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How I Learned to Let Go of My Baggage — Literally

Embrace it. Photo: UpperCut Images/Getty Images

I have changed my mind about checked baggage.

I used to hold the traditional view of frequent, childless travelers: You can have my suitcase when you take it from my cold, dead hands. When I land, I want to leave the airport as quickly as possible — I don’t want to stand around at baggage claim, like an idiot, wondering how long it will take my bag to drop down a conveyor belt. I don’t want to run the risk that you will lose my bag, or put it on a later flight than the one I’m on. And I definitely don’t want to pay for the privilege of any of that.

But as I have grown older and calmer, I have come to realize that it is nice to have someone else carry your bags for you. Roxane Gay is largely right about this, and so are the roughly 79 percent of passengers who check at least one bag on a typical flight, according to SITA, an airline IT company that compiles industry reports. Airlines can generally be trusted to handle your bag properly, and getting your bags back after your travel probably won’t be as much of a pain as you think. And letting go of your large carry-on suitcase means getting to withdraw from the increasingly pitched battle for limited overhead-bin space. With just a personal item, you are free to board the plane as late as you’d like, with not a care about whether the bins over your seat are occupied.

Of course, a major downside of checking bags is bag fees, though often you can avoid paying them (more on that below). Still, there is a silver lining of baggage fees for customers: As airlines have grown to rely on these fees for significant revenue, they have needed to take steps to convince customers that checking bags is worth it. So they have invested in tracking technology that makes bag delivery more reliable and keeps customers informed about where their bags are. As a result, rates of baggage mishandling are down sharply from what they were when bag-check was free; your bag is less than half as likely to be lost, delayed, damaged or stolen as it was in 2007. Two large U.S. airlines will even make you a promise: On Delta and Alaska, if your bag isn’t at baggage claim within 20 minutes after your flight gets to the gate, you’re entitled to 2,500 extra frequent-flier miles.

Still, I don’t check bags all the time. Here are the questions I ask myself to decide whether checking a bag is the right strategy for a given flight.

What do I need to bring with me? On short trips with just a backpack and an overnight bag, checking luggage is obviously silly. On a ski trip, it’s inevitable. The marginal cases are business or leisure trips of about five days or a week. For these, I usually take a backpack and a Tumi suitcase that is just small enough to fit in the overhead bin. But just because a bag can be carried on doesn’t mean it should be. A thing about my suitcase is it has an accordion expansion: Open a zipper and it becomes two inches thicker, making a lot more space for clothes. This is great when packing for a week. But technically, with the expansion open, my suitcase is too big to carry on. In my 20s, you may have spotted me on a concourse at JFK or LAX, sitting atop this suitcase under the watchful eye of a gate agent, forcing this expansion closed so my bag will fix in the bag sizer and therefore in the overhead bin. This is physically possible. It also will compress and wrinkle your clothes. (Incidentally, if your default mode is to pack your suitcase so full it’s stuffed, please stop — this is why your clothes are always wrinkled on trips.) These days, if I think my bag is going to be so big as to raise questions about whether I was supposed to bring it onboard, I will generally just surrender it to the airline. It might take me a few more minutes to get out of the airport, but I will not need to iron when I get to my hotel.

How much will waiting for bags really delay me? Waits at the baggage claim feel interminable, but they usually aren’t. Delta and Alaska are confident enough in their baggage-handling operations to make that promise: 2,500 extra miles if your bag isn’t there in 20 minutes after a domestic flight. Alaska started guaranteeing bag-delivery times in 2009, when it introduced a fee for the first checked bag. “We said if we’re going to charge for bags, we need to make sure we add value for this added fee,” says airline spokesman Ray Lane. Delta has matched the 20-minute pledge since 2015. (Not coincidentally, Delta has been competing intensely with Alaska over the last decade, growing a hub in Seattle, where Alaska is headquartered.) Delta says it meets the 20-minute target over 80 percent of the time, while Alaska claims better than 90 percent performance. So ask yourself: Will I even be at the bag claim within 20 minutes of my flight’s arrival? Do I want to get a coffee and use the bathroom after I land anyway? At some airport terminals, like JFK Terminal 4, the concourse is so long that my bag sometimes gets to the claim before I do. And in the event the airline doesn’t keep its promise to deliver fast, at least I’ll get my miles; according to current point valuations from the Points Guy, Delta’s bag-apology award is worth $30, while Alaska’s is worth $45 — better than a refund of your bag fee. But remember, you’ll only get your apology award if you ask for it. If Delta delivers your bag late, you’ll need to fill out this form, while if the culprit is Alaska, you’ll need to ask a baggage employee at the airport for a voucher. If I’m flying internationally, the 20-minute guarantee doesn’t apply, but I’m even more inclined to check bags, because I will have to wait in line to clear immigration and my bags are very likely to reach baggage claim before I do.

How much do I trust this airline to handle bags quickly and correctly? If I’m not on Delta or Alaska, I haven’t been promised anything about when my bag will show up. I waited over 50 minutes for a checked bag after a recent United flight to Newark, and I didn’t get anything for my trouble; I didn’t even get to complain on Twitter, because then I wouldn’t get to feel superior to journalists who use Twitter to complain about airline customer-service problems. (I also did not tweet about the time in December that American delivered the bags from my flight to the wrong carousel.) Still, despite these specific annoyances I have experienced, I am convinced that baggage handling has been improving across the industry. Airlines for America, the trade association for U.S. air carriers, calculates that the rate of baggage mishandling in North America has fallen from 7.05 per thousand passengers in 2007 to 2.85 per thousand in 2018. (Over 75 percent of the time, “mishandling” means your bag didn’t get on your plane with you and had to be delivered later; less frequently, bags are stolen, lost, or damaged.) The same technology that lets airlines send you alerts about where your bags are also helps the airlines keep track of those bags; they are more likely, for example, to find and move your luggage so it keeps up with a change in your own travel itinerary. All of which is to say: I basically trust most airlines to deliver my baggage where it’s supposed to go, even United. But if I want to be somewhere quickly after I land, I’ll be more inclined to carry it on if I’m flying a carrier that does not guarantee fast baggage delivery.

Am I connecting? Based on my email inbox, people have conflicting views on whether a flight connection makes checking luggage a better or worse idea. One common sentiment is that schlepping luggage during a layover is annoying, and it’s nice to check the bag and not have to think about it. The countervailing view is that airlines are more likely to lose your bags if they have to put them on more than one flight, which is true as far as it goes: SITA, the aviation IT firm, estimates that nearly half of baggage delays are caused by mishandling at transfer. Still, I go back to that overall industry stat: For every 1,000 bags that are checked, over 995 of them get where they’re supposed to go when they’re supposed to go there. I’m willing to take that small risk to be luggage-free on a layover. On a recent trip to Norway, I even used a three-hour layover at Schiphol Airport to very briefly explore Amsterdam, much to the consternation of some Instagram followers who said my timestamped stories about rushing back to the airport gave them vicarious stress (sorry). And even if you intend to listen to your husband when he tells you it’s crazy to leave the airport on a three-hour layover, it’s nice to be without big bags when exploring the terminal.

Will I have to pay to check this bag? Nobody likes added fees, except the airlines, which have made enormous amounts of money by charging for even the first checked bag on domestic flights. Still, you may not need to pay to check your bag. I find frequent fliers with elite status tend to fixate most on following their carry-on-only strategies, but they are also the best positioned to check luggage. Not only are they entitled to one or several free checked bags, they are entitled to have “priority” flags attached to their bags, which should (and usually do) lead to them being delivered to the baggage claim first. If you don’t have airline status from your travel, you might consider signing up for an airline credit card that offers a free checked bag (and other benefits, like priority boarding) for a low annual fee. The first checked bag is still generally free on international flights. If you’re in first class, you get free checked bags. Some premium credit cards offer an annual rebate of ancillary airline charges, like for those bags and Wi-Fi. Personally, I have status that entitles me to free checked bags on Delta and American, so I use my American Express Platinum Card to pay for checked bags on United; Amex will rebate me up to $200 in fees from United, annually. Finally, my brother-in-law offers a tip: If you don’t want to pay fees for two checked bags (or if your status entitles you to exactly one free checked bag), check one at the counter and offer the second one up to be gate-checked before boarding. You’re already going to be waiting at bag claim for one bag; what’s another?

Am I heading out or coming home? Lately, I will sometimes carry my bag on the outbound leg of a trip and then check it when I’m returning home. Maybe I bought some clothes and my suitcase is more full, or maybe I want to bring home a bottle of wine that has to be checked. And if the airline mishandles my bag on the way back, so what? Having to wait for the delivery of a bag full of dirty clothes to my home is much less of a problem than having to wait for the delivery of my vacation clothes to a hotel.

Am I embarking on the travel day from hell? Aside from having just an overnight bag, this is the No. 1 reason that I avoid checking luggage these days. Suppose I’m at Chicago O’Hare, trying to return to New York, and severe thunderstorms are delaying flights. In this case, I want to be nimble, mercurial, catlike. If the flight that was supposed to leave two hours before mine hasn’t even left the gate, I want to be on the standby list for it. If I think my flight to LaGuardia is going to be hours late, I want to be able to change to a flight to JFK. In these “irregular operations” situations, airlines will generally offer you extreme flexibility to change your travel plans for free — unless you have checked a bag, in which case that bag acts like a cursed anchor, trapping you on the flight where you were originally booked, even as others take off around you. These are the situations in which I still hold on to my suitcase for my dear life — my carry-on is my freedom, my flexibility, my ticket out of Chicago. But if the weather is good, I’m happy to have my bag in the hold.

How I Learned to Let Go of My Baggage — Literally