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If You’re Checking a Bag, Don’t Bring a Single Thing Onto That Plane You Don’t Need in Flight.

There are lots of good reasons to avoid checking a bag when you fly. This post is not aiming to convince you to check your bag every time. If I can fit everything in a carry-on, and I don’t need to bring any liquids larger than the 3 oz. limit, sure, I’ll roll my (small) suitcase onto the plane. That just makes sense.

But you know what doesn’t make sense? Checking a bag and then also dragging half your worldly possessions through security and onto the plane with you. In the past couple of years, for most flights, I’ve limited my onboard belongings to one small backpack and a small purse. Both fit underneath the seat, and this has made traveling so much more comfortable and chill for me.

On Southwest Airlines, the airline I fly most, you can check two bags weighing up to 50 pounds for free. So why do I see people, all the time, pull a suitcase out of the overhead bin, roll it over to baggage claim, and collect one more suitcase there? If you’re checking on bag, check the other one too! It’s free!

If you came to the airport wearing a coat or hat or gloves that you don’t plan to wear on the plane, stuff those into your suitcase before you check it. Same with your umbrella or your toddler. (That’s a joke! Obviously, never bring a toddler on a trip.)

If you brought three books along to read on the whole trip, and your sense of organization dictates that all books go in your carryon, defy your sense of organization. Put one book in your carryon, and the other two in your checked bag.

Why is this such a big deal to me? So many reasons. Like:

  • Every single thing you bring through security is a potential bag search trigger. Especially if you have any items that might look weird on the Xray. I like to bring lemons from my California tree home to my mom in Wisconsin. Those have triggered a bag search. Anything sharp-looking could trigger a search. Glass rocks my niece collected from the beach triggered a search. A bag search will slow you down, display your personal items for all the world to see, maybe even make you miss your flight.
  • The more items you bring through security, the more difficult it will be to get them all onto the belt and back off the belt without dropping something, forgetting something, taking forever, or getting all your stuff hopelessly messed up.
  • Once you’re through security, you’ll enjoy your waiting time more if you’re not tethered to a large carryon. With just a small backpack, I can shop, use the bathroom, get my steps in, etc., without getting in peoples’ way or asking someone else to watch my stuff.
  • When you get on a full flight, there might not be any room in the overhead bin. You might have to pass up a good seat or sit far away from your bag (which make disembarking a pain). If you only bring what fits under the seat in front of you, you don’t have to worry about overhead bin space at all.
  • Once you’re on the flight, in cramped quarters, it’s a pain digging through a large, full bag for the one thing you need. On a flight of just a few hours, how many things are you really going to need? Probably fewer than you think.
  • If you put something you actually need in flight in a bag too big to fit under the seat, that means you’ll have to open the overhead bin while you’re in the sky. Which could trigger yours or other peoples’ bags to fall out and bonk fellow passengers on the head. Even if all goes well, wrestling the bag down and back up again can be tricky.
  • It’s so much easier to get in and out of that narrow aisle without pulling a rolling bag. Sadly, you’ll still have to sit (or crouch) at your seat and wait for everyone else to get their bags out of the overhead. Personally, I’d love to see flight crews invite those without bags in the overhead to disembark first, but I’ve never seen that happen.

So What Belongs on the Plane With You?

Obviously, that’s your business (unless it violates the law, then it’s the TSA’s business), and will depend on your circumstances. People traveling with small kids or traveling to a show to display their collection of invaluable fragile figurines will need to bring a lot more crap onbard than the rest of us.

For the past couple of years, every time I fly, I’ve carried a Nordace Siena backpack. It’s small and easy to keep organized because it has just the right number of compartments and pockets.

For me, for a domestic flight, the contents of my backpack usually look like this:

  • Laptop. What with Southwest’s free movies and TV — and the option to pay $8 for wi-fi — this is usually what will keep me occupied during most of the flight. Even if I wasn’t going to use it during the flight, airlines don’t want laptops in checked bags because of the risk of batteries caching on fire.
  • Pouch of chargers/cables. Includes a battery pack, the battery pack’s charging cable, an iPhone charger, my laptop cable and my headphone cable. One plug-in-to-the-wall part that all the cables except the laptop one can interchangeably plug into. True, some of these things won’t be used on the plane, but they will be used in the airport right before boarding and/or during layovers.
  • Reading material. Usually one book and maybe a magazine or newspaper. Covers me in case all my electronics die or the plane wi-fi isn’t working. (This happened on two of my flight legs recently.)
  • Noice canceling bluetooth headphones. Most precious, indepensible airplane item ever. How I love thee.
  • Wired earbuds. In case the big headphones run out of power.
  • Eye shade. I hardly ever use this on a domestic flight, but I have it.
  • Emergency stash of sanitary products. Planes usually have these, but why take chances?
  • My puffer coat. This is the inner part of my ski coat, the kind that can pack down pretty small. If it’s winter, I wear this to the airport and then shove it inside my backpack inside the aiport. I don’t put it in my checked bag because sometimes I get cold.
  • My water bottle. Filled up as soon as I cross security. My backpack has a nice tight pocket on the outside for it.
  • Emergency overnight supplies. If I’m feeling paranoid about getting my checked bag lost, sometimes I throw in a toothbrush, hair brush, maybe even a change of underwear. Really, though, this is superfluous, because you could easily pick those things up pretty much anywhere.
  • Snack or lunch? Sometimes. If I’m trying to save money by avoiding buying food on the layover. If I bring it, this might go in a separate disposable bag. For most flights, though? The bag of snack mix the flight attendant hands out is plenty for me.
  • Travel pillow? For my upcoming international flight, I’ll probably attach a travel pillow to the outside of my backpack using a caribiner. TBH though, even though I have several kinds of these, I don’t use them much. I think my balled up coat works better.

    With all that in it, my backpack is light enough that I barely notice wearing it in the airport, and slides under the seat easily leaving room for my small purse. (By the way, lately I’ve been connecting my purse to my backpack with a caribiner under the seat, which prevents my little purse from sliding out of reach.)

    Speaking of my purse, there’s not much in there either:
  • ID, credit cards and cash. (Obviously.)
  • Southwest drink coupons. (Lately they hardly ever collect these, so I have quite a collection.)
  • Pack of tissues.
  • Ibuprofen.
  • My phone. With at least one audiobook and multiple podcasts downloaded.
  • Cough drops.
  • Extra KN95 mask.
  • Hand sanitizer.
  • Hand lotion.
  • Lip Balm.
  • Pen.
  • Sunglasses. (Sadly, on a recent flight, I had my sunglasses in an outer pocket of my purse and when I pushed my purse under the seat a little too tightly, they broke. Erik glued them back together for me though. I guess I should actually start carrying these in a case in my backpack.)
  • What, no keys? I don’t usually bring any keys with me on a trip, as we usually leave the car at home and we have codes and such on our house locks.

But all my stuff doesn’t fit in the bag I’m checking!

If this is an issue, consider:

  • Checking a second bag if it’s free.
  • Checking a larger bag.
  • Bringing less crap on your trip.

What do you think? Do you usually bring a roll-aboard bag onto the plane in addition to checking a bag? Maybe there are good reasons to do so that I’m clueless about!

And what items are essential to you on the plane?

For my upcoming trip to France, I haven’t decided whether I’ll check my roll-aboard bag or bring it on. I’d love to avoid the baggage claim when I get to Paris, since I’ll be exhausted by then, so I may not check it. But if I bring it aboard, I’ll still make sure to put everything I need into my small backpack so I don’t have to get the roll-aboard out of the overhead in flight. On the way home, I’ll probably check it, because chances are I’ll bring home a bottle of wine or something.

For that backpack under the seat, I’ve found that the more ruthless I am about eliminating stuff I’m not going to use en route, the happier I am.