Everything you need to know about gate-checking a bag
Being part of the last group to board your flight is bad enough. It's only made worse by a flight attendant asking you to check your bag at the gate due to a lack of overhead bin space by the time you reach your seat.
Airlines routinely ask passengers to check bags at the gate. It's a likely scenario on crowded flights or on planes with smaller bins, such as regional jets.
"When overhead bins become full, the flight attendants will notify the gate that we will need to check the remaining larger roller bags that will not fit under the seat," explained a spokesperson for Delta.
You may have questions about what this process looks like and if there are any risks involved.
The good news is that gate-checked bags are treated the same as all other checked bags, and this process does not necessarily increase the likelihood of your bag being lost. (That may still happen, though.)
Here are the ins and outs of gate-checking bags.
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How much does it cost to gate-check a bag?
Unlike bags you check ahead of a flight, an airline will check any otherwise allowed carry-on bag at the gate for free, regardless of your fare type.
However, this allowance does not extend to passengers who try to bring a full-sized carry-on item on board when their fare type does not permit them to do so.
Sometimes a carrier's lowest class, known as basic economy, does not allow customers to bring a full-sized carry-on on board. In that case, passengers are not eligible to have their bag gate checked for free. This is the case for both JetBlue Blue Basic fares and United's basic economy.
"Regardless of overhead bin space capacity, if a customer flying on a basic economy ticket brings a full-size carry-on bag to the gate, they'll need to check their bag and pay the applicable checked bag fee ($35) and a $25 gate handling charge," a United spokesperson told me.
JetBlue charges passengers with Blue Basic fare types $65 each way to check a full-sized, carry-on bag.
What about oversized and overweight bags?
If you attempt to gate check a bag that violates an airline's weight and size requirements for checked bags, you also might be charged an additional fee. Any additional fees for oversized luggage would be on top of the $30 fee most major U.S. airlines charge passengers each way to check a bag at the time of booking. For example, AA charges travelers with overweight and or oversized bags between $100-$200 each way, depending on the route.
An exception is if you are flying Southwest Airlines, a personal favorite of mine. Their generous baggage policy allows all passengers, regardless of fare types to check two bags for free.
Remember you can avoid baggage fees by holding elite status with a particular airline, purchasing a higher fare class and or using a cobranded airline credit card to purchase your airfare.
For example, Delta, United and American allow all status holders, even at their most entry-level tiers, to check one bag for free, with the baggage allotment going up from there. Elite status also gets you priority boarding with the major airlines, meaning there's more likely to be room in the overhead bin for your bags when your priority group boards.
Where does a gate-checked bag go on the plane?
Gate-checked bags are usually treated essentially the same as all other checked bags. They are stored in a plane's cargo hold (or bins) with the rest of the luggage before being transferred to your final destination. When this happens, you pick up your bag at the baggage claim as you would any other checked bag.
However, sometimes when flying certain regional jets you may have to wait on the jet bridge at the destination gate after you deplane to get your bag.
For example, "Some American Eagle flights have limited overhead bin space. Customers may be asked to valet check larger carry-on bags before boarding smaller regional aircraft," American Airlines said. "In this case, the agent will place a valet tag on the bag, and it will be delivered to customers on the jetbridge after the flight."
Related: 3 ways to avoid checking your bag at the gate
Does this process require me to pass through security again?
If you are on a connecting flight and your bag was gate-checked for the first leg of a trip, be sure to verify with the agent checking your bag whether it needs to be picked up and re-checked or collected at any point along your travel route.
Generally, this shouldn't be the case, but it depends on the airport and the customs requirements of the countries through which you are traveling.
"For example, when entering the U.S., unless arriving from a station that has U.S. Preclearance, customers are required to retrieve their bags, clear U.S. Customs, and re-check the bags at the transfer desk," according to United. "The best advice for your readers is to always double-check with the agent that gate checks the bag."
Is there a risk to gate-checking my bag?
In a situation like this, you might be wondering — is the greater risk checking the bag and having it go missing or carrying it to the gate and finding out there's no room for your bag?
Although that is ultimately your call, there should be no added risk with checking your bag at the gate, since it's no more likely to get lost or misplaced than any other checked bag.
"Once [bags are] tagged, the checked bags are left at the end of the jetway where the ramp agent takes them directly downstairs and loads them into the aircraft bin where all of the checked bags travel," Delta told me. That's the same process for every other checked bag.
It's an extra inconvenience for sure. However, checking your bag at the gate due to lack of space on a full flight is not the end of the world.
Regardless if you check your bag or the airline checks your bag, you should receive a bag tag number with all of the information you need to track your bag on a carrier's website or app.
If you want even more security, consider purchasing something like AirTags. Apple's Bluetooth tracking devices allow you to track your suitcase through nearby Apple devices, such as an iPhone or iPad, whether it be yours or someone else's. Several TPG staffers have had luck locating missing bags this way.
Related: Checking a bag with United? Use the new ‘bag drop shortcut’ to save time