Many airline passengers seek to avoid those hefty checked-bag charges that the airlines levy by resorting to traveling only with carry-on luggage, using bags that seem to run the gamut of shape and size. The result is that aircraft bin space has emerged as the most hotly contested real estate on any flight. But what constitutes a carry-on bag? Here are five myths about carry-ons to read before your next flight.
1. There is a standard size for carry-on bags that's used by all of the major airlines.
Unfortunately, there isn't. JetBlue is one of the most generous carriers, permitting you to bring aboard a carry-on bag that measures 24 by 16 by 10 inches. But in 2014, United, American and Delta all changed the size limits of permissible carry-on bags to 22 inches long by 14 inches wide by 9 inches tall. That's an inch narrower than the previous 15-inch wide bag they had all allowed. Now an inch may not sound like much, but a lot of fliers got a rude awakening when their bags were placed in a bag sizer and rejected as carry-ons, forcing them to check the bag and pay a fee.
"Airlines have become more strict in enforcing carry-on rules," says George Hobica of Airfarewatchdog.com. "The three majors now have that 22 by 9 by 14 inch rule and have been known to enforce it to the inch in some airports at busy travel times, occasionally at the gate, but sometimes even before entering the TSA security lines. Other U.S. domestic airlines have a slightly more generous size limit. Some international carriers restrict the weight of carry-on bags as well."
While large domestic carriers seem to turn a blind eye to the weight of a carry-on bag, international carriers and smaller aircraft that are flown virtually anywhere in the world often have strict weight restrictions for every piece of luggage that a passenger brings on the plane. That's true for puddle jumpers in the Caribbean, small commuter planes and regional aircraft in the American West. The smart thing to do is to visit your carrier's website before you fly to see what the current rules are.
2. Carry-on bags are really all the same, it's not worth it to buy a better one.
There's no question that designing and selling carry-on bags is a growth industry for luggage manufacturers, who wrangle with changing airline restrictions about bag size and customer demand for even more packing space. But a well-designed carry-on can get past airline scrutiny and allow you to pack what you need. Steve Jordan, senior product developer of luggage at L.L. Bean, says that that the company sees "robust sales of our carry-on luggage as the airlines continue to charge fees for checked bags."
In particular, Jordan cites carry-on size rolling Pullmans and rolling duffle bags as the biggest sellers.
"We are also seeing the trend of travelers using travel packs and daypack-type backpacks," Jordan notes, "which allows folks to carry a second bag or keep their hands free altogether. Most of the daypacks have a larger capacity than a briefcase."
In your quest for the perfect carry-on bag, make sure that the dimensions listed include any wheels that protrude from the bag. Probably the hottest trend right now is luggage that expands for packing and then compress for traveling, allowing travelers to squeeze more into a bag. At the top end are bags like the Briggs & Riley U122CX Baseline, which measures 21 by 14 by 7.7 inches when closed but expands 25% for packing. It retails for $469. A more wallet-friendly choice is Eagle Creek's Tarmac 22, which measures 22 by 14 by 11 when open but compresses to 22 by 14 by 9. The retail price is $290.
3. The TSA has relaxed the laws about what they allow in a carry-on bag.
No, they haven't, but this was apparently news to domestic passengers who packed more than 2,200 firearms in their carry-on bags in 2014, which the TSA said was a 22% increase from the year before. Guns aside, there is a long list of other items that are forbidden in carry-on bags, from pepper spray and knives to baseball bats, ski poles, lacrosse sticks and realistic replicas of firearms.
On the other hand, there's a new item that the TSA recently said must go into your carry-on and not in your checked bag: e-cigarettes. The FAA made the call to ban them from checked luggage because they utilize lithium batteries and there's a concern over overheating or fires inside the cargo hold. You still can't smoke them on board, however.
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4. It's the flight attendant's job to make sure your carry-on fits.
"Making sure a bag fits doesn't mean it's my job to make it fit," says Heather Poole, a flight attendant and author of Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 30,000 Feet. "Or lift it! Heck no. I can help you, but I'm not doing it for you. We're doing it together."
Stowing bags properly is not just a matter of efficiency but safety and departure time. The gate agent, says Poole, "isn't allowed to shut the aircraft door until all bins are closed and passengers are seated. If the bag doesn't fit, off it goes."
It also comes down to money, since delays are costly. That's also true for flight attendants, who, remarkably, are not compensated for their time helping you stow your bag.
"We're paid for flying time only," Poole says. "The time clock doesn't start ticking until the brakes are released and we back away from the gate."
5. The airlines may nickel and dime us, but at least they're not charging for carry-on bags.
Get out your wallet. Frontier charges between $25 and $35 for carry-on bags, depending on what level of economy-class ticket you have. Think you can outsmart them and just gate check? Think again. They charge $50 for any bag that has to be gate checked, a fee that is going up to $60 on May 1, 2015. Spirit is even more onerous, charging anywhere from $26, if you pay during online check-in, to $100 if you wait to pay at the gate. Allegiant is another airline charging for carry-on bags. These carriers do permit one free "personal item," such as a purse or backpack, but it can measure no more that 18 by 14 by 8.
So will the major US carriers follow suit and begin charging us for carry-ons? George Hobica of Airfarewatchdog says that it's "very doubtful this will happen, but never say never."
Contributed by Everett Potter, Special for USA TODAY
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