This Is the Worst Spot on the Plane for Your Carry-On Bag

Don't make the process harder than it needs to be.

Ever since most commercial airlines started charging a fee for checked baggage on domestic flights, the overhead compartments on planes have gotten increasingly crowded. Whether you want to avoid the extra cost of checking luggage or to skip the hassle of collecting your bags from the carousel when you’ve arrived at your destination, you may opt to only travel with a carry-on and personal item. While great in theory, it’s not always as easy in practice. The bins are crowded, people are trying to roll their overstuffed bags down a narrow aisle, and everyone’s trying to find their seats—it can get pretty chaotic. Fortunately, there are a few ways to make the whole process smoother, including avoiding the worst spot on the plane for a carry-on. That said, there are 12 times when it’s still smarter to check your luggage than carry it on.

Always store your carry-on in a bin before your seat

When you board a plane, finding a stop for your carry-on can be tricky—especially if you are sitting towards the back of the plane. Though it can be tempting to walk down to your seat and then locate a place in the overhead compartment for your carry-on, if your flight is full, chances are you’ll end up storing it a few rows behind where you’re sitting—big mistake.

Why is this the worst place on the plane to stash your luggage? When the flight has landed and it’s time to deplane, in order to get your carry-on, you must either wait for everyone behind you to get their bags and get off the plane before going back to retrieve your own. The other option is even worse because you have to push past the passengers, swimming upstream to get your luggage behind you, all the while holding up the whole process. Instead of doing this, if you notice that the overhead bin is getting full, keep an eye out for open spots before you get to your seat, and pop it up there. It’s important to pay attention to what you’re packing; some carry-on items could literally save your life.

Gate-check your bag

Certain smaller planes were not designed with overhead bins that can fit regulation-size carry-on roller bags. In these cases, you’ll be asked to gate-check your bag, which involves handing it over to airline staff at the end of the jet bridge before you board, then picking it up in the same spot when you deplane. Even aircraft with full-size overhead compartments frequently run out of space, so if you’re boarding towards the end of the process, you may be asked to gate-check your bag.

If you’re on a normal-size plane yet don’t want to deal with bringing your bag on board, you can always offer to voluntarily gate-check your bag. Talk to the gate agent at the counter and they will be able to walk you through the process. Just be sure to ask whether your bag will be available planeside when you get off, or if you’ll have to pick it up at baggage claim. This can differ depending on the airline and aircraft involved, so it’s best to ask; it’s also an important question if you’re trying to avoid spending time at baggage claim. Not sure which bag to get? Here are 13 carry-on bags with five-star reviews on Amazon.

Find baggage that fits under the seat

If you don’t need as much on your trip, you may want to consider buying a smaller piece of luggage; namely, one that fits under the seat in front of you. This way, you’re guaranteed to have a spot for it every time and don’t have to worry about the overhead bins. Here’s how to pack the perfect carry-on with everything you need for your trip.

Ask the flight staff for advice

If you’re not sure whether you want to deal with bringing your carry-on on board or not, ask the gate agent about how full the flight is going to be. If they say that you’ll have no problem finding a place to stow your luggage, then you can board with that peace of mind. If they caution you that it’s going to be fairly full, you can ask if gate-checking would be better. And if you do bring your carry-on with you but have trouble finding a spot for it in the overhead bin, flag down a flight attendant. They know all the tricks to fit as much up there as possible. Plus, if you spot some smaller items up there that you can fit under a seat, it’s easier to have the flight attendant ask the owners to move them, instead of having to make that possibly awkward request yourself. Just don’t ask them to put your bag up for you—that’s one of the 17 things you should never say to a flight attendant.

Elizabeth Yuko
Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer specializing in health and the intersection of bioethics and popular culture. She is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University and has written for print and online publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Salon and Playboy, and has given a TEDX talk on The Golden Girls and bioethics.