Should you check or carry on baggage? Here are some pros and cons
January 1, 2018
The question "to check or not to check?" is one of the most common among air travelers, with passionate justification on all sides of the argument. Some travelers swear by the philosophy of carrying luggage on board an aircraft, especially if they have experienced the inconvenience or expense of lost bags and crowded queues at airport baggage claims. Others, however, prefer the ease of free hands and fewer items to track as they make their way around airports.
What is not up for debate is that bags do sometimes get lost ("mishandled" is the airline industry term). Whether through missed connections or human error, sometimes your luggage ends up in Anchorage, New Jersey, instead of Anchorage, Alaska, leaving carry-on diehards to utter an "I told you so" while they happily roll out of the terminal.
However, the good news is that according to Travel and Leisure magazine, only six bags for every 1,000 passengers was mishandled in 2016, thanks to more efficient systems for tracking luggage. http://www.travelandleisure.com/style/travel-bags/airlines-lost-baggage-2016
For seniors, travel can be extremely stressful without worrying about the physical constraints of heavy bags, or the trauma of lost suitcases in the airport terminal. Which option should you choose? Here are a few points to ponder.
Consider carry-on luggage if:
You are physically able to bend, stoop, lift, and/or carry your suitcase or bag, plus a personal item, without any additional help. Think security lines, escalators, elevators, and the all-important lift into the airplane overhead bin. My flight attendant friends with Alaska Airlines tell me that lift-related injuries among flight crews are on the rise, so they are no longer able to help heft that heavy bag.
Your itinerary includes multiple flights, particularly flights among different airlines, thereby reducing the chance your luggage will be shuffled around incorrectly.
Your bags meet the federal requirements for carry-on luggage. Here are the guidelines posted by Alaska Airlines, but keep in mind other airlines, particularly international flights, may have different requirements. https://www.alaskaair.com/content/travel-info/baggage/carry-on-luggage
Baggage fees make you cringe. $20 per bag may not seem like a lot, but it adds up.
Traveling light is your style. It's not? This might be a good time to strategize ways to reduce your baggage footprint. Here are some great tips just for seniors from noted travel guru Rick Steves: https://www.ricksteves.com/travel-tips/trip-planning/savvy-senior-travelers
Think about checking your bags if:
Your flight itinerary is direct, or you have multiple layovers with one airline with plenty of time in between flights. Note that I mentioned time: When flights are scheduled too close together, it can become a struggle for baggage handlers to offload, transfer, then reload your bags.
You are traveling during a high-volume season, like summers or holidays. Full flights translate into full overhead bins, and if you board later, you may lose out and need to check your bag anyway. Tip: Alaska Airlines often offers a free check of bags for passengers willing to surrender them at the gate on full flights. If you don't need your items during the flight, consider this option.
Your destination is one that requires a lot of gear. Alaskans know that beach trips mean fewer clothing items to pack. But some trips mean a lot of heavy, bulky gear. Do everyone a favor, don't try to cram everything into a small suitcase and carry it on - it might be too heavy to lift, for one thing. Just check it.
You are traveling with someone else who needs your assistance. When your companions are grandchildren, or a spouse who needs your undivided attention to navigate all aspects of air travel, carrying on other luggage should be the last thing on your mind.
What is allowed
Not sure what you can carry? Here's a handy list from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the government body in charge of all things air travel: https://www.tsa.gov/travel/security-screening/whatcanibring.
Additionally, every traveler should also know his or her rights related to luggage. Check out the Transportation Consumer page at https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/fly-rights and know your "fly-rights" as a passenger.
When luggage is damaged or lost
Here's what to do if you discover an airline has mishandled (lost or damaged) your bags:
Take a photo of your bag when you first arrive at the airport. Keep that photo with you for the duration of your trip as documentation of its make, model and current condition. Make sure to have a distinguishing mark on your luggage; we use bright ribbons or handle covers that allow for few mix-ups.
If your bag is damaged, go directly to the customer service for the airline you flew, usually located at baggage claim. The airline should pay for repairs or replacement in the unlikely event it is damaged beyond repair.
Most bags are delayed, not "lost," so go to the same customer service desk if luggage does not arrive on your incoming flight. Keep your luggage tags from the check-in process. These provide a bar code for a faster locate.
If your luggage needs to be delivered to you at a hotel, ask the airline if they will deliver for free. Negotiate if you can.
Erin Kirkland is an Anchorage-based travel writer and travel guide author.