United (rumored) to Crack Down on Carry-On Bags Starting March 1

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I hate checking bags unless absolutely necessary.  My aversion is not because I want to avoid checked bag fees (since co-branded credit cards and elite status make it easy enough to avoid them), but because it makes the whole travel process harder.  Sure it makes getting through the airport and on/off the plane easier without all the extra stuff, but it guarantees you will be stuck in the airport longer on the back end of the trip.  I don’t have scientific data to back this up, but I am often waiting 30-40 minutes from when the plane lands to when I can get my bags at IAH.  I’ve had better luck at some smaller airports (such as when I checked my snowboard to airports like Vail or Aspen), but an extra 30+ minutes hanging out waiting for luggage after a trip with a kid is not my favorite.

Worse than that is the added risk of having your stuff lost or delayed.  I know it is just stuff, but I happen to like my stuff…that’s why I bring it on trips.  Heck, I ended up in a Kim Kardashian pink bikini in Vegas when I had to last check my bag against my desires and it went missing for a while.  Worst $135 dollars ever spent (though thankfully it was pretty much reimbursed).  Sure delayed, damaged, or lost bags are “rare”, but if you travel enough it will happen.


Thankfully, I rarely have to check bags as my 20 inch Briggs & Riley Transcend Carry-on Expandable Wide-body Upright bag (you can find the review I wrote as a guest post for another site here) can hold enough stuff for my common 3 – 4 day trips, and it fits just fine in almost all carry-on bins other than regional jets (unless I over stuff it with too much ski gear).  We make sure to get on the plane early enough in the boarding process to secure overhead bin space, and thus we eliminate wasting time waiting at baggage claim, and eliminate the risk of our stuff not making it on the trip with us.  This system has worked for us for years, but dark baggage clouds seem to be forming over our methods.

Briggs and Riley

United Airlines to beef up enforcement of carry-on rules:

Rumors have been growing that United Airlines plans to beef up the “baggage police” and start much more strictly enforcing their carry-on maximum bag limits of 9 inches x 14 inches x 22 inches (22 cm x 35 cm x 56 cm), including handles and wheels and one personal item that goes under the seat such as a laptop case or small item that is no larger than 9” x 10” x 17”.  This may not sound like a big deal, but I can guarantee if you go measure the bags you normally use that many of them will be over those limits…especially when counting the wheels and handles.

Indeed I have seen more baggage sizers out in the airports, I have started to get emails from United reminding me about the carry-on rules, and the reports of carry-on size enforcements are growing on Flyertalk.  March 1st is supposedly the date this full on baggage gestapo movement goes live.

United Checked BagsSo what is wrong with an airline enforcing their own rules?

Well, in theory nothing.  It is certainly within their right, and perhaps even a good idea to enforce a rule if you are going to go through the trouble of having it.  However, I’m still not happy with this change…and I’m not a rule breaker by nature.  I think this is the wrong change to address the problem, though I do agree there is a carry-on bag problem that is massively slowing down the boarding process.

A better solution:

A much better solution would be to improve baggage handling so that folks aren’t afraid to check their bags and trust that they will come off the plane within a reasonable amount of time.  Alaska Airlines has a 20 minute guarantee for checked bags coming off the planes, so that seems like a reasonable target for other airlines to copy (not to mention their carry-on bag size requirements are more reasonable than United’s).  Additionally, I would recommend using a max carry-on size that is more in line with what the aircraft bins can hold, which in practice is a fair bit larger than the published carry-on sizes.

Bag manufacturers also need to do a better job marketing carry-on bags that actually comply with the common carry-on bag sizes.  Yes customers should do their homework with the dimensions, but it is reasonable to assume that if a bag is labeled a “carry on” that it should meet the carry-on size requirements for most airlines.  Sadly, many customers have purchased carry-on bags (myself included) that they may not be able to use as carry-ons if this movement to enforce the written rules takes hold.  Airlines can set their own carry-on requirements, but 9 x 14 x 22 is a common max used by United, American, Delta, and others.

My own bag is mostly fine in terms of height (maybe slightly too tall counting wheels and handle) and depth, but it is 1.5 inches too wide.  In fact, I have found that being too wide is a common problem for many “carry-on” bags.

Get a New Bag:

If this does come to pass, and I find my “carry-on” no longer being allowed on, then I will ultimately have to buy a new bag.  I simply travel waaaaay too much to deal with checking luggage on a regular basis because of an inch or two.  If you are a family who travels once or twice a year, then my recommendation would be to just prepare ahead of time to check your bags if they are going to be too big.  However, if you travel at least monthly, my recommendation would be to start shopping if this really does happen and your carry-on is now a checked bag.

I’ve wanted the Rimowa Salsa Deluxe 21″ Cabin Multiwheel Spinner ever since I saw them on the Star MegaDo.  They are beautiful, but more importantly, so easy to pull through the airport that a two year old could probably do it with ease…but at 15.7 inches wide they are still too wide for the rules.  Not to mention the price tag is a “bit” out of my range.  However, I will be looking for a similar spinner bag next time I make a bag purchase as I think they are great for families due to the ease of maneuvering.  Perhaps I should shop in the Barbie aisle for one small enough to meet the exact sizing requirements. 

I know many people who will be cheering the enforcement of these rules, but I won’t be one of them.  I agree a problem exists, but I don’t think this alone is the appropriate solution.  I’m almost afraid to ask, but what do you think of the “rumored” upcoming clamp down on carry-on rules?  What bag will you use to get your family’s stuff on-board United flights, or will you start checking more bags?

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  1. FWIW, the new UA sizers are more generous than the strict size limits by about an inch on each dimension.

    And I’m strongly in favor of stricter enforcement of the rules. I’d start with the number of bags some people bring on board more than the sizes but both need to be addressed.

  2. One thing that I noticed lately is that at least on Delta flights almost all carry on bags are being gate checked since in most regional flights Delta is using the small Embraer or Bombardier planes which barely have overhead bins. Thus, depending on the plane not even the European carry on dimensions will fit. For short trips I decided to bring a backpack since those are much more flexible and you can squeeze them under a seat or on the small overhead bin. Even if you gate check your carry on at no cost and get it back by the plane door at your destinantion I’ve seen carry on bags being delivered damaged or people having to wait too long by the plane door to get their luggage (at -22F at MSP) which adds stress to any trip.

  3. I’m probably in the minority here, but I’m pleased with the changes. I’d love to see quicker boarding times, especially on flights already behind schedule. It’s not an exaggeration to say that shaving 5 or 10 minutes off the boarding/turnaround time can make or break a connection and that reason alone makes me in favor of enforcing the rules.
    Admittedly, it’s easy for me to agree with the changes since they don’t impact me very much. Most of the time, I travel with a backpack well under limits and when that bag isn’t large enough, I move up all the way to a 26″ suitcase so there isn’t really a question that I’ll need to check it.
    I know packing that lightly isn’t the solution for everyone and that boarding efficiently won’t be 100% solved by bag size, but I do think it’ll be a step in the right direction.

  4. Carry-on bags have gotten to be a pet peeve of mine. I shouldn’t let it bother me so much, as I almost always just slide a bag under the seat in front of me, but it still annoys me when I see some people bringing on 2 or 3 bags, one of which they count as their personal item, that are all bigger than the one I have.

    I also have no problem if they go the Spirit route and charge to use the overhead bins. Make the fee the same as the fee to check a bag. That way you go back to the situation where people check or don’t check their bags depending upon what their preference was prior to bag fees becoming nearly universal.

    But, start with enforcing the 1 carry-on and 1 actual personal item first. You start enforcing the rules on the books, people will adjust and boarding will be much more pleasant.

  5. Nice post as I am looking for a smaller bag for my Mar trip on SN who usually weighs my carry-on and one time made me put it in their baggage sizer. Mine is under 22 but I got a bit nervous since it was an int’l flight. So I’m looking at 20x14x9 (2 wheel) models or 19″ spinners (haven’t found one that is under 22″ with wheels though). I think the 18″ ones are just way too small. Def MileagePlus shopping mall with Ink Bold for bonus miles.

  6. @Wandering Aramean – I also would like to see airlines being more strict with the carry on policy. The problem is the lack of standardization. Each plane will have a different luggage bin size and as I mentioned in my post above there are planes that you can barely fit a backpack on it. Also, the rule should be enforced somehow before passengers check-in since mane passengers get to the gate with huge bags and take advantage of the no cost gate check option which delays the boarding process. Also the luggage manufacturers should be more clear on what is allowed or not on planes. We are getting to the point of having to buy several carry on bags and check the plane you will be flying before you pack to travel.

  7. Interestingly, I have a total difference of opinion when it comes to checking bags. I totally value just checking the bags and having nothing but a small backpack for the plane ride, or even better in some cases just a small laptop sleeve.

    My entire thought process is that I feel like carry-ons slow down the process and make the entire miserable for the rest onboard especially those near the back of the plane. What I feel though is that if I was regularly towards the front of the plane I would be more inclined to carry-on my luggage.

    You see for me sitting back in economy by the time I get off the plane I only need to wait a few minutes for my bags to hit the claim. Thus, it doesn’t make a difference to me. So for someone in business or first class I could see how it would be an annoying. Just remember how long those people behind you are waiting for you and your seat mates to lug your bags out of the overhead bin while the plane beings to get more and more stuffy from the inadequate air supply.

  8. Oh no! I agree with you. I’d be happy to check my bag (since we have a United credit card so it would be no charge), but I don’t want to spend time waiting for it at my destination or waiting to find that it didn’t make it to my destination! That said, there are some people who carry on way too much (and always seem to be the last to board for some reason) and it’s those rule-breakers that have to ruin it for the rest of us.

  9. I just don’t really get how forcing me to cram my bag into a sizer (yes, it can be done, but takes far more time and effort than putting it into the actual overhead bin) is going to increase the speed of the boarding process. If the sizers in any way resembled actual bins so that passengers could, you know, learn to stow their bags quickly and efficiently, I could see how that might be beneficial, but just enforcing the current rules iseems likely to make the boarding process much longer and more antagonistic.

  10. I like the rule change for the most part. When bags were free it used to be a choice so someone bringing a larger bag on didn’t really matter because there were enough people not doing it that it didn’t matter. Now with people bringing on large(and many sometimes) bags it slows everything down. It drives me crazy how long it takes to board the plane because of people with large bags taking way too long to stow them but even worse is getting off the plane. It seems like it takes people longer to get the bag out of the bing than it did to put it up there. Sometimes I just want to jump over the seats to get off the plane. Rant complete.

  11. I should be up-front and just say that I hate wheeled bags. With that out of the way, I still think you should consider a wheel-free bag. You avoid all the mechanism associated with the wheel and the pull-up handle so you end up with more packable space inside the same external dimensions. Plus, the world isn’t all smooth pavement, so you gain freedom of movement without having to accommodate wheels. I currently use a Patagonia MLC (maximum carry-on, in their lingo) — wear it with the backpack straps to make carrying the load easier, or stow the straps away so you don’t look like you just came down from Kilimanjaro — but the guy at onebag.com also has some other recommendations.

  12. @ FP – wheeled bags are far better for your back. Use spinners. They are the superior wheeled bags which create minimal problems for your body.

    Backpacks also create a lot of sweatiness on one’s back which contributes to BO on a plane which is unpleasant for all of those around you.

    Furthermore, backpacks cannot easily be stood by themselves and often fall over getting dirty – it’s not like the floor of an airport is particularly clean.

  13. @Tyler – I would happily check my bag if:
    – by the time I get to the baggage claim area the bag is already coming out (remember that luggage compartment can be opened as soon as plane gets to the gate and thus if the process is efficient the luggage should arrive at the baggage claim before the passenger);
    – my bag arrives on the same way I checked it in and not with missing wheels, zippers, scratched, with oil on it, etc…;
    – if my luggage actually arrives at my destination and I don’t need to go shopping prior my next meeting;
    – if nobody opens my luggage and steals my personal things from inside my bag. That happened to me once but many times to family and friends when traveling mainly to airports in Latin America. By the time you get your luggage it feels lighter and items were stolen from inside on the way from the plane to the baggage claim area.

    The problem is that none of the above can be guaranteed by the airline and actually they couldn’t care less when any of the above happens.

  14. Well, I suppose everyone’s different (and I understand the back problems), but I’m old enough to qualify for AARP and wear my bag with the backpack straps with no issues. A bag worn on your back avoids airport floor dirtiness, and I don’t think the short amount of time that you actually have to wear it between getting out of ground transportation and boarding the airplane is going to make anyone sweat too much. Then again, over the years I’ve learned to pack lightly, so even with the MLC (which stands for Maximum Legal Carryon — proving that I’m old and prone to forget the right name) I can pack for a week without overstuffing it.

  15. I definitely wish there was more enforcement. If you don’t get why, then maybe sometime you’ll board the plane and there won’t be any room for your bag because everyone with two or three bags that are not carry-on size take all of the space. If you board early as a preferred member, you don’t see this, but I do my best to be courteous to my fellow passengers and take a smaller carry-on.

  16. In my experience it isn’t the people with big bags that are the problem; it is the people who insist on putting jackets and small shopping bags in the overhead bin even though it is a full flight.

  17. I dislike checking bags for the same reasons you do, which inspires me to go carry-on and travel light when possible. However, unlike *MANY* people, when I can’t fit in into my 9x14x22 bag I check it. I am *SO* over people bringing monstrous bags on the plane and then (I kid you not) asking me if I could move my small backpack to under-seat so they can get turn their monster sideways because it won’t fit the proper way.

    I, for one, welcome the carry-on baggage police! Make them gate-check those monsters!

  18. 15 years ago this wasn’t a problem. Let’s not forget why it all started. Airlines charging for bags and you can come up with all possible solutions and scenarios, but as long as there’s a fee, people will try to avoid it as not everyone has a free bag credit card or $100 lying around just to hand it to the airlines to transport their bags after they’ve already paid for a plane ticket. You don’t see this problem on Southwest. Airlines keep dictating their rules and people keep jumping through their hoops (sure lets go buy yet another bag, or here’s my $35!) and as long as people continue to fly those airlines while they charge for bags it will continue to happen. Easy solution: old school. You have a plane ticket? You get one free checked bag up to XYZ weight. Anything heavier you pay extra. Congress won’t care to set this law, but that’s the easy fix. All this problem goes away. Not everyone flies for fun or for vacation or can afford to pay for a bag fee so I can’t blame the public for trying to avoid them by carrying everything and their mother into the overhead bins.

  19. I hear ya Rob. I board early via status or credit card priority just so I can put my laptop/jacket/backpack in the overhead bin, freeing the underseat space for my long legs. I couldn’t care less that I am taking away room from oversized carry-ons and am especially galled when the FAs announce that folks should save room for these monstrosities.

  20. I have traveled to many countries, and trying to bring as much carry-on as possible only seems an US phenomenon. For one thing, many foreign airlines enforce carry-on weight limit strictly. Also, I don’t know why, but checked luggage just seem to come out quicker in foreign airports.

    But before they start to size the carry-ons, which will undoubtedly slowdown the boarding process even more, I think they should enforce the 1+1 rule first. From my experiences, women are usually the worst offenders. I have seen so many women trying to blur the +1 rule, carrying on HUGE totes, or an extra shopping bag or two. And of course they cannot lift all that luggage into the overhead bin…

  21. I do everything possible not to check bags. I travel overseas mostly and absolutely dread that feeling of helplessness that you get when you walk up to the carousal and have to hope that your bag actually ends up being there.

    I carry on a 22″ travelpro and a backpack to travel up to 12 days overseas.

    There is also something to be said about not worrying about your bag there are mechanical or weather issues. Last week I got re-routed due to a mechanical to HKG on a different carrier and I didn’t have to stress about my bag being re-tagged correctly and making the different connections to Asia.

    Also, when you do miss that last connection and have to overnight in some god forsaken place it is a nice consolation to actually have your bag to take to the hotel.

  22. Great….but I love how United is advertising all these new jets with larger oversized bins……what do they expect to put in these larger oversized bins if we can’t bring on the roller boards ???

  23. I’m with FP. I’m a mom with two kids and last summer we went to Europe for three weeks with four backpacks – two Tom Bihn Aeronauts for myself and DH, and the kids brought their stuff in their school backpacks. No stress over connections, no problem climbing stairs in a castle, over bridges in Venice, onto water taxis and ferries, etc. Wheeled bags are hard to carry; the wheels add weight and consume a lot of space.

    For domestic travel where there’s lots of smooth concrete I do have a roll aboard – a Briggs and Riley rolling cabin bag. At 8″ x 15.5″ x 12.5″ it never needs to be gate checked and I’ve used it for trips up to a week in all seasons. Our old Tumi rolling bags are sitting in the basement gathering dust.

  24. I am looking forward to the new enforcement. I almost always check my bag though – even if it is a “carryon” size. It’s just less hassle to deal with. Living in a UA hub helps – I can get direct flights almost anywhere in the world.

  25. I sure hope they crack down. Its outrageous how much abuse I see (mainly women with their huge “purses” or families with kids with ridiculously large carryons who take 10 minutes holding up the aisle while they struggle to get them into the overhead bins – often forcing F/A or other passengers to help).

    Frankly they should boot those types off the plane and send them back to check baggage on another flight. A few well publicized shamings like that would stop the abuse right quick.

  26. I wanted to avoid commenting here b/c I have strong feeligns on the subject, but I feel like I must given some of these comments (ahem Paul). I too am extremely frustrated by the problems with carry-ons now–especially the people who are clearly breaking the rules. It slows down boarding, causes delays, and is just overall annoying. However, lets not forget WHY these problems exist now–they started when every airline instituted checked bag fees. Prior to then, a lot of these people would have checked bags, overhead bins would not have been overflowing with carry-on items, and boarding would have been much quicker. However, after instituting checked bag fees, everyone rushed out to get “carry-on” bags–which as mommypoints noted, many are over the insanely undersized sizers anyway.

    I realize that checked bag fees are here to stay–and I’m sure that airlines are just salivating at the chance to increse the price even more as soon as one airline makes that increase. I still remember the stated “reason” for the checked bag fee was the sudden increase in fuel prices–but like taxes and tolls, as soon as the airlines saw all of the profits, the fees were here to stay, even when that justification had passed (at least for awhile, given that fuel prices have been high for the last couple of years). I know that airlines make millions a year in checked bag fees now, however, I’m beginning to wonder, given the delays which result in additional fuel costs, how much money they are saving.

    If the issue here truly is boarding times and not the airline trying to squeeze even more money out of passengers, there are two easy ways to solve the problem that would not delay airlines:

    (1) catch the people at security, not at the gate, who have bags that are clearly breaking the rules (i’m talking to you Mr. “I have a a ‘carry-on’ duffle bag that takes up an entire overhead bin by itself sideways”). I know that this is possible because on my flight back from Fort Lauderdale I saw someone stopping people with questionable bags.

    (2) Offer gate checking on every flight, not just when overhead bins “might” be full. Also, permit people to check bags that would fit in the overhead bin at the COUNTER–or have a lower weight limit for a free checked bag (i.e. 30 lbs are checked free, from 31-50 are $XX). Many people, myself included, would almost always pre-check or gate check a bag if offered–primarily because my wife always checks a bag. I’m sure there are many other passengers that would do the same. The employees loading bags can get all of the gate checked bags under the plane during normal boarding–and to speed the process up even more, airlines could permit those who are gate checking bags to board just before general boarding–i.e. after those with status, priority boarding, and families. That would give additional time to the employees to get the bags checked and avoid delays.

    Maybe I take this issue a little too personal because I have seen the sudden shift Frontier made in its gate checking policies and many commenting here may have not yet experienced that shift. This whole process is getting absurd–especially when in less than a decade we have went from two complimentary checked bags on every flight to the point that airlines potentially making people miss flights or pay a king’s ransom to gate check a bag b/c the bag doesn’t fit in our micro-sized sizer.

    I guess to sum it up, let’s direct the anger where the anger is really due–at the airlines.

  27. One reason United might be starting this is that a number of the Star Alliance partners have STRICHT carry-on bag policies. Often times I take my roll aboard on a UA flight then at Frankfurt, I’m told by LH staff at the gate that the bag is too big and I must gate check it. I think that UA flyers have had it pretty good with a lax policy. Yes, UA has always had restrictions, but they were never enforced.

    Also, I agree with the earlier comment about women travelers and their “many” purses. I completely respect the ONE purse rule, but briefcase, big purse and other big shopping bags is a NO-NO – yet most gate agents look the other way.

    Security agents will NEVER restrict bag sizes – that’s not their focus. Instead the airlines will need agents at the security checkpoints. How about those people that check your boarding pass before you go to security?

  28. Not to threadjack, but speaking of United, I was pricing out one-way award tickets from the east coast to the Big Island of Hawaii (KOA). Itineraries entirely on UA metal price at 22.5K miles, as expected. However, itineraries that stop in HNL and then involve taking Hawaiian from HNL to KOA price at 28.5 miles, even when the time between the XYZ-HNL and HNL-KOA flights is under two hours. So, it seems that United is charging the 6K intra-Hawaii fee for itineraries such as this.

    Regarding the bags, my family generally likes to check at least one bag to make carrying kids a bit easier. My carry-on fits in the overhead bins of non-regional jets, but I’ve never measured to see if it fits the official dimensions.

  29. I always check my bags. If I am going to travel, I am gonna pack enough clothes, toiletries, etc to make my trip enjoyable. I tend to overpack but regardless, I think it is easier to check the bags instead of dragging them through the airport. I have never had my luggage lost. I am sorry for anyone who has had this happen . 🙁 I like to get on my flight with a backpack with my computer and purse. It bugs the crap out of me when folks get on the plane with huge, full size luggage and their big purses and hit people in the head as they walk down the aisle. It is terribly rude. I think that the airline should definitely enforce size limits. I do think is much worse on airlines that charge per checked bags. I wish they would just add it to the cost of the flight.

  30. Save on getting a new bag because of United. Just buy The Man a ScotteVest vest and overcoat, some Columbia cargo pants, a Thomas Bates money belt, a Tiger Hill fishing shirt, some SlotFlop flip flops with hidden pockets and a Tilley hat with a hidden pocket and you will have at least 68 pockets for all those family travel necessities.

  31. Seems to me carry on baggage weight is inversely proprortional to the strength of the passenger that it belongs to. Then they wait till a FA or other kind passenger helps them lift it up backing up the line of people getting onboard . I much prefer to check as it’s a lot less hassle at TSA and you’re not dragging bags from gate to gate etc…small price to pay for a few extra minutes at baggage claim

  32. I have that *exact* same Briggs & Riley 20″ wide body carry-on (same color, even!). Have you traveled on United since they imposed the stricter carry-on rule? I’m worried about a trip I’m going to take in the next couple months since I HAVE to carry on. I’ll be taking a fragile gift for a beloved friend overseas, and I know it won’t hold up well through normal baggage handling. Since this bag is 15.5″ wide, I’m slightly freaking out that they’ll turn me around to check it in at the counter. I always travel light, don’t use the expander unless I’m on a road trip and my bag is never packed to the gills. Thanks!

  33. To Cedric and others:

    It’s not fair to complain about “women” and their extra shopping bags, etc. because it is the airlines like United that explicitly say passengers are allowed shopping bags and anything they buy in the airport IN ADDITION to their personal items (umbrellas, diaper bags, etc) and 1 personal bag and 1 carry on piece of luggage. It’s surprising how many of these extra personal items one is permitted to bring.

    Yes, I agree that it’s outrageous to have multiple personal bags brought onto the plane (where should they be placed since they aren’t supposed to go in the overhead bin?).

    But the airlines are totally complicit in the problem by stating it is an okay practice on their website. The “women” you note as the perpetrators are the same humans who shop and provide for children and men as well as themselves. I sense a slight twinge of sexism in some of these voiced “observations” as if the extra bags are all just for them and there is some moral issue with having permitted shopping bags. Take it up with the airlines. I’m thinking that they won’t like you (someone said they do this) putting your coat in the overhead bin even if it’s the only thing you carry on. It fits under your seat regardless of your leg length.

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