Carry-on rules for the clueless

In most cases, storing your carry-on luggage wheels first really does save room.
In most cases, storing your carry-on luggage wheels first really does save room.John Brecher /

Once you’ve made it through the airport security checkpoint hassle, getting onto the airplane and settled into your seat should be a breeze. But these days that’s not what happens. In fact, complaints about the boarding experience rank up near the top of the list of all reader comments sent in so far to the Well Mannered Traveler mailbox.

For example:

Tim Shelfer of Arlington, Texas is fed up with “the guy sitting in 33-D who puts his oversize bag in the bin over 12-A, thus filling up the forward bins prematurely.”

Callie Mack from San Diego hates it when “… passengers stand in the aisle ... carefully arranging and rearranging all their carry-on items in the overhead bins, making everyone behind them wait for them to finish fussing with their stuff.”

Maryanne Ruane of Thousand Oaks, Calif., is surprised at what constitutes a carry-on these days after witnessing a fellow passenger put his Volkswagen windshield into the overhead bin.

And plenty of folks resent getting repeatedly thwomped on the head by bags and other items dangling from the shoulders of other passengers rumbling down the aisle.

Windshields not withstanding, the TSA will no longer allow us to board airplanes with our axes, ice picks, sabers, stun guns, swords, baseball bats, spear guns and similarly worrisome and unwieldy objects. So what the heck is in all those overstuffed, oversized carry-on bags?

Pretty much everything.  Checked bags are being lost, battered, misplaced and otherwise mishandled more than ever before. Airlines are aggressively collecting excess baggage fees. And industry experts suspect major carriers will soon follow the lead of Spirit Airlines and begin charging fees for all checked baggage.

It’s therefore no surprise that passengers try to avoid checking any luggage and are instead dragging everything on board. Of course, airplanes these days don’t have enough bins to hold everyone’s stuff so tempers can flare and fights erupt when people try to cram their bags into bins that are already overflowing.

What’s a well-mannered traveler to do?

Don’t move in. Try to avoid even having to jostle for space in the overhead bin. Roll the dice, throw caution to the wind and check your bags. Or have them shipped ahead to your destination via FedEx, UPS or one of the many baggage transfer services now available.  Some of the most blissed-out travelers I’ve seen on planes recently have boarded with just a tiny bag that fits under the seat in front of them.

Know your limits. Other people will try to pass off steamer trunks and Volkswagen windshields as legal carry-on items, but you shouldn’t. Take out your tape measure and make sure your carry-on bag meets your airline’s requirements. Most airlines officially limit bags to 45 linear inches, which is the length, the height and the width added together. Knowing what’s legal means you’ll have a clear conscience when you pass by those metal sizing bins in the gate area.

Lighten up. We all tend to over pack, but there are plenty of books, Web sites, and experienced travelers happy to share tips that can help you lighten your carry-on load. Start by making friends with vacuum compressor bags, mix-and-match outfits and quick-dry, no-iron clothing.

Don’t thwomp. You and your shoulder bag are no doubt wider than an airplane aisle. Carry your bags in front of you as you head to your seat to avoid smacking the heads of already seated passengers.  Wouldn’t it be awkward if one of the people you thwomped turned out to be your seatmate?

Fuss before you fly. Ignore the blaring TV set in the gate area. Instead, use dwell time to organize the books, magazines, paperwork and gadgets you’ll want to have handy at your seat. Then, once you board the airplane you’ll be able to settle in quickly and avoid holding up other passengers trying to reach their seats.

Don’t be a bin hog.  On most planes, rolling bags really do take up less space if stored wheels first. Coats and jackets are best laid on top or around your luggage, not spread out across half of the bin. And no, it is not OK to put your bag in the bin over seat 12-A if you’re seated in row 33-D.  If you can’t carry your bag to your assigned seat, you should just check it.

Don’t push it:  Don’t argue with the flight attendant who decides that your obviously oversized carry-on bag needs to go into the belly of the plane with the other checked baggage. In addition to their many other skills, these crew members have seen and heard it all and know what will or won’t fit in a storage bin.

Don’t be fooled: You may think the flight attendants didn’t notice that guy who left his oversized bag jutting out over seat 12-A while he headed back to seat 33-D, but they probably did. One flight attendant tells me she and her co-workers “make good use of the boarding process to size up the passengers. It's during these situations that we see who will be the problem passengers.”

Don’t be that problem passenger: If the bins are too full and carry-on bags must be checked, guess whose bags flight attendants will likely jettison first?  “We really don't want to make someone check their bag. Unless, of course, they've been rude or resisted our advice for solutions.”

Or maybe left their oversized bag in a storage bin over seat 12-A and then thwomped their way back to seat 33-D.