Ever since airlines started charging for checked bags, the decision as to whether or not to carry on has become a bit more important and complicated. For long trips, the question is typically answered by the sheer amount of stuff you have to bring with you. Checking a bag on a flight may be unavoidable for that or other reasons. But if you're going away for less than a week, you may be torn as to whether or not you want to pay the extra fee to check your bag. If you're facing that exact dilemma, I've broken down the questions I think are work asking that might help you figure out whether you should check your bag or carry it on the plane, along with my own personal travel insights.
How long are you traveling?
This is the first question that needs to be asked. If you're traveling for three or fewer nights and aren't bringing anything big or heavy along with you, carrying on is a no-brainer in my opinion, in most cases. (We'll touch on some of the cons to carrying in on later questions.) Four to five nights is more of a gray area in terms of suitcase space and depends on whether there are going to be multiple wardrobe changes per day on this trip and access to laundry facilities. Beyond five days, I'm probably checking my bag. Between clothes and toiletries, if there's no way (or time) to do laundry on the trip, it might be too difficult to fit everything into the space of a regulation size carry-on suitcase.
How much stuff are you bringing there (and back!)?
It's important to be mindful of what you're packing. I tend to overpack and have, on multiple occasions, found myself dumping out the contents of my freshly-packed suitcase and starting over when I've found myself loading up on way too many "just in case" items. Being prepared on a trip is important. Being overly prepared can have a heavy cost, literally. With that said, it's also just as important to keep in mind what you're bringing back with you. If you're going on a vacation, you may be planning to purchase souvenirs. If your suitcase is completely full on the way to the trip, imagine yourself trying to get those t-shirts and toys for the grandkids stuffed into it on the way back. With that in mind, you may want to pack an extra duffel bag. You might still decide to carry-on on the way there and then, if that duffel is full of gifts for friends and relatives on the way back, you can carry that on and check the suitcase.
Are you taking multiple flights?
This is a big deciding factor for me, especially if I know i'm going to be dealing with a layover in a big airport and potentially changing terminals. Getting from one gate to the other might be a quick affair, or you may find yourself walking for what feels like miles. Do you want to be dragging a suitcase with you on and off the plane, through an airport and back on and off the plane? Sometimes the decision to check a bag can make your day a whole lot easier. That brings us to our next question...
Are you traveling with children or people who need assistance?
If you've got little ones or people who need assistance, you may consider checking your bag, even if it's just a carry-on, to keep your hands free to help your traveling companions and navigate the airport. If you're concerned about needing something out of that carry-on during the flight, it's worth keeping in mind that some regional jets don't have sufficient room in the overhead bin to hold bigger bags and will gate-check all rolling suitcases (this is where they take the bag just before you get on the plane and give it back to you just after you get off). So if there's something you absolutely need to have in flight, make sure to keep it in the kind of bag that fits under your seat.
Does the airline charge for bag checking?
Most airlines charge for a checked bag if you're flying coach. Southwest is the most known exception to that, but if you're flying pretty much any other airline, there's likely a charge to check a bag. The charge for the first bag is usually in the $25 ballpark, and that potentially goes up with additional bags. Though you may be able to check your bag for free if you're flying at a higher class than coach, or you're at a higher level as a frequent flyer. Be sure to check the website for the airline you're traveling to know what the baggage fees are.
Side-note: Once in a while, a flight will announce at the gate that there's limited storage space in the overhead bins due to a packed flight and they're willing to check your bag for you for free and you can pick it to your destination. This is not to be confused with gate-checking the bag, which is when you get it back at the gate after you land. (If you're unsure what they're offering, be sure to ask.) When they offer to check the bag at no charge, you likely have to pick it up at baggage claim. Still, I almost always take them up on this offer if I'm changing flights and don't want to deal with my bag during the layover and I'm not going to be in a rush when I get to my destination.
What else are you packing?
Planning on bringing a bottle of wine home from your trip? Or maybe you're traveling with a firearm or a knife or something. It's extremely important to be mindful of the baggage policies of both TSA and the airline(s) you're flying. There are some things (like liquids in larger quantities and firearms) that can not be carried on and must be stowed in a checked bag. There are other things that can NOT be stored in a checked bag (certain types of batteries, eCigarettes, etc) and must be carried on. And then there are some things that can't be carried on or checked. So your decision may be made for you based on what you're traveling with.
Are you going to be in a rush after landing?
This is another big deciding factor on whether or not to check a bag. If your plan after stepping off the plane is to head straight to the car or a taxi or whatever to get where you need to go quickly, carrying on your bag will save you the time of having to wait around baggage claim for your suitcase to show up on the carousel.
Hopefully this has helped you make your decision on whether or not to carry on your bag. As is often the case when it comes to trip preparation, planning and research are key. So be sure to consider the policies of the airline, TSA and your own needs when deciding whether or not you should check your bag or carry on.
RELATED: Is TSA Pre-check worth the money? Here's what you need to know.
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