Image: Baggage overload
Ed Betz  /  AP
Airlines' poor marks for baggage handling, not to mention the painful experience of retrieving it from carousels, make it awfully enticing to travel with just carry-on luggage, columnist Rob Lovitt says.
By Travel writer contributor
updated 10/9/2007 9:47:10 AM ET 2007-10-09T13:47:10

You’ll have to excuse me — I’m a little choked up.

You see, my daughter just left for the airport. She’s heading to California for a conference of student athletes and flying as an unaccompanied minor. That’s no big deal — she’s traveled without us before — but this time she also handled the logistics. She found appropriate flights, printed her boarding pass and made arrangements to get to the airport with one of her teammates.

So, there I was on the front porch, watching her put her luggage in the car and hoping my face didn’t betray the emotions I was feeling. There was nostalgia for the days when she still needed me to make her travel arrangements and a bit of befuddlement at how, seemingly overnight, that was no longer so. Mostly, though, I was proud that she’d become such a smart and independent traveler.

That and the fact that she was going for five days and only taking a carry-on bag.

Luggage and lifestyle
We are, in many ways, defined by our baggage. That woman with the rollaboard and briefcase? Even without the serial cell phone monologues, she’s obviously a business traveler. The guy with the backpack, bulging duffel and messenger bag? I’d guess global trekker on an epic adventure. From car seats to golf bags, you can tell a lot about people by the gear they grab at baggage claim.

In my case, luggage has been a consistent mirror of my lifestyle. In college, I traveled with a beat-up suitcase — bought at a tag sale for a buck — that fit right in with my thrift-shop wardrobe. With its worn leather handle and faded houndstooth pattern, it was already so tired-looking I called it my “Death of a Salesman” suitcase. Alas, just like Willy Loman, it went out with a whimper as old age and hard travel took their inevitable toll.

Later, as a new father, I was the guy you’d see doing the continuous clean and jerk at the baggage carousel. My bag. My wife’s bag. The car seat, stroller and portable playpen. If the baggage gods were smiling, I’d find an abandoned Smarte Carte by the curb; if not, I became the family mule, a slow, stubborn pack animal trudging through the terminal with a blank look and aching back.

Now, like most frequent travelers, I only check bags when I absolutely have to. If I can get by with fewer clothes, I do. If I have to buy shampoo when I get to my destination, I will. And if I’ve been able to instill a similar sensibility in my daughter, then there may be hope for the future.

Who knows, between the two of us, we might be able to get her mother to give it a try.

Post-flight purgatory
Clearly, there are plenty of good reasons not to check baggage. According to the latest statistics, reports of mishandled bags (i.e., those that were lost, damaged, delayed or pilfered) hit 7.55 per 1,000 passengers in August. That’s actually down from the month before, but it still averages out to at least one bag going missing on every two commercial flights.

And even if your bags don’t go missing, there’s the exasperating experience of waiting for them in the baggage area. The belt starts; everybody perks up. The belt stops; everybody groans. The belt starts and stops a few more times, but after a few false alarms, you realize you’re not going anywhere any time soon. If, as Dante suggested, the first circle of Hell is a state of limbo, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to find out it has a baggage carousel.

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All that downtime adds up, especially when you factor in the extra time required to check your bags in the first place. If you spend 30 minutes in the check-in line and another 30 minutes at baggage claim, that’s an hour out of your life every time you fly. If you make just one round trip a month, that’s a full day — 24 mind-numbing hours — every year.

Let’s carry on, shall we?
When you think about it that way, it’s hard to argue with the logic of going carry-on-only, which is why I hope my wife will go with the family flow. I know it won’t be an easy sell, especially since we’ve just made reservations to fly cross-country to visit family over the holidays. Between presents, dress clothes and winter coats, I already know I’m going to lose that battle.

So I’ve decided not to say a word when she hauls out Big Red, the biggest, bulkiest suitcase we own. I’m not going to mention the latest mishandled-bag statistics or the hours we can save by bypassing baggage claim, and I’m certainly not going to suggest that she doesn’t need quite so many pairs of shoes.

I’m going to have our daughter do it.

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