How To Avoid Having To Gate Check Your Bag?

Filed Under: Advice, Travel

No, this post isn’t about tips for not being asked to gate check your bags, like not overpacking or being sure you’re not among the last to board.

Instead this post is about an email I received from a reader last night about how to avoid gate checking bags after you’ve already been asked to:

Question: Have you ever been forced to gate check your carry on but ripped off the baggage tag on the gate ramp and just walked on with it? I had an overzealous gate agent today who wouldn’t accept that the bag was allowed on for 48,000 previous miles with them this year. Admittedly, I was a little paranoid it might hold up the plane if they were looking for the bag. Did I get lucky?

There’s no denying that airlines are cracking down more and more on oversized carry-ons. I think many of us are used to carrying on bags which are bigger than “regulation size,” even though they’ll easily fit in the overhead. I know when I’m wrapping up a long trip my carry-on is often bulging more than someone watching Showtime in the wee hours of the night, with the extra sets of pajamas, amenity kits, etc., I’ve collected.


So before I answer the question, let me quickly point out that I’ve been asked to gate check a bag less than a handful of times over more than four million flown miles, and that’s despite pretty consistently (technically) being over the carry-on limit. There are a couple of easy tricks to minimize your odds of having to gate check a bag:

  • Whenever I approach an agent (whether it’s at check-in, the security checkpoint, or the gate), I roll my carry-on on the opposite side of me where the agent is standing
  • I always place the strap for my (huge) weekender bag over my shoulder (the opposite shoulder of where the agent is), and then wedge it between my torso and arm, so they can’t totally make out how big it is

And it works like a charm.

But what happens when you are forced to gate check your bag? Does the strategy outlined by the reader work? Surprisingly it does… usually. Though there are some things to keep in mind:

  • Sometimes when agents gate check bags they’ll actually collect them at the podium and take them to the plane for you, rather than letting you carry them to the bottom of the jet bridge; you’re out of luck in those instances
  • If the agent catches you intentionally removing the tag from a carry-on, they may get angry, and we all know that nowadays frontline airline staff have a lot of power
  • If you are actually among the last to board and are asked to gate check, the odds are good that the overhead bins actually are full

So it’s not something I’d make a habit of for sure, but I’ve done it… once. It was on a Lufthansa flight from Munich to Frankfurt. I was connecting to Lufthansa first class. And while Germans are typically pretty strict about the rules, I find that when flying first class they actually encourage you to exceed the carry-on limit. Heck, at the First Class Terminal I’ve been asked if I wanted to carry-on a 30″ checked bag which weighed 60+ pounds.

In this case I was connecting on the short-haul flight in business class and knew the bag would fit in the overhead, and I knew I’d have no issues with it in Frankfurt. The agent was being extremely rude and condescending about the bag, and I didn’t argue with her. I let her put a gate check tag on the bag, and as I walked down the jet bridge I removed the tag. The bag easily fit in the overhead, and there were no issues with it in Frankfurt.

Like I said, it’s not something I’d make a habit of, but if you’re in a dire situation I don’t see why it wouldn’t work, assuming they’re not holding onto your gate checked bag at the top of the jet bridge.

Have you ever removed the tag from a bag which was supposed to be gate checked? If so, what happened?

  1. “I know when I’m wrapping up a long trip my carry-on is often bulging more than someone watching Showtime in the wee hours of the night”

    Pure gold.

  2. Wouldn’t this mess up the bag count (ripping off the tag)? As airlines make you fly with your checked luggage, having the agent create a bagtag (thus upping the total count of luggage) but not having it scanned by below wing crew loading the plane would create a discrepancy that could potentially delay a flight.

    I could see this being an issue.

  3. Ha, I did the exact same thing on a LH flight from MUC to FRA. Must have been the same rude agent, too!

  4. @Franklyn – As far as I know they don’t keep track of the gate-checked bags the same way as they do normally checked bags. They just put on a tag, and rip off the “receipt” to give to the passenger. But no real electronic system of tracking anywhere that I’ve seen – I’ve never seen those tags scanned.

  5. My wife and I were just on a BA flight LCY-MAD. We were among the first to enter the boarding area where boarding passes were checked (no jet bridge, just walk to plane a few feet from the door). We were told we’d need to check our bags as it was an E190SR and overhead space was limited. The agent tagged our bags and took them to the door outside where another employee wheeled them to the plane and put them in (at least I was able to see them load my bags so I knew they made the flight). Turns out the passengers later in the line were able to keep their bags with them! How unfair is that? To make maters worse, there ended up being half empty bins, and we had to wait 40 minutes for our priority-tagged bags to come out at baggage claim in MAD! How MADdening! I did think of ripping the tag of though, it just wasn’t going to work in this case.

  6. @Franklin @02nz Anyone, please correct me if I’m wrong, but the first time a gate-checked bag is being electronically recorded is when the ground staff load it onto the aircraft. They scan it right before loading it. So if you grab your bag before the guy grabs it from the jetway – the bag isn’t recorded anywhere.

  7. Interesting post. For the most part the front line staff do a great job. But when they want to wield a bit of yang yang for whatever reason, look out. I’m still struggling to forgive the Qantas clerk who stuck me in the Sardine Section for 15 hours. To extract oneself from the row (just to breathe) you had to maintain a 43 degree angle and that still involved invading other people’s personal body space. I know it is a big ask, but please try flying in economy sometime and then extrapolate on strategies to avoid such an unpleasant experience in the first place. The online seating charts do not always measure up.

  8. You all are missing the important stuff!

    Lucky still has a BMI (BD) tag on his bag.

    Or Lucky is using years old pictures over and over again.

  9. I’ve been doing this for years. And I do the same thing you have highlighted in the first two bullet points. And it has worked like a charm 99% of the time. I think women get more leeway on the second bag if it’s considered a purse, and I have never had anyone question my ridiculously huge purse which is the size of a European carryon. I switched to a European size roller bag and no one ever asks me to gate check that except if I am in an Embraer and I actually was told to carry it on and “try” to fit it on my last trip when it wasn’t very full and it fit. Great strategy…

  10. Not something I’d publically advocate as a practice – especially for Ecomony travellers – where the Y overhead bins are typically overloaded already.

    True, airline gate staff sometimes are d*ckheads, but if everyone just ignores them and does whatever the hell they want (especially when what the gate staff are doing is the right thing) then it doesn’t take long for everything to fall in a screaming heap (there are already enough delays from passengers desperately hunting overhead space throughout the entire aircraft due to people exceeding carry-on limits by orders of magnitude).

    Unless your carry-on was really and truly within the weight and size dimensions stipulated for your airline and aircraft type, I’d say cop it sweet (sometimes self interest has to give up it’s pole position).

  11. As a musician,bringing my guitar on board has been tricky and “hiding” it as best as I could usually works.One time my friend Preston whom I was traveling with had a 1952 Fender P-Bass worth a LOT of $$$.After some haggling and him finally playing the “Rock Star” card they opened the bag and .I guess realized he wasn’t lying.Funny thing,he had a LONG screwdriver and needle nose pliers in the bag that they didn’t notice.I do have a friend who had an expensive Martin guitar destroyed after gate checked was insisted upon her in the UK..Tricky at best

  12. I’m particularly worried for my trip to Germany and Greece next month, especially with IATA’s new “recommendations” for carry-on bag size. My wife and I have Travelpro Flight Crew4 22″ rollaboards, and I was hoping not to have to check bags due to the tight connections we have in both directions. Though we’re flying business class between Frankfurt and Athens, our flights between Athens and Santorini are economy-only on Aegean. Any advice on making sure we hold onto our bags for the economy flight from JTR-ATH so we can actually make our connection for ATH-FRA?

  13. From the photo it seems like a lot of carry on luggage. What do you suggest as the perfect carry on luggage size?

  14. Check your flights; Aegean flies lotsa 320/321 ATH Santorini w/ biz class; therefore, why are you thinking you can’t take your euro reg rollerboard on board? once you get to Santorini, its a small airport; with one connection (perhaps 2?) is checking so bad to a resort? ground movements in Santorini aren’t always at the pace of a biz ctr.

  15. @David It’s not so much checking on the way to Santorini that I’m worried about. It’s checking a bag on a 6:45am flight back to Athens with then a little less than an hour after we land to make our connection to Frankfurt (8:15am).

  16. As an Australian who regularly travel domestically at home and internationally to and within the US, I find it both frustrating and extremely humorous to watch the masses in the US with their 2 over sized bags trying to squeeze them in to antiquated 757 overhead bins.

    Delays nearly every US flight I am on by 10 minutes and forces me to use the most of the priority boarding privileges afforded by my airline status… In fact before I traveled within the US I could not fathom why anyone would want to board in Y early.

    Don’t flout the rules, they exist to save time for everyone.

  17. I did a roundtrip from IAD to SDF and we were flying Embrader, which have overhead bins on only one side of the plane. I was also the 2nd to board the flight. No matter, they gave everyone a green tag on the tarmac. I figured they were going to put it on the plane and return it upon landing. Instead it went into checked baggage and came out front face down at baggage claim, where the outside pocket with my laptop was!

    The crew did not mention that you had to tag and check your carryons. If I was the last to board I would understand but the entire overhead area was empty except for an odd sweater here and there, which means everyone had to check their luggage.

    Then remarkably on the return they did the same thing, but this time it was not checked to baggage claim and my carry on appeared by the plane on arrival.

    It seems bizarre not to communicate and not be consistent. I figured the TSA had a hand in this.

  18. You did write many great articles but this one is low, I mean low class….You are teaching and asking people to do something they are not supposed to do.

    I would hate to see the overhead bins around me are full because of the oversized carry ons, and need to put mine in the overhead bin in the back row, often it’s a hassle when getting off the plane or may need to wait for everyone is clear before I can get to it. I have seen this happened to many people many times.

    Airlines should lower fuel surcharges and starting to charge people were asked to gate check their oversized bags, these people are delaying everyone boarding and getting off the plane, create more works for the gate employees…

  19. I was witness to a situation in Bristol a few years ago, where the handling agents of the LCC, were enforcing the one-bag-rule to the strongest extent.
    They were heavely charging €30, for anything exceeding the one complimentary carry-on.
    I later learned that the fine was split as follows;
    €10 was retained by the agent,
    €10 went to the handling company (Servisair)
    €10 was forwarded to O’Learys company

    This was highly impacting both the Airport and the concessionaires

  20. Removing a tag from a gate-checked bag is considered tampering with checked baggage in many jurisdictions. If you get caught doing this, you will be arrested and denied travel (and possibly even face charges). The UK in particular is very strict about this – I’ve had multiple passengers caught on CCTV doing this in the jetway and police showed up a few minutes later to pull them off the flight.

  21. @Sean M.
    Really going out of your way to make sure there’s enough overhead compartment space for you, eh?

  22. Did it once on a short-haul domestic flight on AA. In fact, I think I actually left the tag on there but just kept walking once I got on the plane and the FA didn’t notice. It wasn’t a problem.

  23. @Andrew G
    Despite the short connection time in Athens , you will have no problem with the luggage. Athens Airport is a very efficient airport.

  24. I don’t mind this so much when it’s a flight where they bring the bags back to the gate. But on US shuttles to both LGA and BOS they send them to baggage claim. It’s happened to me twice when I was late getting to the gate and they told me I had to check the bag.

  25. I encountered a nasty gate agent in Zurich, back in February. It mattered little to her that I had rolled the bag onto the previous flight from LHR. She was having none of it. I wheeled the bag to the plane door, tore of the bag check and put it in the overhead where it fit perfectly. She came running down to check why my bag was not on the jetbridge, and had an absolute fit.

    The flight attendant jumped in to mix it up a little.

    A few words were exchanged on SWISS policy.

    I won!! Since after all the fuss, the bag fit perfectly in the bin with lots of room to spare.

    The gate agent stormed off! She was a complete cow to be honest!

  26. People seem to be confusing the two types of gate checks, at least how it works here in the US (my most recent and frequent experience is with United). On regional flights, sometimes you’re asked to gate check bags even if they’ll fit perfectly fine (ExpressJet does this as a matter of policy). But you get a green or pink or whatever tag that says “Security Screened Luggage” and you are given the bag again planeside once you land.

    The other type is when you’re on mainline, and the agent demands to gate check your bag because it won’t fit, and they tag it the same as if you’d checked the bag at the counter (with the long adhesive strip). In this case they take the bag from you because they need to deliver it to the baggage handlers, and it’s checked through to the final destination. This is far more annoying because it takes much longer to get your bag at the carousel and depending on your connection runs the risk of lost luggage.

    What I’d REALLY like to see discussion of are the airport contractors who watch for oversized bags pre-security. Rumor has it that despite their insistence, they don’t actually have power to stop you from carrying your bag through the checkpoint. I’ve read this on flyertalk and heard it from a friend at a major airline. However, I’ve never been gutsy enough to try ignoring them (and they can get VERY mad and loud).

  27. Ah yes, be the first on as soon as your Group is called, and plonk your multiple over-sized baggage in the bin 48 rows from where your allocated seat is! How very American!
    Only I hope your bag is not in the bin above my seat, as I will remove it and put it in the aisle and deny all knowledge of it~ “no ma’am, that’s not my bag”, as I go back to browsing the in-flight magazine.

  28. @ Franklyn — While tags are created for gate checked bags, they don’t seem to have electronic records. Instead it’s just a “paper” trail, with the passenger getting one part of the tag to keep, and the other part of the tag staying on the bag.

  29. I carry a laptop bag about a quarter the size of lucky’s roller, and yet *still* I have been faced with situations where there isn’t room in the overhead compartments.

    I think you all should buck up and check a bag. This discussion (and many like it) is a perverse competition to see who can selfishly commit the most egregious rule violation.

    I’ve spent an hour waiting at the carousel, and I’ve lost luggage before. In neither case was it the end of the world. I even used to pay fees for the privilege, although choosing the right set of credit cards put an end to that.

    In summary, get off my lawn. Love, pointster.

  30. I was the person who emailed Ben with the question. Was one of the first people on the plane with priority/status, so space was not an issue. The bag very easily fits in a 737/A320 overhead; the sizing bins are a joke. I actually think for platinum up it should be a perk that you are exempt from the standard bin size.

    To whomever posted about being arrested, that’s absurd.

    To Ben’s point though, not something I plan on making a habit of. Not losing sleep, if the flight wasn’t four hours late I might have considered humoring them. The scanning logistics discussed above make sense, not as risky as I thought.

  31. Hi Lucky,

    I’ve had my carry-on taken for check-in at the gate several times. This tends to happen a lot on internal european flights, especially to smaller cities where the planes tend to be smaller. Sometimes the gate staff can be quite nasty (experienced this in Amsterdam as well as Zurich).

    I had a terrible experience on a flight from Amsterdam to Bucharest. My carry on was taken for check in at the gate, and the bag came out on the luggage carousel along with all the rest of the check in baggage at Bucharest airport. The bag was unfortunately opened (the lock was broken), and some cash plus my laptop was stolen.

    The airline did not compensate me for the loss, stating that as per their rules they have limited liability for loss of valuables in check in luggage. I finally managed to get recompense through insurance, but only after a long battle lasting over 4 months. The airline refused to recompense me for the loss as they required “proof” that the bag actually contained the items that i claimed were stolen from it.

    The point is, isn’t the airlines lack of owning up to responsibility for items in checked baggage one of the major reasons why we have carry-on luggage in the first place? I mean, what are you supposed to do otherwise – travel like a monk?

    A friend of mine who was on the same flight refused to check in his carry on and had a 20 minute (heated) argument with the check-in agent. He won the argument, but only after everyone else had boarded the flight (he was the last passenger let on). He won the argument by quoting his rights as a passenger.

    Any idea what passenger rights with regard to carry-on baggage are on flights within Europe? This would help me win a potential argument with a check-in agent in future – there is no way I am going to allow them to take my carry-on with my laptop, ipad and money inside again!

    Needless to say, I have never flown KLM again after this experience…


  32. @The Ripper

    When you say sizing bins, I’m assuming you mean the display tester for carry on baggage size, and that it’s frequent flyer elites that should be allowed to exceed those dimensions.

    The reason why bag/s might fit into an overhead if first on certain aircraft, that otherwise exceed the dimensions of the display tester, is that those dimensions are determined to fit all mainline aircraft in that fleet (with usually smaller sizes applying separately to regional services). Airlines do not guarantee aircraft type for flight sectors (and different aircraft have different bin sizes), and for consistency and pre-planning needs

    I was the person who emailed Ben with the question. Was one of the first people on the plane with priority/status, so space was not an issue. The bag very easily fits in a 737/A320 overhead; the sizing bins are a joke. I actually think for platinum up it should be a perk that you are exempt from the standard bin size.

    To whomever posted about being arrested, that’s absurd.

    To Ben’s point though, not something I plan on making a habit of. Not losing sleep, if the flight wasn’t four hours late I might have considered humoring them. The scanning logistics discussed above make sense, not as risky as I thought.

  33. This nasty habit of United Airlines asking me to gate check my carry on has happened to me 3 times in the last month, but only when flying out of Raleigh. The return trip there was no such forced check. The last time I asked if they had to check the bag and the reason. The gate agent said because there would be no room in the overhead bins. I know this will come as a shocker, there was all kinds of room in the overhead bins once I boarded. I was so mad. My question is whether there is anything you can do in this situation or do you have no other options than to comply with this idiotic policy?

  34. Delta agents have a habit of making everyone check their carry-ons as soon as the jet bridge starts to fill up. They use it as a way to speed up boarding. Once the jet bridge starts to fill up, they announce that all the overhead spaces are full and we need to check our bags. Then, you get on the plane and there is plenty of overhead bin space. It makes for lots of pissed off customers. So, I love the idea of getting the bag tagged at the gate and then ripping it off on the jet bridge. Keep it in your pocket in case you get to the plane door and they actually require you to check your bag.

  35. Seems like a pretty selfish move on your part. Taking up space that could have legitimately been used by another passenger just because you wanted both of your bags with you. If your second bag doesn’t fit under the seat, please be courteous next time and check it. Some people think the world revolves around them.

  36. Last month Delta forced me to gate check a bag(correct size) from ATL-LEX claiming lack of space which was a blatent lie. Facebooked complaint to Delta who non apologetically stated this was done to expedite departure. If this is the policy (expecially in economy) then they need to make it offical and not continue to lie. Do those of you who are annoyed at people disobeying the “rules” let start with gate agents and crew being truthful and not rude.

  37. I had one unique but horrible experience with gate checking from Air Canada and ANA not too long ago.

    Four of us were travelling together: Bag allowance was 2 x 23kg per person, so total was 8 free checked bags. Carry-on allowance: 1 per person = 4 carry-on bags + personal items.

    Itinerary originated in YYC. Air Canada agent forced-gate checked three of our carry-on bags (which were within legal size limits as we tried them out in the baggage tester before check-in) with the excuse “Flight is full and there will be no more space.”

    Once onboard, there were so much overhead bin space for the carry-ons!

    Once at the gate in YVR to connect to ANA, gate agent slaps us with an excess baggage fee of $600 ($200 rate per piece gate-checked in YYC) with the excuse “You exceeded your free checked baggage allowance by 3 bags so we need to charge you an excess baggage fee.”

    Tried to argue, but it’s either pay the excess fee or possible denied boarding. With time running out before departure, we had no choice but to pay the $600.

    Emailed complaints to both Air Canada and ANA, and got responses that weren’t reassuring:

    ANA: “The fee was correct as the free checked baggage allowance was exceeded by 3 bags.”
    Air Canada: “ANA was the operating carrier and, because codeshare partners differ from Air Canada terms and conditions, the fee charged was correct.”

    So much for “COMPLIMENTARY gate-checks to the final destination.”

    Safe to say that may be the last time I’m flying on those two airlines.

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