3 tips to avoid gate-checking a bag on your next flight

Nov 6, 2021

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We’ve all been there. Your bag makes it through check-in and security screening without a hitch.

You’re getting ready to board when the gate agent waves you aside and hands you a ticket. Your bag is being gate-checked, and you’ll have to pick it up from the jet bridge upon landing, potentially adding more time to what was supposed to be an easy trip.

Some items, such as strollers and wheelchairs, are typically checked through to your final destination, but if you are unlucky, your small, carry-on item may also be whisked away. Here are three tips to avoid having to gate-check a bag on your next flight.

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Avoid boarding last

People boarding a Delta flight at the gate
(Photo by David Slotnick/The Points Guy)

Most airlines allow you to gate-check your carry-ons for no additional cost. Sometimes, you won’t have the chance to carry them on. This will typically happen if planes run out of overhead bin space, which occurs at the tail end of the boarding process or on smaller, regional jets with limited overhead space. Typically, this process is free of charge – but there are some notable exceptions, which I’ll outline below.

Your best bet for avoiding a last-minute gate check is to avoid boarding last. Make that possible by not booking a restrictive basic economy ticket or — if you do book these tickets — holding elite status or certain cobranded credit cards.

For instance, if you’re flying on American Airlines, having to gate-check a bag may cost you. As my colleague David Slotnick wrote this spring, the airline will charge passengers a checked bag fee if your carry-on bag does not fit in the gate-side bag sizer and has to be gate-checked. However, travelers who would usually be entitled to a free checked bag — including AAdvantage elites and passengers flying in a premium cabin — will still get the gate-checked bag for free.

People traveling on United Airlines on a restrictive basic economy ticket, who don’t hold elite status or another perk, will be required to check their bag and pay the applicable checked bag fee plus a $25 gate handling charge if they show up at the gate with a carry-on bag.

Note that low-cost carriers like Spirit will charge you to gate-check a bag anyway – and it’s a hefty fee.

Here’s a list of several U.S.-based airlines and which credit cards (or elite status) will get you early boarding or a free checked bag:

The information for the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard, Aviator Red Mastercard, Frontier Airline World Mastercard, Hawaiian Airlines World Elite, Free Spirit Travel More World Elite, and JetBlue Plus Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Related: Which airline credit cards offer the best priority boarding perks?

Make sure your bag isn’t too large

(Photo by Carlina Teteris/Getty Images)

Even if your bag made it through check-in and security screening fine, there’s still a chance that a gate agent may deem it too large or heavy. You’ll typically see this on ultra-low-cost carriers that limit the bag you can bring onboard to a personal item, but this can happen even on legacy carriers.

To avoid this, you’ll have to be a bit more meticulous — and selective — in what you pack and how. That means thinking closely about whether you need six pairs of shoes if you’re on a weekend trip. (You probably don’t.) You also likely don’t need a different set of clothes to fly to and from your destination.

Are you usually a last-minute packer? I strongly suggest packing at least a few days in advance (I typically pack a week in advance) so you aren’t tempted just to throw things into your bag if you’re running late.

You’ll also want to pack efficiently. I’ve found that rolling my clothes and placing them upright in my suitcase or utilizing packing cubes makes closing my bag a lot easier. If your suitcase looks like it’s about to come apart at the seams, a gate agent may not have much sympathy for you.

Understand your airline’s boarding process

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Even if you selected a seat closer to the front of the plane, or even an exit row, it doesn’t guarantee you priority boarding. That’s why it’s essential to know your airline’s boarding process.

For instance, if you flew Delta during the pandemic and got used to boarding back-to-front, you may have decided to book a seat closer to the back to get on the plane first. Well, if you haven’t flown that carrier in a while, I have some bad news for you.

Delta has ended its back-to-front boarding process (JetBlue scrapped its own process in March) and is now beginning with preboarding for those who need extra time or assistance, followed by premium-cabin flyers, including Diamond Medallion elites. The remaining travelers will board in the following order:

  • Comfort+ cabin
  • Sky Priority (Platinum and Gold Medallions and other partner elites)
  • Main Cabin 1 (Silver Medallions, cobranded credit card holders and select partner elites)
  • Main Cabin 2 (coach flyers)
  • Main Cabin 3 (coach flyers booked in deep-discount fare classes: T, X and V)
  • Basic economy (booked in the E fare class)

Bottom line

It may take a tiny bit of thought and preparation but you can travel with just a carry-on bag and avoid gate-checking when using these tips. Trying not to board last, carrying the right size bag and having a handle on your airline’s boarding process can go a long way to ensure your luggage stays in the cabin with you instead of getting last-minute gate-checked for a trip in the belly of the aircraft.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy.

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