In between the excitement of booking a flight and the grueling reality of taking it, we have to decide what to do with our bags. This is no longer just a practical consideration, but a financial one – so much so that it might affect which flight you choose to begin with. The decision about whether you’re better off checking bags versus carrying on can be a weighty one, so let’s look at the pros and cons.
You never have to worry about losing your belongings when you carry on
One of the main reasons I always like to carry on is that it alleviates the worry of having anything stolen or damaged in my bag. If my belongings are always with me, I can keep a careful and watchful eye on them to ensure that all my things make it to my destination unscathed.
Electronic tracking systems have made the possibility of completely losing your bag less likely, but that doesn’t mean your bag can’t accidentally be sent to Cape Town when you’re on your way to Milan, which means you could spend part of your trip without your things while they get your bag to you.
Checking your bags is more comfortable
When you get past the fear of losing your valuables or having your bag inexplicably shredded at an airport, it’s more convenient to check a bag. You don’t have to take it through security. Or run with it to catch a connecting flight. Or worry about snagging coveted overhead space. Traveling light, with your bags being hauled on and off the plane by someone else, means having a more comfortable travel experience. When you have a connection or you’re traveling alone, this can be a huge weight off your shoulders (literally). One of the suckier things about solo travel is not having anyone to watch your bags when you have to use the bathroom. If you check them, you don’t have to worry about that.
Checking your bag adds time to your check-in process
When you don’t have to check a bag, you can breeze right through the check-in process. Many airports allow you to check in at a kiosk or on your phone so you don’t have to see another person until you go through security. On the other hand, when the check-in counter opens for a flight, everyone that is checking bags has to simultaneously line up to drop them off along with people who haven’t checked in yet. This can make for a lengthy line before you even get to the line for security. In some airports, this can double the time you spend going through the motions before you arrive at your gate.
Carrying on is often cheaper
Part of the reason those overhead bins started getting so crowded to begin with is because airlines started charging for checked bags. As a result, carrying on is often the free option compared to checking a bag. If budget is your primary concern, you may want to pack light in order to meet the carry-on allowance and not have to check a bag at all.
However, it’s become increasingly common for airlines (especially low-cost airlines) to charge for carry-on bags as well. If you’re comparing the cost of flights, it’s important to take any kind of mandatory baggage fees into consideration. It’s doubtful that you’d be able to fit everything you need into a handbag if that’s the only thing you can carry on for free.
Carry-on limits require that you pack less
If you have trouble packing light, carrying on could be a nightmare. Aside from worrying about baggage dimensions, you’re usually also required to keep your bag under a certain weight limit. Sometimes cabin baggage must weigh as little as 8 kg. That’s just over the weight of two gallons of milk. If you’re bringing along a particularly heavy coat and a pair of snow boots, you could easily go over that. While there are still size and weight limits to adhere to when you check a bag, these are much harder to go over. You don’t have to be nearly as judicious about your packing if your’e checking your bag.
You don’t have to worry about restricted carry-on items when you check a bag
Perhaps the best argument for checking bags versus carrying on is that you’re free to travel with (almost) anything you like. If you want to buy three bottles of wine, no one is going to stop you because it’s more than 3 ounces. If you want to buy a decorative sword, you can check it into your bag. This and similar items, which would be considered weapons in the main cabin, can be transported in your checked luggage without a problem.
Checking a bag adds time to your arrival
In addition to taking time at the beginning of your journey, sometimes checking a bag can delay you when you arrive at your destination. If you carry on, you can take your luggage and your documents and walk right out of the airport when you arrive. But if you checked your bag, you have to wait around the little conveyor belt for your bag to be delivered to baggage claim. In really congested airports, this can take a while.
While it may be less stressful to not have baggage weighing you down when you’re en route, the stress sometimes comes when you’re at baggage claim and you’ve been waiting for 35 minutes while everyone else is reunited with their belongings. Someone’s got to get their bags last, and it’s not fun to arrive somewhere when that person is you.
Regardless of how you dice it, there are pros and cons to both checking bags and carrying on. The real question is which stress you tolerate better.