Carry On Vs Checked Bag – The Crucial Differences

Last Updated on March 27, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Carry-on bags are often free whereas checked bags almost always involve baggage fees
  • Checked luggage is larger and allows passengers to bring more items whereas carry-on luggage is smaller and requires passengers to travel lighter
  • TSA rules for carry-on bags are more restrictive than checked bags
  • The risk that items will be lost, stolen, or damaged, is greater with checked bags than carry-on bags

Check out this comparison table about the difference between carry-on luggage and checked luggage.

Checked Baggage vs Carry On Comparison Chart

Carry On BaggageChecked Baggage
Cost: Typically Free (Except Spirit, Frontier & other low-cost carriers)Cost: Typically $30 per bag
Allowance: One Personal Item 18x14x8 inches AND one carry-on 22x14x9 inchesAllowance: 62 linear inches W + H + D must not be more than 62 inches
Capacity: 45 liters for the carry on + 30 liters for the personal item = 75 liters totalCapacity: 110 liters
Restrictions: Strict limits on liquids. Travel-size products can be expensive.Restrictions: No real limits of liquids. Full-size shampoo bottles. Lithium battery power packs are only permitted in carry on.
Check-in: Online and straight to security. But you’ll need to drag your bag everywhere you go in the airport including the toilet if you are traveling alone. And your carry-on might be force checked at the gate anywayCheck-in: Need to arrive earlier at the airport and wait in line to check in at the desk or to drop off luggage
Storage: You need to battle with other passengers to find overhead bin space. You need to be able to physically lift your bag over your headStorage: No need to fight for overhead bin space your bag is kept in the hold of the plane
Baggage Claim: Baggage claim is for losers 🙂Baggage Claim: All going well your luggage will arrive and you’ll wait to collect it here
Flexibility: You can always check hand luggage if you preferFlexibility: You can never choose to bring oversize luggage into the cabin
Environment: Lighter luggage us better for the environment since less fuel is burnedEnvironment: Heavy luggage contributes to the burning of fossil fuels
Risk Of Damage Theft: You are never far from your luggage to the risk is very low.Risk Of Damage Theft: You hand your luggage over to strangers and hope you get it back intact.

Those are the main differences between checked baggage vs carry-on.

The main reason I choose to travel light is that I just don’t like lugging around a lot of stuff.

But I also don’t like paying money to expose my stuff to the risk of theft or damage.

So I would only consider bringing a large checked suitcase if I was moving house but for even a long vacation I can manage fine by packing light.

A Little History

For the last decade, the carry-on vs checked bag debate has been intensely fought in all corners of the internet.

Years ago, American Airlines were the first airline in the states to introduce fees for checked luggage. This invigorated the carry-on-only movement and savvy passengers found ways to downsize and avoid paying extra to travel.

People even started calling themselves “OneBaggers” and embraced this identity like a badge of pride worn with a certain degree of smugness. Admittedly, it can feel good to ‘beat the system’ and save money.

Checked baggage fees also created huge pressure on the overhead bin system for storing carry-on luggage. It’s a common sight for passengers to rush to try to board first to get a coveted space in the overhead bin for their carry-on.

Checkers, on the other hand, opted out of this nonsense. They valued their large suitcases and their large wardrobes too much to be put off by a $30 each-way checked baggage fee. And they could avoid overhead bin battles simply by stumping up a little extra cash.

What Is A Checked Bag?

Checked baggage can be large and spacious. Most checked bags are significantly larger than carry-on bags.

Checked baggage is luggage that you hand over to the airline when you arrive at the airport. Passengers do this at either the check-in desk or a luggage drop-off point.

After you have checked your bag it will be scanned and potentially searched by the TSA. It will then be taken to the hold area of the plane.

The airline will be responsible for the care of your checked bag. Occasionally checked bags get lost. There is also a risk that items are damaged or stolen from within your checked luggage. We don’t recommend storing any laptops, valuables or breakables in checked baggage for this reason. Even if you use a checked bag for clothes it’s a good idea to also fly with a personal item bag for valuables.

Recent statistics suggest that airlines lose 5 or 6 bags per 1000 passengers. For some people, this seems acceptable since the number is low. If you phrase it differently you could say for every flight with 200 people on board someone’s bag is lost. Saying it that way it seems much higher.

You won’t see your checked baggage again until you have reached your destination and it will arrive at the baggage claim area. Here you’ll need to wait with other passengers as suitcases travel around a carousel.

It’s a good idea to make sure checked bags are easily identifiable so that you don’t pick up the wrong luggage or another passenger takes your luggage by mistake. Make sure you use a colorful luggage strap or tie a ribbon around your suitcase to make it unique.

What Is Carry-On Luggage?

Carry-on luggage is always smaller than checked luggage. Airlines have strict limits about the size of carry-on luggage because space inside the plane cabin is limited. Carry-on bags need to either fit under the seat in front of you or in the overhead bin.

You can save time after you have landed if you fly with a carry-on because you don’t need to wait for the luggage carousel to come around to claim your bag.

You also save time when you arrive at the airport since you don’t need to drop off your bags at the check-in desk.

Often flights can be canceled or changed at the last minute. If you have already handed over your luggage to the care of the airline you will be waiting around to get your luggage back before you can book an alternative flight.

Because your carry-on will be coming with you into the plane the TSA is much more strict about what you can and can’t pack in a carry-on. Anything that could be used to bludgeon someone like a baseball bat won’t be allowed in hand luggage. Also, because of the risk of people getting flammables into the cabin liquids are limited so toiletries are limited.

There are a lot more rules to follow when packing a carry-on than then packing a bag that will be checked.

Airlines have created a confusing system when it comes to checked bags vs carry-on bags. Airlines attempt to charge you for checked bags and then when you reach the boarding gate they sometimes force you to check your carry-on for free.

If you decide to check a bag regardless of its size you will pay the checked bag fee. If the airline decides to check your bag at the gate because of a lack of space then it will be free to check your carry-on bag.

Many passengers feel that the whole aviation luggage system is wrong.

It would seem more sensible to charge for the convenience of carry-on bags and to offer checked bags for free. This would speed up boarding time since it’s always slowed down by the process of passengers trying to find space in the overhead bins.

Checked Luggage Is Safer Then Carry-On Luggage

There would be an additional safety benefit if all luggage was stored in the hold rather than inside the cabin. You may find the following video disturbing:

Please, in the event of an emergency landing. Leave your carry-on luggage behind! It could save lives including your own.

For this reason, even though I love to travel with hand luggage, I would support the mandatory checking of all bags instead of carry-on luggage. Carry-on luggage is a safety risk because dumb humans in a crisis will worry more about their belongings than their lives.

The Verdict

The checked baggage vs carry-on debate will run for a long time to come.

Years ago, both sides became firmly entrenched and travelers are unlikely to swap sides in this argument.

There are pros and cons to both carry on luggage and checked bags. The logical solution about what is best probably depends on the trip you are taking and what you’ll be doing there.

But the checked bag vs carry-on tribes don’t often do logic. Being a checker or a one-bagger is an ideology, it’s deeply connected to who we think we are.

People are strangely passionate about this subject, it’s funny how the little things define us. We’ve tried to remain impartial but you’ll probably be able to guess which side of the fence we are on at TravelingLight from the name of the blog.

Writing this post has led us to a better understanding of people who check bags. Maybe you guys are not crazy after all…

So we’d like to end with a plea for understanding. Dear friends and neighbors, we are all a brotherhood of airline passengers. Try to see things from other people’s points of view.

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