Why checking in your luggage is always smarter than using ‘carry-on’ bags

Feb 7, 2022

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

I wish I were the kind of traveller who never checked a bag.

In this travel fantasy of mine, I’m also petite and svelte — the type of person who shows up at the airport in an outfit that perfectly blends fashion and comfort for a 14-hour transatlantic flight. I roll my wheelie carry-on in one perfectly manicured hand; on the other arm, a chic laptop tote bag dangles effortlessly, as if it didn’t contain a computer, a clutch purse and copious travel snacks.

I’ve got it all under control. Who needs to risk checking a bag, with all its affiliated hassles and fees, when carrying on is much simpler and easier?

Don’t miss out on travel news and advice from TPG. Sign up for our daily newsletter.

In reality, I’m a solid 6-footer with feet so big a Ringling Bros. clown once offered to swap shoes with me. I typically travel with a laptop or two kids in tow — or both. My quart-size bag of toiletries is always bursting at the seams and my inner mom has packed for all emergencies.

I will always choose comfort over style, which means — like it or not — I will always prefer to check a bag to accommodate all my stuff.

Road warriors make it sound like the cool kids never check bags, but here’s my hot take: Travelling with just a carry-on is highly overrated. I will no longer be ashamed of paying £18.43 for the privilege of flying suitcase-free.

Here’s why I almost always check a bag — and why you should feel free to do the same.

Related: Why I don’t pay for priority boarding anymore when I fly

Say hello to legroom

Not everyone can fly in business class with extra legroom, so you need to be smart if you want to stretch out. (Photo by Matej Kastelic/500px/Getty Images)

I’m 6 feet tall and wear a size 11  in women’s shoes. My main desire when I fly is to have someplace comfortable to put my legs and feet.

When I travel with only a carry-on bag, I need to cram all my stuff into the biggest personal item I can find, then squish that backpack or laptop bag into the space beneath the seat in front of me. That leaves no room for my feet.

Related: Why I’m now checking a bag more often when I fly

This arrangement could work for a brief short-haul flight, but it won’t do on a long flight when I will have to shift positions and stretch my legs. Because my knees already hit the seatback in front of me, I would have little wiggle room without having to manoeuvre around my overstuffed bag.

Plus, any time I wanted to pull a book or snack from my bag, I would have to haul the whole monstrosity out, trying not to knock into my seatmate, and rummage through the extra underwear to find what I need. No thanks.

Freedom of movement

Anyone who’s ever pushed a stroller through an airport knows that it’s nearly impossible to do that while wheeling a carry-on suitcase. Heck, getting into a bathroom stall with just yourself and a suitcase, let alone a toddler, is nearly impossible. (Have you ever wondered why airport bathroom stall doors open in toward the toilet rather than out into the bathroom?)

If you want to buy lunch or coffee, you have to juggle your wallet, a tray of food and your sidekick wheelie.

Thanks, but I’ll pass. When I check a bag, I wear a backpack and carry a purse or laptop bag over my shoulder so both of my hands are free. This makes it much easier to carry food, fill water bottles, grab children and check my phone while toting all my belongings. Not to mention, when the escalator is backed up, I can descend the stairs with ease.

The freedom of movement makes my time in the airport much more manageable.

Related: 6 reasons why you should always sit in the aisle seat on planes

More room for essential Toiletries

Tiny bottles of your toiletries may not work for your destination or hygiene preferences. (Photo by martin-dm/Getty Images)

I have a hunch that the TSA’s 3-1-1 liquids rule was created by a bald man with 20-20 vision. There is no way I can get by with a small quart bag of toiletries.

That’s saying a lot since I’m a pretty low-maintenance gal. Although I don’t pack as many toiletries as some, I still need a few essentials. I wear contacts, so I must travel with contact lens solution. I have curly hair, so that means I need at least one, possibly two, bottles of hair products to ensure I don’t look like the Bride of Frankenstein. Ideally, I also bring my own conditioner because the hotel brands don’t always cut it.

Then I need toothpaste, moisturizer, mascara and (these days) hand sanitiser. Even if I can use my Tetris skills to make all the little bottles fit in a normal toiletries bag I might not have enough product to last a week.

Did I mention that I often cruise, so it’s not so easy to swing by a pharmacy should I run out? Seriously, I don’t know how people vacation with only a few 3-ounce bottles of toiletries. I happily check a bag to make it possible to pack all the full-size bottles my heart (and hair and eyes and face) desire.

Related: 7 items you should always pack in your carry-on bag

More than one pair of shoes

Not only did the clown story actually take place, but it took place when I was 11, an awkward time when my age actually matched my shoe size. I firmly believe in always wearing my bulkiest pair of shoes on the plane because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have room for several outfits.

I strut through airports in my trainers because they’re comfortable, large and necessary for working out, but I can’t get by with just one pair of shoes. On a cruise, I also need evening shoes and beach-appropriate footwear. Sometimes, I need to bring another daytime shoe, too. I do everything possible to colour coordinate and streamline footwear, but I often end up travelling with three pairs of shoes.

Two to three pairs of size 13 shoes take up a lot of room in a carry-on. To avoid the angst that comes with trying to squeeze both clothes and footwear into a rollaboard bag that can fit in an overhead compartment, I’d rather check a bag.

Related: Best travel shoes for your next trip

Proper clothing options

One outfit a day may not be possible for some travellers. (Photo by Atit Phetmuangtong/EyeEm/Getty Images)

Cruises are an extreme example, but most trips I go on require several wardrobe changes per day. On a cruise, I need casual daywear, dressy evening wear, swimwear, sleepwear and workout wear. On a business trip, it’s the reverse: nicer (read: less comfortable) clothes for the day, then a casual option for hanging out at night.

If it’s cold, I may need extra layers, hats or mittens; if I’m going hiking, I’ll need zip-off pants and extra socks. And if I don’t pack an umbrella or rain jacket, I just know it’s going to pour.

No matter where I go and how hard I try to repurpose wardrobe items, I need more outfits than will fit in a carry-on. Maybe people who wear a size 2 can fit the same number of clothing items in a smaller bag, but sometimes a girl wants choices when deciding what to wear during that weekend getaway with friends. A checked bag solves all these problems.

Space for souvenirs

I’m not a shopper, but I fully support anyone who wants to buy things while on vacation. You can pick up fun mementoes to remind you of your travels, support the local economy and pacify any children waiting eagerly at home. Personally, I love to buy jewellery when I travel, but you might come home with something bulkier.

Even on business trips, I end up with a pile of papers, thumb drives or swag to bring home. Bottom line: Nearly everyone comes home from a trip with more stuff than they started with.

If you only intend to carry on bags, you’re going to have to make some hard decisions about whether you have room for that Norwegian wool sweater or that branded travel mug from the company headquarters. And you’ll never get home that bottle of wine from the lovely Napa vineyard you visited if you don’t check a bag … or pay lots more to ship a case.

Check a bag and you’ll gain lots more space to accommodate all the goodies you want to bring back.

Related: 8 impressive souvenirs you’d never know came from an airport

Bottom line

I definitely see the downside of checking bags. The biggest two are cost and the risk of lost luggage. However, the first is often avoided with elite status or the right credit card. The second isn’t as big of a deal as people make it out to be.

Usually, your luggage is delayed rather than outright lost. Smart packing strategies (like putting a change of clothes in your carry-on bag or splitting your partner’s and your own belongings across two bags instead of you each having your own bag) can mitigate that annoyance. Yes, you take the risk that your bag will be lost forever (or not found until you return home), but it’s just one of many risks you assume when travelling.

I’d rather take that risk by packing what I need to travel comfortably instead of flying with only the bare-bones essentials I need for my trip.

The next time you see me at the airport, I will be standing in the line to check my bag with confidence and joy. Once that bag floats merrily down the conveyor belt, I’ll be skipping over to security with my hands-free and no baggage to weigh me down.

Featured photo by Rattanakun Thongbun/EyeEm/Getty Images.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.