Eight tips to help you avoid the luggage carousel
By: April Kilcrease
Now that airlines are charging for checked bags and flights are often fully booked, the battle for bin space has reached Game of Thrones intensity. “Airlines have had to get stricter about carry-ons, especially since they started levying fees on checked bags,” says Paula Froelich, travel expert for HSN and the founder of A Broad Abroad, a travel and lifestyle company. “Now everyone carries on and they try to get away with huge bags, three bags, you name it.”
In addition to avoiding fees, many travelers simply don’t want to spend 45 minutes staring at the baggage carousel after their flight or risk losing their checked bags in transit. “With the current state of travel—whether it’s weather turbulence, plane malfunctions, or cancellations—having your luggage with you gives you the option to pivot when things go awry,” says Froelich. “You can run to a different gate, land in another airport close by, or even give up flying altogether and rent a car. If your bags are checked, then you have to sit it out and wait and wait and wait.”
Throw in the differing maximum carry-on rules and the dizzying array of bags to choose from, and how does any business flyer keep calm and carry on? We’ve gathered advice from expert travelers and sorted through the rules to help you disembark with your bag safely in tow.
1 Travel at the right dimensions
No industry standard exists for size restrictions, and you obviously don’t want to buy a different bag for each airline, so check your airline’s rules before each flight. Your best bet is to stick to these measurements: 22 inches high, 14 inches wide (side to side), and 9 inches deep (front to back). These are the maximum dimensions for carry-on luggage for the big three airlines: American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines. Some air carriers are more generous with bag sizes. Southwest allows bags as large as 24 inches high by 16 inches wide by 10 inches deep, and Alaska’s limit is 24 inches high by 17 inches wide by 10 inches deep.
Meeting these requirements can be confounding when shopping for a new bag. Many manufacturers list interior measurements, or packing dimensions, but the airlines measure the bag’s exterior, including handles and wheels. So bring a tape measure to double-check dimensions in the store. If you’re shopping online, add about 2 to 3 inches for luggage with four wheels and 1 inch for two-wheelers, which tend to have wheels that are more recessed.
2 Keep it light
Most US airlines don’t have set weight limits for carry-on luggage, but you will need to lift the bag into the overhead compartment on your own (another reason to keep up those Pilates classes). “Find a case that’s light to begin with and let the weight be from your stuff,” advises Carolyn Kremins, president of the travel news site Skift. Froelich agrees: “It needs to be no more than seven pounds or so, preferably not bulky, and have outside pockets, [so you can] quickly grab or store things.”
Weight matters more if you’re flying on a non-US airline. Lufthansa allows carry-on bags up to 17.5 pounds, Air France’s limit is 26 pounds or 39.7 pounds, depending on the cabin, and the maximum on British Airways is 51 pounds. In other words, you need to “weigh” your options with the individual airline before your flight.
3 Go four-wheeling
When choosing a carry-on bag, Kremins is among the many frequent flyers who insist on a four-wheeled suitcase (aka spinner). Unlike two-wheeled bags, each wheel on a spinner swivels 360 degrees, which allows you to easily move your rollaboard in all directions without having to push or pull it at an angle. You’ll lose a bit of packing space to the spinner’s external wheels, but your body will thank you for it. As Kremins notes, “Dragging 20 pounds behind you does strange things to your shoulder and wrist.”
4 Handle with care
Look for wheeled luggage with a two-post handle system, so that you can slide your smaller, personal item over the posts and keep the weight off your shoulders. Soft grips and telescoping handles that can adjust to your height are the most comfortable. Remember that arched handles add height. A handle that completely flattens down may be a better choice. “A flat top also ensures you can wheel your second, smaller bag on top without it falling off,” says Kremins. Keep in mind that handles along the outside of the bag may add to the exterior size, but they allow for a completely flat interior, which makes for smooth packing.
5 Give yourself room to expand
Although you’ll still need to make sure that you don’t bloat beyond the maximum size if you want to avoid the baggage carousel, expandable suitcases do provide the most flexibility. Julia Cosgrove, editor in chief of the international travel magazine AFAR, loves her Victorinox four-wheeled rolling bag, which has served her well for nearly a decade. “It’s soft and expands for the trip home—after I’ve bought too many new clothes or shoes or housewares and stuffed them into my suitcase.” Froelich recommends the TravelSmith Series S2 Hybrid 22-inch carry-on spinner. Its polycarbonate back helps protect any breakable items, and its polyester front expands up to 2 inches to fit souvenirs or conference swag.
6 Achieve status
“It helps to have some status on an airline so you can board early to get precious overhead space and avoid having to check because they ran out of space,” says Kremins. “You don’t want to lug your bag around only to find yourself waiting at a carousel on the other end.”
To make sure you’re one of the first to board, consider signing up for a credit card that’s cobranded with your preferred carrier or a travel rewards credit card that offers priority boarding as a perk. Elite status has gotten trickier to achieve in recent years, but racking up the miles on one airline can still lead to early boarding access, too. Some airlines allow you to simply purchase a spot at the start of the line. Prices for United’s Premier Access start as low as $15, depending on the flight.
7 Don’t get caught with a prohibited item
Most of us have the 3.4-ounce rule memorized by now. Passengers are allowed one quart-sized, clear plastic bag of liquids, gels, creams, pastes, and aerosols in containers no bigger than 3.4 ounces. (Even if you only have an ounce of lotion left in a 4-ounce bottle, that bottle is verboten.) A quart-sized bag does not fit much, so it’s best to skip your favorite shampoo and toothpaste in favor of the ones at the hotel, or pick up them up at a drugstore near your destination. Sample sizes from Sephora are a great option for makeup. You may bring larger amounts of formula, breast milk, and liquid medications, but you’ll need to declare them to TSA officers at the checkpoint for inspection. Make sure that your medications are labeled, which will help you get through the screening process more quickly.
8 Get personal
On most flights, you can bring a smaller personal item along with your carry-on luggage. Again, the rules vary among the airlines. American and United have no specific size limits for personal items, but American does specify that it must fit under the seat in front of you.
Make the most of your personal item. If you carry a purse, laptop, or camera, try to find a bag that fits them all. “I recently found the dream bag for me: the O.M.G. by Lo & Sons,” says travel writer and editor Kristin Luna. “Whether I’m traveling for a night or two weeks, I never leave home without a MacBook Pro, Canon DSLR, multiple lenses, charging cords, Kindle, iPhone, and smaller camera accessories like a GoPro, and I’m amazed that the O.M.G. fits it all seamlessly. Even better, it slips over the handle of my rolling bag.”
A backpack with wheels and a telescopic handle is the personal item of choice for Michelle Greenwald, CEO of Inventours, a firm that creates curated trips to creative cities. “I put my purse in the backpack and it usually counts as one personal item.”
Still need more room? Check out each airline’s list of exemptions from the “one-bag plus one personal item” rule. These often include reading material, coats, hats, umbrellas, and pillows. If your bags are bulging, wear or carry these things by hand onto the plane. Most airlines also allow you to bring food and beverages bought after going through security, duty-free purchases, strollers, child safety seats, and mobility devices, such as wheelchairs and crutches. Some airlines, including American, don’t count diaper bags toward the two-bag limit, either. DW
Born in Germany, April Kilcrease grew up on three continents. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, AFAR, and The Guardian.