As regular readers of Solo Traveler will know, Janice rarely checks baggage when she travels.
I, on the other hand, almost always do.
There have been a number of reasons for this over the years, including injuries that made carrying extra weight problematic, minor mobility issues, and just wanting my hands free to hold my phone and a coffee. Also, as larger people will know, our clothing takes up more space and weight, making it a huge challenge to satisfy ever-shrinking carry-on rules while still fitting everything we need for a week or two into a suitcase.
Even if you are a committed and successful carry-on only solo traveler, there may be exceptional circumstances when you need to transport something that can't be carried on board with you.
Whichever type of traveler you are, these checked baggage tips will help you plan and pack so there are no surprises when you arrive at the airport, and also help you minimize the chances of your luggage traveling to a different destination than you.
In the Travel Planning Stage
- Whenever possible, choose a non-stop flight. If your baggage only gets loaded onto and off of one plane, the chances of it going astray are reduced. Also, the less handling required, the less potential for damage.
- Book all connecting flights with the same airline, if possible. If you are with one airline from departure to arrival at your final destination, there is less chance to lose luggage and you won't have multiple carriers bouncing your complaint back and forth.
- Leave lots of time between flights. If you have to change planes to get to your destination and you've crossed a border, you will likely have to collect your bag and go through security again before getting on your next flight. This can take more time than you might imagine, especially in major airports. Book flights with lots of time in between.
- Book flights, cruise, and tours through the same company, if possible. This makes your provider responsible for coordinating everything–from plane to transfer to cruise ship and back again–for both you and your luggage. This particular checked baggage tip will also make your planning and ticketing smoother and easier by consolidating everything with one company.
- Know the baggage policies of your airline. All airlines have limits for checked baggage in terms of weight and number of items, but they are not all the same. If you haven't flown for a while, don't assume that things haven't changed. Here's a link to a baggage fee chart that covers most airlines internationally.
- Leave some wiggle room. Use a luggage scale to weigh your bag at home, but don't pack right up to the airline's weight limit. Scales at the airport are not always accurate, and your scale might not be either. Allow for some discrepancy so you don't find yourself unpacking at the airport or paying an extra fee.
How to Pack Checked Luggage
- Remove all tags and stickers from previous trips. Before you start packing, give your suitcase a once-over to ensure there are no remaining destination tags attached from the last time you traveled.
- Label your bags inside and out. Put your name and itinerary inside each bag. Put a name tag on the outside of each bag. Do this for your carry-on bag as well in case you are forced to check it at the gate. Check that any identifying information in your bag from previous tips is up to date.
- Pack critical items in a carry-on bag. Whether it's medication or running shoes, anything that you absolutely must have should be brought in a carry-on rather than checked. That includes a change of underwear and socks.
- Don't pack hazardous items. There are quite a number of items or materials, some of them not so obvious, that may pose a risk if taken on an aircraft. Visit AirSafe.com for its list of items restricted or banned from aircraft for more details.
- Drop in a luggage tracker. These have become an automatic part of my packing list. I stick it in my cosmetic bag so I always know where it is. For more on how they work and why we recommend them, see Luggage Trackers Review: How to Find Lost or Stolen Bags.
- Pack smart. One of our all-time most popular posts on Solo Traveler is Carry-On Packing List That Makes Sense: The Travel Essentials. You can follow the same principles for your checked baggage–you'll just have a little more room to work with.
Checked Baggage Tips
- Count your luggage claim tickets and use a passport wallet. Check that you've been given the correct number of luggage claim tickets and that they are for the correct destination. Keep them with all key documents, such as itineraries and your passport, in a dedicated passport wallet so that they don't go astray.
- Use a TSA approved lock. There are inspections after you've checked your bags. If you've packed herbs and spices or anything else that triggers the dogs' attention, your bags may be opened for a closer look. These locks let the TSA do so without damaging your bag. Be aware that such an inspection could also slow your bag's transit to your destination.
- Make your luggage distinctive. By having something distinctive on your bag it will be easier for you to claim and more difficult for someone to wander off with it. When I sought help for missing luggage at the airport in Bologna, the clerk asked me to describe my bag. As soon as, “It's black” came out of my mouth, she waved her arm towards a room with at least a hundred black suitcases. Never again!
- Arrive at the airport early. To ensure that your luggage travels on the same plane as you, go to the airport at the time recommended by your carrier.
- Pick up is at your final destination. There are occasions when a flight between two major cities with a stop in a smaller one is less expensive than a flight directly to the smaller one. People are taking advantage of this by booking the long flight and getting off at the stopover. Be aware that if you do this, your checked baggage will go on to the final destination.
- If you have a problem, go to Elliott Advocacy. Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate with decades of experience with the travel industry. He maintains an excellent list of travel company contacts on his site and, if that doesn't help, you can post a question in a forum to get advice.