To check or not to check

Should you check your bag? Here’s the thing, you can never be sure ahead of time if it’s a good idea.

I’m in the middle of a travel snafu. I spent all day yesterday hanging around the airport, trying hard to get to West Virginia but it was so windy that flights kept getting cancelled, and my backup plane was cancelled, and then the backup backup was cancelled, and then my ticket for the backup backup backup was issued too late to actually board.

At one point or another I was booked on all these flights. And I went 0 for 8! A new one-day personal best.

Flight Routes

And it was all made way more complicated because I CHECKED A BAG. I know what you’re thinking. Steve, hasn’t your slogan for years been

One Of Steve’s Travel Slogans (collect the whole set)

The only way the airline can lose your bag is if you GIVE IT TO THEM.

Well, yeah, I used to think that. But lately as I get older, I’m starting to value Convenience, and checking a bag is certainly Convenient. Why?

I usually travel with a backpack with my laptop in it – no, I am not checking that – and a small carryon-size fits-in-the-overhead no-I’m-sure-it-will-fit rollaboard bag.
I’ve always loved this 1996 Toshiba commercial –

So anyway, about checking a bag.

Reasons To Check A Bag

  • Convenience. Less junk to carry through the airport
  • If you’re only carrying on one bag, you can put it in the overhead rather than under the seat in front of you. I hate it when the airline announces “Your primary storage space is under the seat in front of you.” No, that is the primary space for my GIANT FEET thank you very much. But if you’re carrying on two items, then you really ought to put one into this spot. And you’ll be cranky.

Reasons NOT to Check A Bag

  • You have to wait and pick it up at your destination. Sometimes it’s quick, sometimes it isn’t.
  • They might lose it. See slogan above.
  • You are Boarding Group 37 on some airline you never fly, and you know the overhead will be full.
  • You feel guilty about slowing everybody down as you bring all your earthly possessions onto the plane.

Reasons Why I Personally Might Check A Bag Despite The Slogan Above

I have modified my NEVER CHECK rules slightly. Now I would say there are situations where I will check a bag.

  1. In my professional opinion, is it a tight connection where the airline could screw this up and lose my bag? A tight connection through Denver? => Don’t Check. They’ve lost my bag multiple times on that route, one time telling me that it was actually headed to Istanbul.
  2. Is it a very full flight where they are already begging people at the gate to check something because the overheads are going to be full? => Check. (Especially if it’s a gate-check situation where you retrieve the bag on the jetway at the destination, not the baggage claim.) But not if it’s a screwup situation like situation #1.
  3. Is it a long flight where I have a crummy seat with limited legroom and would really like some room for my size 13 feet underneath the seat ahead of me? => Check.
  4. Am I heading home, and a misdirected bag wouldn’t be the end of the world, because they’ll deliver it to my house the next day, and anyway I have a spare toothbrush at home? => Check.

I have a Tile bluetooth tracker in my bag too which gives me a slight sense of security that if my bag is misdirected, I might be able to figure out roughly where it is.

Where This Can All Go Wrong

If you checked a bag, and something goes wrong, you are in a bad state. Airlines require you to travel on the same flight as your bag, so if you want to switch to another flight, your options are now limited. Can the airline get your bag off of flight A and onto flight B? Maybe. But it’s sure easier if you have all your bags with you.

Yesterday I checked a bag, and the travel snafus started piling up even before leaving Toronto. I wound up heading home without travelling, which adds a whole new layer of confusion – you have to retrieve your bag somehow, and for a transborder flight, this involves heading down some strange corridors, filling out forms, being escorted back into the baggage area, going through Canada Customs again even though you never left the country. It probably took me 90 minutes to get my bag back yesterday.

What Airlines SHOULD DO

Really, the process of checking a bag is better than it used to be; they’ve improved the ability to track bags, and, soon, airlines will be giving you active bag tags that broadcast their location and letting you check on the app and see where your bag is. (With my Tile tracker, I can often tell if the bag is actually on the plane with me; that’s cool.)

But … The idea that airlines charge money to check bags is the main problem. People are cheap and don’t want to pay those fees, so they drag everything they own along as carryon, slowing everything down.

If airlines made checked baggage FREE it would speed boarding, and make everybody happy, so of course it will never happen

My friend Brad Templeton has some interesting ideas. Let passengers reserve specific space in the overhead. Hmm.

So what are you doing today?

I’m back at the airport again today, still trying to get to Charleston. And today, I didn’t check. Don’t want to tempt the gods of travel again.


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