Carry-on vs. checked bags – What should I do?

woman walking with a yellow suitcase

You have to decide between a carry-on or checking your luggage. Many times you’ll use both options. There are different factors to consider when deciding between the two options and various pros and cons to each one.
This article summarizes all you have to know to make the right decision and make your trip better.

Carry-On Vs. Checked bag – What’s the difference?

Carry-on vs checked bag size is the primary difference between the two. Checked bags are larger in size and not allowed to bring with you to the airplane’s cabin. Checked bags are shipped in the cargo hold of a plane.

Carry-on bags are considered to be lightweight and fit in the overhead compartment or under your seat. There are some limitations for size and weight we’ll cover later in this article.

Carry-on bags are sometimes labeled as hand baggage or cabin luggage depending on which airline or country you fly from.

What factors come into consideration for choosing between checking and carry-on?

Few points that will help you decide which suitcase to pack for your next vacation:

  • Trip type – Family trip? Business trip? Luxury? If you go on your own, you’ll probably have less to carry, so a carry-on should work for you.
  • Trip duration – Usually, you’ll pack less for shorter trips.
  • The weather in your destination – Hot destination means smaller and thinner clothes and fewer clothing items since you don’t need layers, gloves, coats, hats, and so on. This could drastically affect the size bag you need.
  • Fees – check with your airline company what’s allowed and the costs for Checked baggage and carry-ons. If you’re flying on a basic economy fare, you might not even be allowed to bring a carry-on, in which case you might want to check a bag. Some airlines charge for checked bags, so you might want to pack minimally and carry on to avoid paying additional fees.
  • Peace of mind – How crucial is it that your suitcase makes it to your destination right when you land? Checked baggage is more likely to get lost than carry-on luggage. That’s why I recommend that if you check your baggage, still keep some essentials in your backpack so you’ll have at least the basics when you land. If you have a connecting flight with a short layover, there’s always a tiny chance your bag won’t make the connection.
  • Wardrobe – if your trip requires many clothes, you’ll probably have to check your bag. This is usually the case for people going for both business and pleasure, or someone going for an event (e.g., wedding) and staying a few more days to travel.
  • Special gear – if you participate in a special event such as a sports event or conference, you’ll probably have to carry special equipment or electronics. In that case, there’s usually no way to fit it all in a carry-on, and you’ll have to check your gear.
  • Presents and Souvenirs – if you love buying things for friends and family, you probably won’t have space in your carry-on on your way back.
  • Long layovers – in case you have a long layover between flights, make sure you have what you need for that time at the airport. But, also remember that it is pretty annoying to wander around the airport for hours, carrying a few bags.
  • Time constraints when arriving at your destination

If you need help choosing great new bags or suitcases, check out our travel gear guides.

Pros & Cons of Carry-on Vs. Checked Luggage

carry-on checked luggage
Peace of mindIt’s Stress-Free, and there’s no need to worry about losing your checked bags.It could get lost – chances for lost luggage have reduced drastically over the past years, but it’s still something that happens, and you have to remember.
Check-in process \ Waiting in linesIf you aren’t checking a bag, you can usually skip lines at the check-in counter and proceed directly to airport security with an electronic ticket. Unfortunately, getting there quicker doesn’t necessarily mean less waiting in line. Your carry-on has to be checked by the TSA.No carry-on means more time at the check-in line but less time at the TSA line, which usually takes longer.
You might have to check it anyway – if there is insufficient room in overhead bins and you can’t fit your bag under your seat, you’ll be asked to check your bags. Also, note that each airline has a different allowed size and weight. If you’re not aligned with their regulation, you’ll be forced to pay or check your bag.
Airport arrivalFast arrival – no need to wait for baggage claim, more immediate walk-through custom. 
Airport layoverIf you have an extended stay at the airport, moving around with bags could affect your airport experience. For example, it’s less comfortable sitting in a restaurant, and if you’re alone, going to the restroom could be a bit more challenging.If you don’t have to carry anything during your airport stay, it is easier to pass the time, assuming you’ll have a small backpack for your personal must-haves.
Weight and size limitationCarry-on bag size limits how much you can pack. Less stress about the weight you’re allowed to bring on board.
Weather There are fewer weather constraints, especially if you’re taking a long trip and expect multiple climates during your trip.
Moving aroundMoving around is easier –  if you have a layover between flights, when you need to change flight or accommodation frequently, if you use public transportation or walk through cobblestone streets, it’s much easier with a small bag or carry-on.It’s a real hustle to move around with large, heavy baggage.
FeesSave on Checked Luggage Fees. 
Room \ Wardrobe optionsLess room means fewer options – your wardrobe will be limited, and you won’t be able to carry too many gadgets or extra equipment. If you travel during winter, don’t even try squeezing it all into your carry-on.  Room for everything you need – This is especially important when traveling with kids or having extra gear required. Remember that even though the suitcase is large, if you plan on bringing back more than you took (shopping, gifts, etc.), leave some room in your suitcase. It’s also easier to pack when you’re not that limited. You don’t have to limit your wardrobe.
LaundryA limited number of clothing items means you’ll probably have to wash your clothes often. 
Gifts and SouvenirsNo room for gifts and souvenirs. 
Time constraints when arriving at your destinationIf you have time constraints on landing and don’t want to wait for baggage claim, the carry-on is the choice for you. 
Security restrictionsYou are not allowed to pack liquids, sharp objects, and other items, according to the airlines’ guidelines.Almost no restrictions on what’s allowed to pack in the baggage.
Pro Tip

If you’ve decided on checking a bag, it is always wise to plan ahead for the unexpected. Every so often, luggage gets delayed or lost, which may cause you to spend extra time at the airport while you wait for it to arrive (some airlines deliver it), or you’ll arrive at your destination and won’t have anything to wear until you buy new stuff. To avoid these worst-case scenarios, carry daily hygiene products, medicine, makeup, and an extra pair of clothes and shoes with you on the plane.

Airline’s baggage fees and regulations

Checked baggage fees vary from airline to airline. The same goes for the measurements and weights allowed. Therefore, you must carefully read the fine print when booking your tickets.

Some airlines may also charge for carry-on, especially low-cost airlines. Personal items, such as a purse or small backpack that fits under the sit can be brought for free on most airlines.

There are some exceptions, in which you probably won’t pay the extra costs:

  • Having elite status with an airline usually comes with some number of free checked bags.
  • Having the airline’s co-branded credit card, as some come with waived bag fees.

Many airlines won’t charge business or first-class ticket holders for checked luggage.

List of items you must have on your carry-on luggage or bag?

Even if you’ve decided to check your luggage, I always recommend having a small bag with some essentials. You’ll use the same bag later during the trip for daily activities. The list of must-haves on your carry-on:

  • Important travel documents (E.g. Passport)
  • Money
  • Items of monetary value (E.g. jewelry)
  • Daily medications
  • Electronics
  • Toiletries (E.g. toothbrush and toothpaste)
  • Some essential clothing items – depending on the weather and if your checked bags got lost and you need basic items for the first day after landing.

If you’re traveling with kids, take some games or other items they like, which will keep them busy during long waiting times, flights, drives, etc.

For a complete packing list make sure to check our flight checklist and packing list, to ensure you won’t forget anything.

The bottom line

When deciding between checked baggage vs. carry-on for your next flight, consider the different factors of your trip, your trip style, the cons and pros, fees, and physical limitations. Then, based on that, decide either to take a carry-on, check your bags, or a mix between the two. I personally prefer carry-on when I travel on my own. However, with my family, I always take both.

Whatever you choose, check our Perfect Packing List to ensure you’ll have everything you need but don’t carry what you don’t need.

Pro Tip

Always check the rules and regulations of the airline you’re traveling with to ensure you’ve packed what is permitted on a plane and that you use the permitted size and weight. It’s always a good idea to have a luggage scale and measure your luggage before heading to the airport.

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Can I check a bag and have a carry-on?

Yes, just make sure you understand the effect:
1. You still have to wait for luggage claim on landing.
2. There are items you can’t put on a carry-on, which you’re allowed to take into the airplane.
3. Make sure you read your airline restriction for each type of luggage.

What does checking your bag mean?

It refers to the process of giving your luggage at the ticket counter at the airport so that it can be transported in the cargo hold.

Does TSA go through checked bags?

Yes, they do.

can you check in carry-on luggage for free?

This depends on the airline and ticket you purchased, and might even change by flight length.

How big can your carry-on be?

Most airline carry-on bags are limited to 22 inches long, 14 inches wide and 9 inches high including wheels and handles.
Note that each airline has its own size and weight restrictions, so make sure to check yours before you start packing.

Is a backpack a carry-on or personal item?

If the backpack fits under the seat in front of you, it’s considered a personal item. That means small backpacks and daypacks will usually qualify as personal items and not carry-on.

Last update: May 2022

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