How To Avoid Gate Checking Your Carry-On Bag

How To Avoid Gate Checking Your Carry-On Bag

Many people prefer to travel only with carry-on bags and not checked bags. Among those with carry-ons, one common fear is having to gate check your bag. In this post I wanted to talk a bit more about that, and also share some tips for avoiding having to gate check your bag.

Why do some bags have to be gate checked?

For those not familiar with the concept of gate checking a bag, the idea is that you may have gone through security with your carry-on bag, but are then forced to gate check it when you try to board. This is most commonly for one of two reasons:

  • Your bag is bigger than the maximum carry-on size allowed by the airline
  • You’re boarding toward the end of the boarding process, and the overhead bins are full

Generally speaking when you gate check a bag, it will arrive on the baggage claim belt, just like all other checked bags do. I think fear of having bags gate checked is one of the reasons we see so much crowding of gate areas at the start of the boarding process. In reality boarding is slowed down by people crowding the gate area, but that doesn’t seem to be how psychology works for most people.

It’s worth noting that sometimes when you’re flying a turboprop or small regional jet, you may have to valet check your bag at the gate. This is a bit different than a standard gate check, as your bag will typically be available planeside upon arrival, rather than at the baggage carousel.

Sometimes bags have to be gate checked

Is it wrong to try to “sneak on” a bag?

Before I share some tips, let me address the ethics of this topic more broadly. Is it wrong to try to take a bag that’s larger than regulation size onto a plane? The way I view it, yes and no.

If you’re flying an ultra low cost carrier and try to bring on a full size carry-on that you’re not entitled to, you’re almost always not only going to be caught, but also fined, as these airlines often have higher fees if you have to check a bag at the gate rather than at check-in.

Similarly, I absolutely don’t encourage trying to take on a massive carry-on bag that won’t fit in the overhead bin, and where you’re inconveniencing others.

All that being said, personally I think it’s reasonable to try to exceed the limit in some cases. For example, some airlines have ridiculously low carry-on allowances, especially in terms of the weight requirement. For example, Singapore Airlines limits passengers (including in premium cabins) to carry-on bags weighing up to 7kg (~15lbs).

That’s extremely light. I mean, a Rimowa carry-on case weights nearly 10 pounds empty, technically leaving you with just five pounds until you reach the limit.

Everyone will of course have their own opinion on this, but personally I don’t have any ethical qualms with taking something that’s a bit heavier than that limit. This assumes that you can safely carry the bag yourself (and lift it into the overhead bin), and that you’re not taking up space that would belong to others.

That’s my two cents, but of course I respect that others will feel differently.

Singapore Airlines has a really low carry-on limit

Is there a way to avoid having to gate check a bag?

Is there a way to avoid having to gate check your bag? The obvious tips are of course to not overpack, and to try to board as early as you can, since that addresses the two biggest reasons that bags have to be gate checked.

But what about beyond that? In my millions of miles of flying, I’ve been asked to gate check a bag maybe a handful of times, even though I pretty consistently exceed the carry-on allowance outside the United States (where 15 pound weight limits aren’t unusual).

There are a few easy tricks to minimize your odds of having to gate check a bag:

  • Whenever I approach an airline employee (whether it’s at check-in, the security checkpoint, or the gate), I roll my carry-on on the opposite side of me of where the agent is standing, to decrease the odds of them seeing it
  • When boarding, I always make sure I have my boarding pass and travel documents ready to go when it’s my turn with the agent; if you’re fumbling trying to find these things, it gives them more time to scrutinize your bags
  • If I have a personal item, I’ll always put that over my shoulder on the opposite side of where the airline employee is standing, to minimize the odds of them looking at it too closely
  • If your carry-on bag is just slightly overweight or just barely doesn’t fit into the bag sizer, you can always remove a winter coat or other heavy clothing item, and wear it, so that it doesn’t count toward your carry-on allowance

Now, I have a couple of tips that are likely to be a bit more controversial. The first I’ve witnessed but personally wouldn’t do, while the second happened to me by mistake:

  • When you gate check a bag, a tag will be placed on it, and either the agent will keep your bag, or typically the agent will ask you to carry it to the bottom of the jet bridge and leave it at the door; I’ve seen people carry the bag down the jet bridge, remove the tag, and then take the bag onboard (admittedly this could backfire if you’re caught, so I don’t recommend this, but I have seen it)
  • If you’re told you have to gate check your bag, it will typically be delivered to your final destination, via a handwritten tag; I was once on a review trip and had a complicated itinerary with multiple connections, and the agent ended up saying “never mind” when she realized just how complicated the tag was going to be to write out
Don’t expect to get away with anything on an ultra low cost carrier

Bottom line

It’s not uncommon to have to gate check a bag, either because overhead bins are simply full, or because your carry-on exceeds the limit. Sometimes this is because passengers try to travel with a kitchen sink, while other times it’s because airlines have unrealistically low carry-on limits.

While I wouldn’t expect to get away with anything on an airline that’s punitive about carry-ons (like an ultra low cost carrier), I do think there are some general strategies that can help you minimize odds of having to gate check a bag.

What has your experience been with gate checking bags? Any tips I missed?