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Holiday Travel: Should You Check Your Bag?

By Kelly Hoggan

Inexperienced holiday travelers often inadvertently pack carryon luggage with TSA-prohibited items.

Most seasoned flyers try to carry their luggage onto their flights, preferring to pack everything they can into a size-permitted rollaboard, with another piece fitting under the seat in front of them. Generally, just flying with carryon luggage is a good travel strategy, not because the airlines might lose your luggage (in reality, they almost never do) but because it helps save time at ticket counters and baggage claim areas. The holidays, though, might be the time where checking luggage rather than going with solely a carryon bag is the way to go.

TSA Bag Inspections

The holidays are the single most-intense time of the travel year at Transportation Security Administration airport checkpoints. A record number of passengers – many of them infrequent flyers heading off to visit family or friends -- will go through the security agency’s checkpoints, and a lot of them will have luggage, bags, wrapped gifts and other items requiring inspection of some sort. Infrequent flyers also tend to forget about TSA’s rules when it comes to allowable items in carryon luggage, including shampoo and other liquids. It takes time for the travelers ahead of you to be properly security screened, in other words, especially if their carryon luggage needs additional inspection.

Also, while TSA officers are vigilant all year round they become especially so during the holidays, and there’s a good chance your bag might be randomly selected for inspection. You may be stuck at a security checkpoint for some time waiting for a TSA officer to inspect your bag, removing its contents in the process, and with having to repack it. During the holidays, the fewer items you have in your luggage when going through security, the better and it may be best of all to just check your bag and avoid the entire inspection process in the first place. Doing so is sure to reduce the time you need to get through security as well as your general holiday travel stress levels.

Stay Mobile, Stay Fast

Despite their best planning, the holidays do put stress on airlines in terms of making sure all their passengers have a seat and get to their destination in the time the airlines promised to get them there. Unfortunately, airlines don’t control the weather and planes sometimes encounter sudden maintenance requirements, meaning you could find yourself rebooked onto another flight and with 10 minutes before it departs. You can maneuver around an airport and get to another departure gate a lot quicker if you’re also not trying to hustle a carryon bag and other bulky items as well. Your checked luggage will also make it to your destination as well, even if it’s not on the plane on which you’re flying. Sometimes, it may even beat you there, especially if you’re being rerouted to another city to pick up a flight that will eventually get you to your destination.

Gate-Checked Bags

Flights during the holidays are often “booked full,” meaning every seat on your plane will have a paying passenger in it. If you’re not a frequent flyer or have some type of early boarding privilege the chances are high you’ll have to check your carryon luggage at the gate anyway, leaving it on the jetbridge at your plane’s boarding door for baggage handlers to collect and then load into its cargo bins. Also, gate-checking a bag is free while many airlines charge a nominal fee for checking it in at the ticket counters or e-ticket kiosks. Keep your laptop computer bag or backpack with you, of course, because that can fit under the seat in front of you. But not having to make your way through a jam-packed, single-aisle plane without a bulky rollaboard or other carryon bag will reduce any aggravation you’re feeling.

Pros and Cons

Going with carryon luggage for your non-holiday air travel is typically the way to fly, and there’s little dispute about that fact. But the holidays may be the one time of the year you might want to consider making an exception when it comes to checking your bag for a flight.

Kelly Hoggan, Founder and CEO of H4 Solutions, previously served as assistant administrator for operations at the Transportation Security Administration. In that role, he was responsible for aircraft and checkpoint security operations at the nation's 400-plus commercial airports.

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