In Defense of Voluntarily Checking a Bag
One of air travel's oldest traditions should be thought of as a luxury, not a burden
I’ve traveled out of the country four times this year, touched down in 15 American airports not including JFK, LaGuardia and Newark, and I’ve learned two things from all that travel: 1) the New Jersey airport is the best in the Tri-state area; it’s a little more expensive to get back to New York by cab or Uber, but worth it for the decrease in headaches and better food options. Second: I almost always check my bag.
I recognize that this doesn’t exactly sound revolutionary, and I also know that some people will probably email me to tell me I’m an idiot for picking Newark over JFK, but I’m comfortable with both of my decisions. Yet while I hold out hope that the airports in Queens can somehow, someday figure out how to not suck, I’m pretty sure this checking my bags thing is going to stick considering how rough air travel almost always is.
Flying is hell
I’m sorry, but it’s the truth. The entire process from start to finish is pretty close to dehumanizing, from getting to the airport to waiting in long TSA lines (even if you have something like TSA PreCheck). Then there’s the crap airport food, the people in Zone X standing by the entrance to the gate when they haven’t even called Zone A, and that’s all before you get crammed onto the plane. Yes, a lot of this can be fixed by paying unconscionable surcharges for first class or having any of a number of prerequisites that allow you to board early (kids, veteran status, a broken ankle, etc.). But what about the other 75 percent of passengers? Everybody else falls into one of two categories: those who know there will be a place for their bag to put in the overhead bins, and those who are rolling the dice.
Before I get to my big point, the thing that could make life easier is simply strategic booking. Try to stick to one airline, have a specific airline’s credit card or simply don’t book the cheapest ticket you see. If you really, absolutely, 100 percent need to have your bag with you on the plane, you can ensure it will be so by thinking ahead.
To check or not to check?
Listen, some of us have places to be. I get that. You took that early-ass flight to Houston because you land at 9:00 and the meeting is at 10:30, so you don’t have time to mess around. I’m not going to tell you to check your bag. You’re on a mission.
For the rest of us, however, I’m going to suggest you check your bag even if it’s perfectly sized for you to bring on the plane. The reason is simple: it’s one less thing to stress about.
Now, I’m not going to outright tell you to pay extra for checked bag fees and give the airlines more of your cash. If it’s free, like it is on Southwest (always) or JetBlue (as long as you don’t purchase the cheapest flight), then go for it. Be free. Think for a second if you really, 100-percent totally can’t wait a few minutes after the flight for your bag. If you have the time to spare, then do it. I realize there are worries that your luggage will get damaged or lost, but according to SITA, baggage loss has been cut down by 50 percent. So while the nightmare of losing your suitcase is still a possibility, the chances are good you’ll roll out of the airport with it.
Again: if you have somewhere to be, keep your bag. If not, check it as soon as possible. Check it at the nifty curbside checkin that many flyers forget about (just remember to tip). Check it at the proper checkin on the other side of the revolving door. And if you hear the flight is full and they’re taking bags free of charge, check it right away, whether you’re the first to board or in the last group they’re going to call (in which case you will be checking it regardless).
You wheel your bag to the gate, they tag it, and now you have one less thing to think about it. Et voila, you have just reduced the rigamarole of flying by one step. (Note as well that by checking your bag you are probably opening up an overhead space for someone who really needs it, thus achieving what the airlines have failed at: making flying just a tad bit less stressful for everyone.)
Think about all the times you’ve boarded a flight. What seems to cause all the gridlock between you scanning your ticket and getting to your seat? It’s usually because some guy is trying to cram his suitcase into any crack of light he can find. There are plenty of other reasons flights get held up, but there is something so incredibly frustrating about watching someone desperately wheel a suitcase up and down the aisle that you know is just a little too big to fit, but they’re going to get it in there somehow or another.
Ultimately what I’m saying here is if you don’t have to pay for it, check your bag, even if it’s a carry-on (obviously backpacks, briefcases, your dog … those go with you). Try thinking of the airline offering to take your bag free of charge as an act of kindness: both for yourself and your fellow passengers. I know you paid a lot of money to get on that plane, and I know the last thing you want to do is spend a little more time not starting your trip or getting home after a long flight, but consider that the act of boarding a plane might be the single most frustrating sequence in the entire flying process. Make it a little less stressful for yourself and everybody else and maybe, just possibly, we can all enjoy our time in the friendly skies a tad bit more.
See the world from your inbox.
Sign up for The Journey, our Travel newsletter.