While packing for your next trip, one important decision you’ll have to make is whether you’re going to check a bag or travel with a carry-on. This choice depends on a number of factors including where you’re traveling, what gear you need to pack, your travel style, your budget, and the airline’s rules. This guide outlines the pros and cons of traveling with checked vs carry on luggage. We’ll cover travel costs, wait times, security, convenience, and more. We’ll also talk about luggage weight and size limits and what you can and can not pack in carry-on and checked bags.
What is a Carry-on Bag?
Carry-on refers to luggage that you bring with you into the cabin of an airplane. Your carry-on luggage is stored either in the overhead bin above your seat or under the seat in front of you. Carry-on luggage is sometimes referred to as hand luggage or cabin baggage. The term carry-on can also refer to luggage that you bring into the passenger compartment of a bus or train.
Most airlines allow you to bring one large piece of carry-on luggage that can fit in the overhead bin as well as one small personal item that can fit under the seat in front of you. The larger piece of luggage could be a suitcase, backpack, or duffle bag. The personal item could be a laptop bag, purse, small backpack, diaper bag, or even a small pet carrier.
Different airlines have different size and weight limits for carry-on bags. The standard carry-on size limit is 22” x 14” x 9” (56 x 35 x 23 cm) or 45 linear inches (114 cm). Size requirements vary by an inch or two from airline to airline. Your personal item must be small enough to fit under the seat in front of you.
Weight limits also vary. Most airlines have a maximum carry-on weight of 15-22 lbs (7-10 kg). Your carry-on may be weighed when you check in. Some airlines do not have weight limits for carry-ons.
Most major airlines allow you to bring a carry-on free of charge. Some budget airlines charge for carry-on bags but allow you to bring a personal item for free. The cost varies by airline and route. For example, some airlines charge for carry-ons on domestic flights but not on international flights.
There are limitations as to what you are and are not allowed to pack in a carry-on bag. These limitations are put in place for safety reasons. If you’re unsure about whether or not something is allowed in your carry-on bag, check this guide.
Some items that you should always pack in your carry-on include your passport and travel documents, money and credit cards, electronics, jewelry, valuables, fragile items, medications, and toiletries.
What is Checked Baggage?
Checked baggage is luggage that is stored in the cargo hold of the plane during the flight. On a train, checked baggage is stored in a baggage car. On a bus, checked baggage is stored in the cargo area under the bus. Your checked bag is inaccessible during the flight, bus ride, or train ride. Your checked bag could be a large suitcase, backpack, or duffel bag.
Most airlines have a checked bag size limit of 62 linear inches (158 cm). This means that the length + width + height must total less than 62 inches. This size limit is pretty universal. Most large suitcases measure somewhere between 25 and 32 inches tall with varying widths. Most airlines have a maximum checked bag limit of 50 lbs (23 kg).
The fee to check a bag varies by airline and by route. Most domestic and budget airline charge $25-$60 each way per checked bag. Oftentimes one checked bag is included in the price of international tickets. If your checked luggage is oversized or overweight, you may be charged an additional fee.
There are limitations as to what you can store in a checked bag. Some items are prohibited for safety reasons. Check this list if you’re unsure.
While packing the bag that you’re going to check, it’s important to remember that you won’t have access to it during the flight. Your checked bag will also be handled by other people. For these reasons, it’s best to avoid packing anything important such as travel documents and medication as well as anything fragile or valuable in your checked bag. Bring these in a carry-on. Pack bulky and heavy items such as clothing in your checked bag.
Carry-On Luggage Pros
These days, many travelers are transitioning into a minimalist carry-on-only style of packing. In this section, I’ll outline the pros of using carry-on luggage.
1. Using carry-on luggage saves time
When you only travel with a carry-on, you don’t have to wait around the baggage claim after your flight. You can walk straight out of the airport with your carry-on This saves you 20-40 minutes.
In addition, you won’t have to wait in line to check your bag when checking in for a flight. You can check-in online or use a kiosk to print out your boarding pass and proceed directly through security and to your gate. This saves you another 10-30 minutes.
When you use carry-on luggage, you can arrive at the airport later and get to your destination sooner. This can save you an hour or more per flight. This is nice when you’re taking an early morning or late night flight.
Passing through security with all of your gear packed in a carry-on can take a bit longer. Some airlines also make you check-in at the ticketing counter if you’re catching an international flight. In this case, you won’t save as much time.
2. Traveling with a carry-on saves you money
Luggage fees vary by airline and by route. Most airlines allow you to bring one carry-on bag and one personal item for free. If you can fit all of your clothing and travel gear in those bags, you won’t pay any luggage fees. This can save you$50-$100 per round trip flight. This savings adds up if you travel frequently. If you’re a budget traveler, carry-on baggage is the way to go.
These days, most airlines charge a fee to check a bag. The checked bag fee is usually $20-$60 per flight.
Traveling with a carry-on won’t always save you money. Sometimes checked bags are free. For example, most airlines still allow one free checked bag on international flights. Some budget airlines also charge for carry-on bags. For example, Frontier and Spirit airlines sometimes charge more for carry-on bags than checked bags. The carry-on bag fee is around $30. In these cases, you might not save any money by packing a carry-on only.
It’s important to check the fees before you fly. You can check the baggage fees for most airlines here.
Traveling with a carry-on can also save you money on transport. You can walk with your carry-on from the bus or train station to your hotel instead of having to pay for an expensive taxi or Uber ride every time. This can save you a lot of money if you’re willing and able to walk a mile or so with your checked bag.
3. You don’t have to worry about the airline losing your luggage
You are the only one who handles your carry-on luggage. It is with you at all times while you’re in transit. While you’re on the plane, train, or bus, it will be in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of you. You can keep an eye on your luggage at all times. It won’t get lost. If it does, it’s your own fault.
Airlines frequently lose checked bags. They can be lost due to delays, loading errors, and ticketing errors.
4. Carry-on luggage is lighter and more compact
Most airlines limit carry-on luggage to somewhere between 15 and 35 lbs (7-15 kg). When it comes to size, carry-on bags must measure less than 9” x 14” x 22” (22 cm x 35 cm x 56 cm) or 45 linear inches on most airlines. This forces you to pack a lighter and smaller bag. It’s much easier to transport a small carry-on than a large checked bag.
5. Your belongings are less likely to get damaged in your carry-on bag
When you use a carry-on bag, you are the only one who handles it. Your luggage won’t get tossed around or mistreated. When you travel with a carry-on, you know that any fragile travel gear is safe. If something does get damaged, it’s your own fault.
Airline staff are notoriously hard on luggage. When you check a bag, it’s not uncommon to open your luggage and find that some of the contents are damaged or broken.
6. It’s easier to move around with a carry-on
When you travel with a carry-on, you can easily move from location to location or between different accommodations. A carry-on makes moving easier for two reasons. First, you can pack more quickly and easily because you don’t have as much stuff. You simply can’t fit as much in a carry-on-sized bag. Second, it’s easier to walk around with your carry-on because it’s so much lighter and more compact than a checked bag.
When you travel with a carry-on, you can easily carry your bag over cobblestone streets, up and down stairs, and into packed buses and metros. I regularly walk several miles between the bus or train station and my hotel with my carry-on travel backpack.
This ease of movement makes a carry-on a great choice for fast-paced trips where you’ll be changing location frequently. It’s so much easier to move around when you can quickly pack and easily move your luggage.
It’s also nice if you use multiple modes of crowded transport. You can easily take your carry-on with you on a packed metro, minibus, motorcycle taxi, ferry, etc. Traveling with a carry-on gives you much more freedom of movement. With a heavy and bulky checked bag, you can’t get around as easily.
7. You can take flights with shorter layovers
If you only pack a carry-on bag, you can schedule a layover as short as half an hour. You just need to leave yourself enough time to deboard and walk through the airport to catch your next flight. You don’t have to worry about your luggage making it onto the flight because you always have it with you. Of course, you are taking a risk of missing your flight if you schedule a layover that’s too short.
When you check a bag and book a flight with a layover of less than an hour, you run the risk of your bag not making it to the flight on time.
8. You can re-route or re-book your flight if a problem arises
When you travel with a carry-on, you can fly standby. Maybe your original flight is delayed or canceled but the airline is able to put you on a different flight leaving in 15 minutes. If you didn’t check a bag, you can just run to the gate and board with your carry-on.
If you checked a bag, you couldn’t make the new flight because there isn’t time for the airline to find and transfer your luggage. For this reason, most business travelers prefer traveling with carry-on luggage.
9. You can schedule flights using multiple airlines
Most airlines don’t transfer your baggage to competing airlines. If you book a flight requiring you to change airlines during your layover and you checked a bag, you’ll have to leave security, collect your bag from the baggage claim, recheck it with the new airline, then go back through security and to your gate. This is incredibly time-consuming and sometimes impossible due to visa requirements.
With a checked bag, you can simply visit the ticketing counter, get your boarding pass, and board your next flight. There is no need to pass through security or immigration in most cases.
10. Traveling with a carry-on is less stressful
When you travel with a carry-on, you never have to worry about whether your bag made it onto the plane. You don’t have to worry about your bag getting lost or damaged. If you’re traveling in a packed bus or metro, you can always find space for your small carry-on bag.
You also have all of your clothing and gear with you at all times. You can always access all of your gear. For example, if you get cold, you always have your sweatshirt with you. It’s not in the cargo hold in your checked bag.
11. You won’t overpack
Many travelers have a bad habit of packing too much stuff. They weigh themselves down with a dozen shirts and pants, multiple pairs of shoes, unnecessary travel gadgets, books, and other junk they don’t need.
Limiting yourself to carry-on luggage means you’ll be forced to pack light. You only have space for the necessities. On most airlines, bags that meet the carry-on size requirements give you about 40 liters of space to work with. If you pack efficiently, that’s more than enough. Even for long-term trips.
Packing light is freeing. You have less stuff to worry about getting lost, damaged, or stolen. Your luggage is lighter and more compact.
Carry-On Bag Cons
For some types of trips, using carry-on luggage isn’t practical. Sometimes it’s simply impossible. In this section, I’ll outline the drawbacks of traveling with a carry-on.
1. Some items are prohibited in carry-on bags
Airlines are pretty strict about what you can and can’t pack in your carry-on. Rules vary from airline to airline and by country to country. If you try to pass through security with a prohibited item, it will be confiscated or you’ll be asked to go check your bag.
These restrictions are a problem for some carry-on travelers. For example, I enjoy hiking and camping when I travel. Tent stakes and trekking poles are usually not allowed in carry-ons. If I want to pack these items, I have to check my bag.
Liquids and gels are also restricted. You are only permitted to carry bottles that measure less than 3.4 oz or 100 ml in your carry-on. If you want to travel with full-sized bottles of shampoo or a full-sized tube of toothpaste, you’ll have to check your bag. This rule can pose a challenge for travelers who take liquid medications.
For more info, check out this guide to carry-on luggage restrictions.
2. Carry-on luggage has a strict weight limit
On most airlines, the maximum carry-on weight is 10 kilos or 22 pounds. Budget airlines often limit carry-ons to 5-7 kg (11-15 lbs). To compare, most airlines limit checked bag weight to 23 kg or 50 lbs. You can’t carry nearly as much with you when you travel with a carry-on.
It’s surprisingly difficult to keep your luggage under the carry-on weight limit. Particularly if you travel with heavy electronics such as a camera and laptop. A camera, a laptop, cases, chargers, and accessories alone could easily take up 1/2 of your carry-on weight allowance.
You also have to consider the weight of the bag itself. Some heavy backpacks and suitcases weigh several pounds empty. Books, boots, and bulky clothes like jackets also add a significant amount of weight.
This weight restriction is incredibly limiting. You’ll need to travel with ultralight clothing, few electronics, and minimal travel gear to stay under the weight limit. It can also help to wear your heavy clothing such as jeans, jackets, and boots while checking in for your flight.
Before your flight, it’s a good idea to check the airline’s carry-on weight limit and weigh your bag. To weigh your bag, you could use a luggage scale. This Etekcity Luggage Scale would be a good option. This is a nice travel accessory to have.
If your bag is overweight, you may be forced to check it. This is a major hassle. You’ll have to remove all valuables and fragile items from your luggage and carry them around the airport with you. Of course, you’ll also have to pay a checked bag fee.
Some airlines are strict about the weight limit and others are more lenient. Some airlines don’t weigh carry-ons at all. This is the case with many U.S. domestic airlines. In this case, you don’t have to worry about the weight of your bag.
For a list of carry-on weight limits by airline, check out this guide.
3. Space is limited in a carry-on
The most common carry-on size limit is 22 inches x 14 inches x 9 inches (22 cms x 35 cm x 56 cm) or 45 linear inches. This size measurement includes handles, pockets, wheels, etc. In terms of volume, the largest carry-on acceptable bags give you 40-45 liters of space to work with at the most.
To compare, the most common checked luggage size limit is 65 linear inches. A common checked bag size is 27 inches x 21 inches x 14 inches.
Traveling with a carry-on limits how much clothing and travel gear you can pack. You don’t have much space to work with. For example, you won’t be able to pack bulky clothing such as a jacket or hiking boots in your carry-on. Realistically, you’ll have to limit yourself to 3-4 outfits at the most. You may also not have space for bulky electronics such as a 17″ laptop or DSLR camera and lenses.
When you travel with a carry-on, it can help to use compression packing cubes. These use zippers or straps to compress your clothing so it takes up less space.
Packing compact electronics can also help save space. Replace your bulky laptop with a slim 13″ model or a tablet. Use your phone camera instead of packing a dedicated camera.
Some airlines are more strict than others about their carry-on size limit. If your carry-on appears large, they may ask you to measure it in the luggage size checker box. If you can’t make it fit, you may be forced to check your bag.
Some ticketing agents will let it slide if your bag is an inch or two too large in one dimension. If you make it onto the airplane and your carry-on doesn’t fit, you may be forced to gate-check it.
If your carry-on is large, it’s best to measure it before your flight to make sure it fits within the airline’s size requirements. Having to check your bag last minute is petty annoying. You’ll have to quickly remove your valuables and fragile gear. You’ll also have to pay a checked bag fee in most cases.
For more airline-specific carry-on bag size limits, check out this excellent guide.
4. You have to carry your luggage through the airport and load and unload it
When you travel with a carry-on, you have to carry your luggage through the airport. This means you’ll have to carry your bag all the way through ticketing, through security, to your gate, and onto the plane. Carrying your luggage through a busy airport can be a hassle.
You also have to load and unload your carry-on on the plane. If you’re a smaller person, older, or in poor health, it can be a challenge to lift a heavy carry-on above your head and into the overhead bin. You may have to ask for help. Loading and unloading a carry-on can also hold up other passengers.
If you have a layover, you’ll have to carry your luggage from one gate to the next and load it and unload it again. In a large airport, you may have to walk the equivalent of several blocks. You always have your bag with you to carry around the airport.
5. You might have to pay for your carry-on
These days, some airlines have begun charging a fee for carry-on bags. This is common on budget airlines. Oftentimes, the charge for a carry-on is the same or even more than a checked bag. A common carry-on charge is $30. If the airline you’re flying charges for carry-on bags, you won’t save any money by traveling with a carry-on.
Usually, the airlines only charge for overhead bin space. If your bag fits beneath the seat in front of you, it’s free. For most travelers, it’s impossible to pack everything into a carry-on that’s small enough to fit under the seat.
If you have to pay for a carry-on, you can usually save a bit of money by paying the fee online when you buy your ticket. The fee is often higher if you pay at the airport.
6. You have to fight for space in the overhead bin
On fully booked flights, the overhead bins fill up. Overhead bin space also fills up quickly on domestic flights because more people travel with a carry-on.
If you board last, the overhead bin above your seat may be full. In this case, you’ll have to store your luggage away from your seat in another bin. This makes it a hassle to access your bag during the flight and to collect your bag when you land.
If all of the overhead bins fill up, you may have to gate-check your bag. If you travel with a large carry-on, a gate attendant may tag your bag and request that you gate check it before you board.
The best way to avoid this is to board as early as possible if you’re traveling with a carry-on. If you have priority boarding, you won’t have to worry about this.
7. Your wardrobe will be limited
When you travel with a carry-on, you’ll only have space for a few different outfits. You may only be able to fit 4-5 shirts and a couple of pairs of pants and shorts into your bag.
To make this work, you need to pack versatile clothing with colors that can be mixed and matched. Your clothing also needs to have multiple uses. There isn’t space to pack items that you’ll only wear once or twice. For example, you won’t be able to pack formal clothing, activewear, business clothing, and casual clothing.
This means you’ll be wearing the same clothing most days. You may be overdressed in some situations and underdressed in other situations. Your clothing might be too hot for some destinations and not warm enough for other destinations. There won’t be much variety in your wardrobe.
When you travel with a checked bag, you can pack clothes for every situation.
8. You’ll have to wash your clothes during your trip
When you travel with a carry-on, you’ll only have space for 3-5 outfits and 4 or 5 pairs of socks and underwear. You’ll have to do laundry every few days. This means either washing your clothes in the sink, paying for laundry service, or washing them at a laundromat. Check out this guide to doing laundry while traveling for some tips.
Having to do laundry frequently gets annoying. Particularly if you’re moving around every few days. You’ll have to spend time going to the laundromat. If you wash in the sink, your clothes may not dry overnight. It’s a hassle.
The best solution is to pack clothes that are made from quick-drying fabrics such as wool or synthetic materials. Avoid cotton clothing for travel. It takes too long to dry.
I like Merino wool clothing for carry-on only travel because it resists odors. I can wear the same Merino shirt for multiple days without getting smelly. This way, I don’t have to do laundry as often.
When you check your luggage, you can carry more clothes so you don’t have to do laundry nearly as frequently.
8. Check-in can be stressful
In order to fit enough clothing and travel gear, most carry-on only travelers have to use a backpack or suitcase that is close to the maximum carry-on weight and size limit. Staying under the limit is a challenge.
Every airline has slightly different carry-on size and weight rules. Every time you check-in for a flight, you have to worry about whether or not you’ll be allowed to carry your luggage on or if you’ll be forced to check it.
Checking in is particularly stressful if your bag is a couple of inches too large or a couple of pounds over the limit. Sometimes the ticketing agent will let it slide and sometimes they’ll make you check your bag. You also have to worry about whether or not there will be space for your luggage on the plane.
Most of the time, everything goes smoothly. Every once in a while, there is a hiccup. I have been forced to check my bag a number of times because it was too heavy. If you keep your luggage is within the limits, you don’t have to worry.
10. You won’t be able to pack winter clothing
It’s nearly impossible to pack 4 seasons worth of clothing into a carry-on-sized bag. Winter clothes are just too heavy and bulky to fit. If you need to pack a thick winter jacket and snow boots for your trip, you’ll have to check a bag.
You can fit 3 seasons worth of clothing into a carry-on if you choose your clothing carefully. Pack ultralight clothing made from high-end fabric and layer your clothing. Merino wool, down, and synthetic materials are warm, lightweight, and compact.
A warm merino wool base layer, a lightweight fleece or wool sweater, and a down puffer jacket will keep you warm down to 20° F. You’ll also want to pack an ultralight rain jacket or poncho to protect you from precipitation.
11. You can’t pack luxury items
Carry-on bags only have enough space for the necessities. You won’t have room for much unnecessary gear such as a travel pillow, an extra pair of shoes, books, fancy clothes, or an umbrella. You have to be a minimalist when it comes to traveling with only a carry-on bag.
12. No space for souvenirs
Your clothing and travel gear take up pretty much all of your space and weight allowance. One solution is to throw out or donate your clothes before you fly home and fill the empty space with souvenirs. You could also pack a carry-on on the way to your destination then check a bag full of souvenirs on your way back home. Another option is to buy small souvenirs like magnets, shot glasses, and postcards. You could also ship souvenirs to yourself in a box.
13. Larger people have trouble fitting everything into a carry-on bag
Everyone gets the same carry-on allowance. Larger people’s clothing is bulkier and heavier because it contains more material. For example, you can’t fit as much size XXL clothing into a 40 liter bag as you can size small clothing. Size 14 shoes take up more space and weight than size 6 shoes. It’s kind of unfair but larger and taller people will find it more difficult to travel with carry-on luggage.
Checked Luggage Pros
For some trips, checking a bag is the only option. In this section, I’ll outline the benefits of using checked luggage.
1. There are fewer restrictions on what you can pack in your checked luggage
There are many items that can’t pack in a carry-on that you can check. For example, you can check bulky and heavy sporting and outdoor equipment including bicycles, surfboards, golf clubs, camping gear, and fishing poles. You can also check a large musical instrument such as a guitar. You can also check strollers and car seats if you’re traveling with children.
While traveling, I enjoy camping and hiking. I often pack my camping and hiking gear including a tent, sleeping bag, trekking poles, and camp stove. I can only pack these items when I check my luggage. Many of these items aren’t allowed in the cabin because they are too bulky or are considered dangerous.
You can also pack liquids, gels, and aerosols that are over 3.4 oz (100 ml) in volume in your checked bag. For example, you can travel with a full-sized bottle of shampoo or a tube of toothpaste. You don’t have to buy travel sizes when you travel with a checked bag. You can also pack bottles of alcohol, liquid medications, and most foods.
Of course, your checked luggage can’t include anything potentially dangerous or illegal. There are a number of prohibited items. Some items also have special packing instructions. For more info check out this guide from the TSA about what you can and can’t bring in your checked luggage.
3. You don’t have to worry as much about the weight of your luggage when you check it
Most airlines allow checked bags to weigh up to 23 kilos or 50 pounds. To compare, carry-on bags must weigh less than 10 kg (22 lbs) on most airlines.
This higher weight limit allows you to pack much more stuff. You can pack heavy books, boots, cameras and lenses, clothing, camping gear, electronics, and more. For most travelers, staying under the 50 lb checked bag limit is easy.
If your checked bag is over the weight limit, you can pay an overweight fee and still check it. You can also divide your gear into two checked bags and pay for the additional bag. You could also carry part of your luggage in a carry-on.
3. Checked bags can be much larger
Most airlines allow bags up to 62 linear inches (around 158 cm). A standard-sized checked suitcase measures 27″ x 21″ x 14″. A suitcase of this size allows you to carry enough clothing and travel gear for any length of trip.
When you check a bag, you’ll have plenty of space for bulky items like a jacket, clothes for every occasion, a tent and sleeping bag, a travel pillow and blanket, etc.
It’s also important to note that you’re allowed to bring a carry-on and personal item in addition to your checked luggage. This gives you even more space to work with. Pack our fragile and valuable gear in your carry-on and pack all of your bulky items in your checked bag.
4. You don’t have to carry your luggage through the airport or load it and unload it from the plane
You simply drop your checked bag off at the ticketing counter when you check-in. This means you only have to carry your luggage from the drop-off point to the ticketing counter. If you don’t feel like carrying your luggage, you can use curbside check-in for a small fee.
After you arrive at your destination, you collect your luggage from the baggage claim and carry it to your pickup point. If you need help carrying your luggage, you can rent a luggage cart and easily push your bags around.
During transit, you’re free of your heavy checked bag. You don’t have to deal with loading or unloading your luggage from the plane. You don’t have to worry about finding space in the overhead bin. This allows you to freely walk around the airport without being weighed down. Checking a bag can make your trip a bit less stressful because the airline does all of the heavy lifting for you.
5. You can pack clothes for every situation
When you check a bag, you have enough space for all of the clothing you could need. For example, you can pack formal clothing for going out, business clothing for work, swimwear for going to the beach or pool, activewear for going to the gym, and casual clothing for site seeing and relaxing. You can pack enough clothes to wear a different outfit every day if you choose. In addition, you can pack footwear for every occasion including sandals, hiking boots, casual shoes, and formal shoes.
Being able to pack lots of clothing is important for those who care about fashion and the way they look. It may also be important if you have lots of different activities planned.
6. You’ll have space for souvenirs
You don’t have to fill your luggage completely full. You can leave space for items you may pick up during your trip. For example, you might want to buy some local coffee, tea, alcohol, or candy to enjoy at home. You might pick up some local clothing. Maybe you want to buy some souvenirs for friends and family.
7. You don’t have to do laundry as often when you check a bag
If you’re traveling short-term, you can pack enough socks and underwear to last for your whole trip. You may not have to do laundry at all. If you’re traveling long-term, you might only have to do laundry once every week or two.
When you travel with a carry-on, you may have to wash clothes every few days because you only have space for a few pairs of clothes.
8. You’ll have space for cold-weather clothing
If you’re traveling to a cold climate, chances are you’ll have to check a bag. In your checked luggage, you’ll have space for bulky and heavy cold-weather gear such as a winter jacket, snow boots, snow pants, thick socks, an extra sweater, a hat, gloves, a scarf, etc. This bulky winter clothing doesn’t fit in a carry-on.
9. Checking your luggage can be less stressful
When you check-in, you don’t have to worry about your bag being too big or too heavy. Most travelers’ checked bags are well within the weight and size limits. You also don’t have to worry about finding space in the overhead bins. You don’t have to carry your luggage all over the airport and on and off planes. All of this reduces stress.
10. You can pack luxury items
Some travelers don’t care about packing in a minimalist or ultralight fashion. They want luxury. If you check your luggage, you can pack items that are not completely necessary but are nice to have such as a travel pillow, extra shoes, your favorite clothes, an umbrella, a blanket, books, a towel, etc.
When you travel with a carry-on, you have to do without certain items because there isn’t space.
Checked Luggage Cons
For some types of trips, it’s best to avoid checking luggage. In this section, I’ll outline some of the biggest drawbacks of checking a bag.
1. Checking luggage costs money
Most airlines charge a fee to check a bag. The fee varies by airline and by route. On average, checking a bag costs $25-$50 each way. Some airlines offer a $5-$10 discount on checked bags if you pay your checked bag fee online when you book your ticket.
If your checked bag is oversized or overweight, the fee is higher. If you need to check two bags, many airlines charge more for the second bag. For example, the first bag might cost $30 and the second might cost $50. Checking luggage increases your flight cost considerably. Particularly if you’re taking a budget flight.
Some airlines don’t charge to check a bag. This is common on international flights and on premium airlines. Before you book your ticket, be sure to check the checked bag fee. In some cases, you can book a slightly more expensive ticket that includes a checked bag and end up saving money.
It’s also important to note that some airlines charge for carry-on bags these days. In some cases, you won’t save any money by packing a carry-on instead of a checked bag.
2. Traveling with a checked bag takes more time
When you arrive at the airport, you have to wait in line at the ticketing counter to check your bag. At some airports, you may have to wait in line for 20-30 minutes. If you check a bag, you have to arrive at the airport at least 30 minutes earlier than you would if you traveled with a carry-on.
When you arrive at your destination, you have to walk to the baggage claim and wait for your bag to arrive. This can take another 20-40 minutes. If you decide to check a bag, you’ll end up spending at least an extra hour at the airport each time you fly. If you travel frequently, this extra time adds up.
When you use a carry-on, you can check-in online and proceed directly to security. When you arrive at your destination, you can head straight to the exit.
3. The airline can lose your checked bag
Airlines lose luggage all the time. When you check your bag, there is a chance that the airline will lose it. According to SITA, 3.5 bags per 1000 passengers are mishandled (lost, delayed, damaged, or stolen.) Most of these bags are delayed or damaged. Of these mishandled bags, 4% are lost and never recovered. Admittedly, this is a small number. It’s not zero. There is a chance that your checked bag gets lost.
Luggage most commonly gets lost during transfers. Sometimes it doesn’t make it from one flight to the next in time. This is common if your connecting flights are close together. Loading errors also happen. A baggage handler can misread the label and put your bag on the wrong flight. Ticketing errors also occur. Your luggage could be tagged incorrectly and sent to the wrong destination. These errors are surprisingly common.
Loss of luggage is down significantly. According to this SITA baggage report, lost luggage rates are down 70% over the past decade, even though passenger volumes have increased. It is becoming less risky to check a bag.
If an airline loses your checked bag, they are held liable. The maximum liability for a lost bag is $3,500 for domestic flights in the U.S. or around $1600 for international flights. Whether or not you can actually collect is a different matter. You’ll need photos and receipts of what was in the bag. If you don’t have any evidence, you might be out of luck.
If your luggage is temporarily lost, the airline might offer you a care package with some necessities. They might offer you, a couple of hundred bucks or a voucher for compensation. You may have to rely on your travel insurance to get your money back for your lost luggage.
Air Canada lost my backpack during a flight to Europe for my first solo trip. It took them 3 days to find it. They offered me no compensation.
When you travel with a carry-on, you can keep an eye on your luggage the whole time so it won’t get lost.
If your luggage does get lost, check out this great guide.
4. Your luggage can get damaged by baggage handlers
Airline luggage handlers are notoriously hard on bags. They throw them, stack them, and drop them without a care. Damaged luggage is common.
If your bag or its contents gets damaged, the airline is liable. They are supposed to pay for repair or replacement. Whether or not your claim will be accepted is a different matter. Your definition of damage and the airline’s may be different.
If the damage to your bag is minor like a scuff or stain, your claim will most likely be denied. If something inside of your luggage gets damaged, it is unlikely that you will receive any compensation because it’s difficult to prove that the airline caused the damage. When something breaks, the airline will often deny responsibility. For this reason, it’s best to pack any fragile items in your carry-on. You may be able to get a couple of hundred dollars if your luggage is severely damaged.
To increase your chances of your claim being accepted, take photos of your luggage before your flight. Save all receipts. Leave the luggage tag on your bag. Go directly to the luggage office after your flight.
The maximum liability for luggage on a domestic flight in the U.S. is $3500. If you’re traveling with expensive equipment that you have to check, you should insure it. Your travel insurance may also provide coverage.
When you travel with a carry-on bag, you’re the only one to handle your luggage. Damage is much less likely.
5. You can’t fly standby when you check a bag
When your original flight gets canceled or delayed, airlines often put you on the standby list and try to fit you on another flight. If the new flight leaves soon, they’ll ask if you checked luggage. If you did, there may not be time for them to transfer it to your new flight. In this case, you’ll have to wait for a later flight. This isn’t a problem if you fly with carrry-on luggage.
6. You may overpack
When you have extra room in your luggage, you’ll always fill it. Usually with unnecessary extra clothing and gear. This stuff just ends up weighing you down and sitting in your bag unused.
For most trips, there is really no need to check a bag. You can fit everything you need into a carry-on if you pack strategically.
7. You have to schedule longer layovers
The baggage handlers need time to transfer your luggage from one flight to the next. They have to unload, sort, transport, and reload all of the bags on the correct flights. This takes time. If you have a short 30 minute layover, you run the risk of arriving at your destination before your bag. I recommend booking flights with at least a 1-hour layover when checking a bag just to be safe.
I encountered this problem on my first solo trip. When flying from Los Angeles to London I had a 1 hour layover in Toronto. I made it onto my next flight but my checked bag didn’t.
Luckily, the airline was able to find my bag. Unfortunately, I did end up having to spend the first couple of days without any of my clothing or travel gear.
While flying internationally, you sometimes need to collect your checked bag and pass through security then re-check it before you’re allowed to board your connecting flight. This can take much more time. In this case, you may need to schedule an hour and a half between flights.
8. You can’t easily take flights where you switch airlines during your layover
You can save a nice chunk of money by flying between two major hubs then taking a budget regional airline to your destination. These types of flights are popular among flight hackers.
For example, maybe you want to fly from Los Angeles to Stockholm. You can save money by flying to a major hub like London or Frankfurt then taking a budget flight on a different airline to Stockholm.
These types of flights are more complicated when you fly with a checked bag. After your first flight lands, you’ll have to go through immigration, pick up your bag at the baggage claim, recheck it at the ticketing counter of your new airline, then go back through security. In a busy airport, this can take a couple of hours.
If you’re flying with a carry-on, you simply go to your second airline and get your boarding pass.
9. Harder to move from location to location
When you travel with a large carry-on bag, you can’t easily walk with it through a city. It’s difficult to roll a large suitcase over bumpy cobblestone streets. You won’t want to walk very far with a 30 lb suitcase. A bulky suitcase may not fit in a crowded bus or metro. You may have to take a taxi or Uber from the bus or train station to your hotel. Carrying a heavy bag up multiple flights of stairs is also a hassle. It’s much more difficult to move from location to location with a checked bag.
If you’re the kind of traveler who stays in the same hotel for your entire trip, this isn’t really an issue. If you like to move around every few days, lugging a big checked bag around gets old quickly.
Who Should Travel with a Carry-On?
A carry-on is the better choice for those who move around frequently while traveling. For example, maybe you’re backpacking through Europe and you’re going to move from one hostel to the next every 3-4 days. Maybe you’re a multi-mode traveler who takes planes, trains, buses, ferries, taxis, and metros every other day. In these cases, you’ll be much happier with a compact and portable carry-on bag. It’s so much faster and more convenient to pack a small bag and carry it around on your back.
Those who are on a tight budget are also better off with a carry-on. You can save $25-$50 per flight by avoiding checked bag fees. When traveling with a lightweight carry-on, you can also avoid expensive taxis and Ubers by taking public transport or simply walking between the train or train station and your hotel. I frequently walk several miles with my travel backpack.
Minimalists and ultralight travelers also enjoy the simplicity and convenience of traveling with a carry-on. When you travel with fewer things, you have less stuff to worry about getting lost, damaged, or stolen. It’s kind of freeing to travel with a single carry-on bag.
A carry-on is also ideal for those who are short on time. If you’re taking an overnight trip, you don’t want to waste an hour waiting to check a bag then waiting at the baggage claim. If you have an early morning flight, you can sleep in an extra half hour or so when you fly with a carry-on.
Who Should Travel with a Checked Bag?
Those who are traveling long-term or full-time are usually better off checking a bag. It’s nice to have some stylish clothing, extra shoes, luxury items, and extra outfits when you’re traveling for months or years at a time. If you value comfort, you’ll probably want to check a bag.
A checked bag is often a better choice for those who have to work while they travel. For example, maybe you’re a digital nomad and you need to carry a laptop, tablet, camera and lenses, keyboard, mouse, drone, hard drive, batteries, chargers, cables, etc. This gear will take up most of your carry-on space. You’ll need a checked bag for your clothes and other travel gear.
If you need to pack some kind of specialty gear for your trip, you’ll probably need to check a bag. For example, if you’re going on a surf trip or ski trip, you’ll need to pack your surfboard or skis in a checked bag.
Those who are traveling through multiple climate zones are also better off checking a bag. You’ll need the extra space for boots, a jacket, snow pants, a scarf, gloves, and a sweater.
You’ll also need to check a bag if you’re traveling with items that aren’t permitted in a carry-on. For example, if you want to pack a tent, trekking poles, a full-sized bottle of shampoo, a pocket knife, etc. you’ll need to check a bag. These items aren’t permitted in the cabin of an airplane.
Travelers who spend their whole vacation in the same location are also better off checking a bag. If you only travel from the airport to your hotel and don’t move around, the portability of your luggage doesn’t really matter.
What to Pack in Your Carry-On Bag
Even if you decide to check a bag, you should still pack a small carry-on such as a purse or day-pack. Your carry-on bag should contain:
- Your travel documents- This includes your passport, visas, vaccine certificates, etc. Basically, everything you need to enter the country you’re flying to.
- Money and cards- Carry all cash and credit and debit cards in your carry-on bag. Alternatively, carry them in a money belt.
- Electronics- Your laptop, camera, phone, drone, electronic accessories are all fragile and valuable. Always carry them with you on the plane.
- Valuables- Maybe you travel with jewelry or expensive photography equipment. Pack them in your carry-on
- Fragile items- Maybe you bought a glass souvenir. Pack it up carefully in your carry-on so it doesn’t get broken.
- Toiletries- If your checked bag is lost, you’ll at least want to have your toothbrush, toothpaste, and soap to maintain your hygiene. For help packing toiletries in your carry-on, check out my guide.
Carry on Recommendations
There are hundreds of carry-on bags on the market. When choosing a carry-on bag, be sure to consider the weight. A heavy piece of luggage can take up a quarter of your carry-on weight allowance. In this section, I’ll outline a few of the more popular carry-on luggage options to consider.
This carry-on backpack from Osprey offers 40 liters of total volume. It measures 21” x 14” x 9”. This is one of the largest carry-on-sized bags that is permitted on almost all flights, both domestic and international.
The backpack features a large front opening for easy access to all of your clothing and gear. It has a padded laptop and tablet sleeve. The laptop sleeve can accommodate a 15” laptop. It features locking zippers for extra security. There are two mesh pockets on the front for water bottles.
If you need to check the bag for whatever reason, you can stow the straps and hip belt behind a zippered flap on the back. The straps and hip belt offer thick and comfortable padding. The bag also comes with a padded shoulder strap. This is one of the most popular backpacks for carry-on travelers.
This unique carry-on backpack features a modular design. It can be expanded from 35-45 liters of volume with a simple zipper. In the 35 liter configuration, the bag meets the maximum international carry-on standard.
The bag offers full rear access, side zippers for access while wearing the backpack, and a locking laptop compartment. The straps fold away behind ingenious magnetic flaps on the back of the backpack. This backpack is an excellent choice for photographers and digital nomads. It is incredibly well thought out
The main drawback is the cost. This is an expensive backpack. It’s also fairly heavy.
This 20” carry-on suitcase from Samsonite meets most carry-on bag size restrictions for both domestic and international travel. It measures 22″ x 15″ x 9.5″.
This high-quality suitcase features a scratch-resistant polycarbonate finish, 4 roller wheels, a push-button handle, and a keyless TSA lock for extra security. It is a great choice if you’re looking for a traditional carry-on roller suitcase.
Checked bag Recommendations
You can use anything for a checked bag including a suitcase, large hiking backpack, duffel bag, or even a cardboard box. In this section, I’ll outline a few popular checked bag options.
This versatile piece of luggage doubles as both a roller bag and backpack. While you’re at the airport, you can roll the bag around on the oversized 90mm wheels. You can also carry the bag on your back with the comfortable padded shoulder straps and hip belt. When you’re ready to check the bag, you can stow the straps behind a zippered flap. This convenient system gives you the best features of roller bags and backpacks.
The Osprey Farpoint 65 features a large front access panel for easy packing, compression straps, mesh water bottle pockets, and a top zippered pocket for organization. This is an incredibly versatile and well thought out piece of luggage
This 24” suitcase from Samsonite features 4 spinner wheels, a durable polycarbonate outer shell, and a built-in TSA lock. The suitcase meets checked bag size requirements for pretty much all airlines. The suitcase measures 6.5” x 17.75” x 11.75”.
The main drawback is the cost. This is a premium suitcase. It is also very heavy at over 8 lbs.
You don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on luggage. This travel duffel bag from Canway is an excellent option for those who are on a tight budget. It offers a roomy 65 liters of internal volume with 6 separate pockets for organization. The bag is made from durable 600D polyester fabric. It is tear and water resistant. It comes with side straps as well as a shoulder strap. The bag measures 26.3” x 13.7” x 12.2” and weighs just 1.74 lbs.
One unique feature of this duffel bag is that it is packable. When not in use, you can pack the bag down into itself. It measures 10.6” x 9.4” x 3.9” when packed. This would come in handy if you want to travel one way with a carry-on and check a bag full of souvenirs when you return home.
How to Choose Between Traveling With Checked vs Carry On Luggage
If you’re still having trouble deciding between traveling with a carry-on or checked bag, try asking yourself the following questions:
- Are you able to fit everything you need in a carry-on-sized bag? If you’re not sure, pack everything you need in a carry-on. If it won’t fit, you’ll know you have to check a bag.
- Are there any items that you want to bring that are not permitted in a carry-on bag? Some items are permitted in checked bags but not carry-on. Can you do without those items? If not, you’ll need to check a bag.
- What is your budget? Packing a carry-on will usually save you money. Check the luggage fees to confirm. If traveling with a carry-on means you’ll need to buy gear at your destination, you might end up spending more.
- Is time tight? Choosing a carry-on bag saves you time on both ends of your flight and during layovers. You save time during check-in and avoid the baggage claim altogether. If you have a short layover, you may need to travel with a carry-on to make your second flight.
- Do you value comfort or convenience more? A carry-on bag is much more convenient. It streamlines your airport experience. Checking your bag is much more comfortable because you can pack more stuff.
- What packing style do you prefer? Consider personal preference. If you like packing more with you, check a bag. If you’re a minimalist, go with a carry-on.
- Do you need space for souvenirs? Can you ship them or check a bag on your way back?
- Are you fit enough to carry your bag onto the plane? If not, check it so the airline can handle it for you.
My Choice: Checked Vs Carry On Luggage
After experiencing an airline lose my luggage, I began exclusively traveling with only a carry-on. In order to fit everything, I pared down to the bare essentials. I upgraded to ultralight travel clothing and gear to save space and weight.
Even though packing everything into a carry-on is somewhat limiting, I find it to be faster, more convenient, and more secure. I save time by not having to deal with checking my bag or waiting around the baggage claim. I can take my bag with me onto buses, trains, and planes. This means I never have to worry about my luggage getting damaged or lost because I’m the only one who handles it. I don’t have to worry as much about a thief rummaging through my belongings. Always having my bag with me brings me peace of mind.
In recent years, I have been getting more into outdoor activities such as camping and hiking. Some camping gear such as tent poles and stoves aren’t permitted in carry-on bags. If I want to bring these items with me, I have to check my bag. So far, I haven’t had any further issues with lost or damaged gear. It is always a risk when checking a bag.
Final Thoughts: Checked Vs Carry On Travel
As we have seen, carry-on and checked bag travel both have their own pros and cons. This choice really comes down to the type of trip you’re taking, the amount of gear you need to pack, your budget, and your personal preference.
Each trip is different. Before your trip, take some time to think about what you need to pack to help you decide which type of luggage is best for your trip. For a short vacation to a warm-weather destination, you can almost always get away with just a carry-on. If you’re planning a long-term trip through a range of weather conditions, you may need to check a bag.
Where do you stand on the checked vs carry on debate? Share your packing tips in the comments below!
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