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Carry On vs. Checked Bags: The Latest Travel Dilemma

It sounds like good news: The airlines are proudly reporting that they're losing fewer bags. In 2010, there were reports of 3.57 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers, compared to 3.99 per 1,000 passengers in 2009, and a whopping 5.26 per 1,000 passengers in 2008.

Now, let me tell you why travelers should not be celebrating this news--and the airlines shouldn't be crowing about it.

  • The overwhelming reason the airlines are doing a better job with checked bags is that people are checking fewer bags.
  • The overwhelming reason why people are checking fewer bags is because most airlines are charging for checked bags.
So what that means is passengers are trying to carry on everything they possibly can at the same time, the airlines are flying fewer (and more crowded) planes.

Therein lies a certain physical law: Airplane overhead bins are filling up rapidly, causing boarding time to be increased--as inevitably some passengers are forced to have their bags checked at the gate. Passengers want to bypass that dreaded checked-bag fee and assume that if the bag has wheels on it, it's portable. The reality: it may be transportable, but a large duffel with wheels carrying your dead grandmother, a pickup truck driveshaft or a stuffed moose is NOT carry on!

Plus, there is just not enough space to handle all carry-on demand. Unless you're one of the chosen few -- that airlines allow to either preboard, or board first--you likely will be out of luck with the overhead bins.If you're on a narrow-body 737, MD80 or even a 757, the later you board, the less chance you have of finding space for your carry-on bag.

Carry On Comes with a Cost
On some airlines, this means we've come full circle, back to paying extra to board early.

Speaking of full circle, this brings me back to one of my favorite subjects: there are only two kinds of airline bags -- carry on, and LOST. But now, thanks to declining overhead bin space, there might be only one kind of airline bag -- a small briefcase or tote bag, and then do what I do -- courier the rest.

So what's the solution? I haven't checked a bag domestically in more than eight years. In my case, I FedEx my bags, but UPS and several other other door-to-door services are out there to handle this chore. For about $20 more per bag than the airlines want to charge you to LOSE your bags, your bags are waiting for you at your destination. The absolute last thing I want is to bring a reasonably-sized carry on bag only to discover the airline has no overhead space and will then have to check it.

Bottom line: Unless you can board your plane ahead of everyone else, or at least in the first group, you are now running a real risk having your carry-on bag be denied. So, on your marks, get set, GO!

Have you stopped checking bags since the airlines began charging fees? Would you pay more for early boarding to get your carry-on in one of those bins?

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Photo credit: Flickr user Mark F. Levisay
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