Should I Pack a Carry-on Bag or a Checked-Bag?

Travelers in airport

I've been asked to weigh in on this earth-shattering question many, many times: Carry-on or checked-bag? My answer is always the same:

Pack a carry-on. But maybe not for the reason you think.

LISTEN: Rick Seaney's got a brand new bag.

Why Pack a Carry-on Bag

The are four important considerations:

  • Fees: On most airlines you will save money by using a carry-on. With the exception of Southwest, all airlines charge for checked bags – typically $50 round-trip – but most allow carry-ons for free. Those that charge a fee for carry-ons include Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit (from $30 to $35 and up depending on when you pay).
  • Security: A bag that travels in the cabin with you is a bag that cannot get lost.
  • Flexibility: If weather creates chaos at your airport and gate agents have you sprinting through the terminal to make an alternate flight, your carry-on will make the flight with you. Who knows about the checked bag?
  • Begin vacation faster: Since you won't have to wait around at the baggage carousel, you'll be first in line for a taxi.

Be Sure You Use the Right Carry-on

There are all kinds of carry-ons from backpacks to wheelies but don't just grab any bag and don't just pack anything. Some guidelines:

  1. Watch the bag size limits.

I've seen bags advertised as standard carry-on measurements but as far as we can tell there is no standard. Some examples:

  • Alaska: 24 x 17 x 10 inches
  • United: 22 x 14 x 9 inches
  • Spirit: 22 x 18 x 10 inches

Tip: Measurements must include wheels and handles.

  1. Watch the weight allowance.

You're probably aware most airlines charge extra for checked-bags over 50 pounds but some are putting weight limits on carry-ons, too. Some examples:

  • Frontier: 35 lbs.
  • Virgin America: 30 lbs.
  • Allegiant and Hawaiian: 25 lbs.

Tip: Weigh the bag before you go to the airport. If you have too much but are traveling with a friend whose bag is lighter, redistribute the weight.

  1. Don't pack valuables.

True, the bag will be traveling with you but why take a chance on losing a pair of diamond earrings or having them stolen at your destination. If you must, wear them.

Tip: Avoid flashing jewelry or cash – anything that screams, I'm rich – or you could be targeted for a scam.

  1. Pack the important stuff.

Do pack medications you'll need, passports and other documents and must-have electronics but keep the expensive gizmos to the bare minimum.

Tip: Mom and Dad, don't forget to pack things that make children happy on long flights.

  1. Watch for the Baggage Police

During the peak travel season of June, July and August or major holiday periods like Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's, many airlines stake out security checkpoints and gate areas with representatives I call the Baggage Police. Their job is to remove oversized/overweight bags to keep lines of vacation travelers moving and flights departing on time. Airlines may make some fees, too, but what usually happens is the bags are simply placed in cargo.

Tip: If this happens to you be sure to remove any medications you'll need or valuables like electronics. Remember, only the bag that travels with you is the bag that cannot get lost.

See more on this in Rick's latest ABC News column. See all his columns here.

Rick Seaney
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