12 Times It’s Smarter to Check Your Luggage

Is taking a carry-on always the best option when flying? Not when it comes to these common travel scenarios.

Have you lived your life with a firm “carry-on only” rule? Perhaps you think checking bags is a scam by the airlines to get even more of your hard-earned money, especially considering that baggage-fee revenue among 11 major U.S. carriers totaled $4.9 billion in 2018 (an increase from $4.6 billion in 2017). Maybe you’re always in a hurry and feel that waiting at the carousel to reclaim your bag upon landing is a waste of time. Of course, there’s also the concern that surrendering your precious belongings to complete strangers may result in never seeing them again. It’s no wonder why so many travelers eschew checked luggage, but still, sometimes it’s the better choice. If you find yourself in any of the following dozen circumstances, you may want to reconsider your position and check your bag.

When the trip is longer than a week

For long weekends and Monday-through-Friday business trips, a carry-on should suffice. But when heading out of town for longer amounts of time, you’ll need the extra room that a bigger suitcase provides. “I check a bag when I’m traveling for more than a week and need to pack enough clothes for different meetings and events,” says Rachele Gillmar, senior director of marketing and eCommerce at Speck Travel. “I gravitate toward 26-inch suitcases because it’s an underutilized size that really comes in handy when I want to stay under the weight restrictions. Sometimes I get carried away with packing shoes, and this helps me stay in check.”

When you have long layovers

If you have a lengthy connection, you’ll make better use of the time if you aren’t bogged down like a pack mule. “This past weekend, I had a seven-hour layover in Seattle,” says travel writer Katie Boutwell. “I chose to check my luggage so I could actually get out and explore the city rather than be stuck in the airport for that long. Checking my luggage allowed me to explore all over Pike Place Market and Chihuly Garden and Glass, something I wouldn’t have been able—or wanted—to do with my suitcase. I spent about the same on a variety of food in Pike Place that I would have in the airport, and I had an entire daylong adventure.” It’s important to pay attention to what you’re packing; some carry-on items could literally save your life.

When you have tight layovers

On the flip side, if you’re facing a tight connection, schlepping around luggage will only add to your stress. “If you have a tight layover, you want to be able to get to your next gate as quickly as possible, without extra baggage weighing you down,” says Mitch Glass, travel blogger at Project Untethered. “Checking your bag gives you one less thing to worry about.” Of course, one potential downside of checking your suitcase is that it could get lost—especially if it’s a super tight connection and your bag doesn’t make it to the next flight on time.

When you’re traveling with kids

If you’re heading to the airport with children, checking a bag will likely be the easiest part of your day. “Small children require enough attention as it is, and worrying about carrying multiple bags only complicates and adds stress to the situation,” says Cassandra Brooklyn, owner of EscapingNY. “I’ve traveled with my three nieces and nephews, and I’ve found it helpful that older children can help carry luggage. But also, they’re easily distracted and could forget a bag in a restroom or not notice if something falls out.” Plus, smaller children often tend to require more liquids, formulas, and snacks that may not make it through security.

When you’re bringing strollers and car seats

Extra luggage for traveling children isn’t the only thing to worry about. You likely also have additional equipment for them, such as a stroller or car seat. “While you may want to hold onto your stroller until you get to the gate just to be able to get through the airport more efficiently, there are many alternatives to that, from baby carriers to the courtesy strollers many airports now offer,” says Marianne Perez de Fransius, CEO of Bébé Voyage. “Here’s a secret we learned flying with our son: When checking your stroller, you’ll put it in a stroller carrier bag—and in the empty space around the stroller in the bag, you can pack anything you want, like extra diapers. The same applies for car seats packed in their travel bags. We’ve never had a check-in agent ask us to open our stroller or car-seat travel bags.”

When you have a lot of liquids

Whether you use a ton of skin- and hair-care products, you’re on a special diet and have to pack your own liquid snacks (like ready-to-drink protein shakes), or you’re going on a business trip and need to bring liquid product samples, you’ll need to check your bag. “TSA will confiscate any liquids that are placed in containers larger than 3.4 ounces, even if they contain less than 3.4 ounces of liquid,” says Matt Woodley, founder of Mover Focus. “According to TSA, you’re allowed to bring liquids, aerosols, gels, creams, and pastes in a clear quart-sized bag. Even if you follow these guidelines, it is still possible that your bag may undergo additional screening if you’re carrying liquids.” If TSA tosses your tube of toothpaste, don’t get mad. The agent may also think it’s ridiculous but is just doing what’s required. That’s just one of the things your TSA security agent isn’t telling you.

When you’re flying low-cost carriers

Congratulations on finding dirt-cheap airfare! Still, everything comes at a cost—and, in this case, it may be your ability to get away with only a carry-on bag. “Fast-growing, no-frills airlines are competing on costs for everything,” says Brett Manders, an international airline pilot and author of the book Behind the Flight Deck Door: Insider Knowledge About Everything You Have Ever Wanted to Ask a Pilot. “So, there is a really good chance that you will have to walk a long way to your departure gate because they don’t have a prime spot. In addition to lugging your luggage through the terminal, security, and passport control, you then might have to carry your bags up or down a set of stairs to the aircraft. Airlines have to pay airports for the use of aerobridges, and low-cost carriers will try to avoid using them.”

When you’re going on a humanitarian mission trip

If you’re on a mission to spread some goodwill around the world and help those in need, there’s a good chance you’re traveling with lots of extra goodies—from stockpiles of medical supplies for a health-care crisis to toys and educational materials for children. “When going on a humanitarian mission trip, maximize your checked-bag space with items for people at the destination,” says travel blogger Charles McCool. The bottom line: You can fit more in there, and you also won’t have to worry about what you can and can’t put in your carry-on.

When you can check a bag for free

It doesn’t feel like there are many perks when it comes to air travel these days, but for those who have achieved elite airline status, everything changes. “Having elite status with an airline means you can check a bag for free,” says Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights. “Some airline credit cards make your checked bags free, as well. And if you’re flying to a destination like southern South America, Africa, or Asia, checked baggage is free for economy passengers.”

When you’re traveling alone

There’s something very liberating about jetting off to a new city by yourself—until you’re sitting at the airport, feeling hungry or needing to squeeze into a tiny restroom stall. “As a solo traveler, I have no one to watch my bags if I want to go get something to eat,” says Jose Bone of The Passport Office. “This makes having all my bags with me a hindrance while browsing what the terminals have to offer.”

When you’re a newbie or a nervous traveler

Are you new to travel and a bit worried about all the details—from keeping your passport in an easy-to-reach (but not steal!) spot to separating your liquids? Or are you always a bit of a worrywart? Then checking your bag could save you a lot of headaches. “There’s no worrying about losing your luggage, because it’s not with you,” says Bone. “I already have a bad habit of triple-checking my belongings constantly, so less luggage is just less for me to worry about while I wait for my flight.” If you’re a new traveler, you may also want to keep these best luggage brands in mind while traveling. Don’t miss these 14 things smart travelers always do before a flight.

When you’re bringing back lots of souvenirs

Many travelers love shopping for trinkets, treasures, and other souvenirs, but if you relegate yourself to a carry-on bag, your space may be too limited for all your new valuables. “If you’re visiting a place for the first time, you may be eager to bring back a lot of souvenirs, like rugs from Turkey, designer bags from London, or even your favorite food from another U.S. state,” says Alexis Tiacoh, a public-relations manager at Expedia. “I personally like to shop, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been so thankful for having a big checked bag to fit the new clothes and shoes I bought.” Here are 16 more things never to forget when traveling overseas.

Jill Schildhouse
As an editor-at-large for Reader's Digest, Jill Schildhouse regularly covers travel, wellness, food, beauty, consumer products and product reviews. She has more than 20 years of experience as an award-winning lifestyle writer and editor, and she frequently contributes to Travel + Leisure, Bride’s, Southern Living, Taste of Home and Insider. Jill has traveled to 36 countries and is always planning her next domestic or overseas adventure.