Carry-on vs. checked bag- Which should you choose?
My boyfriend, Kerwin, and I wanted to get out of the Chicago winter skies and enjoy some sunshine down in Arizona to visit my sister. Kerwin hadn’t flown much, maybe once when he was around ten, and was nervous about this flight. He was new to flying and had never booked a flight by himself, and he certainly didn’t know the difference between a carry-on vs. checked bag.
While packing, I offered to let him use my extra carry-on suitcase, but he said he had one. I didn’t question him. We talked a little about what we were bringing. I packed up my carry-on, and everything was going well until I arrived at his house. His “carry-on” suitcase went up to my waist. It was not a carry-on. Kerwin is one of many people new to flying.
If you are new to flight and all things airports, let me walk you through the difference between a carry-on vs. checked bag and what the pros and cons are to each.
What is a Checked bag
Size: 62 Linear Inches 50lb
A checked bag can be anything under 62 linear inches for domestic flights. While the size of my checked bag has always been standard, I can’t tell you how many times I have been at check-in trying to take something out of my bag because it is overweight. Bags are supposed to be under fifty pounds. If they are over fifty pounds, there will be a fee. Usually, it’s been like 53lb when I have been over. I can always find room for three more pounds in a carry-on, but it’s better to weigh and measure your bag at home to avoid the embarrassment of digging in your suitcase while people are waiting in line behind you at check-in. After you check your bag, you don’t have to worry about it again until your final destination.
When you need to pack everything
The most significant and obvious benefit to bringing a carry-on is more space in your suitcase. Last summer, I was a bridesmaid for a wedding out in Colorado. Trying to pack a bridesmaid gown in a carry-on was impossible, so I paid for a checked bag. They are expensive either. At just $30 per trip, you can fit a suitcase. Also, if you are an over-packer like my boyfriend, paying to check your bag is a great option to ensure you have everything you need for your trip.
No suitcase in the airport bathroom
Leaving your bag with the airline means you don’t have to lug anything around the airport all day. I don’t want to leave my bags unattended no matter where I am in the airport, so that means my carry-on comes with me, even to the bathroom.
Over 3oz, no problem
While it’s fun to buy mini shampoo bottles at Target, you don’t have to worry about ensuring all of your liquid items are under 3oz when you have a checked bag. Liquids have to be under 3oz in your carry-on when you go through security, but if your checked bag, you can put as many shampoo bottles in there as your heart desires. I recommend putting them in a zip-lock bag in case the air pressure from the airplane causes your toiletries to explode. That would be an interesting start to a trip- having to wear clothes covered in shampoo.
Cons Damaged Goods
Carry-ons are great because you can bring many more things with you on your travels, but unfortunately, your stuff doesn’t matter as much to airline employees. I always say it’s no longer new once a bag is checked. It comes back with black marks, scratches, and tears; from my experience, airlines don’t do anything about it. When I flew to Colorado, I had to check a bag because I was bringing a few photography prints for an art show outside Denver. When I picked up my suitcase, there were rips along the sides and black marks. I am not worried about the black spots, but my bag is torn. When I took it to the Frontier Airlines baggage help desk, the employee told me she could do nothing. I was so disappointed and knew I would need a new bag when I got home.
Waiting at baggage claim, I watched the bags go around the carousel. I watched bag after bag being picked up until, eventually, I knew that mine was lost. I head to the baggage claim area to explain the situation to the airline employee. She looked up my baggage information; sure enough, it stayed in the airport I started in. At the earliest, my baggage would arrive the following day. If you fly with Delta, you can track your baggage on their app. That wouldn’t have helped much since my bag was still in Chicago, but it would have been nice to know. The airline employee handed me a Delta toiletry bag, offered some free snacks, and told me they would send the bag to my Airbnb the following day. In the meantime, anything I need during the day is on Delta. You can spend up to $300 if your bag is lost for a day, and that’s exactly what I did the next day. Losing my luggage didn’t rain on my travel parade, but that’s because I got my luggage back. It would have devasted me if it had never shown up. Anytime you check a bag, you risk never seeing it again.
A carry-on is the smaller bag you are allowed to bring on the airplane with you. It could be a small suitcase, duffle bag, or backpack. A standard carry-on bag is 22x 14 x9 inches. Most airlines allow for a carry-on and a personal item. I usually bring a small bag with my camera backpack as my personal item. An individual item could be a small backpack, laptop bag, or purse. Usually, airlines are lenient with how big your personal item can be. As long as it fits underneath the seat, they typically allow it.
Check out How to Pack 10 Days of Clothing in a Carry-on for more packing tips.
Everything is with you
Your carry-on is with you from the start to the end of your travel journey. If you spill something on your shirt or have a long travel day, you can change it when needed. You aren’t worried about making sure your bag arrives on time. Everything you need is already with you.
A carry-on is free
You can pay around $60-75 for a round trip airfare for your checked bag. It’s not expensive, but bags can add up quickly if you are on a budget or flying with family. It’s cheaper to bring a carry-on if you are away for a while.
Easier to carry around
Moving large luggage is a pain, whether it’s upstairs at your Airbnb or hauling your bag on the bus to your rental car. A small carry that is easy to handle makes getting to and from your destination smoother.
Airplane overhead bins
Nothing is more embarrassing than lifting a bag above my head and trying to cram it into an overhead bin. Once, I was so nervous about not fitting my overly stuffed carry-on in the overhead compartment. I flung it up there, only to come crashing down on the person in the seat below. They caught their suitcase with their hands and were very gracious about it, but it was uncomfortable. You have to go fast, too, because there are people behind you waiting to get to their seats too.
Another time, with the same bag, I was flying on a small aircraft. It was a short flight from Raleigh to Charlotte before I caught a connecting flight to my final destination. When I got on the plane, I realized smaller planes have smaller overhead bins. I couldn’t squeeze my stuffed bag in. I turn it forwards and then on its side as the line starts to form behind me, and people start looking annoyed. Thankfully, a flight attendant came to my rescue and said they had more room at the front to store it. When I finally got to my seat, my face flushed red from embarrassment. There are options to avoid this, such as priority seating, a smaller carry-on, or just checking your bag.
No room for sweaters
There is little room in a carry-on, to begin with, but put two sweaters and a jacket in there, and it is full. Carry-ons must fit specific dimensions, and sometimes I stuff them to the brim to ensure I have enough clothing for my trip. It is especially true if it is winter and the dress is thicker. You have to be more strategic with your packing; sometimes, bringing a checked bag with all the clothing possibilities is easier.
Carry-on vs. checked bag
When choosing a carry-on vs. checked bag there are several things to consider, but ultimately it’s up to you to decide how much you want to bring and how much you want to carry.