The Joys of Carry-on and When You Are Better Off Checking

July 12, 2015

Gustave Flaubert said, Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.

Should your luggage likewise occupy a small, modest place in the world?

Most experienced travelers would raise one eyebrow and then recite the first commandment of travel: thou shalt NEVER check thy bag.

Unfortunately, you can’t always carry on when you fly. When it comes to packing for travel, the devil is in the details.

What are the pros and cons of carrying on versus checking your luggage?  The following travel scenarios should help you decide, after which we’ll offer alternatives to traditional luggage handling.

NOTE:  *Find out weight allowances before you decide to check your luggage or carry on.

The Case for Carry-On Luggage

You and your spouse are headed to Cancun for 7 days.  Considering how much time you’ll spend in your bathing suit, with the coolest temps averaging 73 in January, you won’t need much in the way of warm clothing.  Although packing habits will vary based on gender, the lines are so blurred these days, it’s hard to predict who might be more minimalist (a packrat guy who enjoys regular pedicures might just overstuff his carry-on while a minimalist gal who vacations from her home-version skin care routine might end up more streamlined).

Gender-Neutral Packing List for Carry-on, Destination Cancun: Could You Do It?
  • One pair of long pants
  • One pair of tennis shoes
  • Two pairs of shorts
  • Four T-shirts
  • Two pairs of extra socks
  • Underwear
  • One extra shirt/blouse
  • Two bathing suits
  • One dressy pair of sandals
  • One hat
  • One pair of flip flops
Packing List for Allowed Personal Item:
  • One comprehensive guidebook
  • One pair of sunglasses
  • One cell phone
  • A quart-sized baggie of allowed liquids and gels
  • …and other small items that fit.

Obey the TSA’s guidelines for any/all 3 oz size liquids in a 1-quart clear plastic bag and have it ready for inspection.

Carrying On:

overhead bin

Carry-on luggage in an overhead storage compartment on a commercial airplane.


Freedom: Being unencumbered can dignify your travel since you have fewer possessions to obsess about losing.

Time savings: Not having to wait for the other passengers to get their luggage is one less burden.

A good lesson for your children:  teach them to travel light in life.  Euphemize and sell them an adventure.

A survival challenge:  If you perceive travel as a means to learn survival away from familiar surroundings, becoming more streamlined could be your first lesson in survival skills.  Some define travel as the leisure and relaxation of an all-inclusive vacation on a beach in a familiar tropical location. Others associate travel with adventure and might argue that the joys of travel are found in seeking a change from the hometown version of things, navigating some unfamiliar (and even painful) terrain in distant places, relating to strangers, taking risks, stepping in and out of roles, meeting unexpected developments… If you want adventure but don’t know where to start, begin with something small: try to live on less stuff from home.

Save money on expenses:  Insurance and baggage fees, to name two.

Buy what you don’t have:  Visit a drugstore or mall at your destination (assuming you’re not traveling to a remote area where stores may be few to none).

Stretch your clothing choices with elbow grease:  Hand launder or use a laundry facility to clean clothing.

Connecting flights are less stressful:  Less chance of loss or damage.


If you’re one of the last to board, you might find little room overhead to stow your carry-on: now you’re forced to check your luggage.

You may find it tough to cram your carry-on overhead:  why your carryon should be light.

Don’t expect to be popular with other passengers:  your overstuffed carry-on may be hard to handle…delaying boarding and raising the ire of those around you.

“Buying what you need when you get there” might not be workable: this happens when your destination is decidedly OFF the main circuit.

Don’t plan on buying a sombrero for each of your four siblings: unless they’re miniature sombreros meant for dolls or something, they won’t carry on well.  If you plan to stock up on souvenirs that surpass size requirements, check your luggage.

Being human means we’re not all standard size: if you wear a size 13 shoe and order your clothing from big-and-tall shops, carrying on might be a hassle.

When Checking Your Luggage Makes Good Sense

Increased baggage checking fees haven’t deterred travelers from checking their bags.  Ironically, 2013 statistics from Airlines for America cite that more travelers are checking their bags than in previous years.

As the quest for balmy temperatures can land a Minnesotan in Cancun with carry-on luggage, travel to wintery destinations—even during the winter–has its charm, too.  Assume you and your brood plan to celebrate Christmas 2015 with a 10-day visit to Strasbourg, France. Southern California natives, you look forward to having a white Christmas for a change.  Your family includes a two-year-old toddler with special needs, a bookish 10-year-old girl who has never seen snow, an eighty-year-old grandparent with Parkinson’s and bad hearing, and a spouse who is obsessed with Europe.  Your cargo will include a two-wheeled walker, a quad cane, a stroller, a car seat, several weighted vests, stress balls and blankets, clothes and boots for everybody, among other things.

Although the idea of checking even a portion of your family’s bags makes you queasy, especially since your travel will be international, you know your stuff would never fit in an overhead compartment. A 10-day vacation with vulnerable family members in winter could be the perfect storm for a carry-on disaster. You’re transporting medical equipment. Winter boots. Shoes. All kinds of layers.  You may break the first commandment of travel here.

Checking Your Luggage

packing a suitcase


No need to schlep your bag through security and wrestle it into the overhead bin.

No need to curb mild hoarding tendencies. You can pack a bit more in toiletries and cosmetics compared to the 3-1-1 rule of carrying on.  Forget the music box that regales you with The Impossible Dream.  You won’t miss it.

Having your own clothing and amenities while away from home can be comforting for a nervous traveler.

When visiting a rural area far from drugstores and malls to buy what you need, having those items with you is significant.

While it’s good to travel light, if you stuff your bags anyway, know you’ll pay more to check luggage weighing over a certain amount. Hate surprises? Weigh your bag beforehand with the Tarriss Jetsetter Digital Luggage Scale.


Expensive baggage fees—and if your bags exceed weight limits, you’ll pay even more

Risk of damage or destruction to an expensive suitcase and/or its contents.

Your luggage may arrive late–or never.

Risk of theft (don’t pack anything you’re not willing to lose. Better still, buy a Tarriss TSA Luggage Lock and play it safe).

For missing luggage, lost time completing paperwork and dealing with who’s responsible for it (the airline and the TSA may play hot potato with each other before they figure it out).

If you like order yet overstuff your bags, note: if your checked luggage sets off an alarm in the bowels of the airport (where you won’t be around to supervise), the bag probably won’t be repacked with the care you originally gave it.

Lost time at carousels, even when your luggage arrives intact and undamaged

Lost time having to arrive extra early, especially for international flights, to be sure your luggage ends up on the plane with you

Can create stress when you have connecting flights; any additional steps are more possibilities for things to go awry

Alternatives: Taking Matters Into Your Own Hands

Some travelers, burned once too often and wary of the airlines and the TSA, actually ship their luggage to the hotel ahead of time via UPS or Federal Express (both companies seem to have a better track record for getting packages where they need to be, have a logical and reliable tracking system, and charge a reasonable enough fee, at least no more than baggage check fees—plus you’ll actually get your bag in the end).


Worry about the airline losing your luggage?  Track it yourself. With the Trakdot app, a small device accompanies your luggage and sends you a text message when it arrives at your destination.


Similar to Trackdot, this “global lost and found” will also call or email you with your bag’s location. Sick of begging the airlines to tell you where your luggage is? Get i-Trak and track it yourself.

Fly-Rights: The laws governing air travel are listed in section 14 of the code of federal regulations in the United States. The federal government also published a version that’s actually readable, Fly-Rights. Protect yourself as a consumer and read it.

Whether you check your bag or carry on, may your experience at the airport bring you good fortune at every turn.


 Written by Katie Anton