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No Easy Solution to Airline Baggage Woes

Readers and people I meet keep asking about how to deal with their baggage on their next trip:

“With all these new charges, are we better off checking our bags, even if we have to pay, or carrying all our stuff on board the plane?”

This is one of those questions with no simple answer. And given what’s happening with the airlines, it’s getting more uncertain, not less. Here’s the current situation, to the best of my knowledge.

Disorder at the Border

According to industry reports, the recent decisions by most big airlines to charge for even the first checked bag have created some real problems with carry-on baggage. Faced with new charges, many travelers game the system by switching to nothing but carry-on bags. Which is fine, in principle, but creates some big hassles:

  • Although all airlines post size and/or weight limits on carry-on bags, they don’t enforce those rules well, if at all. As a result, many travelers carry on larger bags and more bags than the airlines specify.
  • With more and larger carry-on bags, the overhead bins can accommodate only a fraction of the baggage that travelers want to stuff there, and the underseat “storage” area is woefully inadequate for anything but a small bag.
  • The rush for carry-on space puts a premium on early boarding, with some travelers filling the first empty bins they encounter, regardless of where they’re sitting, leaving subsequent travelers seated nearer the front with no place to put their bags—or fighting for more space at the rear of the plane. This scramble for bin space can seriously complicate and delay both boarding and deplaning.
  • When overhead bins fill after only half of the passengers (or so) have boarded, flight crews require that subsequent travelers check their bags at the boarding gate—again causing delays.
  • Some travelers deliberately haul oversize or excess baggage to the gate as “carry-on” because the boarding flight attendants at the door, who have neither the time nor the means to collect baggage-check fees, often allow travelers to gate-check without paying. They even have the added benefit that the last-on gate-checked bags can be the first-off to arrive in the claim area.

So far, in my view, the airlines have failed miserably to control these problems. As a result, a bill to standardize carry-on limits has been introduced in the House. A standard requirement, however, is not the heart of the problem: If the airlines actually enforced their current non-standard limits, much of the problem would disappear.

As far as I know, only one airline is currently addressing the problem in a serious way. Virgin America is testing a procedure of boarding travelers without carry-on bags first, presumably under the theory that those travelers will seat themselves quickly and speed up the overall boarding process. That sounds like a good idea, but it’s too early to tell.

Mandatory gate-checking has created another problem. As you must know, just about all the mavens—airline managers, travel writers, frequent flyers—advise travelers not to pack any valuables in their checked baggage, but instead to keep them in the carry-on bags. Travelers should be extra careful, say the experts, to keep cameras, computers, jewelry, and other such items in carry-on bags. But what happens when you follow that rule, only to be told at the gate that you have to check the carry-on bag with your good stuff in it?

The airlines claim they are not liable for damage to or loss of such items in checked baggage, with no exception for involuntarily checked bags. I’ve so far heard from one reader who had a camera stolen from a gate-checked bag. My response was that this traveler should go after the airline in small claims court, regardless of the contractual wording. Unfortunately, I haven’t heard the result yet, and I have found no documentation covering any court actions on claims for loss on an involuntarily checked bag. I’ll write something if and when I hear more.

Checking Bags—Worth the Extra Cost?

If you want to avoid the hassles and risks of the carry-on derby, you can always check your bag. The one sure piece of information you need is how much your airline will charge you if you decide to check bags. We keep our own Ultimate Guide to Airline Fees current on fees charged by 15 of the largest U.S. airlines for domestic flights. Only two lines still allow you to check bags without an extra charge—Southwest allows two, JetBlue allows one. On other lines you’ll pay $15 to $25 for the first bag, $15 to $35 for the second; several lines charge more if you pay at the airport instead of prepaying online. As our companion Ultimate Guide for Europe shows, most airlines still don’t charge for the first checked bags on flights to or from Europe, but many have started charging $45-$50 for the second bag, which rapidly is becoming the norm. Don’t be surprised to see the other big lines follow this trend fairly soon. And with more than two bags, be prepared to pay lots more—also if your bags exceed the normal weight and size limits.

You already know the advantages and disadvantages to checking your bags. On the upside, you don’t have to fight for limited overhead-bin space, you don’t have to haul it through airports, and you don’t have to worry about keeping it in sight at all times—a welcome benefit for single travelers. But beyond the cost (if any), however, the downside is that you have to wait for it when you arrive and, especially on connecting flights, you run the risk of having it go somewhere (or stay somewhere) other than your planned arrival airport.

What to Do

Clearly, I have “no one size fits all” answer. The tradeoffs between checking and carrying on vary by individual, by trip, and by the amount of stuff involved. Here are a few comments:

  • Southwest and JetBlue hope that liberal baggage policies will entice you to fly on one of their planes, and if you can fly them, you can avoid at least the extra costs on other lines. JetBlue is probably the best domestic airline, anyhow, so it’s not bad idea.
  • Clearly, if you have to check, you’re better off if you can keep your requirement down to one bag.
  • A handful of companies tout independent delivery systems, but the costs are generally well above the costs of checking bags with an airline.
  • Oversized or excessive carry-ons will likely to lead to more problems for you in the future, as airlines cope with too much carry-on baggage, one way or another.
  • If you decide to carry a camera, a computer, or jewelry on board, don’t stuff it into a large carry-on bag that you might have to gate-check. Instead, keep it in a smaller, separate case that can fit under your seat, if need be, and is therefore likely to be immune to involuntary checking.

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