One more reason you should never check a bag

This should surprise no one, but I am firmly in the “never, ever check luggage” camp. In fact, I’d recommend you don’t even own check-sized luggage.

The normally-cited reasons for this approach to flying are covered in lots of other places, but since this is the only thing I ever intend to write on this subject, I’m going to rehash the big ones and their (absolutely wrong) counter arguments before adding my own “one more” reason to the list.

My special addition to the “never check a bag” corpus is weirdly tautological and veers out of the land of common practicality into the murkier waters of behavior modification, but I think it’s the most important reason of them all.

But first, why you should never, ever check a bag in the first place:

For the impatient and curious, click here to jump directly to the bonus addition and skip the recap.

Nine reasons you should never check a bag

1. Checking a bag takes more time and effort at the beginning of your trip

In the best case, you walk up to the counter and wait for a few minutes as your checked bag is weighed, tagged, and dropped off. Normally, you have to wait in line for five, ten, or even thirty minutes for the privilege of waiting some more at the counter. Even the airlines that have moved to the “self-tag” model require manual verification of tags by an agent AND use it as an excuse to staff fewer agents total, which makes self-tagging useless from a time-savings perspective.

Plus, getting more and larger luggage to the airport requires more time and creates more hassle, simply by being a bigger thing to move from point A to point B.

Five or ten minutes doesn’t seem like much in the grand scheme of an entire life, but if you travel for work every week, little savings add up fast: adding a scant ten minutes to a trip for a twice-weekly flier adds up something like an extra 15 hours per year in the airport.

2. Checking a bag takes more time and effort at the end of your trip

The baggage carousel is a special sort of misery. There are few experiences less pleasant than standing in the dingy, fluorescently-lit underbelly of an airport, with no idea when any of the bags will come, let alone yours (if you can even recognize it). You’re tired from a long flight, it’s either late and you want to get to bed or it’s early and you want to get your day started. The worst part about it? You put yourself through this for the dubious privilege of bringing more crap that you now have to lug around.

Plus if you’re taking a cab or app-enabled car from the airport, you’re at the back of the queue, behind every single person that didn’t check a bag — easily an extra 5–20 minutes on top of the original wait for the bag.

3. Checking a bag (often) costs money

This is mostly not true for people who aren’t paying for their own flights, or folks with status or airline-affiliated credit cards (two things we recommend every business traveler get as quickly as possible), but it’s still a valid consideration for the infrequent traveler and the regular traveler flying off-brand metal for reasons of vacation or logistics.

4. Checked bags can get lost

The chain of custody for a bag that you carry onto a plane is: in your possession → in the security scanner → in your possession → in an overhead bin that is at most 50 feet away from you → in your possession.

For a checked bag, it depends on the airport and airline, but it’s something like: in your possession → gate agent → unstaffed conveyor belt, often with automatic sorting → maybe some TSA Screening → bin of sorted or semi-sorted bags → cart → different cart → conveyor into luggage compartment → luggage compartment → slide out of luggage compartment → cart → different cart → conveyor → baggage claim. That’s a lot more hands touching your things and a lot more places for it to disappear and not be found for a day or three.

While lost bags are becoming increasingly rare as airports adopt more reliable baggage-handling tools like tag scanners, automatic sorters, and the “expected bags vs actual bags” reconciliation those things provide, it’s easy to see why it still happens occasionally, especially if you’re connecting somewhere

5. Checked bags can get damaged

Every arrow in the above chain of custody is also a point at which your bag might be gently placed into a bin or cart, or onto a conveyor belt, but more likely will be unceremoniously heave-ho’d instead. Baggage handlers are trying to load something like 80 bags an hour; tossing gets the job done faster.

If you think the rise of automated conveyor belts (which now do the bulk of the sorting and transportation between check-in bag drop and carting the bags to the actual plane) would mean a gentler time for your luggage and its contents, think again: here’s a video of the sorting mechanism most airports use, delightfully — and accurately — referred to as a “kicker.”

6. Checked bags don’t make tight connections

Running through the airport to make a tight connection is an unfortunate eventuality of travel. Even if you don’t book them, delays and other issues often make them inevitable. I personally recommend just missing that flight and catching the next one if the next one is soon and has seats (both of which you can check while anxiously taxiing to the gate), but sometimes a mad dash is the only reasonable option.

Bags can’t (and don’t) run, and while a domestic flight with a bunch of delayed connections may wait for the bags to make it, if your bag is the only missing one, it will be catching the next flight (or the one after that, or the one after that). This is doubly true for international connections.

7. Checking a bag reduces itinerary flexibility

This is a reason that comes up less for people who don’t travel all the time, but is critical to any business traveler stuck in an airport on a Thursday night in the summer because of “storms somewhere over the Midwest.”

When your flight is massively delayed or cancelled, one of the first things you should be doing is looking for alternate flights out of there, including on different airlines,1The industry term of art for this is going interline. Using that word when I ask to go interline seems to get me better “insider” outcomes, but I could be making that up. and then calling the airline to get rebooked. Being quick and decisive with this process can result in you getting home hours or even a calendar day before you might have otherwise.

If you have a checked bag, you can’t do this. Because your bag is tied to the specific flight you’re supposed to be on, rebooking to avoid a major delay is impossible, and rebooking after a cancellation now needs to take into account the time it will take for you to schlep down to baggage claim, grab your bag, check it in again, and then go through security again, which means there’s a snowball’s chance in hell you’ll be making that alternate flight that leaves in 30 minutes.

8. Checking a bag means you lose access to your stuff

If you do a good job of packing your personal item, this is more of a minor inconvenience than a dealbreaker, but being able to quickly dig into your bag for a sweater or a toothbrush after a surprise delay (or even during a planned layover) is a nice convenience that you lose when that stuff is underneath the plane or somewhere in the bowels of an airport.

9. Checked bags are more likely to have exploding items

The passenger cabin in a commercial airplane is pressurized. Not to the pressure of sea level, sure, but enough that people are comfortable. The cargo compartment in most commercial planes is not. This pressurization makes exploding pens, toiletries, and other liquids much less common (although to be clear, not impossible).

Common counter-arguments, and why they are total bullshit.

1. Carry-ons extend the time it takes to board and deplane

Have a read through this Thrllist article if you want an extended screed on this idea, but the basic gist is: the more people that have carry-on bags, the longer it takes to board a plane, and the longer it takes for everyone to get off of it.

This is true to some extent, sure, but it’s mostly the product of occasional flyers who don’t have status so can’t board early, don’t have status so are in the endless middle of the plane, instead of the first ten rows, don’t know how to quickly load and unload an overhead bin, and generally don’t realize they’re holding up the plane. You, the savvy business traveler, have none of these disadvantages.

Even if you did, the solution is not to not carry-on. It’s to chill out a little bit, because block timing allows buffer for boarding and deplaning into account, and we’re still only talking about 2-3 minutes total of delay here. Big deal.

2. They’re going to make me gate-check it anyway

Again, unless you’re flying an ERJ 145, CRJ 200, or some other impossibly small regional jet that just does not have actual overhead space, this is a problem for people who don’t have status and/or don’t know what they’re doing. If you are taking little regional jumps on tiny planes that require gate-check, be happy you’re spending less time in transit total with your sub two hour flights.

Plus, a gate-check is still deeply preferable to a counter-check, even if they don’t give you your bag back on the jet bridge, because you don’t have to wait in the counter-check line.

3. It’s easier to move through the terminal and plane without a checked bag.

Marginally true, but if you’ve invested in a good bag that rolls well (instead of the cheap-o models that most infrequent travelers rock), it’s a non-starter.

4. Checking a bag allows you to bring more stuff

This seems like a point for checked bags, but it’s actually not. More on that shortly.

Three notable exceptions:

There are a few legitimate times when it’s just not feasible to go carry-on only. There are probably more than this list encompasses, but I spent a good 30 minutes thinking about it this afternoon and this is all I could come up with.

1. Folks with limited physical ability or mobility

If you have trouble lugging a bag around, hoisting it over your head and into a bin, or otherwise become physically hindered by a big bag, by all means. Check the fucking thing.

2. Traveling home from a place where you bought liquids

Bringing back local wine (or beer, or bourbon,2 That said: if you’re flying out of CVG, conveniently located at the north end of the Bourbon Trail, there is a damn good bourbon kiosk in Terminal A call Cork N’ Bottle where you can buy pretty rare stuff and carry it straight onto the plane.

If you want a recommendation, grab one bottle of whatever expensive only-in-kentucky thing the staff recommends, and/or one or two bottles of Heaven Hill 6 Year (green label). HH is the ultimate value bourbon — it’s as good as any $30-40 bottle I’ve ever had, at the time of this writing, it costs $16.99 in the airport (it’s even cheaper if you go to Party Source, which despite a name that sounds like it sells balloons, is easily the best single place to buy bourbon I’ve ever been).
or olive oil) is a nice thing for many foodie travelers, even ones traveling for work. And it’s a case where the pain of a checked bag is just a necessary part of the benefits of bringing liquid back.

3. Gear-intensive trips

If you’re going skiing or golfing or rock climbing or to the arctic circle, I will happily admit that a carry-on is probably not enough room for what you’re bringing (although: if you’re renting the skis/helmet/poles/boots, it is totally possible to pack for a weeklong ski trip in a carry-on, even with snow pants and a jacket and the like. I have done it many times).

One more reason you should never check a bag

Checking a bag allows you to bring more stuff.

Like I said above, this seems like a point for checked bags, but it’s not.

In interaction design,3which, if you didn’t know, is part of my day job we have this concept called a forcing function. Because a forcing function is also a thing in solving differential equations, you also hear the more-explanatory term behavior-shaping constraint and the more-delightful poka-yoke4from the Japanese words for avoid and mistakes, originating in one of my all-time favorite things to talk about, The Toyota Production System. No matter the name, the idea is the same: a forcing function is a situation that forces desirable behavior by making undesirable behaviors harder (or even impossible) to do.

A classic example of this is a microwave that won’t turn on when the door is open, forcing you to close its shielding before you blast microwaves into a room. A more subtle example might be the fact that most laptops now automatically go to sleep when closed, forcing you to not let the battery/screen drain, and to lock your computer when you walk away from it.

Choosing to only ever bring a carry-on, and following through by only owning a carry-on is a forcing function for (reasonably) mindful and efficient packing. It puts a useful constraint on the problem by making it impossible to pack more that can fit into a carry-on.5Simply pre-committing to the idea is enough for most people, but if you need a super-powerful forcing function, don’t just say you won’t use that big check-size luggage, simply throw it away (or donate it) Because packing more than can fit in a carry-on is almost never actually necessary, and even less likely to be necessary for a sub-week-long business trip, going carry-on only forces you to figure packing out via building a travel capsule wardrobe or other strategies.

This works for other aspects of optimizing health and productivity on the road, too, such as:

  • Use blocking tools like Freedom to disallow yourself from spending the first 30 minutes of your day in bed on Twitter or Instagram
  • Schedule meetings with yourself for important work and personal engagements
  • Spend a LOT of money on the precursors to a desired outcome — if you pay say, $5,000 up-front for lessons or equipment for a new physical activity regimen, the sunk cost fallacy will encourage you to keep showing up.
  • Find friends and buddies for new activities — social shame is a powerful motivator, and you’re more likely to show up if you know someone is waiting for you.
  • Create deterrence bets (socially or via apps like stickk) for better adherence to any goal. This is the above idea taken to the next level: if you can’t rely on your friends’ disappointment, try your own aversion to giving away hard-earned cash.

Or nearly anything else where you can make a decision ahead of time, and then adjust your environment or options so that it’s more painful or (ideally) impossible to make a different one later.

But don’t don’t start with all that. Just start with one: join the ranks of the carry-on enlightened.

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