Travel hacks: to check in or not to check in luggage

In my previous travel hacks series, I gave my tricks to minimise luggage and thus be able to travel without checking in my luggage. But sometimes checking in your luggage might be advantageous, even if it's small enough that you could just fit it on the overhead lockers.

When is this?

The short answer is: in certain cases, if you're going to make a connection.

The long answer also adds: it depends on the connection and where the first port of entry is.

TL;DR pseudocode

For the impatient developers out there ;-)

if firstPortOfEntry === USA && shortLayover:
  minimiseLuggage or changeFlights
else if firstFlightInSmallPlane || feelingLazy || shortLayover:

General rule of thumb

If you're starting your trip with a smallish plane and are connecting to another flight within a short period of time, check in your luggage and have it forwarded to your final destination.

Small planes can't fit big items of luggage aboard, so even if your hand luggage is a 'cabin approved' carry on, it will often not fit, and you will be asked to drop it at the gate before boarding. They will load it on the cargo, and unload it once you land. This last bit is where you're going to be waiting and thinking that you're going to miss your connection because they're taking so long to unload your luggage, and wondering why didn't you just check it in.

The way to find out how big your plane will be depends on the airline, some tell you about the aircraft at the time of booking and some keep it sort of hidden in the flight details. Most of the airlines seem to use just the same couple of manufacturers for the smallish planes, and they also often tend to be propeller planes. Bombardier or Embraer regional jets are common. If in doubt, be also sure to check the SeatGuru website which can tell you about the layout of planes given the flight number, or alternatively search for the flight number in your favourite search engine ;)

Or if you're connecting with normal-sized planes

If you're connecting flights, but do not want to be carrying your luggage across terminals, it's a good idea to check-in luggage.

Also if there's absolutely no way that you can take other flights except those that create a very short layover, do check in the luggage and avoid running clumsily in the airport carrying hand baggage that slows you down. You will still have to run, but you will be where you needed/wanted to be on time, and if your luggage shows up, it will be a nice surprise.

And if it doesn't make the connection...

If the connection is really tight, there's a high chance that your luggage won't show up at the final destination—for obvious reasons: just as you have to leave the plane and run to another terminal, so have they to unload the luggage, sort it and forward it to the right places.

Go to the 'lost luggage' department at the arrivals lounge, and have at hand

  • your contact details (specially a phone number they can call to arrange delivery)
  • an address where they can forward you the luggage when it finally makes it to the airport.
  • your check-in label (the thing with a barcode they love to attach to the back of your passport)
  • A description of how does your bag look like (just in case the label has fallen off or something of the sort). E.g. fabric, grey, two handles, no wheels.

I suggest you carry an extra t-shirt and underwear and super essentials such as a toothbrush and small toothpaste and a comb in your hand luggage. Just in case!

Normally when they've 'lost' my luggage they have always delivered it to me next day, so it's not so terrible and just kind of understandable.

Except if you're flying into the States

All of the above is fine and dandy, except if your first port of entry is a United States destination and you haven't cleared immigration in your departure airport first. Which means that once you land, you have to pick up your luggage, go through US immigration and customs, and if you want the luggage to be forwarded to the final destination, you have to drop it at a carousel after customs.

What is going on here? I have no idea, but if you have a shortish connection in the States and are going to bring luggage which is bulky enough to need checking in, you might need to reconsider either flying earlier (or a later connecting flight) to allow for more layover time, or to pack a lighter bag that you don't need to wait for after landing. The time you spend waiting for the luggage plus the time spent looking for the carousel might be the difference between making the connection on time or not!

Note: there might be other countries that require you to pick luggage on first port of entry, but so far I've only experienced this when flying into the States.

Previously in the series: sleep and packing light.