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Carry-On vs Checked Luggage: The Great Bag Debate

For some travelers, there is no question: Carry-on-only is the only way to travel. But not so fast, Jet Setter! There are distinct advantages to checking a bag (along with some really annoying disadvantages). Not sure which is really best for you, or why that might change with every trip? Let’s compare the Pros & Cons of Carry-On vs Checked Luggage.

Carry-On Luggage (aka: Hand Luggage)

Let’s be clear: We are not talking about your one personal item that most airlines allow. That could be a purse, but also a small backpack, a shopping or tote bag, a hat or boot bag (we live in Texas and see both regularly!) … you get the idea. Savvy travelers get it too, and turn that “personal item” into extra luggage. We routinely fly with an authentic carry-on plus a small(ish) backpack as our personal item. Just remember: that one personal item has to fit under the seat in front of you. Because it’s right there, it’s a great place to put things you’ll want during your trip.

“What about my purse?” We hear you, sisters. Make sure there is room inside your backpack or tote bag to stash your purse before boarding so you still have just one personal item. The small(ish) backpacks we carry are generally 20L, or just a few inches smaller than a traditional carry-on suitcase, and it’s never been challenged as a personal item.

It’s that traditional carry-on suitcase that we’re talking about when comparing carry-on vs checked luggage. Most airlines consider a suitcase or backpack no more than 22 inches (56cm) high and 14 inches (35.5cm) wide to be carry-on, or hand luggage, regardless of what shape it takes (roller bag, dufflebag, backpack). However, it’s important to check for restrictions and fees on your airline’s website before you pack.

Carry-On Pros

Get On, Get Off and Go!
Perhaps the #1 Pro of going Carry-On-Only is that your time from curb to airplane to destination is as short as possible. No checking in a bag. No waiting on baggage claim. Zip in, zip out (ish). For a lot of people, the Carry-On vs Checked Luggage debate stops right there.
Carry-on Bags Never Get Lost
Actually, that’s only half true. There’s still the do-it-yourself method of losing a bag, but then it’s all on you with no reimbursement from the airline to help ease the pain. There is also the possibility of theft. While it’s pretty rare that these things happen, it’s not impossible.

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No Weight-ing
Most large airlines don’t seem very concerned with how much your carry-on bags weigh. If you can lug it aboard, good on ya! However, many international carriers are not so lenient, and airlines that operate smaller planes are very strict. Hopping that Maya Air flight to Ambergris Caye? Make sure your carry-ons total 15 pounds (6.8kg) or less. (So you might have to ditch that industrial-sized souvenir bottle of rum. You can leave it with us. We’ll take good care of it!)
Carry-On Bags are Fee Free
There’s a giant asterisk with this one: Some airlines – mostly budget/economy carriers – do charge for carry-on bags. They charge even more if your bag is too big and has to be checked at the gate. For most mainline airlines, though, flying with only the bag on your back is one way to save on fees. If you’re budget-conscience, the Carry-On vs Checked Luggage debate might end here.

Fast & Free: Flying with just your carry-on can save time and money, but there are trade-offs.

Carry-On Cons

Carry-on Bags are Liquid-Limited
This usually isn’t an issue, but sometimes having to limit liquids to 100ml bottles in a clear quart-size bag is hard, if not impossible. After all, wine! If you absolutely must travel with the economy-sized shampoo, that prized bottle of wine, or your private supply of kombucha, you absolutely must travel with checked bags.
Yes, Size Matters
If you’re the type that overstuffs every carry on bag, checked luggage might be for you. Airlines have size limitations for your carry-on bags, in part because they have to fit either under your seat or in an overhead bin. If your bag is too big, it’s going to get checked in at the gate. So far, most airlines don’t charge extra for this (like they do for checked bags), but it does mean you’ll be separated from your carry-on.
Question is: What Size?
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of flying with carry-on luggage is that there is no universal size restriction. Each airline is allowed to set their own, so your bag may be okay by one airline but not the next. A decent rule of thumb is 22 inches tall by 14 inches wide by 9 inches deep (56 x 35.5 x 23cm). That will be accepted by Delta, American, United and JetBlue. (In fact, JetBlue’s limits are even larger!) However, budget and low-cost airlines are usually more strict. (One big difference in carry-on vs checked luggage: bags in the hold can be almost any size, so long as they don’t weigh more than 50 pounds.)
The Coveted Overhead Bin
Next time you’re getting on a plane, note how many other people have carry-on luggage also. Yeah, that’s a lot. Thing is, overhead bin space is a limited and finite quantity. Unless you’re on board pretty early in the process, chances are good that your carry-on bag is going to be checked at the gate.
Wherever You Go, There You (and It) Are
Admittedly, some consider this a Pro, but we disagree a little bit. When you have a carry-on bag, you’re not just carrying it aboard the plane. You’re carrying it through the airport, into the bathroom, the restaurant, the shops… Unless you have a traveling partner or group, wherever you go, it goes, too.

Checked Luggage

As the name implies, checked luggage consists of the suitcases that you check in for your flight. You hand it over to the airline (or train company), they tag it with information from your reservation, and whisk it away not to be seen again until you arrive at your final destination.

You might think only larger suitcases are considered “checked luggage,” but really, you can check in anything you like. There are also some things that will only fly as checked luggage, including firearms in locked cases, most sports equipment, and anything too large for the main cabin. If you’re traveling with any of these, the Carry-On vs Checked Luggage debate just got settled for you: You will be checking a bag.

The Myth of Lost Luggage

Most proponents of flying “Carry-On Only” cite the dangers of lost, delayed, and damaged luggage as prime motivation. It is true that a percentage of bags are lost or stolen every year, but that number has been shrinking. According to the Department of Transportation’s Air Travel Consumer Report, under 1% of all baggage is “mishandled” each year. To be exact, 2.46 out of every 1,000 passengers in 2017.

See also  #Travel140: Make your bags easy to find.

The catch-all report includes “lost, damaged, delayed or pilfered baggage,” but does not show how many were actually lost, as opposed to delayed. We’ve had instances where bags missed a connecting flight, or flew a completely different route to get to the destination, and ended up arriving anywhere from a few hours to a few days later. It’s inconvenient, but far better than learning that your belongings have disappeared completely.

Various travel insurance companies can help relieve the sting of lost and delayed baggage, offering up to a few hundred dollars for each bag that is lost or late. As much as we hate delayed bags, we have had good experiences with the insurance companies, and refuse to travel without it. When debating carry-on vs checked luggage, remember that not all policies cover carry-on bags.

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Checked Luggage Pros

One Less Bag to Carry
This is one area where the Carry-On vs Checked Luggage debate points us to the check-in counter. We hate lugging our luggage around the airport, especially if we have a few hours between flights. The only thing that makes it less bad than a literal monkey on your back is that it doesn’t steal things from strangers. That’s the main reason we check bags: it’s one less thing to carry or roll around with us, so our hands are free to steal things from strangers. (Kidding! They’re free for holding giant cups of coffee.)
(Almost) Anything Goes
While there are a few things you can’t fly with even in your checked bags, there are few restrictions as to what you can stuff in there. For example, whether your rock collection is vinyl or mineral, you can pack it. The eco-safe sun screen you spent weeks tracking down? Pack it. Guns? They cannot go in your carry-on, so pack them. That said, there are some things you should never pack in your checked luggage. Be sure to also check with the TSA, your airline, and your destination for prohibited items. (For example, you cannot bring tobacco products into the American Samoa.)
Extra Room
Let’s start with a disclaimer: The object is not to fill up the larger checked bag. Don’t pack something just because you can. That said, you do have more space for whatever you need to bring. What we enjoy is having room at the end of our trip to bring home souvenirs without having wonder if they’ll fit.
No TSA Scan!
Or, at least, no waiting in the TSA line while your bag gets x-rayed and, worst case, pulled aside for inspection. Even if you didn’t check all of your luggage, that’s one less bag on the conveyor belt that you have to worry about and wait for. Time saved is, well, time saved and your off to your gate, or Starbucks or, if you’re at DFW International, Gameway Gaming Lounge for some pre-flight Fortnite.
No Overhead Bin!
One of the most harrowing experiences in flying is the boarding process. Everyone crowds the gate hoping to get on the plane while there is still space in the overhead bins for their one carry-on bag. Then, invariably, the lucky few who get on while there is space fill it up with everything they brought on board. Big puffy coats, shopping bags, cowboy boots (see above reference to living in Texas, y’all)…we’ve seen it all and want to scream “No, no, no! That’s not how this is supposed to work!” The joy of not having a carry-on bag with you is all of that is not your problem and you can skip straight to the pre-flight cocktail. #Winning

More people than ever check bags at the airport,
but is that the right move for you?

Checked Luggage Cons

Fees, Fees & (surprise!) More Fees
Let’s address the elephant in the airport first: Airlines make a ton of money on baggage fees. They charge you to check a bag. They charge you more if it weighs a lot. And they charge you even more if your bag has buddies. It is the number one reason you should have a credit card with travel benefits. Think about this: Miles are commonly valued at 2-cents/mile, so you have to spend a fortune to save on airline tickets. However, you can save $50 (or more!) on every flight when you check a bag. Cha. Ching.
It’s a Weighty Issue
You might be tempted to cram everything too heavy to carry in your checked bags. There’s a catch: Checked bags have a weight limit and, with most airlines, you’re going to pay extra for anything over 50 pounds (23kg). Hate to say it, but it pays (or, at least, doesn’t cost) to carry those heavy items with you. We know: Ugh.
Out of Sight & Out of Safety
There is a certain freedom in being able to roam the airport without a care (ie: luggage), trusting your belongings to anonymous baggage handlers deep in the bowels of the airports. Once out of your sight (and reach), your checked bags are subject to unauthorized search and seizure (ie: greedy crookster baggage handlers). To be honest, though, theft from checked bags (or of the bags themselves) is pretty rare. Also, in many cases, baggage handlers don’t work for the airlines, theft of or from bags is not compensated.
It’s been pretty well documented that baggage handlers are not the most careful, gentle people in the world. If you’re traveling with fragile items, don’t check that bag unless it’s well padded and/or well insured.
Lost, Delayed, and Dismayed
You arrived on time. Your bags? Not so much. At best, it’s an inconvenience but sometimes can impact your whole trip. For this reason, you should try to arrange itineraries so that you’re in your first destination for at least a day before moving on. There’s nothing worse than having to be on a cruise ship a few hours after you land, when your bags won’t get there until the next day.
Lithium-Ion is Lithium-No-on
All airlines have rules limiting lithium-ion batteries in checked luggage. The theory is that the batteries can overheat and post a fire danger. So instead of putting them in luggage, the airline wants this fire hazard in the main cabin, where the people are. That sounds strange, at first, but there is a much better chance for someone to notice and neutralize a smoking battery in the overhead bin than in the hold. So if you are traveling with electronics like a laptop, iPad, smartphone, game system, etc., with their batteries installed, you have to keep them in your carry-on bags.
Two Words: Baggage Claim
Unlike approximately 159% of the traveling world, we really don’t mind baggage claim. What we do mind is all of the other monkeys hovering over the carousel thinking their bag will magically be the next one out and they absolutely have to grab it right away before it disappears forever. PEOPLE! The bags on the bus go round and round. If you miss it this time, wait patiently and it will come around again, as if by magic. You don’t have to bump everyone out of the way to chase it down. Also, everybody would deeply appreciate it if you’d leave some space for them to get their bags, too.
Read: Make everybody happy with a little Baggage Claim Etiquette.

See also  #Travel140: Memorize an Emergency Card

The Best of Both Worlds
Traveling with Carry-on & Checked Bags

We’ve spent most of the Carry-On vs Checked Luggage debate with the assumption that you’ll want to go one way or the other. Truth is, if you’re traveling for more than a few days, you are more likely to have both a carry-on bag and checked luggage. Pack anything that’s near and dear to you in your carry-on, and leverage your suitcase for bulky items and things you won’t need until you get wherever it is you’re going. Without going into great detail, here’s a primer on what to pack where:

In Your Carry-On

  • Anything you might need during your trip, such as passport, money, smartphone and accessories, sunglasses, snacks, etc. We include chewing gum to help with changes in air pressure, and ginger chews that help with tummy troubles.
  • Your electronics. Not only are they safer being with you, but their batteries can’t go in checked luggage anyhow.
  • Your toiletries. (Duh!) If you’re packing big bottles for a long trip, they need to go in your suitcase, but still keep enough for one or two nights in your backpack, in case your checked bag goes AWOL.
  • PJs and a change of clothes, just in case your luggage gets an all-expenses-paid trip to wherever you’re not. Yes, that is a good shopportunity, but it doesn’t have to be.
  • Smoking products. While you can’t smoke on the plane or in the airport, we understand that there are people who smoke. It may sound a bit odd, but all of the accoutrements of smoking must go in your carry-on, including e-cigarettes and vaping devices, their batteries and liquids. (By the way, that needs to go in your 3-1-1 liquids bag.) The TSA allows one book of matches or a lighter. You can also carry refillable lighters in your checked bag, but it must be empty, and you cannot bring lighter fluid aboard at all.
  • Medicine.
  • Jewelry and other valuables.

In Your Checked Luggage

  • Bullky items like sweaters and boots.
  • Items that are prohibited in your carry-on, such as large liquids, powders, and sharp objects.
  • Anything you won’t need until you’ve arrived at your final destination.
  • Non-essential gear (such as a tripod) and tools.
  • Most sports equipment.

One more rule of thumb: When in doubt, pack it in the suitcase you’re going to check, and then inquire at the airport before you hand over your luggage. That way, if needed, you can take the item out and stash it in your carry-on.

Luggage on Trains

Did you know the Carry-On vs Checked Luggage debate extends to trains?

While we’ve focused on air travel, most trains have similar luggage rules. On Amtrak, for example, each piece of luggage can be up to be 28 x 22 x 14 inches in size (71 x 56 x 35.5cm), and weigh 50 pounds (23kg) or less. Eurail and Eurostar only recommend that the maximum dimension is 85cm (about 33.5″).

Many trains don’t actually check luggage; that is, they don’t have a luggage car. Instead, there is an overhead space above each seat, and a storage compartment at the end of each passenger car. Similar to airlines, your smaller items go above your seat while your larger bag goes in the storage space. In our experience, that space is never large enough to accommodate even one suitcase from each passenger, so it’s imperative you board as early as possible. Unlike airlines, the overhead space is usually quite roomy.

Since all of your luggage is in the railcar with you (unless your train has checked luggage), you may be tempted to just pack things where they fit because you can get to all of your bags. We’re here to tell you, that is easier said than done. Chances are, your bag will be under or behind other suitcases, and there is minimal room on the train for re-arranging everyone’s luggage just to get to yours. In short, it’s still important to pack things you’ll want during the trip in your ‘carry-on’ bag.

Carry-on bags & backpacks - Carry-on vs Checked Luggage via

Carry-on versus Checked Luggage

If we’ve learned anything, it’s that there is no clear, correct answer as to which is the better choice. Each has pros and cons and, as we mentioned, many times it makes sense to travel with both.

We love the freedom to roam without wheeling a suitcase behind us. We also love not having our suitcases beaten up by baggage handlers. One or the other – and sometimes both – cannot be avoided, though, so our answer is to pack according to the needs of that particular trip. If all we need is a few changes of clothes, it doesn’t make sense to pack a big suitcase.  When we’re going to Europe for a couple weeks, we are not going to stuff our carry-ons to the breaking point.

If we can leave you with anything, it’s this: The aspiration should be to travel light, regardless of whether you check a bag or fly carry-on only.

Now it’s your turn: How do you prefer to travel? Let us know in the comments below!

If you’re anything like us and can’t imagine having suitcases that don’t match, here are a few of our favorite luggage sets currently on Amazon.

13 comments on “Carry-On vs Checked Luggage: The Great Bag Debate

  1. An interesting comprehensive consideration of all the benefits and disadvantages. Regardless of location and length of stay, I always travel with just a carry-on and never check in luggage as I feel it saves time, hassle and money.

  2. I’m mainly in the carry on camp, like travel for two weeks out of a carry on person. But when traveling for work and I have a layover. It’s nice to not have to lug my laptop and suitcase through the airport. Plus, we’ve all done the gate to gate run. So much easier without a bag.

    • Two weeks in a carry-on. Before we traveled with so much gear, we could do that. I think we’ve over-rotated on wanting to capture everything, and we end up lugging a drone, for example, that we’ll use one time on a trip. We may need to work on letting go. 😉 Thanks for your comment, Mandy!

  3. I definitely agree with you that sticking to solely one or the other isn’t always the answer. Although most of the time I tend to go for the carry-on, it can be a hassle carting it all over the airport and if it’s heavy you have to use all of your strength to shove it in the overhead bin. As you’ve discussed in your post, it’s best to assess the situation, know what you require when you travel, and go from there when deciding which luggage to use.

  4. Excellent breakdown of the pros and cons. I’m a cheapskate so I travel with hand luggage as much as possible. My Alaska Airlines reward card allows me free checked bags, and Southwest airlines does too, of course. So when I have that option at my disposal, I check them and glide towards my seat like a movie star. By the way, eBags has a good carry-on luggage sizing guide broken down by major airline, I have found it very helpful.

    • Hi Keri – That’s a good tip, too: Sometimes, one checked bag is enough for two or more people. If you’re going to end up paying fees for each carry-on, it might make more sense (or save more money!) to just check one bag instead. Thanks for your comment!

  5. This is a debate we have before every trip. Sometimes it makes sense to go carryon and other times it doesn’t. You did a great job of laying out all the different factors to consider. We are trying to do more carryon only travel but sometimes with all the gear we have it is not possible. #TheWeeklyPostcard

    • We try to go with carry-on only as much as possible, but don’t often succeed. You’re right about the gear; that could be a bag of its own, and we seem to keep adding more. As I like to say, it’s progress that counts, not perfection. 😉 Thanks for reading, Anisa!

  6. I honestly can’t manage with just a carry-on! I definitely don’t travel light – although my husband and I can share a single large suitcase plus a carry on, so I’m not that bad I guess! I will miss our link up but it was fun getting to know you via the blog and link up! KIT!

    • If it wasn’t for all of the cameras, tablets, laptops, chargers, cables, etc! we’d travel much lighter! When traveling for work, the mantra was “Fly Naked!” Or, at least, with as little as possible since it was generally just suits and a laptop for a day or two. Our goal now is to travel comfortably, but without Kardashian-level baggage. 😉 Ditto on the linky, Lolo – so glad we got to meet, and we really look forward to keeping in touch!

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