Sick of Fighting for Airplane Overhead Bin Space?

Learn the secret to getting your carry-on luggage on the plane without a hassle.

November 10, 2009, 5:17 AM

Feb. 3, 2010 — -- Not to get personal, but are you a cheater? Are you one of those passengers who heads to the gate with a clearly overstuffed or oversized carry-on bag, confident in the knowledge that an overwhelmed gate agent will simply take your bag and check it for free?

OK, so sometimes crime pays but not always, so don't count on this. Yet I know you want to avoid those bag fees, because they're just awful, aren't they?

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Well, they are and they aren't. Let's be blunt: the airlines are in trouble, and much as we may hate it, they need those newly-raised bag fees to stay aloft -- fees that could bring in as much as $2 billion, this year alone.

Sure, some things drop in price -- maybe Apple's iPad? -- but don't hold out hope for bag fees. We'll just keep paying and paying.

Solution: don't check bags. And perhaps somewhat surprisingly, U.S. airlines are pretty liberal when it comes to carry-ons, certainly compared to some overseas carriers.

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For instance, compare the home team's regulations with the draconian carry-on rules for Europe's Ryanair. Yes, Ryanair still allows you one carry-on bag but when they say one, they mean one. Laptop? That's one carry-on. So is a purse. And so is that fancy shopping bag from the Via Veneto. Show up with two items and Ryanair can stop you from boarding and refuse to give you a refund. Harsh.

Avoid Airline Checked Bag Fees

Actually, things have gotten a little harsher on many airlines, because of that little matter of extra international security after the Underpants Bomber allegedly tried to take down a plane. Carry-on bags now get extra scrutiny and you may not be able to bring along as many extras as you used to (on United flights from Canada to the U.S., for example, you can still bring one carry-on bag plus a purse or laptop, but not both).

I think most of us can live with the extra scrutiny, I mean all of us still have to go through the same long security line, carry-ons or not, so what have you saved by checking a bag? Not time or money, that's for sure.

So a carry-on is still worth it except for one big hassle: bin space, or rather, the lack of it. But I have strategies to deal with that.

Remember when no one gave bin space a second thought? Remember when people didn't need carry-ons because no one cared if they were first out of the airport? Now it's a race that everyone wants to win.

But as times changed, overhead bin space didn't keep up. Yes, Boeing's Dreamliner does promise us oodles more room overhead, but it'll be used for international flights where bag fees aren't much of an issue. And American Airlines, for example, has been changing out its aging fleet of MD-80s with 737-800s featuring those spacious "Big Bins," but it's kind of slow going, as only a handful are being added each month.

In the meantime, more and more people are using the bin space as personal storage lockers, shoving in everything from laptops, lunch bags and anything else they can lug, leaving precious little room for the rest of us.

Some strategies: be first on board, and this is where you might want to pay for the privilege. For example, for an extra 10 bucks, Southwest lets you cut in line, which may seem like a foolish expenditure since they already let you check two bags for free anyway, but if you want to be first in line for the cabs, it's the only way to go.

Board the Plane First

How else to get to the head of the line? Pennsylvanian businesswoman Karen Kinnane, a frequent international flier, says, "It does pay to be loyal to one airline." Indeed it does, especially if you fly enough to gain elite status which provides "first in line" boarding for free.

Not an elite flier? No problem: some passengers who fly the same route frequently know which sections of an aircraft board first and select their seat accordingly.

Others swear by sitting in the back of the plane; chances are, you'll board ahead of others but even if you don't, few want to stow carry-ons in bins past their seats since retrieving those bags would mean "swimming against the tide" of departing passengers. Atlanta's Steven Brown admits that there are disadvantages to this strategy ("Sometimes the smell from the lavatories can creep up the last few rows") but he finds "not having to fight for a spot in the bin" is worth it.

More good advice: don't dawdle or you could miss your boarding group altogether. As Manhattan journalist and traveler Kate Ashford puts it, "It's the stragglers who were off buying a sandwich who get stuck with no room for their rolling bag."

Make these strategies even easier on yourself by packing light; most airlines say you have to fit your stuff in a carry-on that's 45 linear inches (just add the width plus height plus depth of your bag). So maybe you'll have to wash a few things during your trip, big deal.

Don't want to pack that light? Frequent flier Keith Yearman says, "A coat with many pockets can be your best friend." Many pockets? Sure, stuff them with any and everything. That's not gaming the system, that's working it.

Of course, once the airlines start charging us for carry-ons, I'm going to have to come up with some brand new strategies.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.

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