At the outset of any trip, we’re often consumed with what to pack. However, very few of us ever concern ourselves with how to pack. In the past, it’s been simple: grab a suitcase and stuff it to bursting with whatever we think we’ll need to survive our trip. But with the ever-rising cost of checked luggage, the option of carry-on travel leaves many travelers considering how to do more with less.
In the following few paragraphs, we’ll cover the pros and cons of both carry-on and checked luggage. We’ll cover which of the two systems we prefer, along with our reasoning why, to help you make the best decision for you.
Some posts on this site contain affiliate links, meaning if you make a purchase through one of these links, we may earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you). Read the full disclosure policy here.
What is considered carry-on luggage?
- Small bag permitted in the passenger area of the plane (overhead bin or under the seat in front of you).
- Typical max dimensions for carry-on: 9 inches x 14 inches x 22 inches = 45 total linear inches (22 cm x 35 cm x 56 cm = 113 linear total centimeters). Linear is measured by adding Length + Width + Height. We have found that the Patagonia Black Hole Duffle and the Osprey Meridian Wheeled Backpack both work really well as carry-on luggage.
- Typical max weight for carry-on: most airlines don’t have weight restrictions for carry-on, you just need to be able to lift it yourself without the help of a flight attendant.
Rules for carry-on bags can vary slightly between airlines and even entire regions or countries; be sure to check online with every airline you’ll be flying for their specific rules and recommendations. Some will be either more or less strict for their max dimensions and weight, and it’s best to pack for the most strict airline you’ll be flying – though we’ve honestly never encountered any problems sticking to the info we’ve provided above.
Pros – The advantages of carrying everything with you…
- Less stuff to manage – You pack only what you need
- Easier to get around – With less stuff to manage you can move around an airport, train station, or bus terminal with ease; transporting luggage to and from a hotel room can be done in a single trip
- Less likely to get lost – It’s on or around you at all times – no chance of it missing your connecting flight!
- Faster check-in – Check-in online to obtain your boarding pass and head straight to security upon arriving at the Airport – no need to wait in an additional line!
- No additional baggage fees (check with the specific airline you are flying with)
- No waiting at baggage claim – Beat the crowds to your rental car pickup or transportation to explore the much-anticipated destination!
- Saves money – You can’t buy an abundance of souvenirs at your destination cause you don’t have room for them
- Makes you look like you know what you’re doing – A confident traveler is less likely to make themselves a target for thieves
Cons – The disadvantages of carrying everything with you…
- Difficult for lengthy trips
- Limited packing space – Fewer clothes and shoes, no souvenirs, etc.
- Limited liquid toiletries – TSA 3-1-1 rule: liquids in 3 ounces (or less) sized containers that fit in a single 1-quart size bag per person. Can be a problem for those that are picky about which toiletries they use or for women who wear a lot of make-up.
- Security Hassle – Security requires many different objects to be removed from bags to be scanned; since you are carrying everything with you, you have more stuff to pull out
- Overhead Bins – Depending on when you load the plane, it may not be in the overhead compartment directly above your seat, or worse there’s no room and you have to check it.
- More to juggle through the airport – can be quite cumbersome, or even impossible, if you are traveling with little kids. Specifically, when you are running to make a connecting flight, carry-on luggage has the potential of slowing you down.
- More expensive – with less space, clothing and gear is going to have to pull double duty – specialty gear usually means it needs to be more durable, lighter weight, and by design: more expensive.
What is considered checked luggage?
- Large Suitcase that has to go in the cargo area of the plane
- Typical max dimensions for checked luggage: 27 inches x 21 inches x 14 inches = 62 total linear inches (69 cm x 53 cm x 36 cm = 158 linear total centimeters). Linear is measured by adding Length + Width + Height
- Typical max weight for checked luggage: 50 pounds (23 kilograms)
Rules for checked bags can vary slightly between airlines and even entire regions or countries; be sure to check online with every airline you’ll be flying for their specific rules and recommendations. Some will be either more or less strict for their max dimensions and weight, and it’s best to pack for the most strict airline you’ll be flying – though we’ve honestly never encountered any problems sticking to the info we’ve provided above.
Pros – The advantages of checking a bag with the airline…
- Easier for longer trips and multiple destinations
- More packing space
- Can pack as many toiletries as you want
- Cheaper Gear – Can pack the clothes and gear you already own; no need to buy specialty gear which is more expensive
- Easier at security – Can pack items into checked luggage that security would have you remove from your bag
- Hobbies (diving, photography, etc.) allows you to bring more gear for what you enjoy doing at your destination
- Less to keep track of as you go through the airport to make connecting flights
Cons – The disadvantages of checking a bag with the airline…
- More stuff to manage – Hard to navigate a city, train station, bus terminal, or to get everyone and their stuff into a rental car or rideshare (Uber, Lyft). Requires multiple trips to carry everything to and from a hotel room, or extra money to tip a porter
- Longer check-in – Even if you check in online, you still have to stand in line with the airline to drop off your luggage
- Additional Baggage Fee – Usually $25 (check with the specific airline you are flying)
- Higher risk of getting lost – Risk of luggage missing your connecting flight – or worse, gets sent to the wrong destination
- Wait at Baggage Claim – Additional time of waiting for luggage at baggage claim when you’re ready to explore or be home – sometimes up to an hour if there’s a problem with the airline
- Risk Bag Damage – Baggage handlers don’t care as much about your stuff as you do
What We Recommend
We lean toward carry-on traveling
We find that most of the disadvantages of minimalist traveling can be managed and the benefits of having less stuff to keep track of far outweigh the ability to pack more:
Manage limited toiletries
- Use bar toiletries that are considered solids like Ethique shampoo bar, conditioner bar, and deodorant bar.
- Purchase toiletries at your destination
- Most hotels provide shampoo, conditioner, and lotion anyways
Manage limited space
- Packing cubes and rolling clothes help compress to fit more
- Pack outfits that pull double duty (same color scheme can be worn multiple ways with different items). A blanket scarf is a perfect example of this and since it also acts as a blanket if needed.
- Purchase technical clothing – lightweight, compressible, and versatile to wear in a variety of environments (exploring nature to a night on the town – there are clothes designed to do both comfortably!). One example of this is the Men’s Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket or Women’s Marmot Featherless Jacket. These jackets compress down nicely into a pocket that can then double as a pillow.
As you can see, each system has their challenges to overcome. There is no right or wrong choice. It comes down to personal preference and weighing what is important to you. What you decide to do for one trip, may not work well for another – or might just need a bit of tweaking to make work.
Hopefully, we have shed some light on carry-on vs. checked luggage and provided you with the ability to make the best decision for you! At the very least, we hope we’ve inspired you to try and pack less stuff to be more mobile and adaptable when at your destination.
The adventure begins with packing; which do you choose – carry-on or checked luggage? Let us know in the comment section below or send us an email.