A while ago, one of our friends reached out to us with a travel-related question. We’re always glad to help our friends and if any of our readers have a question, the best way to get a quick reply is to ask on our Facebook group.
He’s not a frequent traveler and was headed out of town for a quick weekend. He wanted to just bring a carry-on bag with him but was concerned that the airline might make him gate check the bag. His question was if there’s any way to know, in advance, if the airline would be likely to gate check bags.
When I first heard the question, my answer was, “It depends.”
There are several things you can do to get an earlier boarding group, which helps you make sure that there will still be space in the overhead bins for your bag.
Have A Co-Brand Credit Card
One sure way to get an early boarding group, regardless of the ticket type you purchased, is to have the co-brand credit card with the airline you’re flying with.
Pay For Preferred Seats Or Priority Boarding
If you don’t have a credit card with the airline you’re flying on, there’s another way to get preferred boarding. If you pay for any of the extra space seats (like Main Cabin Extra or Comfort+) or pay for United’s Priority Boarding option, you’ll get to board the plane earlier than the other passengers. However, you may also be able to purchase less expensive preferred seats, like those offered by Delta, to get yourself into an earlier boarding group.
Check To See How Full The Plane Is
This is by no means a perfect method, but you can look the night before your flight and see the seating chart. If there are a bunch of seats open, there’s a chance that your flight isn’t that full and there’ll be plenty of empty seats. That would mean plenty of extra space in the overheads.
Of course, this isn’t a definitive method to learn how full your flight is. If there’s a bunch of basic economy passengers, they won’t receive seat assignments until they arrive at the gate. I’ve seen a half-empty plane fill up just hours before departure.
If you’re depending on this method to figure out if you’re going to have to gate check your bag, I’d plan on possibly having to hand your bag over at the gate.
Be Well Within The Size Limits
Every airline has different requirements for carry-on bags and the size of a personal item. Here’s a list of the requirements for U.S.-based airlines. If your bag is well within the requirements, the gate agents might be more willing to let you bring it aboard than if it’s clearly over the limit. Just be prepared in case you’re told your bag is too large to fit in the overhead bin (even if it isn’t).
If you’re looking for a bag that’ll fit in the space under the seat in front of you, check out this carry-on bag that fits those requirements.
Know The Passengers On Your Plane
The passenger mix on your flight can make a huge difference in the amount of overhead space available on your flight.
If you’re on a flight full of frequent travelers who are trying to get home on a Friday afternoon, it’s likely that there’ll be a bunch of people who can board the flight before you and they’ll be carrying a maximum-sized roll-aboard bag. If you’re flying to Orlando on a Saturday morning, it’s more likely you’ll be traveling with a bunch of families with kids and their mini-sized Frozen 2 carry-on bag filled with their iPod and snacks. That flight will tend to have plenty of space in the overhead bin.
As with most things nowadays, if you want to make sure that you’ll get preferential treatment on board you’ll need to pay for it. Whether it’s by having status, a co-brand credit card or paying for a preferred seat, that’s the only way to make sure you’re going to get on board in time to have space for your bag in the overhead bin.
If you have a small bag or are flying on a plane with fewer passengers requiring overhead bin space, your odds of getting bin space improves but is by no means guaranteed. All it takes is a gate agent to say that “Your bag is too big” and you’ll be stuck taking your pillow out of your bag so that it can fit in a sizer while other passengers are going onto the plane.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary