The Case for Checking a Bag

And other travel complaints

Roxane Gay
Oct 18, 2019 · 10 min read
Illustration by Kyle Griggs

Travel is a chaotic, exhausting experience exacerbated by people who forget the social contract the moment they step foot in an airport. I travel constantly. I chase miles and have status on three airlines. I read websites about how to best manage airline and hotel loyalty programs, airline credit cards, and the like. I have an app that shows me where every single plane currently flying is and other aviation geek information. I have an app that lets me listen to air traffic control chatter. There is a small park near the edge of LAX where I sit and watch incoming planes landing. I have favorite planes (Airbus 380, Boeing 787, Boeing 757, Boeing 737) and planes I truly despise (CRJ 700, Embraer 145). In short, I have made a necessary condition of my work something of a hobby.

As you might expect, I have a great many travel-related opinions, most but not all of which are wildly uncharitable. For instance, United is Satan’s airline and I will take almost any convoluted route to avoid flying them. Alaska Airlines planes smell weird. The food on American Airlines flights is worse than what I imagine dog food tastes like. Delta serves delicious Biscoff cookies and the flight attendants wear festive purple uniforms. The Atlanta airport is a cruel mistress. There is a bathroom attendant in the Charlotte Airport who likes to sing gospel as she does her work, serenading weary passengers and she is a delight. LaGuardia is unspeakable. You basically have to walk ten miles from the gate to customs in Montreal. The Indianapolis airport is the best airport in the United States; fight me. There aren’t nearly enough women or people of color serving as pilots. It is incredibly grating to get a chatty pilot who wants to narrate the entire flight when all you want to do is sleep or stare into the Grand Canyon. The way people treat flight attendants is, for the most part, absolutely disgraceful.

There is a bathroom attendant in the Charlotte Airport who likes to sing gospel as she does her work, serenading weary passengers and she is a delight.

People have no sense of personal space when sitting at the gate. They use the seats around them for their personal items and luggage as if it is entirely reasonable to take up three seats while countless people stand, staring at them with fatigued malice. People are strangely obsessed with boarding early as if they want to sit on the plane longer than necessary. They hover around the boarding gate, no matter how often the gate agents provide clear, concise instructions about boarding. There is signage. There are often overhead monitors detailing the process. And still people hover whether they are in Group 1 or Group 7 and boarding has yet to begin. Then there are those who feel the need to monitor the boarding line, questioning the presence of anyone they deem wrongly positioned within the hierarchy of the travel universe. They love to ask if you are in the appropriate line or they try, inelegantly, to glance at your boarding pass, or they huff aggressively, desperate for you to acknowledge that they have something to say.

Airlines oversell flights and then act like they had no hand in it as they frantically call for volunteers to change their travel plans and take later flights. There are all kinds of mysterious “mechanical issues” that delay flights in infuriating fifteen-minute increments until the airline gives up and stops communicating to passengers altogether. When flights are cancelled, airlines will do anything to abdicate responsibility, handing you a $10 meal voucher even though there is nothing open and $10 in an airport will probably only get you a bottle of water because the prices, for everything, are outrageous.

I pick my seat on any given flight for specific reasons but all too often, some couple didn’t pick seats together and just have to sit next to each other or, like, they won’t survive the flight. They plead for someone, anyone, to switch seats with them and then the flight attendants get in on it and everyone is staring at you, judging you for being reluctant to give up your seat when all you want to do is put your noise-cancelling headphones on and get to your destination. Some flights feel more like a menagerie, so many little dogs in overpriced purses, yipping and yapping while their owners coo at them and expect you to be charmed. I’m allergic, no thank you.

There are, inevitably, crying babies and overexcited children who have simply had enough four hours into a seven-hour flight. I actually don’t mind the children and feel quite a lot of tenderness toward them on a plane because I, too, want to not be on a plane. I, too, want to cry and be held. What I mind is all the adults who sigh and roll their eyes and mutter under their breath while children act like children and are generally doing the best they can as their parents pray for mercy or death.

One should never wear socks or go barefoot into an airplane bathroom though this happens with alarming frequency. Airplane bathrooms are filthy. The floor is always damp with wetness that is probably not water. And still, (white) people blithely traipse in and out of that filthy bathroom, and up and down the aisles without their shoes on and when they get home, they probably get into their beds, unwashed, contaminating their sheets with airplane pee.

Have you ever been on a flight where only one person has left their window shade open, blinding the rest of the otherwise darkened cabin with piercing sunlight? That’s a real treat. Men talk too loudly in airport lounges, letting everyone within hearing range know they are very important business men talking about very important business that is also very urgent. They sit in their seats, spreading their legs vulgarly because they want everyone to believe they have massive testicles in addition to very important business to attend to. It’s exhausting.

Men talk too loudly in airport lounges, letting everyone within hearing range know they are very important business men talking about very important business that is also very urgent.

I have opinions about how people walk through the concourse, how people should go through security, how there should be separate lanes for experienced travelers and infrequent travelers, how people watch videos on their phones without headphones, how they stand, even in the last row, the minute the plane pulls into the gate, even though it will be quite some time before they deplane, and on and on and on the list goes.

I reserve my most passionate opinions, however, for carry-on luggage. If you are ever wondering if you should check your luggage or carry-on, the answer is that you should check your luggage. I don’t care why you want to carry-on your luggage. You should check your bag. I say this with the caveat that air travel is prohibitively expensive and baggage fees are horrible and if you can’t afford the fees, you do what you must. For everyone else, check your bag.

In 2007, airlines began instituting baggage fees to offset the cost of jet fuel and once they realized they could charge for luggage and other basic amenities of air travel, there was no looking back. Once people realized they were going to have to pay even more than the cost of their plane ticket to travel, all hell broke loose with carry-ons. Suddenly packing for trips of most any length became an exercise in austerity.

Writers, in particular, love to discuss the ways in which they contort themselves toward austerity to go on book tour. Nearly every writer active on social media has discussed, at length, how they will travel or have traveled with only a carry-on suitcase for a five-day trip or ten-day trip or three-week trip. It is something of a competition, as if there is valor in self-imposed deprivation. They offer tips, like rolling your clothes or stuffing your socks in your shoes or traveling without toiletries. They talk about wearing the same, increasingly soiled outfit for days on end because hey, you can wash it in the hotel bathroom sink or not.

When people talk about checking a bag, the conversations are ominous. There is always a story, a dark, dark story about the one time a suitcase was lost. Ultimately, life went on but there were moments of unbearable inconvenience. This story of the lost suitcase is so terrifying, people are willing to do anything to avoid it even though in reality, most airlines have a pretty solid grasp on luggage handling. In April 2019, airlines only mishandled 5.44 of every 1,000 bags they processed.

When people talk about checking a bag, the conversations are ominous. There is always a story, a dark, dark story about the one time a suitcase was lost.

This fear of lost luggage is so wildly blown out of proportion that sometimes, checking a bag feels like an act of rebellion. I almost always check a bag. I check a very big bag.

The reality is that if your luggage is lost, it will suck and then life will go on. Chances are that stores exist wherever you are traveling. You can get a new toothbrush or a pair of clean underwear or a clean shirt to wear, at whatever price point you prefer. Now, for those of us who are fat, this is, indeed, more challenging and whether to check a bag or not becomes a bit more complicated. Our clothes take up more room so we can’t really pack adequately for a long trip using a carry-on but we also cannot trust that we will find stores or friends with clothing options in our size where we are traveling so we’re taking a bit of a chance when we check our bag. We are living on the edge.

And then there are complaints about having to wait at baggage claim as if those minutes are so precious they simply cannot be wasted. I cannot say I relish standing around at baggage claim where people behave as badly as they do on airplanes, but it is never that much of an imposition. I am not a medical doctor or a human rights lawyer. There are never going to be any writing emergencies that demand I rush from the airport with my carry-on instead of waiting at baggage claim.

Carrying luggage on a plane is a massive pain in the ass. It is an unruly practice. You have to drag the suitcase through the airport. It has to come into the bathroom stall with you. It has to come into the airport bar with you and you have to stay just sober enough to remember you have the suitcase with you. If you accidentally leave the bag somewhere, people panic and bomb squads are called. This is all before you even get on the plane.

All this carry-on luggage slows the boarding process down immeasurably. There is a finite amount of space on the plane and if you’re in a later boarding group, you are likely going to have to check your bag anyway. The consolation there is that you get to check your bag for free but you’ve wasted the opportunity to travel with more than whatever austere selection of personal items you assembled to make this deprivation work.

If you’re short, it’s hard to get the suitcase into the overhead bins though, certainly, if you are a conventionally attractive woman, any number of men in the vicinity will fall all over themselves to help you stow your suitcase. It’s quite adorable, this spontaneous chivalry. I have witnessed three men hold a very small suitcase together as they hoisted it up for a particularly nubile young woman, their wedding rings glinting in the sun. If you are not conventionally attractive, well, you’re on your own and good luck.

It can be difficult to get the bag to fit in the overhead bin and every plane has a slightly different configuration. Sometimes you have to put your bag in wheels first and other times it has to go in handle first. Sometimes you have to slide the bag in sideways. Many people overpack their carry-ons because of course they do. They are going on a two-week vacation and need clothes for two weeks. Then they try to stuff their too-big bag into a too-small space as if brute force and determination will somehow alter the rules of time and space. I assure you, it will not.

Many people overpack their carry-ons because of course they do. They are going on a two-week vacation and need clothes for two weeks.

I nearly always allow myself the small luxury of checking a bag. I love myself enough to pack whatever the hell I want, whether I am taking a two-day trip or a three-week trip. I enjoy wearing clean clothing. I enjoy having options. I like packing my workout clothes and maybe an extra pair of shoes and a light jacket, a couple pairs of jeans. I pack books I don’t want to carry in my messenger bag, that I put under the seat in front of me because I have no need of the overhead bins. I have room for any shopping I might do and for random things people give me on the road — small gifts, swag from this university or that, local memorabilia, tote bags, so many tote bags. Most importantly, I have peace of mind. After I drop my bag off at the ticket counter, I am blissfully free and unfettered until I get to baggage claim at my destination. I preach the gospel of bag checking wherever and whenever I can. That is my ministry. I welcome you into my church with open arms because I don’t have a suitcase with me.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Roxane Gay

Written by

I write. I want a tiny baby elephant. If you clap, I clap back. Books.: Ayiti, Untamed State, Bad Feminist. Difficult Women, World of Wakanda 1–5, Hunger.

Gay Mag

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Roxane Gay

Written by

I write. I want a tiny baby elephant. If you clap, I clap back. Books.: Ayiti, Untamed State, Bad Feminist. Difficult Women, World of Wakanda 1–5, Hunger.

Gay Mag

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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