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The Great Debate: To Check or Carry On?

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The AFAR staff battles it out over the best way to handle luggage during travel.

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To check or not to check? That is one of the biggest questions among travelers. Some argue in favor of the carry-on bag because they’ve been traumatized by lost luggage too many times—or they simply want to get out of the airport in a timely fashion. Others prefer to check their bags because travel is about relaxation, and they don’t want a suitcase weighing them down. There’s one thing that’s certain for frequent travelers, like the staff at AFAR: We’re so eager to hit the ground running once we’ve reached our destination that we just can’t wait around at baggage claim. Read on for some of the AFAR staff’s arguments for their preferred methods of handling their luggage while traveling.

“I always carry on. I remember my first solo trip abroad; I was trying to be cute and packed 100 different outfits for Italy, France, and Spain. When I arrived, I found that the airport had lost my luggage. I went without my outfits for FIVE days, strolling around Milan, where everyone looks like a model. In the end, I realized that I’m more of a thrifty backpack traveler than I thought, since I had to make do with the budget I had in a place where I didn’t speak the language.” — Chris Udemezue, senior graphic designer

“In my backpacker years, I was a carry-on only kind of a girl. Baggage fees seemed unnecessary and a well-packed duffel makes a perfect airport pillow during those six-hour budget-travel layovers. The second time I went abroad, the airline lost my bag and I found myself in Ireland in the middle of winter with nothing but a sweatshirt and jeans. I had to buy a whole new wardrobe to hold me over for the three days until they found my bag. These days I still mostly carry on because I’m far too impatient to wait at baggage claim—but I will check bags for long-haul flights with layovers.” — Maggie Fuller, editorial assistant

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“I’m one of those people who goes both ways: I guess I’m bi-luggage. I carry on when going short distances or when I’ll be in a destination that requires as little luggage as possible. When I went to Yelapa, a town in Mexico only accessible by a tiny, people-filled boat, I made sure to pack a tiny duffel that doubles as a backpack. But if I have multiple layovers, or if my itinerary is more straightforward or leisurely, I like to check. I prefer not to have to deal with my suitcase—even at the risk of losing everything. Wild, I know.” — Aislyn Greene, associate editor

“I’ve had more than a few episodes of lost luggage, or luggage that doesn’t arrive with me and I can’t change flights. The most notable was when [AFAR cofounder] Joe and I went to India for five weeks. Our bags got lost on the way there, and they kept telling us that the bags would be with us any day. Eventually they were said to be lost completely (they wound up waiting for us on our doorsteps when we returned home). Thankfully we were in India, so I found inner peace. Since then, however, I’ve only done carry-on. In fact, I have a few different styles of travel backpacks that I use, so I can move easily, have my hands free, carry as little weight as possible, always have my things nearby, can deal easily with stairs and cobblestone streets.” — Greg Sullivan, CEO/Cofounder

“I absolutely pack a carry-on, no matter what the circumstance or how long I’ll be gone. It doesn’t just save time and money—it can save a trip! When I packed for my three-week trip to Australia this past May, I made it a point to pack clothes I could easily wash, reuse, and mix and match. That ended up saving me a major headache. My flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles was delayed—so much so that I would have missed my connection to Oz. So I marched over to the information desk and rebooked myself on a flight that was taking off earlier than my delayed original one, and caught my flight to Australia. I would never have been able to do that on the fly (ha!) if I’d checked a bag.” — Danielle Walsh, associate editor 

Nobody likes playing the waiting game.

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“I pack a carry-on if the trip is domestic and a week or less, but I always check my bags if it’s an international trip. I like to have the space to bring a part of the destination back with me. You have to have space to bring back unique pieces from around the world.” — Irene Wang, integrated marketing manager

“I always try to carry on—it makes traveling so much easier on so many levels. I am able to be more flexible with flights (hello, airline vouchers!), and more mobile once I arrive. Plus, I never have to worry about losing my luggage. The only time I check my bag is if I’m traveling with a bottle of wine as a gift.” — Samantha Juda, audience marketing specialist

“I absolutely hate checking luggage so I always try to pack everything into a carry-on. I think it probably stems from a fear that my checked bag will get lost, which has happened to me a handful of times. Once, I arrived into 90-plus-degree heat in Spain in the jeans and long sleeve top I’d worn on the plane, and of course my luggage didn’t arrive with me. A combination of the heat, my outfit, lack of sleep, and a regrettably small breakfast led to me fainting on a tour of a church later that day. So embarrassing!” —Sarah Purkrabek, editorial assistant

 “Peter Greenberg (the travel editor for CBS News) once told me to never check a bag, to pack in colors that work together, and that one overhead bag (with a bag under the seat) can take you from three days to three weeks. That works for me.” — Barry Brown, executive sales director

 “I prefer to travel light and I don’t like to wait at baggage claim, so I stuff everything into a small carry-on backpack whenever possible. I’ve learned the habit of simplicity and self-sufficiency from long backpacking trips and mountain climbing expeditions, where every ounce counts and you carefully consider the utility of each item. When I fly, the carry-on bag size restrictions act as a forcing function to ensure that I only bring what I’ll realistically need. In the past, I've had checked luggage searched by TSA, left out in the rain on the tarmac, and otherwise beaten up in transit—so there’s also a certain peace of mind that comes with keeping my belongings away from the security professionals. Bottom line: I’m always happier when I’m not lugging a bunch of stuff.” —Thomas Alexander, guides intern

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