How Checking a Bag Can Ruin Your Trip (plus: my exact packing list PDF)

A couple months back, I published a blog post on how to pack everything into carry-on luggage.  Now, recently returned from our two and a half month trip to Ecuador, I have some real-life examples of how not checking a bag saved our behinds (twice!) from being stranded in an airport overnight, hundreds or thousands of miles from our origin and destination.  Not only that, but by carrying everything with us we were able to jump into the front of many long lines and avoid what could have been hours of hassle.  FREEDOM!

FREEDOM!!!

FREEDOM!!!

It all started on January 21 with the very first leg of our flight to Ecuador, before we even boarded the flight.  We had skipped the check-in line (having already pre-printed our boarding passes at home) and made it through security and sat waiting for the call to board. The dreaded announcement:  “Ladies and gentlemen, the flight crew has found a small mechanical issue with the plane; we are waiting for the maintenance crew to come and check it out.”  A 30-minute delay–no problem, we’d still make our connection.

Then the problem was found.  “Ladies and gentlemen, the maintenance crew has found the problem.  Unfortunately the part they need is not here and will need to be flown in…”  Now the delay would make us miss our connection.  Passengers scrambled to find other flights.

Keith and I would be stranded for the night in Dallas, since there was no way we would make it from Dallas to Miami in time for our Guayaquil flight, according to the agent I spoke with on the phone.  Once in Dallas we would need to find a customer service agent to help us set up a hotel for the night.  We’d lose our money on our Guayaquil hotel since the deadline for cancellation had already passed.

Finally, after a delay of seven hours, our flight took off for Dallas.  As soon as we landed, I found an American Airlines counter and explained our predicament to the agent.  She quickly looked up the flights in the computer.  “I have a flight for Miami leaving in just a few minutes; you would arrive in time for your flight to Ecuador, but your bags wouldn’t make it,” she said, looking apologetic.

“We didn’t check anything!” we happily announced, showing her our carry-on luggage.

Day pack and small duffel bag: my only luggage for our 2.5 month Ecuador trip (Keith's luggage looked the same).

Day pack and small duffel bag: my only luggage for our 2.5 month Ecuador trip (Keith’s luggage looked the same).

“Oh!” she said, looking a little surprised.  “Well, you’re in luck!”  She smiled and printed out our boarding passes and pointed us toward the gate, where the flight was already boarding.  The flight took off on time, but when we landed in Miami our captain announced that no gates were available and we would have to wait for a few minutes.  Twenty minutes ticked by as we sat on the tarmac.  When we finally did arrive at a gate, the other passengers seemed to be taking their time to deplane; and we were at the very back of the aircraft!

Fortunately, after running 1/4 mile through the airport, we made it to our gate in time for boarding to Guayaquil.  Not only did we make our flight and reach Guayaquil as scheduled that night, but American Airlines also compensated us 9,000 frequent flyer miles for our troubles!  If we had checked bags, we would have never made it to Guayaquil…or if we had, we would have been stuck without our bags for at least the first night.

After 2.5 happy months in Ecuador, we made our way to Quito’s new airport for the flight home.  The trip went off without a hitch until the final leg of our flight.  Storms in Dallas caused the plane we would have flown on to be diverted to another airport, and the flight was canceled.  When we went to the counter to re-book, we discovered that American Airlines had already scheduled us…for the next day.  “I have a flight boarding right now,” the agent said, “but there’s no way your bags will make it.”

Triumphantly, we told him we only had carry-on items, and a few minutes later we were settling into our seats.  This flight had been scheduled to leave over an hour earlier, but was delayed due to the storm.  The storm cleared up and we took off–several minutes before our original flight would have left!  We arrived at our final destination several minutes earlier than originally scheduled!

I can only imagine what our trip might have looked like if we had checked bags…

First, we would have had to wait in a line to check the bags at the first airport.  We would have had to pay $25 for each bag.

Then we might have been stuck overnight in Dallas, and would have had to go through security all over again the next morning to continue our flight.  We would have lost the money on our hotel reservation in Guayaquil, too.

As it was, we were able to make it to Guayaquil as scheduled, but if we had checked bags they wouldn’t have made it due to the very tight connections in Dallas and Miami.  We might have had to spend time going back to the airport to collect our bags when they finally did arrive in Guayaquil.

Even if all had gone smoothly with the connections, we would have had to wait around for our bags to come out, and unless they were among the first on the conveyor belt we would have had to wait in a much longer line at customs, and possibly been subject to a search of our bags.  Since our flight came in at 11 p.m. this would have been a very long day and we would have arrived at our hotel exhausted, likely well after midnight.

But we didn’t have to wait at baggage claim and walked straight to customs, among the first in line.  The customs  official glanced over our paperwork and our small luggage items and waved us through in a matter of seconds.

The return trip would have also involved luggage fees, long lines at check-in and customs, delayed luggage, and being stranded an extra night in Dallas.  Even if we had made it onto the last flight, we might have had to wait at our destination airport for several more hours while our bags caught up with us.  Thankfully, everything went smoothly and we arrived home before our scheduled time, carrying our luggage with us and smiling as we walked out of the airport, past our fellow passengers waiting around in baggage claim!

Keith and I are both sold on never checking bags unless absolutely necessary, especially on complicated itineraries of multiple flights in a day!  Not only were we able to quickly jump from one flight to the next even when connections were tight, but we also avoided baggage fees, long lines to check the bags, long lines at customs, and long waits at baggage claim.  Ready to give carry-on a try?  I highly recommend it!  Read on for a free PDF of my exact packing list!

I think I did the best job I’ve ever done so far in estimating exactly what I would need for our 2.5 month trip to Ecuador.  I found I used most everything I brought and wasn’t missing much.  Everything I brought fit into a day pack (the PacSafe VentureSafe 32L) and a carry-on sized duffel bag.  CLICK HERE to get a PDF of my exact Ecuador packing list and some tips for a packing list of your own, based on your destination and interests!

CLICK HERE! Download Your FREE Resources: A Travel Grants Spreadsheet, Travel Mind Map, and Packing List!

About the Author

I spent 5 years of my childhood in Mexico, became a teacher, traveled the world, married a nomad, and now run some websites and write books!