3 Reasons Never To Check Luggage – And 4 Rules To Follow If You Must

There’s a basic axiom in travel that there are only two kinds of luggage, carry on and lost. Sometimes you don’t have a choice in checking your bags. You might be flying on a foreign airline that weighs cabin bags, or simply have too much stuff to fit in the overhead bin. But you don’t want to waste your life in lines to drop off your bags, or standing around in airports hoping your luggage gets delivered back to you.

Here are 3 reasons why you don’t want to check a bag:

  • You have to show up at the airport earlier if you’re checking a bag. Check-in cutoff time usually means 15 extra minutes, but bag check also often means standing in lines – to get the bag tagged, to drop it off – and the time that takes can vary pushing you to show up earlier still.

  • You’re stuck at the airport longer after your trp. Alaska Airlines was first to offer a checked bag guarantee (in 2009) and Delta copied them. Both of those airlines consistently deliver bags quickly, but even there it takes longer than just leaving the airport. With other carriers, expect thirty minutes and sometimes sixty.

  • Checked bags get lost. Your risk increases substantially on a connecting itinerary – your bag doesn’t get just loaded and unloaded, that process repeats twice and it has to be transferred. A delay of one flight influences whether it makes the next one. I’ve even had bags intentionally misdirected by baggage handlers as part of a job action against their company because contract negotiations were dragging on.

See, here’s a hot take that’s just wrong:

My favorite way to travel is without even a rollaboard. On a simple overnight I’ll bring just my laptop bag. Occasionally on a two night trip I’ll stretch things and overstuff the laptop bag. It’s liberating not to worry about needing overhead bin space, and therefore needing to board early. I can arrive at the airport close to departure or work longer in an airline lounge and stroll onto the plane close to the end of boarding or whenever is most convenient.

If I’m checking bags, though, because I simply must travel with too much stuff – I’ll generally go with a checked bag on trips over a week and when I’m with my wife and daughter we wind up checking bags as well – then consider these 4 simple rules.

  • Pay attention to what credit card you use. Many rewards cards, especially from Chase, will offer delayed and lost bag coverage. You’ll initially be able to get up to $100 per day for 5 days when bags aren’t delivered on time, and have contents covered if the airline doesn’t find the bags.

  • Once you’re checking bags anyway, make use of your baggage allowance. If you have to show up early at the airport to check bags and wait after your flight to collect them it doesn’t much matter if you check one or three so don’t worry about using your entire allotment of free bags.

  • Don’t check anything that really matters. Checked bags aren’t a reason not to carry anything at all onto the plane. If you have prescription medicines, don’t check those. Anything valuable or difficult to replace shouldn’t be checked either. You need to carry those on, and if it’s enough stuff may still mean a carry on bag – and a fight for bin space – even though you’re checking a suitcase.

  • Consider Airtags. I actually don’t think they’re worth it, considering the odds on a given trip of lost luggage are fairly low (0.73% in January 2023) and since you shouldn’t have anything valuable in your checked bags to begin with, but they’ll give you a sense of control knowing where your bags are without having to rely on the airline (even though you’ll need the airline’s help – or law enforcement’s – to actually secure the bag once it’s lost).

To be sure, know your airline’s carry on rules. Make sure your bag is going to fit in the sizer, and if you have a rollaboard be sure you’re boarding among the first half of passengers. Otherwise you’re running the risk of having your bag gate checked, which means it might get lost and you’ll waste time waiting for it at the end of your journey.

Airlines are frequently aggressive requiring passengers to gate check bags even when there’s plenty of overhead bin space left. It’s one of the two most frequent complaints I see on twitter, and this is regardless of airlines.

This is because gate agents don’t want to risk passengers wasting time looking for bin space, and worse yet not finding any and having to gate check their bags in the minutes prior to doors close. The plane might push back a minute or two late as a result, and with some carriers that’s a mark on the agent. They’d rather make sure they don’ get to that stage. It’s one reason that the lack of larger overhead bins is so frustrating on some carriers and fleet types, when those bins are readily available for installation.

If your bag definitely fits in the sizer, and you’re asked to gate check, be nice. You’re probably out of luck, but nicely tell the agent that you’re interlining on separate tickets and will miss your connection if you have to wait for your bags at baggage claim and re-clear security and please have sympathy and let you hunt for bin space. It might work!

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. This doesn’t make much sense, one rule is ‘checked bags get lost’ and another is ‘if you check, then check 3 bags!’ – seems like you’d want to minimize risk.

    Regardless, I used to hate checking but now find it liberating. Takes me about a minute to drop a bag at my mid sized airport (and lots of airlines let you do this at kiosks now), and an extra 5 minutes to pick it up.

  2. I do admit…I rest easier when I see the words “Bag on Plane” appear on the Delta Track My Bag section of the app.

  3. Perhaps I am merely lucky, but in nearly 600 flights, my bags were only delayed twice (thank you, AA) — once delivered the next day; once (last month), we simply waited at the airport for the next flight to arrive. Oh, right — Southwest once delivered my daughter’s car seat to San Antonio…too bad we were flying to San Diego.

    I will say I don’t really mind waiting at baggage claim for Alaska; I just build the extra 20 minutes into the travel plans. But as I write this, I’m at MSY, with nothing but a carry-on and my briefcase PRECISELY because I *am* interlining on separate tickets through DFW, have to change terminals, and would otherwise miss my connection if I had to get my luggage and go through security once again.

  4. Agree in part, disagree in part. I travel with some prescription liquids/creams that only come in containers over 3oz that I often check simply because I do not want to deal with the whims of a TSA officer on any particular day as to whether I should be allowed to travel with them in my carryon. Should I have to explain the rules on prescription medications to TSA agents? No, but sometimes it’s not worth the risk.

  5. Different strokes for different folks.

    I like to check my bag, so I don’t have to worry about it. I can usually just check my bag with the Skycap for a $5 tip and it takes like 2 minutes. After I deboard the plane, I usually stop off to use the restroom and by the time I get to baggage claim, my bag has already arrived. (I only fly Delta.)

    Like the person above says– I have containers over 3oz that I bring with me, so I check my bag.

    If my bag gets lost– so be it. I use a credit card that has baggage delay insurance.

    I’m on vacation. You travel your way, I’ll travel my way. Everyone thinks their way is the best, but the key is finding what way works best for yourself. Everyone is different and it’s really annoying when people think everyone should be the same way. I don’t care if other people check/don’t check bags as they use the method that works best for THEM. That has no influence on how I will travel.

  6. For long overseas trips, SO and I now check bags and split a carry-on with 2-3 days worth of vital items. And pack a collapsible bag for the inevitable purchases. And every bag has an AirTag. After having bags go in the wrong place in both directions, either through incompetence or short connections, precaution is the watchword. The AirTags are great just because it can tell you where things are when the airline can’t. And you have some idea when things will arrive.

    FWIW, the people who refuse to check full size bags are just annoying. Had a J flight on BA in December where someone brought TWO full sized suitcases onboard and took up a lot of the business overhead space. I want to know how they managed to get them past the gate agents. Must have been somebody, as not only would I not attempt that, I don’t think I could get away with it, and I don’t think most people could. But apparently you can.

  7. You said ” it doesn’t much matter if you check one or three so don’t worry about using your entire allotment of free bags” Wouldn’t checking 3 bags triple your chance of one or more of them going astray. I would think that if you must check bags that checking as few as possible would be preferable.

  8. The #1 reason I don’t usually check bags…. is flexibility.

    Weather, delays, cancelations… with checked bags, it’s harder to get moved to a different flight… and a higher likely hood of you not getting your luggage on time.

    You get a text message that your flight is delayed by 90 minutes because of a late arriving crew… That delay will make you miss your meeting or connection… You run up to a gate agent and ask if they can move you onto the earlier flight that is currently boarding?

    What do they ask… “Did you check any bags?”…. No, I surely did not!

    For road warriors… flexibility is key.

  9. I disagree. The practice of stowing carry-ons in the overhead compartments is one of the worst things about flying today. I always check one bag and bring a small carryon/daypack that fits under my seat and contains my tablet, medicine, camera etc. I don’t mind waiting an extra 10-15 minutes to claim my bag.

    In fact I wish more airlines would follow Southwest and allow one free bag – (they can build their cost into the price of the flight, as far as I am concerned) It would make the process of boarding so much pleasant.

  10. Why do those who carry on two big bags always wait until the last possible minute to remove their hefty bags from the overhead? While the rest of us wait for them to extricate the oversized behemoth.
    While I’m at it, a big shout out to the nitwits who put on their backpack and swing it into my face.

  11. Gloating about how little one packs for an overnight trip or a two or three night trip smacks of repulsive personal hygiene. Personally, I don’t want to wear the same undergarments for more than one day. And I certainly don’t want to have to wash them in a hotel sink. I also think it’s nice to be able to wear different clothing on different days. Additionally, if one is trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle and get some exercise, it’s usually necessary to pack additional exercise clothing, and possibly exercise shoes.

    AirTags may not be necessary, but the cost benefit analysis is definitely in their favor. They are incredibly inexpensive, take up very little space, and in that one in 10,000 chance they could be incredibly helpful.

  12. Since we retired to Malta four years ago, I noticed something very odd that happens to us everytime when we return. We always fly LH, and on biz. We each check three bags. Much booze to take to Finland, and much Finnish food and coffee to bring back. All the bags are always waiting for us when get to carousel. One of life’s oddities that defy belief.

  13. I primarily travel for work. I have some test equipment that TSA can’t wrap their feeble minds around the concept of what it is and how it works, so I always have to check my bags. In the past 8 years, some 1200+ segments I have never had a lost bag. I did have a quick reroute and my bag came in on a later flight, a whole 30 minutes later. This has all been on Delta. Prior to switching I was on AA and got tired of hunting down suitcases and them not showing up until weeks later. The coup de grace was the bag that took over 6 weeks to get returned. According to my Tile it visited every major AA hub in the country, some of them twice. In the ensuing time they lost 2 more bags, those came home a bit quicker.

  14. Tell ya, AirTag saved my recent ski trip to Canada.
    When Alaska left my Calgary-bound ski bag in New York, I went right to their Calgary agent and showed them where it was, and they confirmed it. Said they would get it to Calgary the next afternoon…and they did. Didn’t say a word, no email, no response to my calls, but the AirTag confirmed it.
    Went to get them the next morning as my group was ready to hit the road. No Alaska employees working until the afternoon. Information center worthless.
    Got within 300 feet of my skis, found a Canada Border Patrol agent who walked me by interrogation rooms and jail cells right to them.
    AirTag 1, Alaska 0.
    (Claim still shows them ready for delivery)

  15. So few bags actually get mishandled or delayed….the math doesn’t support the argument of not checking a bag,

    A huge must is don’t attach any of your own flair & ribbon to the handle…that bar code needs to be visible and read by the tag readers.

    Make sure the tag is attached properly….if it falls off….then yes, you’re SOL…

  16. So I always hear from “experts” like Rick Steves, or now Gary, who say “don’t check a bag.” Our rule is carry on if the trip is roughly a week (probably up to 9 days) but basically after a week and a half there is just too much stuff.

    This was the goal in the last three trips on TAP, but like Gary said, the ramp agents with TAP are AGGRESSIVE and forced me to gate check the standard Samsonite carry on roller bag. The first time I went along with it because I [wrongly] took them at their word that the bin space was gone. The second time she freaked out about the size and it didn’t help that their “sizer” was smaller than the other airlines but they tagged it and told me to give it to the agent outside the plan “outdoor boarding” but I wised up and used my jacket to cover the tag and brought it on the plane and there was TONS of bin space, it was probably only 1/4 full and we were about 2/3 done with boarding. This last time I took my REI backpack as the carry on instead because it can be squished to make it smaller and the ramp people STILL freaked out but I argued with her and eventually she relented but they forced the spouse to gate check theirs so we still had to wait at the carousel when we landed back home which was what we were trying to avoid, when you just flew 8 hours from Europe and you’re tired, that is the nice thing about just a carry on, you can get home about 30 minutes faster.

  17. Ah, so you’re one of those people. The most common annoyance is people carrying on their entire wardrobe. Multiply that for each person in your party.

  18. The most important thing with any bag is ID. I always have 2 luggage tags and 2 cards in the bag with my full contact info. With all of that ID bags can’t be lost only mis-routed or stolen.

  19. Depending on the circumstances, I check luggage or not. In a few days I’m flying from Asia to LAX. I will have both checked luggage and carry-on luggage. A few weeks later I will be on a JetBlue flight where I bought a ticket without a carry-on allowance but I bought a checked bag for each way along with a seat assignment each way for less than the next grade of coach seat that includes a seat assignment and a carry-on. The lower cost allows me to take more stuff but even better, I can bring back more including quite a few pounds of my favorite apples. I sometimes take short AirAsia flights with just carry-on luggage. Because of the strict weight limit without an extra charge, I forego a roller bag for a smaller and lighter bag.

  20. As someone who is in California, while my bag is Chicago, after I departed from a smaller airport in NY, I stand by my belief you should never, ever, check a bag. My first 2 flights were cancelled and my 3rd left me last to board, (booked while I was standing at the gate), so my bag was checked at the gate. My vacation is turning out to be shorter than my bag. It’s the first time it’s happened to me and luckily, I had my essentials and could easily pick up spare clothes in CA. I appreciate having status with American hasn’t put me in this position before. I also recognize United had a crazy day of cancelled and delayed flights. But, I’m definitely taking away the recommendation to skip my roller if there is a possibility that things could go awry.

  21. @Gary – How many instances of lost – not delayed – suitcases have you yourself experienced?

  22. I hope everyone checks their bags. No skin off my butt.

    20 years of flying within and to over 100 countries, maybe 1000 flights. Some trips lasting several months before a return “home”. I can count on two hands the number of times I volunteered to check a bag, and that was almost always due to having a firearm with me.

    I’d rather do laundry than waste time checking bags or waiting to claim them. And more importantly, there are plenty of times I’ve had to drag my bag up several flights of stairs and over long distances of uneven ground. You do that a few dozen times and you learn quickly that lighter is always better.

  23. So apparently I’m the only one who brings throw away clothes. Sure, my backpack might be a little overstuffed the first day but once I start throwing away old socks and underwear, I’m down to a nice light backpack on the way home.

  24. This is a silly article. I work in video production. A typical week long trip could have 5 to 10 checked items.

  25. For quick trips, especially business trips, never check a bag. I tend to check when on longer leisure trips, but ALWAYS have a carryon as well, whether that be a smaller roller or a hand bag. Always have at least one day’s worth of fresh clothing and necessary toiletries, etc. Plan on the bag being delayed at least one or two days if going far away. Keep all of the essentials in carryon. And when returning home, same thing actually. Never know if the flight gets cancelled at connecting airport and you’ll be stuck in another city. Granted, not likely, but it’s much easier to be prepared than not be.

  26. In my experience checking a bag on a non-stop flight dramatically lowers the possibility that you’ll have checked luggage problems. And on the way home, I’m much more likely to check a bag because if it takes a couple of days for my suitcase to get to me it’s not a big deal.

  27. Commenting on the guy who mentioned his J class BA flight where someone came on board carrying two “full-size” cases. BA’s carry-on size is a full 50% larger than nearly all other airlines out there. Seriously, BA spec carry-on cases can usually hold 60l – a regular cabin wheelie might hold 32-40l. 60l is almost flirting with mid-size checked luggage. I guess if that pax had great status he’d be allowed two carry-ons.

    That’s the joy of BA – last Autumn managed a 9 night European vacation (city stay plus cruise) with just one of those 60l cases lol.

  28. United (trans-Pacific Polaris) lost my bag. I got it back 39 days later, 9 days AFTER I GOT HOME, with barely an apology. I probably spent 10-15hrs with United personnel (India-based, no clue about anything really, but especially that business class passengers fly for a reason and have serious schedules), and got a check for $375, less than $10/day. Because I got it back they said a lost baggage claim was not relevant any more. Most airlines pay out a maximum amount, around $1800, after about two weeks, butU ited fought this all the way. There’s a reason I’m a ConciergeKey on AA. United seriously sucks – I got a corporate waiver to not fly them, despite them being a preferred vendor for some reason – corporate travel agent kickbacks, probably. This was my first United flight in about a decade, and they reinforced my reason for not spending any part of my >$1m in travel over the last decade with them. Worst airline ever, and they really DO NOT care.

  29. My wife hates carrying on luggage. She has a change of underwear and skin care in her purse and she’s good to go. When our luggage is delayed, about once a year, she goes shopping as soon as she can. $200 per day reimbursement from the airlines and another $200 from our credit card, She hopes our luggage is delayed. My wife can spend $400 in an instant. Winter clothes when our luggage was lost at Heathrow is expensive. $400 in skin care products the next day.

    Our luggage missed the connection going to Vietnam. JAL gave each of us $175 cash and told us to get more from Alaska.

    Maybe my wife knows something that road warriors don’t.

  30. You forgot a few rules that apparently a lot of people don’t know about: No guns in carry-ons and no live animals in carry-on not checked bags!

  31. AA has a policy of NO Rollerbags on a CRJ(mine fits under the seat and in overhead bin…I was flying FC and there was plenty of overhead bin space… Not a great policy esp if it is raining and they leave the bag on the tarmac for 1/2.. hour –Had to gate check it an on retun it looked like a truck tire ran over it and it was soaking wet… thanks AA it will be another 15 years till we meet again..

  32. @Ryan — unless you’re in law enforcement, why on Earth would anyone need to carry a firearm when they travel (and therefore have to check a bag)? And if you’re a law enforcement officer, you can (probably) carry your firearm onboard the plane. (Note: I am presuming that the firearm in question is a handgun, not a long gun you are taking with you on a hunting trip.)

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