With all the airport stockpiles of lost luggage this summer (2022), we revisit a savvy traveller’s top tips for Outpost on why carry-ons are the way to go, and how to better ensure you won’t have to check it.
Dear Savvy Traveller: What are the best tricks for ensuring I won’t be forced to check my carry-on luggage? —Harry Chambers
(Reposted July 2022)
Many aspects of air travel have a tendency to annoy people, but few of the more minor inconveniences tend to anger travellers more than being forced to check that carry-on bag, even when it’s free to do so. Or maybe that’s just me. Personally, it’s the number one obstacle I try to overcome, so I take your question very seriously. And, while some of the strategies hinge upon outplaying fellow travellers, giving me pause when it comes to divulging my own game plan, I’m going to help you anyway.
There are three main hurdles to clear on your way to getting that carry-on inside the cabin, so I’ll advise you in the order you’ll encounter them. But first, there are a couple very important things you need to do at home before attempting this challenge, because violations here can thwart you at any stage of the game.
1. Purchase a ticket that allows carry on. Some economy rate ticket prices on major airlines no longer include any carry-on allowances, so you’ll need to make sure you purchase one that does, if you’re not intending to check anything. Yes, this is real and relatively new, and I’ve been stung by this myself in the recent past. Pay attention to what your great deal does and doesn’t include.
2. Find the airline’s carry-on allowance guidelines, and follow them. If your bag exceeds any of the permitted measurements, you’re asking for trouble. You may still get away with it, but why are you inviting this trouble? Just follow the rules.
3. Now let’s get to those three airport areas that may disrupt your carry-on dreams.
You may be able to avoid this first of the three checkpoints entirely. If you’re not intending to check any bags, you can usually accomplish the rest of the check-in tasks online through airlines websites and apps. Choose your seat, check in, and have your boarding pass sent to your phone (take a screenshot in advance in case you don’t have internet access in certain areas of the airport). Then go straight to security when you arrive, and you’ll have cleared hurdle #1.
“Take five minutes to read current carry-on regulations where you’re flying in advance. They’re not the same everywhere”
If you forget to do this ahead of time, look for self-service kiosks in the check-in area, where you can also accomplish all of this without encountering a human. Why don’t you want to see someone face-to-face? The airline reserves the right to inspect your carry-on for measurement compliance, and the check-in attendants have scales directly in front of them. The measurement you are most likely to exceed with carry on is weight, so don’t invite trouble by dragging your bag right up to the scale when you don’t need to.
If your carry-on bag contains items that aren’t permitted, you’re going to be nailed at security and forced to check your bag, toss the item, or check the item by itself, which you wouldn’t want to do. This may seem like a real no-brainer, but most people, the violation here usually comes from not knowing that something random is not permitted, so take five minutes to read current carry-on regulations where you’re flying in advance. They’re not the same everywhere.
Most gate tips rely on psychology, and this is where you’ll try to outsmart your competitors…errr…fellow travellers. Aside from size violations, the reason you’ll have to check a bag here is most likely overcrowding. When flights are full, there often isn’t enough overhead space for every person to stow a carry-on bag, and volunteers for free check-in service are requested. Rest assured that there will never be enough volunteers for this “service,” so the airline will start tagging bags of their choosing as the plane begins to fill.
Therefore, step one is to board as early as possible. Typically this means being in an early boarding group, which comes with airline status and/or ticket value. If you’re more concerned with convenience than cash, this is an instance where you may want to purchase priority boarding for a small fee in advance. You’ll get on near the beginning of boarding, and your bag will come with you.
Otherwise, aim to board at the beginning of your designated group, but please don’t be one of the obnoxious people who crowds the boarding area a half hour before boarding even begins. Sit down until your group is called.
When boarding, be inconspicuous, and make your luggage even more inconspicuous. Smile and be polite, but don’t draw attention to your bag by dragging it along laboriously, demonstrating that it’s obviously too big or too heavy.
Take extra steps to reduce its visual appearance by not using the luggage-expander zippers, and not stuffing the front pockets of the bag. Keep the bag flat in the front, and keep your adjustable handle as low as possible when boarding, too.
You want this bag to look as small and light as possible, and you don’t want to look at it while boarding. Keep the gate attendant looking at you and your boarding pass, not at your bag.
Finally, be aware that some airlines don’t allow roller bags at all because of tiny overhead compartments that can’t accommodate them. In these cases, all roller bags will be checked no matter who you are or what your bag looks like, so use a duffel if you’re intent upon avoiding this.
And don’t think that just because you’re flying a major airline you won’t run into this because many reservations are operated by partner airlines that may use older, smaller planes than what you expected. You can usually check this on your reservation in advance, but using a duffel bag will always keep you in the clear here, and they’re more malleable so they can be squeezed into just about any necessary compartment to prove compliance with measurements!
Brandon Schultz wrote The Savvy Traveller column for Outpost. To see more of his work, you check him out here.