Ask a Travel Nerd: How to Avoid the Line at the Airport Bag Check Counter
Air travel during the holidays typically incurs no shortage of lines. Throw in the range of COVID-19 impacts — including more travelers hoping to make up for the past years of lost travel — plus ongoing staff shortages, and you can expect lines to be plentiful. In fact, about 3 in 10 Americans who say they didn’t travel during the 2020 holiday season (29%) plan to spend money on flights/hotel stays during the 2021 holiday season, according to a September 2021 NerdWallet survey. This travel season is shaping up to be busy.
There are two ways to avoid the line at the airport bag check counter: Either adjust how you pack so you don’t need to check a bag at all, or find a way to cut the bag check line. Both are doable and here’s how.
How to cut the bag check line
If you must check bags, you can at least skip the line. Either pay for the privilege, or earn it through airline elite status.
Purchase a skip-the-line upgrade
Some airlines sell ticket upgrades that put you in various fast-track lines for airport security, boarding or the airport check-in counter.
For example, United sells an upgrade called Premier Access that enables you to use a dedicated airport check-in line. United Premier Access tickets, which start at $15 depending on the route, also come with the ability to use exclusive security lanes and priority boarding.
If you’re flying Southwest, consider purchasing a Business Select Fare, which is essentially the Southwest version of first class. While Southwest doesn’t offer posh front seats with these fares, they do offer benefits including Fly By Lane access, which gets you to the front of the ticket counter and security checkpoints at select airports.
Hold airline elite status
Some airlines offer access to faster lines as a benefit to its elite status members. For example, if you have either A-List or A-List Preferred Southwest elite status, you get automatic entrance into those Fly By Lanes. American Airlines offers its AAdvantage members with Gold or higher elite status access to priority check-in areas, and Alaska offers priority check-in and boarding to members with MVP or higher status.
And while you’ll typically earn elite status through frequent flying, it’s also possible to earn it through holding and spending on certain credit cards.
How to pack to avoid the check-in counter completely
Sure, you can cut the lines by paying extra or holding elite status (which likely wasn’t cheap to earn either). But you might be better off just avoiding the check-in counter completely.
Avoiding bag check is a smart move, as it’ll give you the flexibility to reschedule flights even once you’re past security. That could become helpful if a weather delay forces you to make a last-minute change. It also reduces the risk that your luggage gets lost, or that you have to wait at the baggage claim upon arrival.
Even the most fervent overpackers can get away with carry-on only, and here’s how:
Buy what you can upon arrival (or have it shipped)
Rather than cram a giant toiletries bag into your suitcase that’ll inevitably turn into a sticky mess due to the low air pressure, consider buying items like toothpaste upon arrival. Especially when it comes to “just in case” items like an umbrella, avoid packing one and only buy it should a storm actually hit. Think of it as a bonus souvenir from your rainy trip.
If visiting family for the holidays, consider having gifts shipped to their house directly. With most discounted shipping membership programs, like Amazon Prime, you don’t necessarily have to ship items to your own address — so send them directly to their final destination.
Have the right suitcase or backpack
Understand your airline’s carry-on rules, and what qualifies. One airline might count the fanny pack around your waist toward your carry-on limit. A roller bag that was accepted by one airline might not fly on another. Check your airline’s bag rules (and size restrictions) ahead of time so you aren’t stuck paying for an expensive checked bag at the last minute.
It can be worth it to sometimes purchase more-expensive travel accessories that help you pack more efficiently. Packing cubes can help compress clothes into a smaller fit. Collapsible water bottles keep you hydrated without taking up precious backpack real estate.
Just pack lighter
Sometimes it’s as simple as just not bringing as much stuff. Do you need stilettos for the family Christmas party, or will your pair of everyday flats work just fine? Bring pieces that more easily mix and match, so you can wear a unique outfit every day but only have to pack one sweater or pair of jeans.
And wear your most bulky items on the plane. Even if you’re departing from sunny Southern California for the snow, board with your snow jacket on your back so that it won't take up precious space in your carry-on luggage.
The bottom line
Holiday travel can be stressful and crowded enough. There’s a line for the security screening. There’s a line for the coffee shop. Sometimes there’s even a line for the fancy airport lounge. Some lines are unavoidable, but the bag check line isn’t.
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