Photo by Jaromir Chalabala/Shutterstock
When you check your bag, you’re at the mercy of the baggage handlers, which is either freeing or terrifying depending on your stance.
There are those who will safeguard their carry-on with their life and those who will check their luggage with any airline at any cost. Is one approach truly superior over the other?
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Welcome to AFARguments, a new series where editors go head to head about divisive travel issues.
There are certainly big advantages to being a carry-on-only person—no waiting at baggage claim after your flight lands, and no fear of having all your belongings get lost in the air travel luggage vortex. But you also have to find space for your carry-on in the overhead bins, and get that thing through security with all the potential problem-causing liquids and gels likely stashed in your toiletry kit. Checking? That has its perks too. Hand your bag over to someone and it magically (OK, usually for a $35-plus fee) appears on the other end of your journey. So which is the better approach? Perhaps this debate between AFAR’s assistant editor Sara Button, a carry-on-or-die traveler, and travel news editor Michelle Baran, who will gladly hand over her luggage to just about anyone, will help you decide.
Michelle Baran: OK, so to be clear, you always carry on, no matter what? Or are there circumstances in which you check your bag or bags?
Sara Button: OK, so in my personal life I always carry on. I don’t think I’ve willingly checked a bag since, like, 2009. But I don’t have kids, so I don’t have to worry about packing gear for them.
MB: For the sake of this argument, I’m going to try to keep [my] kids out of it, so we’re on a level playing field. But I’ve been a checked bag person since long before they came around. So why the decade-long commitment? Why do you resist checking bags so much?
SB: First of all, I have a weird, vaguely unexplained obsession with packing efficiently. One of my favorite parts of getting ready to go on a trip is pulling out my carry-on (maybe a week in advance) and starting to strategize my packing in as minimal a luggage situation as possible. One of my greatest packing achievements is the fact that I traveled for 10 months out of a carry-on. Reason two is that although I personally have actually never had a terrible “the airline lost my bag” nightmare, I did have a particularly bad situation with a friend once. . . . We were so delayed getting to the airport that they wouldn’t let my friend on the plane because she had to check her bag. So, in general, I just feel more secure traveling with my stuff. I'm a control freak, I guess.
MB: Ah, yeah, OK, these are all great arguments for carry-on. And yet I am still a checked person even though I did have the nightmare scenario in which Alitalia lost my luggage at the start of a 10-day trip in Russia.
SB: So why the devotion?
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MB: Well, for one, I hate lugging. I feel like all my life I’ve been lugging—groceries on the streets of New York and now my kids and all their junk (I know I said I wouldn’t drag them into this, but just as an example of something or someone I have to lug). I get to the airport and I want to lighten my load and just roam free. I also hate looking for overhead bin space, then having to [struggle to get it into the bin] because it’s too heavy. And I refuse to ask for help because I don’t think anyone should bring carry-on on if they can’t lift it themselves.
SB: Yeah, lugging isn’t always easy. I admit I hate having to take my bag into the bathroom stall when I’m traveling solo. Also, I have been able to fit my Osprey Meridian soft-shell [luggage] under the seat in front of me in a pinch when there’s no room in the overhead bins. So do you feel like the inconvenience of a lost bag or having to wait at baggage claim just outweighs the convenience of being luggage-free at the airport?
MB: I, too, will admit that waiting at the baggage claim, if it’s a particularly long wait, will get to me at times. I think I waited at JFK once for nearly two hours and I was crawling out of my skin. But if it’s the normal 30-40 minutes, that’s about as much time as I need to head to the bathroom post-landing, maybe grab a snack if I need one, get through security on an international flight, and head to the carousel.
SB: On a short domestic flight, the idea of waiting 30-40 minutes to get to where I’m going is horrifying to me. Would you check a bag that is carry-on size just for the convenience?
MB: Yes, I would, though the cost of checking bags is annoying. But I just close my eyes and hand over the card because I don’t want to deal. Here’s the thing: I’m a pretty go-go-go person in my daily life, but when I travel, I like to slow things down when I can, starting with getting to the airport early and dropping off my luggage. And I like to carry that less frantic mind-set with me even to the waiting at the luggage carousel. A sort of “just chill” vibe.
SB: Ah, we are opposites. Even if the goal of my trip is to chill, I can’t actually do it. Or, at least, that is not embodied by me waiting around an airport.
MB: What about when there’s zero room on the flight for carry-on?
SB: Like if they start gate-checking?
SB: Yeah, so if it’s the sort of thing where they gate-check my bag and it will be waiting for me on the [jet bridge], I am fine to do that, honestly. But if I have to [really] check my bag . . . and I have to go get it at the carousel, I really hate that. And I will say that on a recent trip, for the first time in my life, I am somewhat embarrassed to [admit] that I talked back to a gate agent because she made me gate-check my bag to my final destination. I was livid.
MB: Why were you so upset?
SB: It was the principle of the thing! It felt like a total power play. She was like “OK, well, if it fits [onboard] then put it into one of those boxes.” You know, the ones that are supposed to be the carry-on size? And it barely didn’t fit so [she had] me there but the thing that made me so mad was that there were definitely [larger] hard-shell suitcases around me . . . and they didn’t have to prove that theirs fit into the box. Do you find that you overpack more if you check?
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MB: Yes and no. I am a bit of an overpacker in general, but remember, even though I like to check, I don’t like to lug. And I still need to carry that bag around the rest of my trip, so I still try to keep things tight, and like you, I like the efficiency of a well-packed bag. I just feel like checking is a tiny little luxury of airplane travel, a brief respite from the damn thing. It’s interesting to me that for you carrying your bag on appears to be way more about speed and convenience than about not losing your bag. I would think most carry-on people are that way because they don’t want to lose their stuff?
SB: I rarely travel with fancy clothes or much stuff that I would be worried about losing if I had to check. For a lot of checkers, I would assume having a lot of wardrobe options would be a big draw. But it helps that I am not so stylish! And also, when I was traveling long-term with a carry-on, I liked getting rid of certain clothes that I had really worn through and adding new ones. It was an excuse to hit up the local charity shops or markets to get some sartorial souvenirs.
MB: Your lack of commitment to your wardrobe makes you an ideal candidate for the kind of carefree attitude towards “things” us checkers must have! When they lost my luggage en route to Russia, I had the best time hitting all the fast-fashion shops like Zara and H&M and cobbling together fun mix-and-match outfits that would endure for the length of the trip.
SB: But isn’t [checking] just a waste of money, especially if it’s a carry-on size suitcase to begin with? [I would rather walk] off that plane and into that place to experience it as soon as possible. And not have to worry about having a large bag to cart around and explore with. The treat for me is spending the $35 or $50 or whatever it is to check a bag on a great meal.
MB: One can argue that a fine bottle of wine is a waste of money, or a great book, or a massage. But we buy these things because they give us pleasure. Relinquishing my bag gives me pleasure.
SB: Well, the more people like you relinquish your bag, the more overhead bin space there is for people like me.
MB: So true! We’d make great travel companions. Until you got held up in security because of your toiletries, or until you had to wait an hour with me at the baggage claim.
SB: Oh [expletive] toiletries. I do always get flagged for those at security. And my Kindle. But [let’s] leave that out.
MB: [We are definitely] including that! This is a big pain point of carry-on!
SB: OK, so I get that. If you check, you don’t have to worry about that sort of thing at security except if you have a purse or a backpack with your toiletries in it. And you’re still losing on the other end when you’re stuck waiting at baggage claim.
MB: Good point. I guess I’ll just meet you at the restaurant then. Meal’s on you, right? Since you saved on your bag fees?
SB: It’s a deal.