What not to ignore when packing for trips

The bags you use for travel, your knowledge of airline and security rules, and how you pack your belongings in your bags can have a major impact on your trip.

When making packing decisions, you need to consider airline luggage limitations and liability limits, governmental airport security prohibitions and regulations, and your travel health needs.

When you don’t pack with those considerations in mind, you can lose precious valuables, arrive at your destination with broken essentials, incur increased costs, lose counted-on access to belongings while inflight, waste time at airport security, and squander precious moments at your destination.

Don’t ignore airline baggage size limitations
Many airlines formerly relied on linear baggage limits (length+width+depth), but now impose individual limits on length, width and depth. That surprises unknowing air travelers like a fellow passenger on an American Airlines flight not long ago. The gate agent required her to check her carry-on bag when it didn’t fit in the sizer. Its dimensions were satisfactory under the old rules, but too wide under the new ones. When we arrived in New Orleans, she complained bitterly that American broke her camera that was packed in her carry-on, which she was required to check.

Don’t ignore airline baggage weight limitations
In the U.S., airlines rarely, if ever, impose a weight limit on carry-on bags. Outside the U.S., many airlines have a carry-on weight limit and enforce it. Well before your flights, make sure your bags meet the most restrictive baggage rules of all the airlines you’re flying on your trip. If a carry-on bag is too heavy, you’ll have to lighten it or check it. On most airlines, if you have to check an overweight carry-on, you’ll likely be required to pay a baggage fee.

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Checked luggage weight limits haven’t changed much in a long time, but the penalties have risen sharply in recent years. On American Airlines, for example, an overweight bag will cost $100 to $200 in fees.

Don’t ignore airline liability rules
If it’s fragile, valuable, electronic, medicine, photographic equipment, perishable, jewelry, cash, unique or irreplaceable, the airlines won’t accept liability for its loss or damage. In addition to these liability exemptions, the airlines have low liability limits for lost or damaged baggage and belongings. For U.S. domestic flights, the limit is $3,500 per passenger.

The woman on my American Airlines flight to New Orleans, mentioned above, was likely livid when she found out American wouldn’t accept liability for her damaged camera.

It’s important to me that my belongings arrive with me, in good condition and working order, so I pack all my camera and computer gear, medications, toilet articles, important papers and anything essential or irreplaceable in my carry-on or personal bag, never in my checked luggage.

Don’t ignore government airport security regulations
Government security regulations control what you may bring and how you can take it aboard your flights. Like other governments’ security agencies, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) publishes a prohibited items list. Some items on the list are banned from checked bags, others from carry-ons, and still others are totally banned. Special liquid/gel limitations continue to be enforced.

Some travelers try to sneak things past security agents. The problem with doing that or ignoring the regulations is that you could be detained long enough to miss your flight, lose your TSA PreCheck or Global Entry privileges, or worse, according to how severe your violation is considered. Always obey the rules.

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Don’t ignore the difficulty which airport security personnel have examining your luggage
Despite advances in x-ray scanning technology hardware and software, including automatic color coding to aid bag content recognition, the way air travelers pack their bags can make it harder or easier for security personnel to determine what’s in them.

When it’s difficult to judge what’s in your bags, security personnel will require them to be hand-checked. When checked luggage is opened, your belongings can be repacked poorly, and some items can be lost. For carry-ons, if your time is tight, the delay from hand-checking your bags could mean that you’ll miss your flight.

When luggage is packed with high density objects, such as wires, electronics, small tools, batteries, etc., placed on top of each other, security personnel can’t identify them on their x-ray monitor. Those bags will require hand-checking. To avoid this, pack your belongings layered, in organizers to prevent them from shifting in your luggage. Spread your high-density belongings across each bag, at the bottom. This aids their recognition and helps you avoid the need to have your bags hand-checked.

Don’t ignore your health needs when traveling
I know travelers who unfortunately packed their medications in their checked bag, which then never made it to their destination. Replacing missing prescription medications can be difficult and expensive when traveling internationally. It can waste precious time better spent vacationing or making a business deal. Pack them in your carry-on.

The two most important takeaways? Use the most restrictive size limitations from among the airlines on which you think you might fly to guide future luggage purchases. And when packing for a trip by air, if you have to have it when you arrive or if it’s irreplaceable, always pack it in your carry-on.

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Ned Levi

Ned Levi has traveled the world as an engineer and business executive. He is the founder of NSL Associates, a technology consulting company, and is a professional photographer specializing in travel and wildlife photography.

  • S363

    United (and others) state their weight limit as “50 lb (23 kg.)”. 23 kg is 50.7 pounds. I’ve been prepared, if I’m found to be a little over 50 lb, to argue that I adhered to the 23 kg. limit. I’m always been pretty careful to be under 50, though, so I’ve never needed to do this yet. Has anyone else tried this?

  • Grant Ritchie

    Ha! A person after my own heart. I love it! :-)

  • Randy Culpepper

    Be mindful that just because other gate agents and flight crews have let you slide on size requirements does not mean that others will (or should). Also, none of the other passengers are going to have your back when you throw a tantrum because you didn’t get your way. We’re going to be just as annoyed as the crew.

    ETA: I’d change that last sentence to say “personal item”. My backpack, which fits underneath the seat in front of me, is a personal item and not a carry on. It is not subject to being checked against my will.

  • One point was left out with this article in relation to codeshares. Many times the luggage requirements are different for different airlines even though they were booked on the same ticket. Your carry on bag may be fine in one direction but too large and heavy flying back because of a different code share partner. Always look at the size and weight requirements for each leg of your trip!

  • Nancy Nally

    The international carry-on limits are ridiculous. I travel internationally for business that requires I carry both a laptop and an SLR camera. By the time you put my laptop and my camera (no additional lenses, just the camera and flash) into my carry-on bag, I’m over 3/4 of the way to the international carry-on weight limit of 15 lbs on most airlines. Not to mention that their size restrictions barely hold the items. I barely have room to add in other required items like medications and basic necessities for the flight.

  • Carchar

    Even before my duffle bag reached me on the carousel after my U.S. domestic flight, I could tell it had been searched. The carry handles were not velcroed together and they were dragging. I had packed a bunch of small gifts to my family, from my recent travels, in a backpack, so that they wouldn’t separate in the duffle and come apart or break. Perhaps someone was curious as to what DVD set was in my bag or maybe the plastic bottle of stringybark honey looked suspicious. In any case, the backpack was empty and its contents were strewn, willy nilly, throughout the duffle bag. Now, nothing in the bag could have been considered expensive, including the DVDs, which were easily replaceable. Security just couldn’t be bothered in putting my stuff (nothing was stolen) back with some modicum of care. In other countries, I have found the notice that my luggage had been searched, but it looked just like I had packed it.

  • This won’t help for business, but smartphones can perform the same functions for leisure travel. The new 12 Mp camera on the iPhone 6s takes amazing photos. I’ve also found that the carriers don’t weigh the personal item. I stuff my personal item full and keep my soft sided carry on light. I was able to travel for 5 weeks on a mountain/jungle/cruise in Sourh America while staying under the 7 kg limit. That won’t help you with airlines that only allow a single bag. Another way to subtract weight is to dump the wheels and go soft sided on the luggage.
    If this is a business trip with a company issued (heavy) laptop then the business should pay for the luggage fees. It isn’t your fault that the business issues a heavy laptop.

  • Newman Wilkins

    I always use the plastic compression bags for my clothes. If my bag gets inspected, the clothes have always been left alone in the bag. This has been the case on domestic and European flights. Plus it protects my clothes if my bag ends up on a rainy tarmac.

  • Nancy Nally

    I’m self-employed. The laptop I travel with is a 15″ Macbook Pro, my only computer. I would LOVE to have a smaller Macbook or a Macbook Air just for traveling with but it’s not possible currently for budget reasons. I actually have an iPhone 6S and I love it, but it doesn’t completely replace the need for the SLR yet for my business travel (trade show photography). I did use a camera bag as a personal item on my most recent international trip to get around the weight limit. I never use a wheeled bag traveling internationally for carry on, but always regret it because of how horrible it is lugging all that weight without being able to roll it.

  • pauletteb

    Totally agree on the camera issue. I don’t care how super-duper my iPhone is, it cannot take macro photos anywhere near the quality of my SLR and macro lens.

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