What If My Carry On Is One Inch Too Big

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As flyers, we are put in an awkward situation by the airlines and luggage manufacturers.

Firstly, airlines around the world don’t agree on 1 carry on size.

Secondly, luggage manufacturers don’t always make luggage that is the size they claim it is. They often don’t include wheels or handles when stating measurements. Bag makers often just bend the truth and use the words “cabin approved” or “TSA approved” when there is no such thing. If you see baggage that is labeled as a “carry on” it means nothing. There is no guarantee that your airline will agree that it is a “carry on” usually because airlines DO count wheels and handles when measuring!

Thirdly, while your airline might say their carry on size limit is 22 x 14 x 9 inches. Their testing sizer might be slightly larger than 22 x 14 x 9. It depends on who you are flying with! I know that the United sizer is actually one inch bigger (23 x 15 x 10 inches) than their advertised limit (22 x 14 x 9). Some airlines are more strict than others, Alaska airlines sizer is very tight.

So it’s very common for passengers to wonder, “what if my carry on luggage is one inch too big!” What will happen!

Well, it’s possible nothing will happen… some might say probably… but you also might be forced to check your bag and pay for it!

Forced Gate Checking of Bags

Before boarding most flights there is a sizer close to the gate. This is a metal frame that your bag needs to fit inside to pass the test.

Not every passenger uses the sizer. You only need to use it if you are asked to use it by the agent.

Here’s what might happen if your carry on bag is one inch too big…

You might be forced to check your bag at the boarding gate and be made to pay a checked bag fee.

Most airlines now charge for checked bags with the exception of Southwest. Fees range between $25 and $35.

Some airlines such as United will price gouge you if they force check you at the gate for being oversize. They charge an extra $30 “gate-handling” fee in addition to the fee for checking a bag.

It’s a very confusing situation because passengers often gate check carry on bags for free.

There are two reasons carry on bags get checked at the gate:

  1. Because your bag looks suspiciously large, you are asked to test if it fits in a sizer, and it fails to fit. In this scenario, you will need to pay a checked bag fee.
  2. Because the airline has realized they are running out of space in the overhead bins and have asked passengers to check-in carryon bags at the gate. In this scenario, you might not need to pay the checked bag fee, even if your bag is a little too big. It depends if they ask you to put it in the sizer or not.

If your carryon bag is within the size limits you shouldn’t ever need to pay any fees for gate-checking your bag if they ask you to do so.

But if it’s oversized, or if you ask them to gate check it, you might get hit with a fee.

Keep in mind you can always be asked to check your carry on bag at any time, even if it is not an inch too big.

If this happens you should remove any valuables from your carry on and make sure your bag has luggage tags or something so you can identify it at baggage claim.

It’s always a good idea to have a smaller bag with you like a small backpack, or handbag. Somewhere you can put your valuables if your carryon is gate checked.

Also, it’s work mentioning that checked luggage sometimes has a habit of going missing. So if you want to avoid lost baggage don’t fly with a carry on bag that is an inch too big!

Sneaking Through Boarding With An Oversized Bag

Often bags that are slightly oversized slip through and nobody says anything to you. It depends on how strict your airline is in enforcing their carry on rules. That might depend on who is working that day, how busy the flight is, or the size of the aircraft you are traveling on.

The bottom line is if you want to be 100% sure you won’t be charged any fees you need a bag that is within the limits including the wheels and handles.

How Strict Is My Airline With Carry On Luggage?

Because each airline behaves differently in how strict they are about enforcing their policy we created a post on each of these airlines.

If you can find your airline below you can read that post if you want more information.

Tips To Avoid Paying For Oversize Bags

So you’ve measured your bag at home and realized that it’s a little oversized.

But you are the type of person that likes to take a gamble. You’re going to take that bag anyway and hope that you get away with it!

Here are our tips to avoid being caught out.

  • Avoid Bags That Are Bulging. It’s hard to judge the size of a bag by eyeballing it alone. Even the boarding gate staff can’t measure accurately by just looking. But if a bag is bulging because it’s overstuffed then that’s a red flag that might draw attention to you.
  • Shield Your Bag From View – Wheel your bag on the opposite side, shield the view using your handbag.
  • Be Polite And Smile – Check-in agents are humans. They might be more lenient if you are polite, friendly and smile. Being rude is a sure way to get them to force you to check your bag.
  • Wear Extra Layers Of Clothes – Stop your bag from bulging by wearing more of your clothes while you go through the gate.
  • Be An Inch Too Wide, Not Tall Or Deep – Because of the way bag sizers are designed it’s easier to be one inch too wide than it is to be one inch too tall or deep. Many of the airline bag sizers only have physical barriers for depth and height.
  • Avoid Hard Cases – With a soft case, you can squeeze it to make it fit in the sizer. With a hard case, you have very little flexibility.

Also to avoid gate checking, even if it’s free it’s a good idea to board early. Agents start to force gate checking once the overhead bins start to fill up.

The Verdict

The best way to avoid getting into trouble with oversized bags is to learn to travel light.

Next time you buy a carry on bag, make sure the measurements include wheels and handles and choose a bag that has some squeezability.

If you travel with a backpack or a duffel bag you can always remove contents and squeeze it smaller. Fixed-size rolling luggage doesn’t get smaller even if you pack less in it. You can also get rolling backpacks or duffels that are squeezable.

I know it’s not for everyone but if you are interested in cutting down the size of your luggage then I suggest you check out my 101 Packing Light Tips post.

Getting charged for an oversized carry on bag can be a very frustrating and costly experience for passengers.

Don’t count on the kindness of airlines. While individual employees are usually very nice Airline policies are designed to squeeze every last dollar they can from passengers.

Don’t be one of their victims because your carry on bag is one inch too big!

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