In time for the holidays, a seasonal primer on luggage etiquette

It’s the season of the squeeze.

That should require absolutely no explanation, but just in case: Picture thousands of stressed-out holiday travelers in airport terminals, train stations and bus terminals, bundled up in winter clothing, all piling into a claustrophobia-inducing cattle-class cabin.

With luggage.

Is your blood pressure rising yet? Mine, too.

“The worst offenders are people who abuse the carry-on luggage limit and take up more space than they are supposed to get,” says Raymond Lee, a finance director for a consumer goods company in New York and a frequent traveler. “They are also the ones who will put their luggage sideways and take up more space for no reason other than they just don’t care to do it right.”

But don’t take his word for it. Simply board a flight, grab a seat and watch. Chances are, you’ll see a fellow passenger try to wedge a too-large carry-on into an overhead bin, or a thoughtless passenger with a backpack whacking another traveler, or two people bickering over the space under their seats. It’s chaos.

What better time to brush up on your luggage etiquette and learn a defensive maneuver or two?

It starts with what you bring. “Consumers are looking for the most possible space and lightest-weight case possible,” says Scott Niekelski, a direct import manager at the National Luggage Dealers Association, a luggage distributor.

That may be the wrong impulse. When it comes to proper luggage etiquette — less is more. The most experienced passengers travel light. Some don’t bring any luggage.

“I ship my gear ahead to my destination, especially if I plan to be in one place for an extended period,” says Brian Teeter, the Irvine, Calif., author of the “Healthy Trekking Travel Guides” series. “That way, I can travel light and have my main luggage waiting when I arrive.”

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Having no luggage is probably the only way to ensure you’ll never fight about it. But let’s be realistic: Most of us travel with at least a backpack, purse or some other kind of carry-on.

On planes, carry-on luggage is a never-ending irritant. Airlines are partly to blame, since checked luggage fees incentivize passengers to carry most of their belongings with them. Protocol experts say the key to avoiding scraps over luggage is packing light and moving fast. Downsize to a smaller carry-on, like a 22-inch rollaboard or a backpack, and place it in the bin above your seat — not someone else’s (that’s called bin-hogging, and it will almost certainly annoy the passengers below).

Speed matters. Don’t overstuff your bag to the point where you have to wrestle it into the compartment. “Stow carry-on luggage quickly in the overhead bin so other passengers may pass in the aisle,” says Rachel Wagner, a corporate etiquette consultant in Tulsa. “If you need extra time to stow it, step into the seat area for a moment so others may pass by, then step back into the aisle when there’s a short break in the aisle.”

No one likes a blocker, and that’s true at the luggage carousel, as well. Consider the mad dash for the best position. For some reason, passengers feel they own the spot immediately next to the conveyor belt, and they refuse to give it up for anyone, even if those people see their luggage and want to collect it.

“Don’t hover around the baggage carousel,” says photographer Gary Arndt, who travels constantly for work. “You block everyone else when their bag arrives. Stand at least several steps back from the carousel, and only step forward when your bag is actually coming past.”

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Backpacks are another source of pain for travelers, and that’s true not only on planes but also buses, trains or any mode of transportation with narrow corridors. The problem? During boarding and deplaning, it’s easy to turn quickly and unwittingly hit fellow passengers with them.

“Take bags off of your shoulder, especially backpacks, before walking down the plane aisle,” says Sarah Howell, a corporate trainer and frequent business traveler based in Austin. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been whacked in the face by someone carrying the contents of their entire life on their shoulder, with them none the wiser.”

A special note about kids: Parents, if you can avoid taking a stroller, do. Strollers are clunky and they’re easily damaged when you gate-check them. Or, to put it into luggage terms, your baby makes a better carry-on than a rollaboard. Also monitor older kids with luggage.

“Don’t let children wheel their own suitcases through the airport,” says Evie Granville, a writer from Houston who hosts a lifestyle podcast that often deals with etiquette issues. “Instead, pack a backpack for them to carry.”

I concur. My 12-year-old son thinks his wheeled luggage is a go-cart. After a long flight to Anchorage this summer, he had a chance to realize that dream. There’s an area between the main concourse and the car rental terminal that slopes down and, without warning, he threw himself down the incline with the enthusiasm of an Olympic bobsledder. He nearly collided with a passenger. Needless to say, he’s using the backpack next time we hit the road.

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The passenger at the bottom of the ramp taught us a valuable lesson about survival. Even though he looked as if he had endured a marathon flight to Alaska, as well, he remained alert and stepped out of my son’s way.

Luggage etiquette is only a partial solution to the seasonal squeeze. You have to also play defense . Watch out for the backpacks, the passengers with the overstuffed bags, the moms and dads with strollers and, yes, the tweens with wheeled luggage. Don’t assume they have the same good manners you do, and don’t be surprised if you have to dodge speeding carry-ons.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at

  • Alan Gore

    I use a small hiking backpack as my carryon, and because it fits under the seat I never have to worry about what’s in the overhead bin. And yes, never have the backpack on while inside the aircraft.

  • James

    If you are hit by someone’s backpack — you are too close to that person. Let people have a little space before being packed in like sardines.


    I was hit in the face with a back pack on my last flight earlier this month. I was actually in my seat when a passenger wearing an overstuffed backpack turned suddenly to talk to the person behind him. I was hit and bruised by it. The passenger should have taken it off and carried it in front of him to avoid this problem.

  • DChamp56

    I mentioned much of this in a previous article you did telling people to bring MORE on the plane instead of checking it!
    I use a small backpack that goes under the seat in front of me, and it’s off my shoulder before my foot touches the plane for the first time. I’m in my seat in a hurry and ready to go in seconds.
    Others however, have no comprehension of right/wrong when it comes to bringing carry-ons on board.
    Until the airlines actually enforce size limits and how many bags you can bring, it’ll continue to happen.

  • Zarkov505

    I’ve written about this elsewhere, and it has to be said AGAIN.

    I travel with medical equipment and supplies that MUST travel with me and arrive with me. 22x14x9 rollaboard.

    I travel with a notebook computer, DSLR camera, Bose headphones, CD wallet, and power supplies and a few incidentals. Theft from checked baggage in the United States is a well-documented, huge problem. Backpack.

    I’d LOVE to be able to lighten up, BUT IT ISN’T GOING TO HAPPEN IN MY LIFETIME.

  • pauletteb

    Another “favorite”: the guys and gals who put their overcoat or suit jacket in the overhead . . . not atop their carry-on, but alongside it. When the idiot in front of me did this on a flight to DC last fall, I looked at him and just said “Really?” “What are you going to do about it?” he sneered. I put my carry-on right on top of his coat.

  • pauletteb

    No, that person is, at best, inattentive; at worst, rude and inconsiderate. And if we’re already aboard, we’re already packed like sardines.

  • Jeff W.

    Winter is fast approaching, which means more heavy and thick coats. Which all of the FAs will announce, do not go in the overhead bins so that more people can place their luggage.

  • cscasi

    “Don’t hover around the baggage carousel,” says photographer Gary Arndt, who travels constantly for work. “You block everyone else when their bag arrives. Stand at least several steps back from the carousel, and only step forward when your bag is actually coming past.”
    Great thought. The only issue is that whenever people do that and then they see their bag(s) coming, they have to try to squeeze in between people standing along the carousel waiting for their bags. I know, if everyone was thoughtful, sensible and courteous; but, I will probably be dead and gone before that happens.

  • Janet Campbell

    I do exactly the same thing.

  • Dutchess

    Sitting in my seat while people are boarding I’m far too often hit by backpacks. Personal space is NOT the issue, at least not on my part.

  • eBob

    That is kind of hard to do. A lot of bags look very similar to mine. If the bag comes out at a certain angle, I would literally have to be right there to see it.

  • Travelnut

    You’re my type of person. :)

  • Travelnut

    So you make it distinctive. I always know which bag is mine. I chose a green suitcase, and I have a pink, green and yellow pompom on the handle. I know that wouldn’t work for a dude, but I used to use a lime green luggage strap.

  • eBob

    It used to be that flight attendants would take your overcoat or suit jacket and hang it in the closet. I don’t know why they stopped doing that.

  • Robert S

    We tie a red strip of cloth onto ours. I can spot them from 30′ away. That being said, it’s still easy to step up and take a closer look and then step back. My ire is with the ones that stand right in front of the conveyor blocking the view of everyone else.

  • eBob

    I have a neon green baggage tag that is highly visible as long as the bag comes out with the tag visible. If my bag comes out upside-down (which it has on more than one occasion), it is more of a challenge.

  • Shirley G

    I absolutely detest backpacks because owners are typically clueless (on planes, elevators, etc.). Yeah keep turning around and then look at me like I’m nuts when I yelp after you’ve hit me in the face.

  • HulkSmash

    I learned something this summer: All aircraft with 100 or more seats MUST have a wheelchair closet capable of storing a folding wheelchair. If it is occupied or unavailable, they must strap your chair to seats, even if it means deplaning passengers. Don’t let them tell you that your chair has to go under the plane!


  • Bill___A

    Yes, that is the biggest problem right there. Then, someone who did pack a carry on the right size is asked to “gate check” their bag because of this, which is very unjust.

  • LonnieC

    Love it!

  • Annie M

    Much of the overhead problem is caused by the airlines themselves – not just for charging but because they do not monitor what people are carrying on when they check in. All it takes it to look at what the flyer ISN’T checking. They can easily see pieces that are too large to fit in the overhead and folks that are abusing the one carry on rule. Why do they even get past security with the excess carry ons?

  • Annie M

    I had the same with a woman and her Burberry coat. Except my husband took care of her.

  • Annie M

    What closet?

  • Annie M

    How about the jerks that shove you aside and stand in front of you when you do that?

  • Annie M

    Tie a string on it.

  • BubbaJoe123

    The large majority of commercial aircraft have a closet. Not all, but most.

  • RitaGill

    I agree—especially when you are in the last group to board, they run out of space and ask you to gatecheck your regulation size bag. They should be stopping passengers at the desk and making them gatecheck their big bags. Whatever happened to the “size checker” they used to have at the gate? If it doesn’t fit in that, it has to be checked.

  • AJPeabody

    I use a brightly colored racing stripe of duct tape.

  • kittymocha

    I travel mostly between home in WA state and winter condo in AZ now. I start filling a shipping box with stuff I want to take to other place. I then ship it. I usually only have a purse to slip under the seat of the plane and can get to the shuttle area of the airport quickly. I have had no problems shipping except one time I put “fragile” stickers on a box and it looked like the employees had a good time trying to destroy the box! I highly recommend not doing the stickers!

  • joycexyz

    The advice is not meant for everyone. Clearly your needs require a larger bag.

  • joycexyz

    You said it!

  • joycexyz

    Love it!!!

  • joycexyz

    Was she buried in her Burberry?

  • joycexyz

    We stand at the far end of the carousel. Easy to see the luggage as it comes around, and very easy to retrieve. It really doesn’t take more than a minute or so from the time it comes out. Very easy, no hassles.

  • Kevin Nash

    Why do you still have a CD wallet? Who still listens to CDs when you can transfer all of your songs to your smart phone or iPod?

  • ctporter

    I have flown over 115k miles just this year and see this all the time unfortunately. Sometimes I can get by with just a laptop backpack (my purse always fits inside it), sometimes with the backpack and a small roll aboard (mine is 19″ x 14″ x 9″), if I have to bring my tools then I check everything but the backpack. (never have had anything stolen – knock on wood) I have two styles of backpacks, one that I wear on my back or drape over the carry on, or one that has wheels. The wheeled one has to go in the overhead, my wearable backpack can fit under most seats. One of the things I do appreciate about being a frequent flyer is boarding early enough to have space above my seat and not have to find space in the rows behind me.

  • Zarkov505

    I do not own a smart phone or an iPod.

    Even if I did, I would still be carrying the DSLR, the notebook computer, the Bose headphones, and the power supplies and incidentals, so the backpack would still be required. The CD wallet does not add significant volume to the total.

    The medical equipment and supplies specifically include a power strip, CPAP compressor, CPAP corrugated hose, CPAP mask, an asthma nebulizer kit, and prescription and OTC medications. This pretty well fills up the 22x14x9 rollaboard. I may have a book or two in there as well.

    Yes, if I didn’t have to carry the CPAP and the nebulizer kit, I could reduce my carryon baggage footprint significantly. And if frogs had wings…

  • Kevin Nash

    I don’t care if you stuff a small child in your carry on baggage so long as it is of the proper dimensions.

    I only have an issue if you try and squeeze all of that into an over sized carry on and still try to bring it on the plane.

  • Kerr

    True, but that’s usually reserved for passengers in first class.

  • BubbaJoe123

    True, but not clear how it’s relevant here.

  • Michael Karpiel

    Just flew from BOS to PBI Nov 28 on JetBlue. Luckily the flight was not totally full as I watched person after person put their bags in sideways into the overhead and then just close the door even though there was plenty of space. If it had been a full flight some people would have had to gate check since the FA’s don’t go around re-arranging the bags in the overhead (all airlines).

    The other points mentioned people just blocking the aisles during boarding time instead of getting in their seat as quickly as possible. Of course my overall favorite is during deplaning where people just stop in the jetway or they stop in the gate area right in the middle of the path people need to take instead of stepping to the side.

    Basically common sense and common courtesy for other people is gone in the vast majority.

    Many times I’ll put my computer bag under the seat in front of me when I see it’s a full flight instead of in the overhead. The problem on some aircraft is that the space under the seat is not consistent as some rows (depends on airline and aircraft) have equipment under the seat so you really don’t have the space for anything other than a small purse.

  • cate

    I was flying home from Rome in August and my grandson and I were almost the last to board. He was carrying my CPAP machine and my encased laptop. I had a big bag of pastries and a large leather bag with me and planned to put all under the seats in front of us. The FA had other ideas and told me I had to put my cpap in the overhead which was already full. I tried to sneak it under my seat but the FA was behind me and told me no and even though I explained there was no room above me she insisted. I, doing something I have never done before, became a jerk and started mumbling loudly about I bought the seat and the space above it. No one around me owned up to taking my space so I kept being an ass. I knew I was being horrible but it was like I just couldn’t stop. When we were deplaning the lady sitting behind me said the carryon was hers and apologized. I in turn told her how sorry I was and please accept my deepest apologies, too. Shame on me.

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