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Checking a bag vs. carrying on is the great debate of airline travel

The battle between carry-on and checked bags divides the By The Way staff. (Video: The Washington Post)

To check your bag or not to check your bag before a flight sounds like an innocent question, but the personal travel preference can divide families, destroy new relationships and create rifts in friendships.

Does opting for one method make you a better or worse traveler? Are there specific trips in which one approach is superior to the other? We’re taking a look at the pros and cons of both sides, so you can weigh all of your packing options.

The case for

There’s a reason so many business travelers swear by traveling exclusively with carry-on luggage. It allows them to speed through the airport like nimble athletes, no movement wasted. The carry-on life makes it easier to travel for a litany of reasons. For starters, there’s the freedom of minimalist packing that comes with carry-on territory. Having fewer belongings with you means less wardrobe decision-making, fewer items to potentially forget and less weight to lug around during the entirety of your trip.

Pledging allegiance to the carry-on luggage lifestyle enables this kind of seamless travel. Plus, there’s little room for error. Other passengers on the flight may have lost their luggage during that connection in Tulsa, but you have your bag and all of its important contents secure in your hand. Traveling with a carry-on is a great decision for weekend getaways and trips where you’re not going to be relying on gear, big jackets or multi-climate apparel.

If you’re looking to downsize to the carry-on lifestyle, there are a few steps you can take. Plan your toiletries ahead of time so you don’t have to watch a TSA agent throw your beloved face cream into the trash with other improperly sized liquids. To make sure you’re taking advantage of the carry-on’s ability to speed up your travel, buy a bag with rotating wheels so that it rolls smoothly though the airport. Carry-on bags with just two rigid wheels are going to trip you up and have you bumbling around like an amateur.

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The case against

As more travelers want to avoid paying for checked bags, there’s less space available for carry-on luggage in overhead compartments on flights. That means that despite all of your best efforts to be #TeamCarryOn, you may still have to check your bag at the gate. You won’t save the same amount of time on the back end of your trip if you have to wait at baggage claim with the rest of the checked bags anyway.

At the end of the day you could have packed another outfit or had room for more souvenirs, but now you’re stuck with a small bag and still have to spend extra time at the airport. If your main aim for traveling with carry-on luggage is speed, try to fly with an airline with which you have status, so that you can board early when there’s still plenty of space in the overhead bins. Packing a soft-sided bag like a duffel, rather than a hard-case rolling bag, could also ensure you’re able to squeeze your bag in when things are filling up quickly.

The case for

Not every trip is suited for a carry-on bag. Sometimes you need to travel with more gear, more clothes or more gifts than the standard carry-on bag allows. When you don’t want to be limited to 9 inches x 14 inches x 22 inches, you’ll need to check your bag before you fly. This isn’t a bad thing, as some carry-on die-hards may preach. It just means you have more room for activities.

You can take or bring home alcohol. You can pack a pair of shoes for every outfit. Once you get to the airport, you have the luxury of dropping your bag off when you arrive, and forgetting about it until baggage claim. You don’t have to worry about whether you can physically lift your bag up into the overhead bin. You don’t have to worry about dragging your belongings up and down the terminal, in and out of crowded bathrooms. You’re free to stop by the airport bar for a preflight margarita and relax.

If parting ways with your bag makes you anxious, see if the airline you’re flying with has a mobile app that sends push notifications when your bag gets loaded onto the plane. Delta, for example, has an app that delivers real-time updates when your luggage is picked up, when your flight is boarding and when your luggage gets loaded onto the baggage carousel — eliminating a lot of stress on your travel day.

The case against

More things can lead to more consequences. Keep the logistics of your final destination in mind when you’re deciding on a bag to take on your trip. Are you taking a cab from the airport to a resort in Hawaii? A big bag isn’t going to set you back. But if you’re staying at a fourth-floor walk-up tucked down a tiny cobblestone alleyway in Rome, you’re going to have a terrible time lugging a massive suitcase to your bedroom. Consider the obstacles you’ll be encountering on the road, like minuscule European elevators, jagged Bangkok sidewalks or stair-filled New York subway stations.

There’s also the issue of checking your bag in the first place. Some airlines at some airports offer DIY kiosks to print out a baggage tag and facilitate a quicker handoff, but that’s definitely not always the case. You could find yourself drowning in a line of 50 people all waiting to check cart-fulls of bags, piles of boxes and massive pieces of sporting equipment. The stress is miserable when you’re suddenly not sure if the line will move fast enough for you to make your flight. Avoid this scenario by arriving to the airport with a generous amount of buffer time if you’re checking a bag.

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You don’t have to pick a side and remain there for the rest of your days. Carry-on luggage may make perfect sense for your business travel, and a checked bag could be just what you need on your honeymoon. Choosing one side or the other doesn’t make you a bad traveler, or a bad person. (Now whether you recline your seat on a plane is another story.)

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