Five Ways to Win the Bin

Let me start by saying there are no guarantees in life, and that goes double (at least) for finding room in the overhead bin on any flight. This is truer than ever in this day of checked bag fees, planes filled to capacity, and more seats per plane than before. Sometimes, it seems there should be a sign as you enter the airplane cabin with your luggage: “Abandon hope all ye who enter.”

Maybe it’s really not all that bad. With a little luck and planning, you can improve your chances of scoring some bin space for your carry-on luggage. We’ve collected these tips from fellow frequent flyers and our own observations, and trial and error, and they seem to work pretty well. Just be sure not to abuse your new found powers by taking all that bin space for yourself.

Five Ways to Win the Bin

1. Know the Rules

We’ve said it before: Know the limits and check your bag. This one should be a no-brainer, but the fact that we see passengers on every flight who are surprised and dismayed that their bag is being checked tells us otherwise. Look, overhead bins are only so big and, unlike your handy expandable suitcase, they are not going to magically get bigger. So, know your airline’s limits (usually found on their web site) and pack accordingly. Among U.S.-based airlines, Delta, United, American and JetBlue limit carry-on bags to 22” x 14” x 9”. Frontier, Southwest and Virgin America allow for a slightly larger 24” x 16” x 10,” and Alaska goes the extra inch: 24” x 17” x 10.”

Overstuffed bags don't fit in the overhead bins

If your bag looks like this, perhaps space in the overhead bin is not your most pressing problem.

Keep in mind, that’s the finished size allowance. If your suitcase starts at that size but ends up bulging like a Chipotle burrito, or you unzip that magic expansion space, it may not fit into that luggage measuring contraption or the overhead bin. Meaning that you are likely going to get gate checked. On the bright side, there is no baggage fee for that. (Yet.)

2. Know the best time to fly

You know those really cheap early morning and late night flights? Yes, those are crappy hours, but that’s the reason they’re cheap. They are less likely to be filled to the brim with passengers and their bags, which translates to more room for you and your bags. I’m an early-riser by habit, so getting to the airport a bit early is no biggie. The reward of having a shorter TSA line, fewer gate creepers, and more space on-board makes it all the better.

3. Know the best time to board

You are not the only one with the nagging belief that, by the time the frequent fliers, First and Business Class people board, 90% of the overhead bin space is taken. That’s actually not the case, but the further down the boarding list you fall, the better your odds of getting gate checked are. Obviously, you want to be among the first on the plane so it pays to know how your airline boards, and consider upping the ante by flying First or Business Class, or adding priority boarding to your ticket. It’s fine to think you shouldn’t have to do that to get space for your luggage, but bin space is a limited resource and the first ones in are going to claim it. Accept that, and plan accordingly.

4. Slim Down

Admittedly, I am guilty of maintaining some “holiday weight” a little too long, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Up above I noted the size limitations for carry-on luggage. But, like the speed limit, that doesn’t mean you have to go that high. If you can manage to squeeze into a small bag, you just might find space between all the other bags in the bins. Again, no guarantees, but smaller, lighter luggage certainly isn’t a bad thing. I have a specific bag for short trips that is a bit shorter and narrower than my traditional carry-on, and it rarely fails to find a spot.

5. Heads Up, Eyes Front

While you’re boarding, keep an eye ahead for empty space in the bins. You can estimate where your seat is and, if its overhead bin looks full or is closed, grab a spot a few rows ahead if you can. Heck, even a few rows behind will do in a pinch. Just remember that there are people behind you looking for bin space too. Like a good deal on Black Friday, grab it while you can because it’s likely to be gone when you go back for it.

Bonus: Get Squishy

Another tip we’ve shared is to use a soft-sided bag. Read more about it here.

As a last ditch effort, you can always ask a Flight Attendant. They know the aircraft inside and out, and are expert on-board luggage arrangers. If there’s an overlooked space, they’ll know about it. If there’s room at the back, they’ll know that too. And, if your carry-on does have to fly in the belly of the plane, they’ll take care of it.

Five Ways to Win the Bin via @TravelLatte

Be a Better Passenger

Something we all can do to help the overhead bin situation on every flight is respect the bin. You’ve probably seen someone who puts everything they brought on the plane up in the bin. That is not what the bin is made for, and that person is stealing space from everyone else on the flight. Your carry on bag goes up there. Not your purse, not your cowboy hat and, by all means, not your dog. Don’t be “that guy” is what we’re saying. Ever.

We’d love to know what tips you have to tip the odds of finding space in the overhead bin in your favor. What have you tried that did or didn’t work? Share your story with a comment below.

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4 comments on “Five Ways to Win the Bin

  1. I’m going to take this opportunity to vent. Few things irk me more than the thoughtless traveler who leaves his bag in an overhead bin at the front of the plane, then walks to his seat in the back. I consider it selfish and inconsiderate because that means someone in the front won’t get a spot for his own carry-on. With Murphy’s law, the flight attendant is never around to notice. Would love to come up with a solution for that….

    • Augh! I can see that if there’s no other room, but if you haven’t been to the back of the plane, how would you know? I would love to have a dedicated space above my seat. I know there are things the airline stores up there, so it’s not entirely feasible, but I think that’s the only way to really solve the problem. I do like British Airways’ solution of tagging overhead bags before boarding. That helps, but only when the FAs actually monitor it. Thanks for “venting”, Linda!

  2. I was reading a Consumer Reports article that said that not all luggage labeled as carry-on actually qualify and that advertised dimensions are for the interior compartment, not the outside measurements. Malaysia Airlines recently had a few Kuala Lumpur to London flights where they didn’t allow checked luggage, only one carry-on, due to headwinds.

    • I heard about that! I suppose that’s one important thing to remember: Airline rules can change with the wind – literally! I’ve also read that some international airlines’ limits are smaller than those in the U.S.. In the end, it’s we the consumers that have to be sure we get right-sized bags, since luggage companies aren’t the ones who have to deal with the gate agents. 😉 Thanks for your comment!

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