To check or not to check in luggage? That’s the question asked by many travelers these days. In this post, we look at the pros and cons of carry-on versus checked baggage and ask other expert travelers to chime in, too.
Post-COVID travel seems to have become far more chaotic. Over the peak travel period in the summer of 2023, every second newspaper article and social media post seemed to be about long check-in lines, canceled flights and lost and damaged baggage ruining people’s vacations.
We’ve been lucky, but one of our friends’ checked luggage took a week and four countries to catch up to her on a month-long European holiday last year, which was a real downer on the trip of a lifetime.
So when one of our good friends, Philip from Canada, reached out and asked whether we preferred to travel with carry-on only or checked baggage, we thought we’d examine the choices in more depth.
Philip is a very experienced traveler and (like us) has been to over 125 countries. In the old days, he traveled with just a backpack, but as the years wore on and his travel style changed, he began to check luggage.
However, on his most recent five-week trip through 7 countries, he switched back to a smaller backpack and was delighted with the choice. In his own words, he ‘found it so much easier with far less worry about lost bags and missing connecting flights.
He’d also avoided the waiting and jostling at luggage carousels and saved on expensive check-in charges that many airlines apply these days.
But he acknowledges you have to pack wisely to keep roughly to the weight/size restrictions for carry-on luggage, and resist buying gifts or souvenirs.
But despite these limitations, he still thought downsizing his travel bags was a great decision and wondered if he was alone in this thinking.
Well, as far as we’re concerned, it’s a big Yes…and a big No.
Because – SPOILER ALERT – we do both.
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Our Current Luggage Arrangements
We’re currently traveling with Tim’s 28-year-old 75 L MacPac, which we check in, plus a 49 L Ortlieb Rack Pack and a small day pack that houses my computer and peripherals. So we each have around 10kg, plus about 4kg of computer and electronic travel accessories.
We also carry two ultra lightweight Sea to Summit SIL backpacks that fold up to and weigh almost nothing. We use those when we are out and about a destination.
When we fly budget airlines that charge for checked luggage, we switch a few kgs of liquids and sharp, pointy things from my rack pack to Tim’s pack. My rack pack then meets the hand luggage size, weight, and safety requirements.
When our tickets allow a checked bag each, we often check that, too, especially if we have a long layover.
We carry a:
so we can wash our limited wardrobe regularly and have clean clothes.
I (Shazz) rarely wear makeup, and we share toiletries that we typically purchase at our destination. I separate my clothes into packing sacs in a variety of sizes, whereas Tim is so neat he doesn’t need to.
Our only real extras are a collapsible coffee filter and decent coffee. (Because life isn’t worth living without a decent coffee in the morning!) Our next destination governs how much coffee I carry.
When we fly with our touring bicycles, it’s a whole other ball game. Our loaded panniers all get packed in a Chinese shopping bag, which gets checked in with the bikes. We then take our rack packs on the plane as hand luggage, with the computer in one of those. It can be a logistical nightmare, which is why we won’t be flying them anywhere again soon.
But leaving the bicycle situation out of the equation, are we the norm?
To find out, we reached out to other travel experts to see what they had to say. And surprise, surprise, they were all the same, same but different. All of them replied that they tried to travel lightly, but not all of them traveled with carry-on luggage all of the time.
But don’t take our word for it. Let’s hear from them.
Travel Experts- What’s your preferred type of luggage (carry-on or check-in) when traveling, and why?
Nora Dunn from The Professional Hobo has been traveling full-time for almost as long as we have, so we weren’t too surprised she had this to say.
‘Although most people devoutly sit on Team Carry-On or Team Checked Luggage, I have my foot in both camps, and my luggage choice depends on the trip.
If I’m going somewhere for a long time (ie, months), where I might benefit from having some extra layers of clothing and/or gear and/or comforts of home, AND it’s a straight point-to-point trip with minimal schlepping of luggage, then I’ll bring a checked bag.
More often than not, though, I pride myself on being an ultralight traveler, and I hit the road for up to 6 months at a time with carry-on luggage only. (My record is two years with carry-on luggage). I manage with selective travel capsule wardrobes made of travel-friendly materials like merino wool, multi-purpose footwear, ingenious gear, strategic packing tools, and more. You can see a selection of these items on my packing list, and you can learn more about the criteria I use to decide between checked vs carry-on luggage here. ‘
Keith Jenkins from Velvet Escape likes luxury on his journeys, but past experiences mean he still travels light.
‘Whenever possible, I travel with carry-on luggage only.’ Keith explains. ‘Numerous experiences of lost and/or damaged checked-in bags have convinced me that this is the better way to travel. I generally travel with hand luggage only for trips up to a week. However, I’ve stretched it to two weeks on some occasions, especially when I’m not required to pack bulky winter clothing.
Traveling with carry-on luggage requires some planning and prioritizing due to the limitations. From a young age, we encouraged our daughters to pack only a carry-on. It was fun to watch them narrow down a big heap of clothing and toys to what they thought was most important to bring with them. Nowadays, as teenagers, they’re accustomed to traveling light. ‘
Jane and Duncan from To Travel Too changed their approach to luggage as they became more experienced travelers. Jane explains.
‘From 2013 through 2016, we traveled the world with checked-in luggage weighing approximately 20kg. After many trips on planes, trains, buses, ferries, and tuk-tuks, we were fed up with how cumbersome this type of luggage was for our type of travel. Since then, we have enjoyed carry-on luggage. We pack enough for 3 days and wash every night where we can. We wear our heaviest items when flying and tend to buy toiletries overseas to keep our weight down.
Our pro travel tip: Try to board early. On all our flights last year, those who boarded last could not find space in their overhead lockers for their luggage, and their bags ended up in lockers many rows from where they were seated.’
”We never check luggage.’ says Veronica. ‘Over the years, we have learned to fit everything we need into our carry-on bags, whether for a few days or a few weeks. (Thank goodness for hotels and ships with laundry!) The main reason for this is what we like to call our One Trip Rule, And as rolling luggage has improved (and we have grown older), we noticed another huge advantage. Having our self-standing, 4-wheeled bags to transport our stuffed backpacks is so much better than lugging them around airports on our shoulders or back.
Bon Voyage everybody!’
Rosalind Cuthbertson of Step Into Vietnam feels similarly.
After traveling the world for over a decade, I prefer to travel with carry-on luggage. Gone are the days of lugging large suitcases up flights of stairs and from train platforms to metro stations across the planet.
Over the years, I’ve downsized from both a carry-on bag plus a massive suitcase stuffed to the brim to carry-on luggage only when possible. Whether I take just one carry-on bag will depend on airline carry-on weight restrictions.
I can always fit everything I need into my carry-on, but if there is a weight restriction of 7kg (15 pounds), I will take another small bag to be checked in. This extra bag fits on the handle of my carry-on luggage and makes for easy maneuverability through airports and all forms of transport.
Choosing carry-on has changed the way I pack. I put extra thought into coordinating my clothes, and I only travel with two sets of shoes, one of which I wear on the plane. I do not take skincare items and have whittled my makeup down to lipstick, eyeliner, and mascara.
Although this was difficult initially, I now find it liberating and would not travel any other way.’
On the other hand, Michela from She Goes The Distance has a foot in both the hand luggage and checked baggage camps.
‘Both carry-on and checked bags serve a purpose depending on the kind of trip you are going on and how you like to travel,’ Michela explains. ‘While I am a serial over-packer and love to have the extra room of checked luggage, I could never travel without a carry-on. Going carry-on only, when possible, means having the peace of mind that all my belongings are on my person and saving valuable time by bypassing the bag drop off and pick up.’
So there you go. Which traveler’s style do you connect with?
One thing I’ve noted from the pictures our intrepid travelers have sent of their carry-on luggage is that most (but not all) have chosen soft luggage like rolling duffel bags or backpacks rather than hard cases. Dig into their websites via the links above and find they have features like:
- An expandable zipper that allows you to take more stuff when weight isn’t so important,
- Smooth-rolling wheels, and
- In addition to the main compartment, at least 1 – 2 pockets are used to separate out different contents.
I have to confess, Tim and I despise rolling luggage. Actually, we don’t despise the luggage itself; we just get annoyed with the many clueless travelers who have no peripheral vision when it comes to wheeling or dragging them into our personal space, banging shins, and crushing toes.
I would suggest that if you buy rolling luggage, it should have a robust, extendable handle and 360-degree wheels for ease of movement so you don’t become one of our arch enemies!
Pros and Cons of Carry On Versus Checked Luggage
While our guest travel experts have a mix of opinions, I think you’ll agree the common theme is less is best, whether that’s carry-on only or checked luggage too.
So let’s now look at the pros and cons of each.
Carry on luggage
- You can always keep your belongings with you, reducing the risk of losing or damaging them to the airline.
- You can avoid baggage fees, which can add up quickly, especially for low-cost carriers or international flights.
- It encourages you to pack only what you need, which helps you travel light and avoid clutter.
- You can skip the baggage claim and go straight to your destination, which saves you time and hassle.
- You are not at the mercy of baggage handlers to get your possessions to your destination in one piece.
- You have to follow the rules for liquids, gels, and aerosols, which limit you to containers of 100ml (3.4 ounces) or less. This can be a major limitation if you need specialty hair or skin care products.
- You can’t take sharp objects like pocket knives, scissors, or tweezers. This is the primary reason we check in Tim’s pack. He refuses to travel without his trusty Swiss Army Knife. That’s understandable because it’s saved the day on many an occasion.
- You have to fit your bag in the overhead bin or under the seat, which means you must comply with the airline’s size and weight restrictions. Note these can vary on different airlines. The size of the carry-on is usually a standard 56 x 36 x 23 cm (22″ x 14″ x 9″), which includes the handle and wheels. Some airlines don’t have a weight limit, but if they do, it’s usually 7kg (15 pounds), which is the norm for most airlines; some airlines with small aircraft might allow much less.
- You must carry your bag throughout your journey, which can be tiring or inconvenient, especially if you have a long layover or need to walk long distances between flights.
- You may have to gate-check your bag if the overhead bins are full, which defeats the purpose of carrying on and may delay you when you arrive.
- You can pack more stuff, such as multiple pairs of shoes, different types of clothing, etc. On long trips to destinations with different climates, it’s challenging to get everything under 7kg. We work with layers to reduce our overall bulk, but having the right clothing to prevent discomfort still adds up if we’re heading somewhere cold and wet.
- You are not limited to liquids in containers of 100ml (3.4 ounces) or less, which means you can bring your own toiletries, sunscreen, etc., which can be hard to find in some destinations.
- You can happily pack your trusty Swiss Army knife or Ledderman, which can ‘MacGyver’ you out of most situations.
- You don’t have to worry about fitting your bag in the overhead bin or underseat or having it gate-checked if there is no space.
- You don’t have to carry your bag with you throughout your journey, which can be more comfortable and convenient. I like nothing more than seeing our pack trundle off on the conveyor belt, knowing we don’t have to worry about it until we arrive.
- You may have to pay baggage fees, which can vary depending on the airline, the destination, and the number of bags.
- You may have to wait in line to check your bag and then wait for it at the baggage claim, which can take up time and cause stress.
- The airline can lose or damage your bag, especially if you have connecting flights or irregular operations.
- You still have to comply with the airline’s check-in size and weight restrictions., which may still pose challenges if you’re taking specialty sporting gear (like our touring bicycles!)
So there you have it.
I have to admit that traveling as a couple gives us a bit more flexibility to share bits and pieces and reorganize things to reduce checked baggage.
But as you’ve heard, plenty of solo travelers and even families manage with hand luggage only, even for longer adventures.
So what team are you? Team Hand Luggage only, or Team Checked Baggage? Let us know in the comments.