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Carry-on vs. checked bags: Which is the better choice?

Feb. 09, 2022
8 min read
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It’s often a flyer's greatest dilemma: Do you opt for carry-on or checked bags?

Some frequent travelers are staunch advocates of only traveling with a carry-on bag. Others don’t want the hassle and prefer to check a bag. Some flyers make the call on a flight-by-flight basis; a short business trip could require only a carry-on while a two-week Europe cruise might necessitate a checked bag.

If you don’t fall firmly in the Team Carry-on or Team Checked Luggage camps, consider the following reasons why you might choose a carry-on versus a checked bag on your next flight.

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Airline baggage fees

If you’re looking to save money, carry-on bags are the better bet because most airlines allow you one free carry-on bag and one free personal item. At the same time, most airlines will charge a checked bag fee, typically starting at $30 for the first checked bag on a domestic flight, with prices increasing for additional bags.

However, you shouldn’t generalize about bag fees when you’re deciding whether to check your suitcase or carry it on. Low-cost airlines, such as Spirit and Frontier, do levy charges for carry-on bags. Book a basic economy ticket on an airline such as United or JetBlue, and you’ll also have to pay for your rollaboard.

On the flip side, you might be eligible for free checked bags if you have elite status on the airline you’re flying or have a cobranded airline credit card. Depending on your particular status, you might also get free bags for some or all of your travel companions. In addition, some premium seats, such as business or first class, come with one or two free checked bags.

Hassle-free travel

Waiting on your bag at baggage claim can be an annoyance you'd rather skip. (Photo by Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images)

Both checking and carrying on your luggage can offer hassle-free travel, depending on which situations irk you more.

If you’re in a rush or hate waiting in lines or at the baggage carousel, you’ll want to carry on your luggage. When you arrive at your departure airport, you won’t have to queue up to check your bag, and when you arrive at your final destination, you can walk right off the plane and out to transportation — without spending eons at the baggage carousel waiting for your suitcase to appear.

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But, if you’d rather stroll through the airport unencumbered by a suitcase, check that bag. You’ll be able to navigate through the terminal, maneuver in small bathroom stalls or squeeze into an airport restaurant booth without the burden of a rollaboard. Carrying fewer items will also give you more space to stretch out once you’re on board the airplane.

Risk of loss or damage

Lost luggage is a major buzzkill on any trip. My husband had to go to a job interview in jeans and buy new clothes for our rehearsal dinner because the airline lost his bags. I’ve seen bereft travelers on cruise ships apologetically sneaking into a sit-down dinner in their travel clothes because their suitcase went missing.

If you want to avoid lost luggage at all costs, you’ll want to carry on a bag. Once your suitcase is out of your possession, it’s out of your control whether you see it again ... or not.

Plus, as the viral “United Breaks Guitars” music video proved, baggage handlers are not always as careful with your belongings as you’d like. Suitcases, car seats and sports and music equipment can get rough-handled and damaged on their way to and from the airline’s hold. Aim for carry-ons, when possible, if you’re worried about the airline damaging your luggage.

What you need to pack

Sometimes you need to bring more items than a carry-on can handle. (Photo by Ghislain & Marie David de Lossy/Getty Images)

You can’t carry on a large suitcase even if you want to, so sometimes the amount of stuff you plan to take on a trip makes the carry-on versus checked bag decision for you. If you’re going on a two-day business trip, for example, it’s unlikely you’ll need more than a small rollaboard and a laptop bag. Checking a bag would seem like overkill.

However, if you’re going on a two-week expedition to Antarctica and need a bunch of warm-weather gear, you might find it impossible to fit everything you need in a carry-on. Checking a bag might be inevitable.

I nearly always check a bag because I can’t fit all my liquids in a tiny quart-size bag. If you need to travel with full-size or multiple bottles of toiletries and makeup, you'll be forced to check your suitcase. Similarly, if you’re flying with bulky sports equipment or other items you can’t bring on board, prepare yourself to pay those checked bag fees.

Avid shoppers should also be prepared to check a bag, at least on the way home, to accommodate all those cool souvenirs.

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

Onboard space

Don’t forget to consider onboard space, both for you and your bags, when making the decision to check or carry on your luggage.

If you don’t have elite status, the right credit card or an early boarding group on a sold-out flight, chances are you’ll have to gate-check your rollaboard whether you want to or not. Anxious types might want to eliminate the stress of waiting until you board to see if there will still be overhead space for your bags by checking the suitcase in the first place. It’s definitely frustrating when you strategically pack everything into a smaller bag and still have to give it up.

Also, consider how much personal space you need on your flight, especially if you’re traveling in a cramped coach seat. Short folks might not mind a bag at their feet; taller travelers, whose knees already hit the seatback in front of them, might benefit from extra floor space.

Of course, business- and first-class travelers will be able to carry on larger bags with less trouble, both because there are fewer passengers vying for the overhead space and also because there's simply more room for luggage and feet.

Other considerations

If you're already checking larger items like strollers or car seats, you might want to check your suitcase, as well. (Photo by Zia Soleil/Getty Images)

Travelers with physical limitations might find it easier to check a bag if it’s difficult to navigate long airport walkways dragging a suitcase or if it’s less awkward to carry just a backpack when you’re being escorted in a wheelchair.

In the same vein, families flying with kids may want to check their bags if they're already pushing strollers and carrying babies around the airport. Plus, if you plan to check a car seat or stroller (versus carrying on or gate-checking the baby gear), you need to stand in the bag check line anyway, so you're not saving any time by not checking your suitcase.

On the other hand, travelers hoping to fly standby will be better off keeping all their luggage on their person, so they don’t end up on a flight departing hours earlier than their suitcase. On international flights, you can’t fly standby at all if you have checked bags.

Bottom line

It’s a personal decision whether you need or want to carry on or check your luggage for any trip. But if you need a rule of thumb to go by, here’s how we fall on the carry-on versus checked bag debate:

Carry your bags on board for short trips, when you want to spend as little time as possible getting in and out of airports, and when avoiding checked bag fees is key.

Check your bags when you need the extra space in your suitcase or around you on the plane, if you can check your suitcase for free and when the hassle of dragging a rollaboard through the airport is just too much.

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

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  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
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TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
5X5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel.
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  • Intro Offer
    Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel

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    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

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Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

Pros

  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,400+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and our Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023