Carry-on vs. checked bags: the traveler’s ultimate dilemma. When booking a flight, it can be a bit of a head-scratcher deciding which type of luggage you want to bring. It gets even harder when you book far in advance. Airlines have different prices, sizes and rules for luggage. As experienced travelers, we know that it can be hard to navigate. To help you out, we’ve created a travel luggage guide. We weighed up the pros and cons of checking in and carrying on. We’ve also included some of our best traveling know-how to make your packing and airline journey smoother. To carry-on or check-in, which luggage is right for you?
What is a Carry-On Bag?
A carry-on bag is a small piece of luggage that you bring onto the airplane and place in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of you. It has strict size restrictions to fit in the cabin. Many airlines will measure your carry-on and will ask you to check it if it doesn’t follow their size rules.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that some airlines, especially in Europe, will weigh your carry-on. The standard is 8-10kg (17-22 lbs.). US airlines usually don’t have any weight restrictions. However, most airlines require you to be able to place your carry-on into the overhead bin yourself. Don’t pack more than you can comfortably lift.
In addition to a carry-on, almost all airlines allow you to bring a personal item onboard. This is usually limited to a handbag, smaller backpack, or laptop bag that will fit under the seat in front of you. If there is room in the overhead bin, you can also place it there. How strictly airlines enforce this size limit varies, but if you keep it within reason, you should be fine.
What is Allowed in a Carry-On Bag?
Carry-on bags have several restrictions on what you can pack. Liquid containers must be 3.4oz (100ml) or less and be placed in a 32oz (1l) transparent bag. These bags are often provided for you at airport security. We recommend buying a sturdier reusable one and avoiding the flimsy plastic. Any liquids above 3.4oz (100ml) or that won’t fit in the bag must be placed in a checked bag. Prescription medications and liquid foods for small children are usually excluded from these restrictions. Check with your airline or airport security before traveling.
Items that are considered dangerous onboard an airplane, such as sharp objects, aerosols, and items that can be mistaken for or used as weapons are not permitted. A fun fact, on most airlines you are allowed to travel with some surprising things in your carry-on. Musical instruments, bowling balls, magical wands, and lightsabers are all allowed. The size and weight limits still apply in most cases. If you’re unsure about any items you plan to bring onboard, it’s best to check with the airline ahead of your trip. Items may be allowed through security, but the airline might not allow them on the airplane. Several items are only allowed in your carry-on bag, such as larger lithium-ion batteries, drones, and electronic cigarettes. We all know it’s best to pack laptops and cameras in your carry-on, to avoid your gear getting knocked around by luggage handlers.
How Big Can Your Carry-On Luggage Be?
In the US, carry-on luggage can’t exceed 22x14x9 inches, including wheels and handles. Internationally, most carry-on luggage sizes are similar, but budget airlines in Europe tend to have slightly smaller size limits. There are often luggage measuring racks at check-in or at the gate to help you check if your bag is the right size.
Budget airlines also tend to differentiate between a personal item, a carry-on for under the seat, and a carry-on that can be placed in the overhead bin. This is usually based on your fare class, so double-check what size limits apply when booking.
Solgaard carry-on suitcases are available in two different sizes. The Carry-on closet large is designed to fit all US airlines. The slightly smaller Carry-on Closet Medium is accepted by international carriers, including European budget airlines.
How to Choose Your Carry-On Luggage
Choosing the right bag is important, especially for carry-on luggage due to size restrictions. Make sure the luggage you choose fits the requirements of the airlines you frequently travel with—there’s nothing worse than realizing your bag is too big at the airport! You should also consider what items you usually pack and your travel needs; business trips can benefit from charging access on the go, while multi-stop weekend trips need a great system and easy access. The bag material you choose impacts weight, style and durability, so consider what is most important for you. If you tend to overpack or often travel on popular fully-booked flights, TSA-safe locks are great if you’re asked to check in your carry-on.
Advantages of a Carry-On
Traveling with a carry-on bag has many advantages. It makes traveling by air quicker and smoother—when you arrive at the airport you can head straight to security without having to queue for bag drop. There’s also no waiting at the luggage belt once you reach your destination.
Having all your stuff available during your trip can also be an advantage in case of flight delays, spilled coffee, work emergencies, and both planned and unplanned layovers – we always recommend bringing a toothbrush and a change of underwear just in case! If you like to check out the duty-free or the airport shops, having somewhere to cram those shopping bags is always good.
Carry-on luggage also avoids the risk of loss or damage, which can easily disrupt your trip. A beach getaway during the winter is no fun if all you have is a heavy parka, and your swim shorts and sunglasses are lost in an airport. Finally, probably the biggest advantage of traveling with a carry-on bag is that it’s usually cheaper! Checking a bag can be expensive, but many airlines offer free carry-on allowances or package deals including priority boarding and seat selection.
Disadvantages of a Carry-On
The biggest disadvantage of a carry-on bag is the amount you can pack for your trip. The dimensions of a carry-on bag are quite small, meaning it should be enough for a few days, but might make packing for a longer trip more challenging. If you’re planning lots of activities, keep in mind that the weight and size of shoes, jeans, and sweaters quickly add up.
Another disadvantage of carry-on vs. checked bags is the restrictions. Liquids need to be less than 3.4oz (100ml), meaning you can’t bring your full-size toiletry items or any larger drinks. A great sustainable tip is to bring an empty water bottle, they’re usually allowed through security and can be filled at a water station inside the airport.
It’s also worth considering whether you’re planning to buy any souvenirs—if you plan to go shopping or want to bring back a bottle of the local wine a carry-on might not be the right fit. Consider space and liquid allowances before your trip to make sure you can bring home everything you want.
What is Checked Baggage?
A checked bag is luggage that you hand off to the airline before you go through security. This bag goes in the hold of the plane, so you can’t access it during the flight, and you collect it from the luggage belt at your destination. Checked bags come in many different sizes, styles, and solutions, but they’re usually larger than carry-on bags.
Larger items like sports equipment or musical instruments must be checked in, and often need to be checked in and collected at a special desk. That’s why you don’t see many trombones, baby strollers, or golf clubs make the rounds on the luggage belt. If you plan to bring bulky items, check the airline restrictions and pricing, they vary a lot from airline to airline.
What is Allowed in Checked-in Baggage?
More items fit in a checked bag versus a carry-on. There are no liquid size restrictions and you’re also allowed to pack things that are prohibited in your carry-on - sharp objects, aerosols, food items, and more. Good to know - there is however a limit on the weight of aerosols, such as hairspray, you can pack. In the US, you’re allowed up to 70 oz/68 fl. oz (2 kg/2 l). A checked bag is also where you can pack your full-size toiletry kit, sports and camping equipment.
How Big and Heavy Can Checked Baggage Be?
Checked baggage size and weight allowances vary between airlines and between destinations. If you’re traveling to Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, most airlines offer larger allowances than for domestic and European travel. Usually, checked bags are limited to 50 lbs. (23 kg), but this varies so check with your airline. You can often pay to upgrade to a heavier bag, but we recommend checking with the airline before you arrive at the airport. Overweight fees are commonly charged by the pound (kg) and can be steep. If you are more than a couple pounds overweight, it’s often cheaper to pay for an additional checked bag! Keep in mind, checked bags have size and weight limits to protect the health of luggage handlers - carting heavy luggage into the airplane takes its toll on your back.
How to Choose the Best Checked Baggage?
When choosing the best checked bag for you, consider the types of trips you normally take and what size and style will fit your requirements. If you travel regularly for work your needs might be different from the vacation-only traveler. Hard-sided cases offer more protection, while soft-sided bags can be easier for odd-sized items and the occasional over-stuffing. Zippered bags can often be expanded but can pose a risk of ripping or somebody sneaking access to your suitcase. The Solgaard Check-in Closet has easy pinch-open closing and TSA-approved lock to keep your items safe. Also, consider the internal organizational and packing solutions – how many compartments and zippered pockets are there? Are there compression pads inside? Using vacuum compression bags can be a clever way to organize and fit more items in a checked bag. However, keep in mind that if your suitcase gets stopped by border control, they won’t repack and vacuum your stuff. We recommend lightweight packing cubes or of course, the Solgaard patented closet solution.
Advantages of Checked Baggage
One of the best perks of a checked bag is that you don’t have to carry luggage around the airport with you or stress about finding room in the overhead bin. It gives you the freedom to enjoy the shopping and dining experience at the airport without worrying about your luggage. You don’t need to be anxious about something you packed not being allowed through security and if traveling solo, you don’t have to squeeze a suitcase into a tiny airport bathroom stall.
A checked bag also gives you the freedom to pack more liberally as you’ll have more space and weight. This means you’ll be able to bring that extra fuzzy sweater and squeeze in those souvenirs on the way home. There’s no worrying about liquid, security, or size restrictions.
Disadvantages of Checked Baggage
One of the biggest downsides of a checked bag is the wait time—you’ll need to arrive at the airport earlier to drop your bag, and you’ll have to wait to collect it at the other end. Most airlines close bag drop 30-60 minutes before boarding for domestic travel, and 60 – 120 minutes before boarding for international flights. You should always check with your airline ahead of time. Pro tip - some frequent flyer programs let you skip the lines for bag drop and give you extra time for check-in.
These days, not all airlines offer a checked-bag allowance with your ticket. Checked bags are usually more expensive than a carry-on and you should consider the price when budgeting for your trip. Luggage is often an add-on to your booking and can be pricy. Prices usually start at around $50 per piece, but this can depend on your airline, whether you purchase it ahead of time, and your fare class. That amazing basic economy ticket can suddenly double in price when you add on luggage. Look for package deals including checked luggage, seat selection, and onboard meals. If you need some money-saving tips while traveling, check out our travel hacks.
Checked luggage makes many stops from you drop it off until you pick it up from the luggage belt. Although rare, checking a bag increases the chance of something going wrong – delays, missing luggage, damage, or loss of property. If anything happens with your luggage, your first stop should be the airline counter. In most countries, the airline is responsible for compensating you for any damages, but you must let them know right away to be covered! You can also contact your travel insurance for help. They can help cover expenses you incur while on your trip and any items that are lost. We recommend checking your coverage before your trip and having the information handy – many insurance companies have mobile apps, or you can keep a picture of your member information on your phone.
Is it Better to Check Your Bags or Carry-On?
When deciding between carry-on vs checked bag, the choice comes down to personal preference, and what and how much you like to pack. For a shorter trip, the budget option is to choose carry-on: it’s quicker, cheaper, and the limited space should be enough for a few days. If you need help packing, you can also check out how to master carry on travel.
For longer trips, checked baggage will alleviate some of the stress of packing, and once you’ve checked in your bag you can relax before your flight. It also means more room for liquids, fewer restrictions on which items you can bring, and more room for shopping and souvenirs.
If you are still unsure what luggage to bring, you can also consider when, where, and with what airline you’re traveling.
When you’re traveling
If you’re traveling during a busy period such as the popular summer months, big national holidays, or have multiple stops on your route, you’re more likely to experience something going wrong with a checked bag. You’ll be in London and your luggage never left New York. It can be tricky to plan a full vacation in a carry-on, but it can be done with good preparation. Pack solid-colored basics that work with multiple outfits, invest in some reusable travel minis, write a packing list, and during the winter, practice the art of layering.
Where you’re traveling
If you have one or more international stops on your route, you should also always check whether your luggage will be checked to your final destination or not. Some airports don’t offer international transfers, meaning you will have to pick up your bags and re-check them. This requires you to plan some extra time for your transfer. Check the websites of the airports you’ll be traveling through, or you can also ask your airline. If planning a trip with short stops, flight forums are a great resource. Other travelers will share their experiences and recommendations for how much time you need to change flights in different airports.
With what airline you’re traveling
The price of carry-on and checked luggage allowances vary between airlines. How strictly they enforce their policies also varies. Budget airlines usually have smaller sizes and stricter policies. They will also charge you to check in at the counter, so head to the check-in kiosks and do it yourself. Purchasing luggage allowance ahead of time is almost always cheaper and can be done online up to a couple of hours before departure. A quick google search or browsing a flight forum will let you build a quick comparison of airline policies and prices.
Regardless of whether you choose to check or carry on your luggage, here are our best packing tips to ensure your trip goes as smoothly as possible.
- Never pack your house keys in your check-in luggage. The same goes for ID cards, insurance information, itinerary details, jewelry and other valuables, as well as prescription medication.
- If you have multiple stops or are traveling during peak periods, pack a change of clothes and a toothbrush. If your bag is delayed, you’ll be able to enjoy your trip and not run around buying socks and underwear.
- If you’re traveling during winter, a small drawstring bag is great for stuffing your winter jacket into. Hang it on your bag, use it as a pillow on-board and avoid getting sweaty when running through the airport.
- Buy a portable luggage scale. Check the weight of your suitcases before arriving at the airport and avoid those hefty overweight fees.
- If you tend to overpack, bring a foldable lightweight tote and have it ready during bag drop. Most airlines are fine with you removing some items if your checked luggage is overweight. It may seem strange that they are picky about a few pounds, but it’s to protect the luggage handlers’ backs.
- Pack the heavy items, such as shoes, jeans, and books, at the bottom of your suitcase near the wheels. This distributes the weight better and makes it easier to roll your suitcase. It will also make it easier to remove them if you overpack.
- When packing for a trip, start a few days early. This way you have time to be tough on yourself and remove those three extra sweaters you likely won’t need. Leave some extra space in your luggage for shopping, souvenirs, and gifts. If you need help, check out The Art of Packing Light
- Put luggage tags on all your luggage – both checked-in and carry-on. Airlines offer free tags, but it’s also a fun way to personalize your bags and makes it easier to spot them on the luggage belt. If you ever need to check in your carry-on at the gate, you’ll be covered!
- When you check in your suitcase, make sure you hold onto the sticker with your luggage details. This is the little removable piece at the end of the long strip you attach to your suitcase. If anything happens to your bag, this is your receipt. We either stick it on the back of our boarding passes, passports, or in our wallets.
- Sign up for the airline frequent flyer memberships. In addition to other perks, membership levels can unlock extra luggage allowances.