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 Sinclairification by Grant Sinclair

The Carry-on Challenge

05 Oct 2009

It annoys my well-traveled friends and surprises new people when I tell them, but I actually like checking luggage.

“Your luggage might get lost,” they say. 
“You have to wait at baggage claim before you can leave the airport.  I can just walk right out,” they’ll boast.
“It’s a waste of time to check luggage,” they’ll remind me.

Good points, all.  And valid.  But I like the idea of someone taking my bag away from me when I get to the airport and returning it when I land.  Then, before the flight, I can wander the over-priced “newsstands” and tacky gift shops relatively unencumbered.

Don’t get me wrong, I still carry on my camera bag.  We all know it’s better to hold on to the valuable and breakable stuff, but I’m not keen on pulling a suitcase behind me like I’m walking an overtired dog, or carry another bag that can just get in the way of things, especially if it’s heavy, which it would have to be because it’s holding all the stuff I didn’t check!

When I check bags, I don’t have to confine my toiletries to the magical one-quart Ziploc bag and face retribution if one of those items is – GASP – more than three ounces.

When I check my bag, everything is in one bag, at all times, ready to go.  And so it was meant to be forever and ever, until something changed: The airlines started charging to check luggage.

If you have flown recently or read the news, you’ll know that airlines are now charging passengers who want to check baggage for domestic flights.  We selfish, selfish passengers.

At first, some airlines were charging a fee to check a second bag, which was between $5 and $15.  That’s enough to make some people think twice about a second bag, but it was worth it for those willing to pay.  The fee for the second bag didn’t bother me, because I only check one bag anyway.

But then the airline passengers behaved predictably and started checking fewer bags and the airline industry, realized they weren’t making money, acted predictably and started charging for ANY checked luggage.  By the way, I have no basis of fact for this paragraph; I’m just guessing this is how it went down, because, well, here we are.

Some airlines charged $15 per bag if you paid online, but $20 per bag if you paid at the airport (wotta deal!), but people were still irked – and rightly so – that they now had to pay for something that should be free.

I’m not blaming the airline industry for trying to keep money coming in during these “tough economic times” (the same bullshit line that’s been used to lay off thousands of Americans in the past year); maybe that luggage fee will help save some jobs across the industry.  The real concern is that the trend won’t reverse when the economy recovers next month (why not?) and we’ll be paying to check our luggage forever.

As I mentioned once before, (like in this article from February 2009) I don’t mind checking luggage.  That is, of course, when it’s free.

Recently, my sister had a baby girl and I have the good fortune to have my grandmother alive and well.  My sole remaining grandparent lives in Buffalo, New York (try to stop by around dinner time.  I hope you like Italian food) and the rest of us live in Atlanta.  Now that the baby is old enough (nearly three months old), my family took a weekend trip so my niece could meet her great grandmother.  I volunteered to be the photographer for the weekend, documenting two occasions: my grandmother meeting her great-grand daughter for the first time, and a family photograph of four generations of women.

I was all set to go – my camera bag is always packed – but I balked at the $15 baggage fee and decided, for the first time ever, to carry on all my luggage.  Everyone else seems to be able to do it, so I can too, right?  Right?

I had once carried on two items; my camera bag and a duffel, but that is an emergency duffel bag which isn’t very strong.  You know, because if it’s a real emergency, you want stuff that might break at any minute.

Anyhow, it seemed pretty weak (but, to be fair, never gave me any problems), so I decided to pack my sturdier, but smaller, messenger bag.  I could only squeeze the bare necessities – three “rolls” of clothes (T-shirt, socks, boxers), raincoat, toiletries, cords and chargers, sleeping bag, clothes to sleep in and an extra pair of pants.  The only addition I made to my camera backpack was stuffing my fleece in the elastic cord on the back.

To me, these are the bare necessities.  If you are a person who can travel the world with just what I have described above, good for you.  But I had none of the little things I like to travel with (extra pair of shoes, a couple extra changes of clothes, all my chargers instead of a select few, multitool, running shoes, cold weather gear, security devices, voltage converter, nice clothes for going out, etcetera) and only what I thought I would need.  Of course, this left no room for souvenirs.  Yes, I’m serious.

To add to this dilemma, the weather in Buffalo was going to be 70 degrees.  I don’t know if that means anything to you, but 70 degrees is a very confusing temperature to me, ever since I moved to Georgia.  You see, in Atlanta, it doesn’t get to 70 degrees.  And if it does, it doesn’t stay there long.  It’s either on its way to being warmer or cooler.  In the North Eastern United States, it could be 70 degrees for a week or two.  And when it is, you know how to dress for it.  But since I hadn’t lived with that temperature for a while, I wasn’t exactly sure how to pack.  Shorts?  Light pants?  I couldn’t decide, so I went with the worst choice of all, jeans.

I hate traveling in jeans and this trip did it for me.  Jeans are heavy, bulky, take longer to wash and take up more space than anything else in my bag.  They are durable, sure, but I really don’t think they’re worth it.

I’ll admit, it was different to navigate the airport with an extra bag and, to be honest, I didn’t quite care for it.  Bags are heavy, and since one is a messenger bag, the weight was not evenly distributed, so I was always leaning one way or the other.  Also, I wasn’t comfortable with the space of the extra bag, though I did try to be aware of it.  At first, though, I was knocking into things and had to watch where I was going.

I also had to be aware of a second bag at security, which is something I’m not used to. Then I had to board the plane.  This was funny to me, because now everyone carries on their bags due to the cost of checking luggage.  Luckily I was one of the first people on the plane from Atlanta to Buffalo, so I was able to find a place for my two bags pretty easily.  I didn’t envy those people who were boarding last, though.

Those folks who constantly carry on their bags really point out that the pay off for lugging their crap all over the place is when they arrive at their destination; “I never have to wait at baggage claim,” they’ll boast.  And they are right.  Unless, of course, you’re with people who did check their bags and, well, there you are, waiting like a schmuck at the baggage claim even though you carefully packed your carry-on, left important things behind, dragged the extra luggage all over the place and struggled to find room in the cabin.  All because a member of your party checked their luggage.  Awesome.

This brings up another point:  If you’re all not going to carry on or check, none of you should.  Or maybe you all should just carry on and use peer pressure to get the odd person out to carry their bag on with them.  Otherwise, it just defeats the purpose of carrying on, though it does save some money.

Also, if the point of checking your luggage is to avoid baggage claim, think about where you’re going and the time you’re getting there.  If you’re arriving at a small airport, like Buffalo/Niagara, in the evening, you probably won’t have too many problems finding your luggage, as Buffalo/Niagara has, I think, only four or five baggage carousels.

However, if you’re arriving at a larger airport, like, say, Hartsfield/Jackson in Atlanta and you’re arriving during a busier time of day, carrying your luggage on may be a better idea.

The first night was easy, because all the clothes were clean.  I didn’t have my neat, organized, easy-to use toiletry kit with me, so I had to keep track of bottles of contact lens solution and tubes of toothpaste rather than just zip it all up when I was finished.  It was warmer than I expected (so that’s what 70 degrees feels like!), but not uncomfortable.  We went out one evening and I was glad I had my fleece with me.  It wasn’t too cold, but chilly enough to need it.

The trip was terrific.  It was great seeing the family again and the pictures of my niece with her great grandmother turned out beautifully, though there was one interesting event that occurred right before we set up the shot outside in the back yard.

I was pooped on.

Let me explain how proud I was of the fact that I had made it the whole trip with no problems.  No spilled spaghetti sauce, no baby barf – nothing.  But there I was – in my last clean shirt, no less – and I felt something soft fall on my shoulder and arm.  I looked down and saw that some bird decided I would make a good target.  Oh, and this with about ninety minutes before I had to leave for the airport, so there wasn’t enough time to do laundry.

My sister came out and saw me, and after laughing at me for a good five minutes, pointed out that it wasn’t a “direct hit” and brought me a wet paper towel so I could clean up.

Dinner at grandma’s house with 400 relatives was great, as usual.  My baby niece got passed around and met more people than she’ll ever remember, but at two months, she better start learning names and faces now.  We Italians are a populous bunch.  But I had to leave the party and get back to Atlanta, so off to the airport I went.

It’s funny; driving to Hartsfield/Jackson in Atlanta requires a plan:  Check your flight time, subtract two hours, subtract another hour for security, subtract another hour for MARTA or driving there, make sure you have you BREEZE card for MARTA, or your Georgia Cruise Card (or 50 cents) for the toll on Georgia 400, expect delays on the connector or I-285, add it all up and realize you should have left an hour ago.

But getting to the airport in Buffalo is like going to a movie.  You know when the flight leaves, so you want to get there a little early for security, popcorn, previews.  The usual.  It’s just down the road, so really, there’s no rush.

Getting to the airport was fine, security was easy and finding the gate was no problem.  This time, however, I was not one of the first people to board.  I wasn’t even in the second group of cattle called.  Nope, I was last.  Not the last person on the plane, but I was in the last group.  Hoo.  Ray.

As you can image, by the time it was my turn to carefully walk down the tiny aisle, almost all of the overhead bins were full and I had two bags for which to find space.  I almost had to leave my bags in the lavatory, but the flight attendants were very helpful and patient and they helped me find space for my bags.

Now, my bags aren’t oversized, but they are just to the limit.  The carry-on messenger bag is not a problem, but the camera backpack (with tripod attached) is a little more cumbersome and fragile.  And it certainly will not fit below the seat in front of me.  Therefore, I’m the only one I trust to really stuff into one of those overhead bins.  I know where the more delicate items are and how it fits best up there.  The problem is that it looks like it’s not going to fit.  Every time, when I put it up there, someone makes some comment about how it’s too big, but once I get the bag past the straps, it slides right in place.  Getting it out, well, that’s another problem.  I learned on my first trip with this bag that once it goes up there, it’s not coming down until the flight is over, so I better get what I need for the duration of the flight and have it with me before takeoff.

Just a lesson for those of you carrying camera backpacks.  Back to the story.  Sorry.

Anyhow, at this point I’m at the back of the plane, but need to find my way back to my assigned seat.  There is still a steady stream of people – all with carry-on luggage – coming down the aisle, looking for places to put their bags.  And things are beginning to get a little tense. People are trying to move bags out of over head bins (because, you know, no one will notice), they’re trying to jam their bags on top of bags that are already up there, or they’re just giving up and going to their seats with their roller-suitcase between their legs.  At one point, an irritated passenger snapped at the flight attendant – always a good idea – “You should enforce the size for carry-ons!”  This was only met with five other people shouting back, “No, you should DROP THE FEE!”  Ah, if only they could hear us.  Well, they can hear us, I just hope they actually do something about it and drop the fee.

But they won’t.  Hey, there’s money to be had in these “tough economic times,” where airlines will charge you for everything they can.  It’s business, I know, and if you don’t like it, you can take your business someplace else.

But in terms of checking or carrying on my bags?  Next time, I’m doing neither.  Next time, I’m driving.

© 2009

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