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When Checking a Bag at the Airport Is Worth It—And When It Isn’t

7 minute read

The recent uptick in air travel and flight delays have travelers questioning if it’s a good idea to check a bag. Summer vacations, holidays, and weddings have kept airlines and airports busy the past couple of months, with air travel up back to pre-pandemic numbers. More than 2 million people flew out of U.S. airports each day last week, according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The air travel industry may not be equipped to handle the demand after more than two years of COVID-19 travel restrictions, though. Large-scale staffing shortages have become a major problem for airlines.

Between July 5 and 14, more than 54,000 flights were delayed worldwide, making up 20.8% of all flights in that timeframe, according to FlightAware, an aviation data collection company. Delays and cancellations were almost as common back in 2019, but FlightAware credits this year’s mania to the delays clustering around holidays and other high-trafficked periods.

With lost luggage becoming more common—as the airline industry struggles with staffing shortages, delays and cancellations—checking luggage or sticking with a carry-on could make a significant difference in a person’s travel experience.

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Is it ever a good idea to check a bag?

Checking luggage is a classic part of air flying that most travelers are accustomed to. Roughly 55% of travelers check some or all of their luggage while flying, according to a survey from Go Group LLC.

Kareem George, owner of Culture Traveler and a member of Travel + Leisure’s 2022 A-List Travel Advisory Board, says that checking luggage is convenient if you want to pack more, especially for longer trips, and for avoiding the hassle of lugging around your items in the airport.

“When you have your carry-on bag, it’s one more item. Yes, you have complete control, but you are more encumbered through travel. You’re not able to walk through the airport with just a backpack or purse,” George tells TIME.

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Checked luggage also has fewer content restrictions, which provides ample space for liquids and souvenirs for loved ones on the way home. It can also be a better option for travelers with young children or disabilities that can make it harder to navigate the airport.

Travelers who decide to check luggage should pay attention to additional fees for the service though. Checked bags for domestic travelers start around $30 for one bag and increase for each additional bag. The weight limit is generally 50 pounds per bag and bags that weigh more than that can cost travelers over $100.

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“Lost” luggage isn’t common with 92% of missing bags found and returned to their owners, SITA reported, but checking luggage can also slow travelers down. In April 2022, almost 220,000 bags were mishandled by U.S. airlines, which means they were lost, damaged, stolen, or delayed, according to the U.S Department of Transportation. SITA reports that 77% of baggage mishandlings are a result of delays.

“With delays and cancellations, there are more chances for your luggage to go astray,” Wendy Perrin, a travel blogger, tells TIME.

Delta Air Lines took up a creative solution on July 11 to reunite travelers with their luggage after a flight was canceled. Delta flew a passenger plane from London to Detroit full of only 1,000 pieces of luggage. The luggage-only flight was an effort to speed up returning travelers’ checked luggage and to help clear the baggage pileup at Heathrow Airport. Such measures are interesting approaches to overcoming ongoing flight delays and cancellations.

Sticking to carry-on luggage

Carry-on luggage, typically restricted to one small suitcase or duffel bag and another smaller bag or item, has to fit under your seat or in the overhead compartment on the plane, which can make it tougher to pack due to size constraints. During busy flying seasons, though, keeping luggage with you can be helpful.

“If you can manage to fly only with carry-ons, then you’re in better shape for a lot of reasons,” Perrin says. “I personally only want to use carry-ons.”

Carry-ons are touted as a practical option to pack efficiently and to have greater and quicker mobility during transit.

“Based on the disruptions we’re currently seeing with airlines, this is definitely a strong push in favor of the carry-on only because it gives you an extra layer of control and less worry. You’re able to go right to the gate, get on and have everything with you,” George says.

Connecting flights are another factor in the decision to fly with a carry-on.

“You have a higher success rate of making tight connections. We always advise as much space as possible, within reason, between connections for comfort [and] not to miss them, but there are instances where it’s hard to avoid that. When you have everything in your carry-on, you’re able to just get up and go,” George says.

Domestic and international travel isn’t too different in terms of transporting luggage, but Perrin mentioned that Europe tends to have slightly different size and weight restrictions for carry-ons and George said it’s important to note that traveling through different countries with checked luggage is an added hassle if it gets lost or delayed.

What can you bring in a carry-on?

A Delta Air Lines representative highlighted that although traveling with checked luggage or carry-on luggage only is a personal choice, there are some items that passengers should always bring with them on the plane, such as medication and medical equipment. On occasion, airline officials may ask travelers to check their luggage when there’s no more space on the plane, and travelers need to be prepared to keep some items with them.

“Say you’re at the gate and the gate agent says, ‘We need you to check your bag.’ Take out medical equipment, your keys, your wallet, and keep those things with you,” the Delta representative said.

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Over the years, airlines have squeezed more seats in tight planes for higher profits without adding enough storage to keep up with the flight capacity. Additionally, the growing trend of checked luggage fees makes more travelers opt for carry-on only travel, but some airlines have started charging a fee for carry-on luggage too. United, Spirit, and Frontier all charge fees for full-size carry-ons with select tickets.

The Delta representative pointed out that medical devices, such as CPAP machines, qualify as additional carry-on items outside of the regular two items allowed. There are also some exceptions for liquids, including liquid prescription medications, breast milk, and infant formula, which don’t have quantity limits in carry-ons.

TSA guidelines limit each passenger to carrying 3.4 ounce-containers of liquid, cream, or gel items in their carry-on luggage, besides the aforementioned medical exceptions—an added inconvenience for passengers flying carry-on only.

Ultimately, choosing between the checked and carry-on luggage methods is a personal decision that depends on lifestyle and preferences.

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