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Unburden Yourself (or, Why You Should Stop Worrying and Check Your Luggage)

Look how happy I am without my luggage!

This week, a trade association issued new guidelines for the size of airplane carry-on luggage, and if you’re hoping this sentence will end with, “and your bags can now be bigger than ever!”, you’re about to be disappointed. The guidelines would have you pack 21% less stuff on your next trip. On the plus side, you’ll get to buy a new suitcase just for the occasion.

The US airlines have not indicated that they’re going to adopt the new guidelines, but I can hardly see how it matters; they don’t enforce their current guidelines anyway. How many times have I stood at the gate, looked around at all the massive bags people are schlepping onto the plane, and thought, “I really don’t think those are going to fit”? (And most of the time, I’m right.) I can afford be a little judge-y here; one, because my carry-on bag actually meets the current guidelines, and two, because I’ve stopped carrying on my luggage for most trips.

Through most of the 2000s, I was a dedicated carry-on-er. I even made it my mission to find all of my cosmetics in non-liquid forms so I could meet the 1-quart-3-ounces rule. But then, over the years, things started to shift. More and more people carried on their luggage to avoid checked bag fees. The bags people carried on got bigger and bigger. And somehow, the planes seemed to get smaller and smaller. The end result is a rodeo-meets-angry-soccer-crowd atmosphere at the boarding gate, as everyone jostles for the best boarding position, their big bags in tow. Then there’s the jockeying for overhead bin space, duked out in the narrow confines of the airplane aisle, where things occasionally get ugly. The whole process adds a special kind of anxiety and stress to the flying experience, as if flying didn’t have enough of that already.

Then, a few years ago, I got a Delta American Express card, which gave me a free checked bag on every Delta flight. Living in Atlanta, all my flights were Delta flights, so I decided to take advantage of the perk. And the result was…liberating. I didn’t have to worry about when I boarded the plane. I could stay in my seat in the concourse until the hordes of carry-on-ers had fought their last battle with each other. Why, I could be the last one on the plane! (That causes me anxiety for other reasons, but you get the idea.) And when I walked onto the plane, all I had to do was … sit. No strain, no fuss. I felt like a VIP, someone who has “people” to handle her bags for her. And actually, I did – the lovely baggage handlers. The whole experience was so easy, so stress-free, it was almost relaxing. And I wondered, why on earth have I been carrying on my bags for so long?

So now my bag gets checked on most of the flights I take, even if I have to pay for it. I should mention here, for those of you who carry on your bags for fear of losing them, that lost luggage is actually a very rare occurrence. There’s only a 1 percent chance your bag will be lost, and rates are declining by the year. To avoid jinxing myself, I’m not going to share my not-lost-luggage record, but suffice to say that within the US, and indeed in most parts of the world, I simply don’t worry about it.

This may sound crazy coming from a frequent traveler, but I half hope the industry does adopt stricter carry-on guidelines, and I really hope the airlines enforce them. It would be nice, of course, if the airlines would also drop their ill-conceived checked bag fees, if not for all bags then at least for carry-on-sized bags (which is what they’re already doing, every time they beg to check your bag for free at the gate). But even if they don’t, we can take matters into our own hands to make the flying experience a little easier. We could all be happier travelers if we could just let go of our baggage and fly carry-on-free.

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