Should I check my bag or carry it on? The age-old debate of checked baggage vs carry on baggage has been argued about for years with each of these two camps fairly well entrenched in their beliefs. But, what is actually the best way to go?
Travelers of all shapes, sizes, status, and expertise often have their own preferences when it comes to traveling with luggage and it’s usually a strong one. In this article, we examine the merits of both methodologies and offer some downsides for either approach. We also offer our opinion on checking a bag vs carrying it on.
Checked Baggage vs Carry on: pros and cons
In the following sections, we examine the pros and cons of both travel approaches. We’ve attempted to provide a fair and balanced view of both strategies. But, first, it’s important to set the state with some definitions.
Definitions (Checked Baggage vs Carry-on Baggage)
To help provide context around our discussion let’s start with some definitions first.
- What is Checked Baggage: “Checked baggage is luggage delivered to an airline or train for transportation in the hold of an aircraft or baggage car of a passenger train. Checked baggage is inaccessible to the passenger during the flight or ride, as opposed to carry-on baggage. This baggage is limited by airlines with regard to size, weight, and number, usually dependent upon the fare paid, or class of ticket.” Source: Wikipedia
- What is Carry on Baggage: “A carry on bag is a piece of luggage that can be brought onboard the plane and stowed in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of you.” Source: Scott’s Cheap Air
In other words, a checked bag is one that flies below you in the hold of the plane and a carry on bag flies with you – usually in the overhead bin above your seat (and less ideally, under the seat in front of you).
Carry on bags are often referred to as “hand luggage” as well.
Checking a Bag
Let’s examine the pros and cons of checking your bag. To be fair, there are several reasons for and against checking a bag.
- Pros of checking a bag
- Lighter / Easier traveling through airport security, in the airport, and when boarding your plane. When you check a bag you don’t have to lug it through security and around the airport. Nor do you have to heave up into the overhead bin. You can run carefree throughout the airport with nary a worry in the world.
- Don’t have to fight for overhead bin space. For those of us with airline status, this is not an issue, but for the rest, you may find yourself struggling to find an overhead bin to stow your suitcase. Not an issue if you checked it.
- Can pack more. Carry ons are restricted by size, but when you check a bag you can use a larger suitcase and it can weigh up to 50lbs without having to incur extra fees. Just think of all the shoes you can bring with you.
- Cons of checking a bag
- May have to pay a fee. Speaking of fees, this is a major downside to checking a bag. Unless you fly Southwest or have status on the airline, you are likely paying a fee to check your bag. Talk about nickel and diming…
- Bags might get lost. It happens still (roughly 3% of the time). If you check the bag it’s in someone else’s hands and not yours. A lost bag can really make a trip crummy.
- Lost time (at the start and end of your trip). Waiting to check your bag. Waiting to retrieve your bag. Just waiting. No thanks!
Carrying your bag on
Now let’s examine the pros and cons of carrying on your bags (instead of checking them). I am a little biased here, but I’ve tried to be objective.
- Pros to carrying on your bags
- Move faster. When we travel we like to move fast. Of course, for business travelers like ourselves, this is a common theme, and carrying a bag on allows you to move a little faster. Fewer lines, less waiting, less weight, less stuff, etc. This all allows you to move just a little faster overall.
- Don’t lose time. No need to waste time waiting in lines to check your bag or having to wait for your bag to come off the belt in baggage claim. Carrying a bag on could save you 20-30 minutes on your trip or more.
- Forces you to travel lighter. One of the side effects of using a carry on is that it will force you to pack lighter. In general, this is a helpful approach. Less stuff, less weight, less hassle. A “travel light” mindset will allow you to focus less on your trip and more on your destination.
- Cons to carrying on your bags
- Might have to fight for overhead bin space. Unless you have status you may have to fight for overhead bin space. When carrying your bag on vs checking it keep this in mind.
- Have to lift your bags up / down. You are going to have to heave your bag up into the overhead bin and then yank it back down. If you know how to pack and/or are relatively physically fit this won’t be an issue. But, if you have a bad back, or are not exceptionally strong (or tall) this might present some issues for you.
- Can’t bring as much with you. Of course, when carrying a bag on you will be forced to bring less. As noted above, we think this is mostly a good thing, but if, in fact, you need the extra stuff you may be forced to make some tradeoffs and leave something behind.
As you can see there are good arguments to be made on both sides of the issue. It’s worth noting that there are times when checking a bag is clearly the right choice (or even the only choice).
For example, if you are traveling with special equipment or gear (e.g. tradeshow equipment like a pop-up booth or specialized tools) checking a bag vs carrying it on is the only choice.
Also, with large items like surfboards or golf clubs you are going to have to check your bag. And when I check one bag I almost always check them all (except for a backpack, of course).
But, setting aside special circumstances, what is the right answer to the checked bag vs carry on debate? We give you our thoughts next.
Our opinion (which is, of course, the correct one)
In our article the #1 Travel Hack of All Time we strongly urge our readers to avoid checking a bag. We are believers in a travel light and efficient mindset and checking bag usually works against that.
When deciding to check your bag vs carrying it on we stand by our recommendation and strongly suggest you carry it on.
If you are looking for some insights on how to pack your carry on, consider this great video:
Our recommendation for quality carry on luggage
Of course, carrying your bag on vs checking it means you might want to invest in some quality carry on luggage. There’s no shortage of carry on luggage for sale, but for our money, there’s only one brand to turn to and one model, in particular, that is well-suited for the frequent business traveler:
The TravelPro Crew 11 21″ Model is a fine piece of carry on luggage perfectly tuned for frequent business travel. It’s lightweight but durable and well made. It easily fits into overhead bins on almost all planes (tiny planes, of course, are the exception and like all carry-ons must be gate-checked). If you are looking to embrace the carry on lifestyle, the TravelPro Crew 11 21″ is worth a serious investigation.
We also pair a high-quality backpack with our suitcase. Something to toss a laptop into and all of the other peripheral gear (cords, etc) the frequent traveler needs. For our money, the Ogio Metro remains a solid choice however, we’ve also started using the KnackPack from KnackBags which has turned out to be a compelling option as well.
Where do you stand on checked baggage vs carry on baggage?
So, how about you? Where do you stand on the age-old debate of checked baggage vs carry on? We’d love to hear from you. Drop us a comment or tweet your opinion.
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