View of two suitcases in an airport

What’s the Difference Between Carry on and Checked Baggage?

You have to decide what to pack and what size of luggage to bring. You know that your two options are to go carry on, or to check your bags. But, what’s the difference between carry on and checked baggage?

In this article we’ll be looking a little bit closer at this subject and comparing carry on vs checked baggage.

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Carry On vs Checked Bag – What’s the Difference?

The primary difference between a checked bag and a carry-on is that checked bags are larger in size and travel in the cargo hold of a plane. A carry-on bag is smaller and travels with you in the cabin of the airplane. Both are screened by the Transportation Services Authority.

What is considered to be a carry-on?

Travel Gear
The bag on the left is a carry on. The bag on the right is a checked bag.

A carry-on is a smaller piece of luggage that you stow in the overhead compartment of the plane. Most stateside carriers limit carry-on luggage by size, the smallest being 22 x 14 x 9 inches (length x width x height), though Hawaiian airlines also has a 25-pound weight limit.

International carriers have not only size restrictions, but weight restrictions as well. Air France has the most stringent requirements with dimensions of 21.7 inches x 13.8 inches x 9.9 inches and a weight limit of 12 pounds for both your personal item and your carry-on combined!

Are carry-on bags free?

A carry on suitcase

Most large carriers allow you one personal item and one carry-on bag for free, but the smaller, niche airlines typically do not. The airlines that charge for carry-ons tend to have fewer routes and lower rates for airfare, but they also price every service “a la carte”.

For example, your ticket price may be $100, but any carry-on item more substantial than a purse is an additional $40 (or $100 at the gate!), and every other service from printing a boarding pass to enjoying a glass of water on the plane carries an additional cost as well.

✈️ Read Next: Is a Purse Considered a Carry On?

How much does it cost to check a bag?

The average price to check one bag on the six most popular airlines in the United States is $30 per person, and the limit is typically 50 pounds. The price goes up significantly if your bag is overweight. It can be an additional $100-200 to check a bag that weighs 51-100 pounds. Southwest Airline stands alone, allowing two free checked bags under 50 pounds.

Checked Bag vs Carry On? 6 Things to Consider

People tend to gravitate towards two factors when deciding whether to check their baggage or carry it on: price and the length of the trip.

The typical assumption is that the shorter the trip, the more likely you are to carry on, but that is not always the case. Below are some other factors that could bump you into a checked bag for even a short weekend away.

1. Season

Clothes and shoes for winter season on a suitcase

The colder the weather, the bigger and denser the clothing. If you are traveling during the winter, three days of clothes can take up three times as much space as summer clothes would, so you may have no option but to check a bag. If you are traveling in the summer, however, you may be able to pack two peoples’ clothing into one carry-on bag.

2. Wardrobe

If you are a clothes horse or your trip requires a lot of wardrobe changes, you may need to check a bag. For example, if you are going to a wedding, you may need a wide variety of clothes and shoes to dress appropriately for outings, dinners, receptions, and brunches.

The more wardrobe options you need, the less feasible it will be to fit them in a carry-on bag. For tips on how to make the most out of your carry on space, see our list of tips for traveling with a carry on only.

3. Gear and Electronics

Some people travel to participate in a sport, such as skiing, or cycling that requires a lot of gear. Others participate in hobbies or work in fields that require a large number of electronics. In these cases, there is usually no way to fit all of the required items for your sport as well as your everyday items into a carry-on bag, so it is more appropriate to check a bag.

4. Souvenirs

If you love to buy the people in your life souvenirs, chances are small that you will find appropriate gifts that will match the remaining space in your carry-on bag. Set yourself up for success by checking a larger bag that offers more room for trinkets to commemorate your trip.

5. Layovers

There is nothing worse than having to spend 4 hours at an airport schlepping around a few bags, especially if you are traveling with a small child. In cases where you have long or multiple layovers, consider checking your baggage to minimize what you have to carry as well as what you might accidentally forget.

By the way, if you have a layover coming up, see my guide to what to do during a layover!

6. Baggage Claim

People waiting for their luggage at the baggage claim area

If you have time constraints, you may want to carry-on so that you can avoid spending time in baggage claim. A cautionary note, when flights are full, attendants gate check carry-on luggage because there is insufficient room in overhead bins. If this happens, you will be forced to go to baggage claim to retrieve your carry-on.


If any of these options has made you lean towards checking a bag, it is always wise to plan ahead for the unexpected. Every so often luggage gets delayed, which may cause you to spend extra time at the airport while you wait for it to arrive (some airlines deliver it). If your luggage is lost, you may need to replace necessary items on an unexpected shopping trip. To mitigate these worst-case scenarios, carry daily hygiene products, medicine, makeup, and an extra pair of clothes and shoes with you on the plane.

There are a lot of factors to consider in order to make the right luggage choice: size, weight, price, length of trip and how much other gear you need to bring, to name a few. It gets easier with practice. The more frequently you fly the better you will become at packing for your trips and baggage choice will become second nature to you. For me though when it comes to carry on vs a checked bag, I go carry on every time I possibly can.