Checked Baggage vs. Carry-On: What You Need to Know

Whether you choose to check a bag could affect your travel costs and wait times at the airport.
Dan MillerNov 26, 2020

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Any time you fly, you have to decide between checked baggage vs. carry-on — or both. Many factors go into the decision, including where you’re going, how long you’ll be gone and who’s traveling with you. And now, with the pandemic having an impact on nearly every part of life, even more factors need to be considered.

Here are some questions to ask when weighing the pros and cons of checked baggage vs. carry-on.

What are the airline’s baggage fees?

Checked baggage fees vary from airline to airline. Some allow one carry-on bag for free, but charge for checked luggage — that’s in addition to a personal item, like a purse or small backpack that fits under the seat in front of you. Personal items can be brought for free on most airlines.

Some low-cost carriers charge for both carry-on luggage and checked bags. Frontier Airlines actually charges more for a carry-on than it does for a checked bag.

On most airlines, fees for the first checked bag are often around $30 or $35, with a second checked bag costing more, often around $45. Oversize bags or bags that go over the airline’s weight limit will likely carry an extra charge. The exception is Southwest Airlines, where the first two checked bags fly free.

Can you get bag fees waived?

There are a few ways to avoid baggage fees. Having elite status with an airline usually comes with some number of free checked bags. Another way to save money and avoid baggage fees is by having the airline’s co-branded credit card, as some come with waived bag fees.

As well, many airlines won't charge business or first class ticket holders for checked luggage, though this is hardly a way to save. The cost of moving from economy to business class is usually far higher than the typical bag fee.

How big is your bag and how much do you need to pack?

Another factor to consider is the size of your suitcase and what you need to pack. This will depend in part on where you’re going, for how long and the kind of trip it is. If you have more to pack than will fit in a carry-on, you’ll need to check your bags with your airline.

Airlines have very specific baggage rules regarding the size and weight of both carry-on bags and checked luggage. For example, American Airlines limits the dimensions of carry-ons to 22 inches by 14 inches by 9 inches, and there are "sizers" at many airports to double-check if your bag fits. If you’re checking luggage with American, it has to weigh 50 pounds or less to avoid incurring an additional fee.

Most major airlines have similar size and weight restrictions, but don’t assume. Check your airline’s baggage policy on its website before your flight.

How much do you hate waiting in lines?

Going to the airport always means waiting in lines. But whether you choose checked baggage vs. carry-ons affects which lines you have to wait in and for how long.

For instance, if you aren’t checking a bag, you can usually skip lines at the check-in counter and proceed directly to airport security with an electronic ticket.

While you might get there more quickly, your bag choice might have other plans.

If you've checked all of your bags and aren't traveling with any carry-ons, you could potentially move a little faster through the TSA lines. A carry-on bag is just one more item that security personnel may need to search, which could mean more waiting.

Are you ready to lug a carry-on through the airport?

Once you’re past security, your bag choice will affect your airport experience. While waiting for your plane, traversing an airport to catch a connecting flight or visiting an airport lounge, it can be a hassle to lug around a carry-on. If you’re traveling by yourself, visiting the restroom is more complicated with carry-on luggage.

Is it better to travel light in the age of COVID-19?

Traveling light could improve your overall safety. If you fly with a carry-on only, you won't have to wait at baggage claim for your luggage — an even more attractive time-saver during the pandemic. Not having to stand around in an enclosed space with dozens of strangers awaiting their bags for 20 minutes is a plus.

On the other hand, if you use carry-on luggage and are flying a smaller regional jet, you may have it even worse. On some small regional jets, roll-aboard carry-ons don’t fit in the overhead compartment, so you’ll need to check a bag at the gate. That means you may have to wait after the flight on the jet bridge, crowded in with everyone else who had to gate-check a carry-on.

The bottom line

When deciding between checked baggage vs. carry-on for your next flight, consider the type of trip you’re taking, the baggage fees, your willingness to lug bags around, longer wait times and how those waits could affect your ability to physically distance from other travelers.

Carry-on-only travel and checked bags both have pros and cons. Weigh all of the considerations to find your own sweet spot of cost, time and airport hassle to get the best answer for you.


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