are making a budget airline deal: even a carry-on bag will require a fee.
For the low-cost airlines such as Ryanair, Spirit, and Volaris, the calculation is getting especially complicated because you may save very little, if anything, by wheeling your own bag around instead of checking it. On two flights I took recently, checking a bag was cheaper than carrying one on and fighting for bin space.
Also, I have a credit card for each of the three legacy airline companies in the USA because I love free airline tickets. My United card gets me a free checked bag to anywhere in the world. On American and Delta, the cards get me a free checked bag on domestic flights. So there is almost never a financial advantage for me to wrestle a piece of luggage onto the plane.
Then there’s Southwest, the fastest-boarding airline by a wide margin, where you won’t pay for baggage either way. So unless you have a logistical reason to keep your bag with you, there’s no incentive to lug it around all day.
How Often Do Checked Bags Go Missing?
This is the pillar of the carry-on argument for most of the carry-on only fanatics. They argue that the only way to be sure you don’t lose your bag is to carry it yourself. Well, by that logic the only way to make sure your bus arrives to where it says it’s going is to drive it yourself, but they probably won’t let you take the wheel. Usually the bus makes it just fine.
For the most part, this lost luggage fear is overblown. Some stats in a sec, but here’s my personal experience: I have never lost a checked bag and I’ve been traveling regularly since the 90s, fairly often for work in the second half of the 80s.
The worst that has happened? Three times in my life, a bag has gotten delayed for 24 hours. I got it eventually, but the next day. This happened twice on domestic flights in the USA (both last century) and once on an international one many years ago. I marked those as an “all’s well that ends well” situation because about all I had to do to compensate was buy a toothbrush, toothpaste, and once a hat for the sun.
I don’t want to just speak from personal experience though, so here’s the statistical truth: there’s a roughly 4 in 1,000 (on Southwest) to 8 in 1,000 (on American) chance that your bag could get “mishandled” in transit. That means anything from something was stolen out of it to a wheel broke off to it never arrived. Delays count as “mishandled,” even if the bag just comes a few hours later on the next flight.
Some airlines do better than others, of course, and this past summer has been far worse than normal overall, including in Europe. Still, in the end you’ve got a 0.4% chance to a 0.8% of your number coming up. Mine never has, so I’ll keep taking those odds when necessary. Plus I have travel insurance for good measure.
If you want to be sure your bag will make it, your chances are best on the one that doesn’t charge for the pleasure of losing your bag: Southwest Airlines. Here’s what a breakdown in The Points Guy says:
Because of Southwest’s generous baggage policy, which allows each traveler to check up to two bags for free, the carrier handles five times more bags than Allegiant, Hawaiian and Frontier combined (nearly 110 million bags in the last 12 months and almost 16 million in the first two months of 2022).
Despite this high checked bag volume, plus other factors like foul weather and flight connections, Southwest pulls through most of the time.
As you have probably noticed, those sticky bag tags they put on now are quite hard to get off and they are imprinted with bar codes. It’s quite tough for your bag to get truly lost these days. Plus there are electronic tag solutions out there you can implement yourself for extra peace of mind.
The Cost to Check a Bag or Carry On a Bag
Now your choices as they relate to bag checking are much more complicated than they used to be, especially for a budget airline. Most of these airlines have realized that this charging for a carry-0n thing has really mucked up the boarding process and made flight attendants’ already tough job even tougher. It is costing them money and delaying flight times because it takes so much longer to load and unload passengers when everyone is carrying all their belongings as well.
So they have quietly rejiggered the incentives. On some routes where the bin space is at a premium, especially on those tiny Embraer planes with only three seats across, the budget airlines will actually charge more for a carry-on than they will for you to check a bag. I’ve seen this first-hand on Allegiant, Viva Aerobus, and Ryanair. Check out this screenshot for Allegiant:
The first column is for a carry-on, the second is for a checked bag. In two of those cases, carrying on the same bag will cost you more. You are paying more to be your own baggage handler. If you scroll through all their flights, you’ll see lots of cases like these. When I flew Ryanair in Europe recently, I saved 4 euros each way by checking my bag. Hey, that’s two glasses of tapas bar wine in Spain!
So yes, if you’re flying the dreaded basic economy option on a legacy airline and if you don’t have their credit card, it can save you some money to carry your own suitcase on board, heave it up there, and make it fit. If they don’t force you to gate check it because your bag is too big or you’re in boarding group 9 on American Airlines and finding space is hopeless.
That’s a lot of ifs.
Carry-on vs. Checked Bag: Where Are You Headed?
Like I said at the beginning, this is not a binary either/or decision when looking at the carry-on vs. checked bag decision at packing time. I’ve traveled with a carry-on suitcase plenty of times and will do so again. The packing part of it is not really that hard for me. I could live out of a carry-on for months if I had to by packing light with double-duty clothing that will dry quickly if I have to do a sink wash. I rarely pack more than two pairs of shoes anyway, in addition to what I’m wearing on the plane.
So if there’s a logistical reason for a carry-on, I’ll go that route. For instance, if I’m flying into a big airport but I’m immediately heading hours out of town. I’ve never lost a bag, but I have had one delayed for 24 hours. An inconvenience if I’m staying in the city, a potential nightmare if I’ll be in a jungle lodge hours away. Of if my connection in New York is only 45 minutes on my way to Europe. Checking a bag then is just tempting fate.
Other times though, I need the space. Sometimes I’ve been schlepping lots of items from the USA to Mexico, either when moving or when bringing down things I couldn’t buy locally. So I needed a large suitcase and all 50 pounds of that luggage allowance.
When I backpacked around the world for three years total, both of us carried backpacks that needed to be checked. And we still got really sick of our clothing.
Sure, there are people out there backpacking with just a carry-on, but sometimes they don’t smell so good and they don’t have even one nice outfit to wear out to a nice restaurant or a business meeting. Or the right shoes for a hike. Take a look at the inside of this Tortuga backpack, which is the maximum carry-on size of 45 liters. I’ve got one of these and I like it, but imagine using only what can fit inside of there for months or a year on end. In more than one climate.
Sometimes I go to a trade show and then on a press trip afterwards, so I know I’ll be bringing back promo items and research materials. Other times I’m picking up souvenirs, or buying gifts, or buying wine/liquor to bring back. One time I went on a press trip sponsored by many of Mexico’s tequila distilleries and literally checked an entire bag full of booze, the bottles wrapped in lots of clothing.
So the key thing to ask yourself is not what you want to do, but what do you need to do in terms of luggage? Often the decision is an easy one if you look at the risk/reward ratio, what you need the space for, or what you’re going to do after arrival and on return.
When I had a baby and then a toddler, packing light was crazy hard. Little kids may not take up a lot of room, but it’s mind-boggling to new parents how much their presence adds to what you need to pack.
One last bit of advice for couples too: you can play it both ways if you cooperate. One of you can bring a carry-on, the other can check a bag. This can potentially save you some money but also allow you to hedge your bets and be less encumbered together in the airports.
Otherwise, I’m not going to tell you what to buy or what to use for your next trip except for these opinions that I hold dear:
1) Four-wheel spinner suitcases are great for airports and hotels, but they suck for most outdoor spaces. And they’re almost impossible to run with in an airport when you’re in a hurry.
2) You often get what you pay for if you buy cheap, off-brand luggage or backpacks. Fine for sending your kid off to college with, bad news for long-term travel or frequent vacations. Buy something with a good warranty that will last.
3) If you’re going to backpack around the world, buy a backpack unless you have serious back problems or you have the money to pay for taxis, bellmen, and porters on a regular basis. If you’re on a strict budget, you’ll be dealing with lots of stairs, cobblestones, dirt paths, and vendor-packed sidewalks.
Your turn. What did I miss in the carry-on vs. checked bag decision? Leave it in the comments. (But be civil…)