In praise of checked bags

Last night I returned from a five-day trip to Santa Fe for a family wedding, and I checked my bag both ways. Even though it was a small roller board, the kind that can (and has, on many previous trips) fit easily in the overhead bin, I found that flying with only a backpack made my trip a lot more comfortable. That wasn’t the main reason I did it (I was traveling with elderly relatives, and I needed my hands free to assist them, including with their roller board), but the experience confirmed that the right choice for me on my big trip is to check a bag, rather than try to live only out of a carry-on for 47 days.

The biggest pro of checking your “big” bag is that you don’t have to keep your backpack under the seat in front of you. I’m studying for the bar this summer, so I needed to bring several Barbri books to New Mexico with me. I packed two of them in my checked bag, but between the book I kept out to work on during the 4 1/2 hour Boston-Denver flight, my notebook, my laptop and iPad, my headphones, my little plastic case of flashcards, my guidebook for Japan, my wallet/sunglasses/phone, chargers for all my electronics, and pens/pencils/highlighters (plus a water bottle), my backpack was pretty full.  (I don’t care how hard it is to fit the giant case in my bag, I never ever fly without my Bose noise-canceling headphones. I bought them 5 years ago with my very first bonus, and I feel vindicated every time I get off a long flight, when my travel companion says “such a shame about that unhappy baby!” and I have no idea what they’re talking about.)  We flew United, because it had the best timing for Boston-Albuquerque, with departures at noon or 10 AM and arrivals at ~7 PM, but I was promptly reminded why I hate American legacy carriers. Or maybe just United.

Both flights out (Boston-Denver, and Denver-Albuquerque) were on brand new planes, with thinner cushions in order to fit more rows of seats in the plane. There wasn’t enough space between the seats for me to bend forward and get things out of my bag, unless I had packed it just right, because I could only reach into the top 5 inches. The TV screens, unique to each passenger, only worked if you paid $8, otherwise you could creep on the screen of your neighbor (and not hear any dialog), or just watch 5 hours of ads in a row. I’m ashamed to admit it took me 3 hours to break and figure out how to turn the screen off completely; I kept hoping that they would eventually put on one old movie for the whole plane, the way they used to do 20 years ago, but they were too sophisticated (at nickel and diming you) for that. No, you either paid a lot for premium content or you got no content at all. My sister-in-law flew American, and was able to watch Eddie the Eagle, which was not necessarily a fine piece of cinema but which was definitely better than one hour of Discovery Shark Week per two hours (because of all the ads), on repeat. So what does this have to do with checking bags? Basically, in order to have any legroom or access to what’s in your bag, your under-the-seat bag should be small enough that you can get a foot around it and kick it back out to the space next to your knees. But, given how much you have to carry on (especially for long haul flights, international flights, or both, when I add a toiletry bag, snacks, clean shirt/socks/underwear, and more travel documents to the list), you can’t fit it into a tiny bag unless you’re actually traveling with three bags: a tiny bag (headphones, water bottle, and stuff to read/work on during the flight), a bigger carryon (toiletries, stuff to read/work on in the airport or on different flights, change of clothes, chargers, other electronics, etc.), and a checked bag (the clothes/shoes you will wear at your destination). In other words, in order to get enough legroom (if you’re traveling for more than a few days), it’s more comfortable to check a bag.

Other pros of checking a bag, which I had forgotten about (because I almost never do it), include being able to fit both yourself and your luggage in a bathroom stall without anything rubbing all over the toilet; maneuvering through crowds without tripping the people around you who never look down; and wandering through airport stores without being paranoid about knocking anything off the shelf. Also, you don’t have to worry about bringing full-size liquids or gels (because you can just check them), and you can make sure that your handy swiss army knife will be with you for your picnics. And you can put all the heavy stuff in the checked bag, so your shoulders don’t hurt.

Cons of checking a bag, of course, include having to pay ridiculous baggage fees, and waiting at the carousel for your bag to come when you know you could have been on the train/in the cab already. Also, no one else takes care of your stuff as well as you do, so you need to pack more carefully when checking it, but with the knowledge that TSA goons might always mess with your careful packing. (When my dad came to help me pack everything in a U-Haul and move for law school, he brought a claw, one of those things that you put on the steering wheel to make it harder to steal a car, so that we could be more confident that no one would drive our fully loaded truck away. The WHOLE POINT of these things is that they lock into place once expanded, and can only be retracted with the aid of a special key. TSA expanded it. His suitcase was never the same.)

Nonetheless, I am going to be doing enough sitting on planes over the next few months that I’m willing to wait a few more hours (I’m hoping less than 6 over the whole trip) in exchange for 60+ hours of more comfortable flying time. I need to buy a new suitcase though, because while checking a bag on international flights is nearly always free, many of the carriers I will be flying impose a strict 40 lb limit. My current “big” suitcase (28″) is 12.5 pounds when totally empty, and is big enough that, when full, it’s far more than 40 pounds. So, I’m currently researching hard-sided 24″ bags, which weigh in at more like 8.3 lbs, and won’t have the space to be filled to a higher weight.

Below, I’ve added a few pictures from the wedding, which had a Mexican-ish theme. The Mayor of Santa Fe witnessed the signing of the marriage license, and then serenaded everyone with “Volver,” accompanied by an all-female mariachi band. The image at the top of this post is the quadruple (!!!) rainbow which appeared for about ten minutes during the reception.

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The tequila/mescal bar
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The wedding feast: cornish hens with homemade rose petal sauce (garnished with edible rose petals!), homemade molé with turkey, rice and beans, and quinoa stuffed peppers with some sort of tasty sauce.