3 Reasons Not To Check Bags, And 4 Smart Strategies 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 trip. 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.

I often hear something along the lines of, “oh you have to wait 10 minutes extra at the bag carousel before leaving on the other end? Heavens what an inconvenience.” And that’s just the wrong way to think about it.

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 (less than 1% with most airlines) 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 (other than Southwest).

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’t 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. I believe in air tags.

    The value is when the bag is still at the airport but haven’t come out.

  2. “ 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.”

    I disagree in part with the above because more bags checked in increases my chances of one of the bags ending up delayed and then having to deal with putting in a baggage irregularity report and all else that may follow from the mishandled bag even when the other bags in my allowance make it on time.

  3. On some trips, I put in an AirTag+TilePro tracker in my checked luggage. Has saved me a lot of time at airports and also helped me get ahead of some problems following from baggage handling problems.

  4. Alaska has long had problems with delayed bags at Seattle-Tacoma.

    Unfortunately, you have to stand in line to make a late baggage claim at the airport – so for those who value their time, it is not worth it, and Alaska knows it. But they can advertise the 20-min guarantee, knowing full well that within 20 minutes is rare at their home base – and they have done nothing credible to fix that, despite their enormous clout at SEA.

    Alaska almost always announces a baggage claim # that changes by the time the bags come. So you are waiting, waiting – and eventually they start coming out elsewhere.

    Delta allows you to make a claim online.

    It is just a cost of doing business at an absolutely horribly-operated airport. Raising min wage to $20/hrs has not had any tangible benefits.

  5. AirTags are for peace of mind. My luggage seems to go astray maybe twice a year. International connections are particularly iffy. I like to know where my bags are and when they are headed in my direction.

  6. Great tips!

    Agreed if at all possible to keep your most important items on you rather than checking them in. I am lucky I haven’t had to check a bag in the last few years, the exception being > 3 oz cheese spreads back from Wisconsin which were literally the only things in the backpack — I was sort of worried they’d get crushed but it worked out

    Wouldn’t buy airtags for the purposes of luggage but I have a few spares which I’d use for the peace of mind as mentioned, thanks for the reminder

  7. Air tags are for more than airlines. Last year we arrived at the airport and one of our two bags was missing. The air tag said it was with us so it was really close by. I told my wife to look around and she found a lady rolling it out the door. She even tried to claim it was hers until I showed her the tag.

  8. AirTags and having a bag that doesn’t look like everyone else’s make a difference.

    @Gary – This axiom that you keep quoting that you seem to have made up yourself and are quoting yourself to spread, is incorrect. We’ve talked about this. If you’re going to push this narrative then tell us exactly how many bags you’ve personally had lost – not delayed. I’ll even go first: Zero lost, 3 substantially delayed.

  9. I do something similar to Gary. For two days or less, I have a small rollaboard that fits under a seat (got it as a gift from my employer. For more than that, it’s a rollaboard and a backpack with my electronics. I’m on vacation in Australia right now, and I only took a backpack with me. My limit is gate checking, since I know the bag will show up at the other end. Checking bags, though? No way.

  10. If you know you are checking a bag mark it with duct tape. Yes it will be ugly but helps spot it coming off the conveyer and avoid mixups.

    Also be sure to put muliple ID or biz cards in pockets and inside the luggage with your phone and email. You would be surprised how many end up being auctioned off because the tag got ripped off and the airline was unable to identify the owner.

  11. I’ve been living out of a suitcase for 10 years and I’d rather be punched in the face than check my bag. Assuming it’s just from the gate agent either way.

    This includes trips that last months not days. Doing laundry while traveling just adds to the adventure!

    However I am thankful to all who check their bags so that I may continue to carry mine.

  12. Hey, I usually fly through with a change at a hub. At the end of a trip, I’ve got a suitcase full of dirty clothes and a ninety-minute train ride home. Oh, then it’s a 15-minute walk. If I put the bag under, I move through three airports easier, and I get an exciting game of chance on arrival. Will waiting for my bag cause me to miss my train? Usually not, but sometimes you lose. Will my bag not make it? Cool, free home delivery!

  13. To me “I never check a bag” is just a way to say “I have a boring and sheltered travel life” without saying “I have a boring and sheltered travel life”.

    I’m perfectly happy to hop on an airplane with only a toothbrush, and have done so. But I also check frequently (probably more than half the time), and sometimes without even having a reason other than wanting to not deal with a bag during the trip. I believe I’ve had bags delayed twice in my life, both times they were received the next day.

    But reasons that I sometimes need to check a bag:

    1. I’m carrying liquids. I never return from Europe without at least one bottle for my bar — and not things that can be purchased in the airport duty free shop.

    2. I’m carrying a significant amount of specialized equipment. This is sometimes camping gear and sometimes just hiking poles (which US airlines will not accept even if folded inside carry-on luggage). Once it was two 18 inch cast iron pans and a food processor. Another time it was an entire bagels and lox breakfast for 12.

    3. I’m carrying a weapon. For me that’s only ever been a rigging knife when going to join a ship someplace (or returning). Even on the average trip I usually want a pocket knife with me, and those can’t go in carry-on luggage.

    4. I bought stuff. When my wife and I purchased our first apartment (a century ago) I traveled (by bus) to Mexico carrying only a briefcase. But the return was by plane using every ounce of my luggage allowance for rugs, baskets, pottery, and small furniture to decorate the house. My wife has an addiction to textiles and when we’re traveling in Rajasthan next week I fully expect to add an entire suitcase worth to our return journey (not to mention the sandlewood soap I like to bring back). And when she’s on her outbound to meet me she’ll also be checking a bag full of presents for family friends in Bangladesh.

    So sure, if all you ever do is personal item travel, good on you. But don’t imagine that your way is the only way.

  14. While passing through the Seattle airport last fall I was separated from My wife and 5-year-old and quizzed by Homeland security about human trafficking. To them the first three indicators were: we only used carry-ons for an extensive European trip, that we had flown first class on British airways and they couldn’t figure out how I afforded it, and that our child at first glance didn’t look like his mother, who is both Athabascan and Norwegian / French. But it was the carry-on that really threw them, these people that are guarding the airports are not travelers. Remember that! They cannot possibly conceive of traveling to a foreign country and perhaps using hotel laundry, a laundromat or a laundry service. Or even perhaps shopping while you’re abroad. So there’s your danger on just using a carry-on, despite me also telling them that yes I use a carry-on because I didn’t want them to lose my s***.

  15. Air Tags are the way. The real value is when there are luggage delays and for peace of mind when you are sitting on the plane or even at a cruise terminal. Air Tags will also disprove airport baggage staff that makeup stories to explain why they can’t find your bag. Long term it will help hold airlines more accountable.

  16. O,Hare Is My Second Home,

    Gate-check/valet bags sometimes fail to be boarded onto the plane. Actually, one of the last times where I found gate-tagged valet bags not delivered on arrival happened to be at ORD. Mistakes happen with those too.

    Anything important needed on arrival which happens to be expensive or impossible to replace easily? Then best carry it on board and have a “just in case” plan to make it fit under the seat in front.

  17. There was one time my checked bag was never loaded on to the plane at my departure airport (along with bags for several other pax).

    If I had known that with an airtag, I wouldn’t have waited at the luggage carousel for my bag to come out, I would have gone directly to the lost luggage kiosk (the airline delivered my bag a couple days later).

  18. I don’t know why no-one mentions a benefit of checking: There are things that TSA (or foreign equivalent) would not pass that can go in checked luggage. Larger liquids and sharp objects come to mind, but I’m sure there are others.

    Funny story about tracking tags. I recently returned from a trip with all my luggage — including a checked suitcase — intact. But the Tile that was in the suitcase was no longer there. According to the Tile app, it has been in various locations outside a gate (D44, I think) at MIA! I’m debating whether it’s worth trying to get them to find it.

  19. An Air Tag and a Canadian customs officer saved my ski trip. A day after arriving, Alaska reps were nowhere to be found and repeated calling was useless. I went back to the airport and the officer took me through the inspection area and I led him right to my ski bag.
    Alaska never followed up.

  20. @GU Wonder
    “I disagree in part with the above because more bags checked in increases my chances of one of the bags ending up delayed and then having to deal with putting in a baggage irregularity report and all else that may follow from the mishandled bag even when the other bags in my allowance make it on time.”
    Really? We fly from Malta to Helsinki three to four times a year (for five years now). With our free allowance, we usually check in three bags each (lots of shopping for each home). Never had a single bag not arrive. And always one of the bags going north is a well wrapped box containing 12 bottles of wine.

    And as for Gary’s comments about not checking bags because it takes so long to retrieve them. In Malta, believe it or not, the bags are on the ground, going round and round until we pick them up.

  21. I have flown many flights through LAX and have never lost checked bags. Coming from Southeast Asia, I now can get through the immigration check before luggage starts coming to the carousel. Immigration is definitely faster than it was. I’m not sure if luggage claim is slower or the same or faster. It usually takes quite a bit of time.

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