3 ways to avoid checking your bag at the gate

Jul 6, 2022

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U.S. air travel volume reached pre-pandemic numbers for the first time over the July 4 weekend, and there were nearly 20,000 flights with cancellations or delays.

Although I’ve always been team carry-on only, the headache that air travel has been this summer has only reinforced my distaste for checking a bag.

Even if you’re like me and limit yourself to the confines of a carry-on, there are still some times when you unexpectedly have to part ways with it.

This unfortunate scenario usually arises when an aircraft expects a lack of overhead bin space on busy flights or planes with smaller bins (such as regional jets). Passengers are asked — or sometimes forced — to check their bags at the gate.

This can be stressful since your items are no longer by your side. It can also add an extra layer of inconvenience and delay in waiting to pick up your now-checked bag upon arrival at your destination.

If you’re flying soon and want to minimize your risk of having to check a bag, here are three things you can do.

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Avoid fare classes that board last and restrict carry-on bags

(Photo by Techa Tungateja/Getty Images)

Most airlines allow travelers to check their carry-on bag at the gate for no additional cost when a plane runs out of overhead bin space.

This scenario is especially likely with smaller planes, such as regional jets, that have limited overhead space to begin with. Because of this, you want to try to board as early as possible to ensure bin space is still available by the time you reach your seat.

For most major carriers (excluding Southwest Airlines, which determines boarding priority based on the time passengers check in for their flight), your fare type determines your boarding group.

Passengers in a carrier’s most restrictive fare class, which is generally referred to as basic economy, are among the last to board. That means there’s a high likelihood of overhead bin space being full by the time this group boards.

These fares tend to be the cheapest to book but come with many restrictions, including boarding last.

This fare type on certain airlines also restricts passengers to personal items that can fit underneath the seat in front of them, and thus charges travelers who bring full-size carry-ons for the overhead bins.

For example, those with United basic economy and JetBlue Blue Basic tickets who bring a full-size carry-on to the gate will be required to pay $35 (plus a $25 gate handling fee) or $65, respectively, to check their first bag.

“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 and a $25 gate handling charge,” a United spokesperson confirmed via email.

Therefore, try to avoid booking a restrictive fare type if possible so that you can board earlier. If you choose to book a restrictive fare and end up having to check a bag, know that all hope is not lost if you have airline elite status or a cobranded credit card.

Use a cobranded credit card with luggage and priority boarding perks

(Photo by Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images)

With that in mind, if you decide to book a restrictive fare type and end up having to check your bag, it pays to have elite status with the airline you’re flying.

The three major U.S. airlines — 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 three airlines, allowing you to get on the plane earlier than you would otherwise unless you have a restrictive fare class.

In addition to status, there are certain cobranded credit cards that include priority boarding and a complimentary checked bag among their perks. This is helpful if you are loyal to a certain airline and use that card to purchase your airfare.

All three Delta cobranded cards offer users their first checked bag for free and priority boarding: the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card, the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card and the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card.

For American Airlines loyalists, both the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® and Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® include one free checked bag on domestic itineraries for you and up to four companions traveling with you on the same reservation, plus preferred boarding.

United frequent flyers planning to check a bag should use the United Explorer Card for one free checked bag and priority boarding, or the United Club Infinite Card for up to two free checked bags.

Southwest has an open seating policy that rewards those who check in the earliest within the 24-hour period ahead of a flight. However, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card guarantees a boarding number between A1 and A15  based on availability. Elite status holders also get priority boarding.

The information for the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard 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?

Know your airline’s baggage size limits

(Photo by Lu ShaoJi/Getty Images)

Even if your fare type allows you to bring a full-size carry-on item on board, double-check the size requirements set forth by the airline when it comes to what constitutes a carry-on bag.

By doing this, you won’t risk having to check it because you brought too big a bag to begin with. This would be an exception to an airline gate-checking your bag for free due to limited overhead bin space.

To facilitate this, many airlines have a bag sizer at the gate that carry-on bags must fit in. If a flight attendant sees your bag and suspects it is too large to fit, you’ll have to test it out before bringing it on board.

If it doesn’t fit, you’ll have to pay a checked bag fee, which varies by airline and ranges from $30-$65 each way, excluding Southwest fares, which all include two free checked bags.

Of course, travelers who would usually be entitled to a free checked bag because of the aforementioned status or fare type will still get the gate-checked bag for free.

An exception to this would be some ultra-low-cost carriers, such as Spirit and Frontier, which charge travelers for both carry-on and checked bags, regardless of status or cobranded credit cards.

Bottom line

Even if you travel with only a carry-on bag, there may be times when you’re asked to check your bag at the gate due to circumstances outside of your control.

To decrease your chances of having to check your bag, stay away from restrictive fare types that board last and penalize you for bringing a full-size carry-on item.

When booking your flight, regardless of the fare type, be sure to use a cobranded credit card that includes complimentary checked baggage among its perks, so that you avoid having to pay to check a bag at the gate no matter the circumstances.

Most airlines allow status holders, even their lowest tiers, to check at least one bag for free, which is just one more reason why it pays to be loyal to an airline.

Finally, review your airline’s baggage policy as it relates to your fare type at the time of booking. One easy way to guarantee you’ll have to check your bag is simply bringing a bag that violates a carrier’s size requirements.

Additional reporting by Vikkie Walker.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy. 

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