Sick of being forced to gate check your carry-on bag on a full flight? Airlines are working on it.

By Evie Carrick
December 30, 2019
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As any seasoned traveler knows, the secret to a smooth, efficient flight is to travel light. When you limit yourself to a carry-on and a personal item, you avoid bag fees and can head straight to security without waiting in line to check a bag. Baggage claims become a thing of the past, and a flight feels like less of an ordeal and more of a streamlined, dare we say it, enjoyable event.

But carry-on travel doesn’t come without risk. If you’re on a full flight, a small plane, or in one of the last boarding groups, chances are you’ll have to gate check it — and say goodbye to that speedy exit.

It’s a problem that travel experts say was created when airlines started adding more seats and charging passengers to check luggage. As the number of fliers increased, cost-conscious travelers started maxing out their allotted carry-on and personal item to avoid checked bag fees. The result is more customers and more carry-on bags — and a lack of overhead bin space.

“It’s a self-inflicted wound that the airlines have brought on themselves,” Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with Atmosphere Research Group, told the Los Angeles Times.

Credit: Aleksandar Nakic/Getty Images

Even though gate checking a bag is free of charge, it may mean repacking your laptop and medications at the last minute or entrusting your valuables to the crew throwing the bags on the belt. Then there’s the fact that in most cases, you’ll have to wait at the baggage claim to retrieve your bag — which slows down your exit.

The good news is that airlines are catching on and making adjustments.

American Airlines told Travel + Leisure by email that they “continue to retrofit aircraft with larger overhead bins.” And a United Airlines representative told T+L by email that their mission is to “make gate-checking bags a thing of the past.” On United’s CRJ 550 aircraft, there is enough room for every customer’s carry-on bag on board. And they say things are only going to get better in the coming years.

“In 2020, we are going to put in the work to start making this dream a reality for more of our customers,” said a rep for United. “We have hundreds of planes with a wide variety of bins but, by 2023, we expect over 80% of our mainline fleet to have the new bins.”

Until airlines have completely retrofitted bins to include space for every passenger, your best bet is to board early. If you can afford it, flying business or first class will do the trick. As will purchasing priority boarding, signing up for an airline credit card, or building up your airline loyalty program points.

“Customers who board in groups 1-2 are least likely to need to gate check a bag, as well as customers who pre-board. Customers can purchase priority boarding to board in group 2. Other customers who board in group 2 include premier members and United MileagePlus credit card holders. Group 1 is for premier members and we invite select premier members, families and active military to pre-board,” said a United representative. “When flights are full, customers who board in groups 1-3 are most likely to be able to find space on board for their bags and it is more likely that we will need to check bags in group 4.”

If all else fails, make sure to get in the line for your boarding group early, cross your fingers, and hope you can sneak by with your bag in tow.