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Carry On Bag or Checked Luggage: How to Choose

Suitcase and travel stuff

The Greatest Dilemma of Flying: To Carry On or To Check Your Luggage

We may agonize over flight times and prices, but really, we all know the greatest dilemma of flying is deciding whether to use only Carry On Bags, or to Check our Luggage. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, the circumstances of our trip dictate our choice: a quick weekend escape? Carry On; a two week Norwegian Adventure in Winter? Check that Luggage! For the most part, though, the decision is never that clear cut, and it’s one some of us may struggle with most out of everything about our trip. 

Airport Travel

Since we at Love of the Magic Vacations don’t want our wonderful clients to struggle with anything about their trips, we decided the best way to use our Travel Advisor Magic is to help you decide! And yes, those of you who follow along on Jamie’s social media may remember that Jamie herself experienced “delayed” luggage on one of her latest trips, which is exactly what inspired this blog! 

So let’s explore some Pros and Cons of both Carry On Bags and Checked Luggage, and also, how to ultimately make up your mind!

Traveling child

Carry On Bag


Peace of Mind (Knowing Your Bag Won’t Get Lost)

Arguably the greatest motivation for using only a Carry On Bag is that it basically can’t get lost (unless you lose it yourself, so make sure not to do that!). Anyone who has ever checked a bag has gone through the moment of watching it coast down the conveyor belt and out of sight, knowing there’s a possibility of never seeing it again (and somehow that possibility seems to have grown exponentially over the last few decades). But, when you somehow figure out how to fit everything you need into a regulation size Carry On Bag, you never need to wonder about whether or not you’ll ever see your belongings again. Using a Carry On Bag really does offer peace of mind. And for those of us who suffer from anxiety, or who like to feel in control of what we can amidst the chaos of traveling, using a Carry On Bag can mean the difference between an anxiety-filled flight, or a more peaceful one. 

Suitcase and Tickets

You Always Have Everything You Need With You

Have you ever found yourself in need of something simple, like medicine for a headache, or a sweatshirt, or an extra set of clothes for your kiddo (in addition to that extra you always carry in your purse anyway), only to realize you packed all the medicine, and your extra layers, and your extra extra kids’ clothes into the luggage you just checked? If you’ve been there and done that and DON’T want to do it again, packing everything into a Carry On Bag means you will always have everything you brought with you right beside you. With a Carry On Bag, you won’t have to spend extra money on an overpriced bottle of Tylenol from the airport newsstand, though I would still recommend packing strategically, so you don’t have to unpack your entire bag to get a quick item you need. 

Airport Terminal

It’s Usually Free, or at least Less Expensive

Most airlines still allow for one Carry On Bag and one personal item (such as a purse or backpack) without charging extra. However, some of the budget airlines do charge for Carry On Bags, so be sure to know what your ticket covers when you think you’re getting a super cheap fare. Using a Carry On Bag will usually save you from the extra expense that checked luggage incurs on most airlines these days. 

Airport travelers


It’s. So. Small.

Just like the main motivation for using a Carry On Bag is not losing it, the main drawback is pretty universal as well: It’s. So. Small. Unless you are going away for a very short trip, or you’re a super light packer by nature, trying to fit a vacation’s worth of clothes and shoes and toiletries (we’ll get to that next, too) and any other necessities is challenging at best, and impossible at worst, depending on the length of your trip and your destination. Generally, packing for warmer destinations is easier to fit in a Carry On Bag, since warm weather clothes and shoes take up less room, but a winter weather destination, such as a ski trip, or visit to a cooler climate destination such as Norway or Scotland may prevent using only a Carry On Bag.

Small suitcase

Liquid Restrictions Limit Toiletry Choices

In addition to the size of your bag as a whole being smaller, you are only allowed to bring toiletries of regulation size as well. So if you’re a person who absolutely cannot live without certain products that don’t come in travel size, or that you can’t easily put into approved travel size containers, your decision about whether to use a Carry On Bag or Checked Luggage might already be made. Pro Tip: The liquid size restriction rule also makes it next to impossible to travel with any useful amount of sunscreen, so if you’re headed to a destination where you plan to order in some groceries for the room when you get there, don’t forget to add sunscreen to your list!

Suitcase at airport

You May Be Forced to Gate Check Anyway

With so many people trying to use only Carry On Bags now (especially since the rise of extra fees for Checked Luggage), there is no guarantee that there will be room for everyone’s Carry On Bags on the plane. That means all the work you put into cramming all of your stuff into a Carry On Bag might have been for nothing if the airline forces people to check their bags (sometimes this can only result in Gate Checking your Carry On Bag, which at least cuts out the Baggage Claim carousel, but it’s still not the situation you planned for). 

Baggage Claim

Checked Luggage


You Can Bring All The Things (within reason)

A standard size suitcase can make all the difference if you are a person who feels better traveling with your own familiar things and/or if you like to have options. Multiple outfit options for most, if not all, days? You can bring them. Numerous pairs of shoes? They’ll likely fit. All of your regular toiletries without squeezing them into tiny bottles? Throw them in! Your industrial strength hair dryer? Pack it up! Of course, your space isn’t completely unlimited, but compared to a Carry On Bag, you’ll feel like you have room to spare! Even if you tend to be a heavy packer, it should go without saying that any items that could be considered dangerous should be left at home. 

Airport Gate

Unencumbered Airport and Flight Experience

Have you ever seen those people who board the plane with just their wallet and cell phone, or maybe just a purse? They seem so light and free, don’t they? While this isn’t a reality many of us can achieve while traveling as a family with kids, it’s definitely something we can have as a goal while traveling alone or just with other adults. Many of us are exhausted from the airport schlep itself, let alone the rest of the travel day, and watching these bagless people move around so easily makes it seem like such a wonderful way to travel! And it can be! As long as you don’t have anxiety over checking your luggage that would basically cancel out that freedom. 

Airport Luggage cart

More Room for Souvenirs 

Another great reason to go the route of Checked Luggage is to have extra room for whatever you plan to bring back with you; Hello, Souvenirs and Gifts for Everyone for Every Occasion for the Year! Depending how much shopping you plan to do in whatever destination you’re visiting, you should plan for space accordingly. I once knew someone who actually would pack a smaller suitcase, then nest it into a larger one for the amount of shopping they planned to do! Surely not everyone’s shopping plans will be that extreme, but planning for some extra room for goodies you find along your travels is never a bad idea. 



You May Never See It Again

As expected, the number one reason people hesitate to use Checked Luggage is because they are afraid of it getting lost. In the worst case scenario, you could never see your belongings again if your luggage is never found, while less severe scenarios include your Checked Luggage arriving late to your destination, or late on your return home. While you can probably go without what you packed for vacation once you get back home, it would still not be great to have filled your bags with souvenirs just to wonder if you’ll ever see them again. And worse, if your Checked Luggage arrives late to your vacation destination, you’ll probably have to do a little shopping for some essentials to get by for as long as it takes to arrive, and you might even have to return to the airport to pick it up, which puts an extra damper on an already tough situation. Lost or delayed Checked Luggage is definitely not something fun to think about. 

Airport Conveyor Belt

Waiting Forever at Baggage Claim

Far less inconvenient than losing your Checked Luggage, but still not the most pleasant experience is waiting for what seems like an eternity in the baggage claim section of the airport. Remember that “Con” of using a Carry On Bag that made Carry On users look longingly at anyone who enjoyed an unencumbered experience at the airport? Those same “free to move about” people will be trapped at baggage claim waiting for their Checked Luggage while anyone who used a Carry On Bag can breeze right out of the airport and head to their vacation. Either way, it seems like a “pick your poison” type situation. 

Loading Plane Luggage

Your Bag or Items Inside Can Get Broken

Baggage Handlers are not known to be very gentle while loading luggage on and off of conveyer belts and into and out of planes’ storage compartments. It’s never fair to generalize, and I’m sure there are Baggage Handlers who try very hard not to break anything on or in Checked Luggage, but at the same time, Checked Luggage is handled in a notoriously rough way. It’s not unusual for a wheel to be broken off of a rolling suitcase, or for a fabric suitcase to get a tear, or for items inside to break unless packed with the utmost care and caution. With Checked Luggage, once your bag is out of your hands, it’s literally in someone else’s, and how they treat it is out of your control. 

Line of Luggage

How to Choose

While some people fall strictly into Team Carry On or Team Checked Luggage, with so many clear positives and negatives to both, it’s easy to understand why others struggle to decide which option is best. If you’re still unsure about what Bag option to choose for your next trip, keep reading for some guidance on How to Choose.

Suitcase and Hat

Identify Your Priorities

Just like with any other travel decisions (or many other life decisions, too), the key to making the “right” choice (and of course “right” is subjective to you and your family), is Identifying your Priorities. If your number one Priority is to NOT lose your luggage no matter what, then you choose to use a Carry On Bag. If your top Priority is to have as many outfit options and familiar comforts as possible, then you go with Checked Luggage. If sticking to a budget is a priority, then using a Carry On Bag might be the way to go if that option is free with your airline ticket. And if you know you’ll be doing lots of shopping (because maybe you’re going on a Christmas Market River Cruise), then maybe Checked Luggage is your best bet. Your choice should always be based on whatever works best for YOU.

Baggage claim

Invest in Travel Essentials that Will Help

Whether you choose to go with a Carry On Bag or Checked Luggage, there are some super helpful inventions out there to help support your packing choice. For example, if you’ve decided to use a Carry On Bag, there are so many packing cube options available, some of which even have a compression feature to save space. Alternatively, if you’ve chosen Checked Luggage, an item like an AirTag can help you gain some peace of mind, since you can track your bag, and see where it winds up, even if it gets lost, and then alert the airline to your bag’s whereabouts. Other helpful travel essentials include travel size toiletry bottles, and rolling suitcases with wheels that rotate 360 degrees for ease of movement, among many other things, too!

Airport Walkway

Be Ready For the Unexpected

Of course, if you choose to go with Checked Luggage, you hope beyond hope that your bags get to your destination safely, and if you choose a Carry On Bag, you hope that the airline won’t make you check your bag at the gate. Though the chances of these things happening are slim, it is still better to be prepared, just in case. If Checked Luggage is your choice, make sure you have a spare outfit (and bathing suit if appropriate for your destination, since finding a good bathing suit is generally more difficult than picking up leggings and a t-shirt) for everyone traveling with you in bags that you’ll have with you on the plane. And if you are using a Carry On Bag, make sure there’s nothing in that bag that you can’t fly without (or easily remove and stash in your purse or backpack for the plane), so that if you have to gate check your bag, you won’t be without anything you need. 

Happy Suitcase

Ready to Pack?

Now that you know the Pros and Cons of using a Carry On Bag and Checked Luggage, are you ready to pack for your next adventure? Whatever destination you’d like to pack for, I would love to help you choose and plan the perfect vacation! Email me today at to get started planning, or click here for a free quote from me or your favorite Love of the Magic Vacations Travel Advisor!

Carry on bag or checked luggage



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