My Favorite Way to Travel

I’m not going to lie I love international first class, and especially flying Etihad’s First Apartment. But at most I do that a few times a year, so that’s not what makes the bulk of my travels better.

I slog it out with well north of 100 flights a year, most of that is domestic. And there’s one thing that makes my travel better than anything else: not checking a bag, but more importantly not needing overhead bin space.

I think it was Peter Greenberg who is most known for saying, “there are only two kinds of bags: carry on and lost.” Certainly I prefer to be in control of my own items, but even if the airline doesn’t lose my bags I like the greater opportunity to change my travel plans post-check in if need be (including flying to another destination if that is what it takes because of a mechanical delay or weather and not worrying about collecting luggage) and I don’t like to wait. Even at just 100 flights a year, half an hour to check and collect bags on each flight is 50 hours. That’s more than two full days of my life each and every year saved by not checking luggage.

That’s not enough though. I don’t want to need overhead bin space, either. If I need to use the overhead bin, I need to show up at the gate at the start of boarding. I’d much rather work in the club, get as much done as possible, board maybe 20 minutes prior to departure.

Of course at American Airlines if your upgrade hasn’t cleared and you don’t want to be skipped over, you had better be wasting time early at the gate in case the gate agent working the upgrade list decides not to give anyone an upgrade who isn’t present (it’s almost like they’ve never heard of an ‘app’ that ‘automatically updates’ with your new seat assignment when the upgrade processes).

But if I’m already up front and it’s just a one day trip — and occasionally I’ll manage to squeeze this to a two day trip — I’ll try to travel with only my laptop bag. That way I don’t need to worry about bin space, so I don’t need to worry about boarding time, and I can maximize my productivity instead of doing everything on the airline’s assembly line.

I like that Delta has signage on their overhead bins in first class saying that they’re for first class customers only. I like that some crews will sometimes proactively reserve overhead bin space for passengers in the first class cabin. But neither is something I can count on. I’d love to know that bin space was available even when I’m traveling with my modest rollaboard and I haven’t boarded right at the start of the process. (I’d even love my bag to be somewhere near my seat, so I don’t have to fight to move backwards in the aircraft to find my bag once we’ve landed.)

In the meantime my favorite kind of flying is the quick day trip or short overnight, laptop bag only, no bin space required. Until airlines work out better processes for road warriors, it’s the only way I can really travel seamlessly.

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, 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. my favourite too, to have no checked luggage.

    i’ve had security delays, and multiple checks at LAX flying Qantas to Aus, as a single pax, with no carry on.

    guess it hits all the red flags, age, male, single pax, no checked luggage.

    i’ve been through two thorough checks, and then just when scanning the boarding pass at the gate, been taken away for a further final third check.

  2. Too many things out of your control when checking bags. Recent example on AA: connecting from SJD thru LAX to DFW; pulled checked bags off carousel and went through customs, etc. but AA agents weren’t allowing people to re-drop the bags at the connection area (no idea why). Forced us to go outside and find a ticket counter, causing us to miss our flight. Would have never happened with carry-ons.

    Throw in fact that AA took 50 minutes to deliver the bags and the AA ticket counter agent didn’t know what they were doing (tried to charge us $600 to check three bags that we’d already checked at SJD for free) and I asked for compensation (went standby on redeye seven hours later). They gave me only 5,000 miles.

  3. In my current state of being, I still have a bag full of clothes, as I am still doing long-term travel. I’m not a minimalist, nor a multi-bag maximalist. However, I have lifestyle requirements that necessitate at least one checked bag, but it always falls under the limit!

  4. Ah, you’re a Tom Bihn fan! I usually travel with my Aeronaut 45, and unless it’s packed full to the gills, it usually fits under the seat in front of me. That works for any 3-5 day trip.

  5. Just started travelling this way and I agree it is hard to overstate how much easier travel is with just one small bag. I use the 30L Tom Bihn Aeronaut and love it. It will easily fit under most/all seats and bins and will even pass the tighter carry on dimensions of some international airlines.

  6. Just last weekend I ran into a scenario where had I only been traveling w/one carry on I’d have been in good position to receive a $500 voucher for relinquishing my seat. Delta was offering to protect me on an Alaska flight, but my two checked bags, upon arrival, would be waiting for me at the DL baggage claim service. No big deal, except I’d be landing on AS at a different terminal, and I just didn’t want the logistics of that. I usually only fly w/one carry on but this trip had extraordinary circumstances necessitating I act as a mule transporting stored winter garments from a vacation destination back to my primary residence so extra luggage was required. Your article and the spirit of it is very timely, at least for me. And, I wish you would write a current piece about how best to pack efficiently for a 14 day trip to Paris as a tourist.

  7. Can’t remember ever checking a bag. I have different sized backpacks depending on the length of trip, travel light anyway. My favorite is traveling between 3 homes packing only my cargo pockets. I go where the weather suits my clothes, shorts and t shirts.

  8. Different strokes. I struggle to get my tablet, destination book, medications, jewelry, and charger into my underseat bag. Once I add a change of shoes and toiletry bag, before we start on clothes, I need to check a bag. I struggle to keep my large checked bag under the weight limit. Fortunately, the check agents are good about letting you remove items to get it in under the weight. While I envy those who manage to live from check in, it’s a Mars/venus thing to me–i.e., I could never in a million years imagine traveling with no checked bags.

    I will advise anyone traveling to Venice, though, to try to use one bag–preferably one that can be a backpack. Dragging heavy bags up and down the bridges on cobblestones SUCKS. Same with rural Thailand. I spend 10% of most trips cursing my large bag + carryon bag. But, the other 90%, I am very grateful to have all I need while traveling. Lastly, one huge difference between us, I rarely go anywhere for less than a week, and very often it is for 2+ weeks. I’d slit my throat if I had to pack clothes for 2 weeks in Thailand in a carryon. ; )

  9. The most amazing travel discovery since the airplane, having laundry done along the way. It only seems expensive until you give up something even more expensive like your trip.

  10. Not needing the overhead bin is a luxury for short people. Tall folks need every square inch under the seat in front of them for their legs.

    I also take a different tack when it comes to checking luggage, if I have connections I’d much rather check everything and have no carry on so I can easily stroll about the airports.

  11. As we have discussed before, Gary, I *try* to travel without a checked bag on many flights; others, there is no doubt I’m going to — HAVE TO — check a bag. But even when I fly with just a carry-on, I *need* that overhead bin space. I do not want to sacrifice leg room — especially if I’m in Economy — by stuffing my backpack/carry-on under the seat. No way!

  12. @stannis so true. I’m 6′ 5″ and so won’t put anything in front of me even in domestic F but my tiny wife seems to unpack half her closet into the space in front of her.

  13. @Celeste Cantu

    t shirts, shorts, slip ons, sandals, and a nice outfit, few dress shirts for dinners…


  14. I have a whole wardrobe of clothes I can use for travel. They dry overnight. Take a small bottle of laundry soap with you and wash stuff. Skirts,pants, dresses, shorts. They are all available. The only things that don’t dry well are my socks.

  15. Celeste, I too am traveling to Spain for three weeks in late Sept.-early Oct. When I wrote above, “As we have discussed before, Gary, I *try* to travel without a checked bag on many flights; others, there is no doubt I’m going to — HAVE TO — check a bag,” I was thinking precisely of my trips to Europe! For me, the answer is simple (but you may not like it): check your luggage!

    OK, that’s not fair — it honestly (I think) depends upon your age, and your planned (and unplanned) activities. I’m semi-retired and in my early 60s, but after spending four decades in the wine trade, I’m off to visit friends and relax. So, for three weeks, I’m packing one large suitcase (29″h x 19.5″w x 10.5″d) for clothes, a slightly smaller suitcase specifically designed to be checked and carry 12 bottles of wine w/o breakage, and my small backpack/laptop bag in lieu of my briefcase.

    Now, on the other hand, for trips lasting, say, 5-7 days or less, I can generally take just my carry-on plus my aforementioned backpack. But there are exceptions: as I said, it’s all dependent upon what you’ll be doing once you get there.

    Final thought: my wife has naturally very curly hair and travels with a lot of “product” for said hair. I’m not sure she’s ever traveled with only a carry-on since she backpacked around Europe in her late teens . . . ;^)

  16. For those asking about how to pack for long trips — plan on wearing outer garments (shirts and pants) 2-3 days each (hang in the closet between wears), bring only one pair of shoes, and consider packing older undergarments that you can throw away during your trip. If you are going to somewhere very hot and cheap like Thailand, consider dropping your clothes at a wash and fold place rather than re-wearing.

  17. A modified version to stretch an extra day or two of capacity…

    Bring the laptop bag for underseat, and a gym duffel bag as the second. Easily crunches into the overhead even when things are ‘full.’ Worst case you crunch it next to the laptop bag.

  18. Reasonably sized backpack — Like the USPS ads, if it fits in the bag, it fits (with kicking) under the seat in front of you.

    Amazingly, never had an issue with electronics in this situation, only wrinkled clothing. I’ve yet to have any issues with this approach if I can swing it (2 days’ clothes for longer trips). Getting on/off the plane becomes a non-issue, no worrying about fees or gate-checking or lost bags, or even equipment swaps… it all just works.

    PS – Avoid the bulkhead/emergency row except on long-haul flights.

  19. Really only works for short domestic trips. Doesn’t work for long, international travel where business attire is required (or where you need to bring large briefing binders, execution versions of contracts, printers, etc.). I rarely fly domestic, but when I do, it is so nice to pack knowing I can get anything I don’t have at my destination. Doesn’t work when you leave the country.

  20. @Ryan —> I’ve *always* found whatever I needed in whatever country I was in. Still have the casual but waterproof Timberlands I bought in Lisbon when I didn’t bring any footwear suitable for the rain . . .

  21. We were on DL LAX-DEN last week and they made us gate check out carry-on roller. As we walked to our seat there were several spots where our roller would have easily fit and we were in one of the last rows. That really pisses me off, especially when they don’t bring the bag up to the gateway and we have to cross our fingers at the carousel and kill time waiting.

  22. I am female and for business or pleasure I can pack my belongings in one carryon bag and my backpack. Like many have said before, you may need to wear items more than once but if you bring items with multiple purposes and pack neutral colors for the larger pieces, you can create many looks without repeating an outfit. I pack for 4 days max plus my slippers and an outfit to sit in my lodging location; if the trip is longer then I wear items more than once.
    If you have things that you can pick up at your destination, don’t bother packing them; that helps people that have specific needs/desires. My sister buys soap at her destination because she uses it a LOT and my male bestie picks up sunscreen because he uses it by the bottle. Both items are a hassle to carry in bulk but are readily available at most locales. Bonus benefit; you get to explore your destinations like a local which enriches the overall travel experience. For several business trips (to the same destination) I packed even less because I found a couple of stores that carried my size/style in abundance.

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