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10 Things You Should Never Pack in Your Checked Bag

Here’s How to Not Get Burned by Carry-on Weight Limits

There’s nothing like the feeling of victory that comes with squeezing everything you need for a weekend, a week, or even a month into the modest confines of a carry-on suitcase. And once you’ve fit all your gear into a suitcase that can fit in the overhead bin, you’re very likely in the clear.

But … if you’re traveling internationally, simply packing everything into an approved-size carry-on may not be enough. That’s because many airlines—particularly international carriers—enforce cabin baggage weight restrictions. And often, those weight restrictions are less than the average packed carry-on.

Do Carry-ons Have a Weight Limit?

If you mostly fly U.S. carriers, the thought of weighing your carry-on may have never occurred to you. That’s because—at least for now—major U.S. airlines including American, Delta, and United don’t generally put weight restrictions on carry-on bags. Domestic carriers have clear carry-on size restrictions, but not weight restrictions. In fact, U.S. carriers may not even be equipped to monitor weight at the gate, since boarding gates generally don’t have scales.

However, on international carriers—even on codeshares with U.S. airlines—weight is a real consideration, and one that impacts what you can and can’t carry onboard. Most of the time, airlines that limit the weight of carry-ons will ask you to weigh your bag as you check in. But sometimes, you’re left to your own devices until boarding, at which point the mistake can cost you.

SmarterTravel editor Sarah Schlichter found herself in just such a situation recently while flying an Australian carrier between Sydney and Hobart, Tasmania.

“During the check-in process there were blaring messages about your carry-on weighing seven kilograms, but there wasn’t a scale anywhere that I could see,” Schlichter said. “And I don’t speak kilogram, so I was like, eh, we’re probably fine. And if not, we can gate-check.”

When, at boarding, the airline weighed her bag and discovered it was over the limit, Schlichter discovered there was no gate-check option and had to pay $40 in overweight carry-on fees to get her bag onboard.

She recounts: “The staffer who weighed our bags during boarding asked, ‘You get a 15-kilogram checked allowance. Why didn’t you check?’” It’s a question Schlichter has been mulling over ever since.

How Much Can Carry-ons Weigh?

When traveling internationally, determined travelers can often squeeze everything in a carry-on, but that bag is often heavier than airlines’ carry-on weight maximums. That’s because the weight restrictions tend to be extremely modest.

Here’s a rundown of some major carriers’ carry-on weight limits for economy-class flights:

Why You Should Still Aspire to Carry On

For many travelers who can fit their necessities into a carry-on, trying to make a smaller suitcase work can be worth the extra effort. You’ll have an easier time navigating public transportation with a smaller bag. Your bag is more likely to be able to fit into the trunk of a cab, or in the baggage area on a train. A smaller bag is easier to carry upstairs, and it takes up less room in a hotel room.

Not only that, but checking a bag introduces a whole host of challenges, among them tight connections, especially in destinations where you must reclaim your bag before clearing customs for the next flight. Going carry-on-only also spares you the extra time waiting around at baggage claim when you reach your destination.

Tips for Meeting Airlines’ Carry-on Weight Restrictions

If you’re going to meet airlines’ tight weight restrictions on carry-ons, you’re going to need a plan.

Before you do anything else, look up your airline’s weight restrictions in advance. If you’re married to the idea of bringing your carry-on onboard, stick to those weight restrictions. Don’t count going unnoticed: Weighing suitcases for international flights is pretty standard, so it’s unlikely you’ll be able to avoid detection.

Step two is to weigh your empty carry-on. Though anything under about 10 pounds is considered lightweight in the carry-on luggage universe, when you only get 15 pounds total for a carry-on, using that much of your allotted weight on your suitcase is not a pro move. If you want to free up some weight, you might consider buying an ultra-lightweight suitcase that weighs less than five pounds.

Then it’s time to assess your travel gear and trim weight where you can. This is where you want to make every ounce count: Look for smaller toiletries, lighter shoes, streamlined entertainment, and other lighter ways to travel. For more tips, see A Traveler’s Guide to Minimalist Packing.

Before you pack, make sure you have an accurate scale. As you pack, shift heavier items to better balance the weight of your carry-on and personal item. Sometimes, the same amount of weight is allowed if it’s distributed between your two allowed cabin bags.

If you’re right on the edge, you can sometimes move things around to reduce the weight of the bag. But it’s always a good idea, if you think your bag exceeds the maximum weight for carry-ons, to have any items you wouldn’t want to check (items like medicines, jewelry, and electronics, for instance) in an easy-to-grab place so you can transfer them to your personal item should you get to the counter and discover you have no choice but to check your carry-on.

When it comes to carry-ons, size is important. But when you’re trying to go carry-on for international travel, it pays to weigh as well.

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