When you travel, there’s only so much you can control. And a full flight — with limited overhead bin space — is one of those uncontrollable things. You might have limited yourself to a carry-on so you could waltz past the baggage claim at your destination, but on most planes, there’s just not enough overhead bin space for every passenger.
If you end up on a full flight or have a low boarding priority, chances are you’ll have to gate check your bag at the last minute. When overhead bins fill up, travelers with carry-ons that don’t fit under the seat will be asked to gate check their bag. Gate checking is always free of charge, and basically means your carry-on will be put into the cargo hold with all the other checked luggage.
“Customers whose bags are gate checked are checked at the gate free of charge and can be picked up at the customer’s final destination or at the jet bridge depending on the flight,” a United Airlines representative told Travel + Leisure by email.
Not only will you need to part with your bag, but you’ll need to figure out where to pick it up after you land. In most cases, gate checked bags will be sent to the baggage claim along with all the paid, checked luggage. Meaning you’ll have to say goodbye to that speedy exit at your destination.
If you’re on a commuter plane or a smaller aircraft, sometimes you’ll be able to pick up your gate checked bag on the jet bridge after you arrive. This often is the case when you’re traveling to a smaller, regional airport.
“Bags that are gate checked by one of our United Express partners will be picked up at the jet bridge. Bags that are gate checked on a United mainline flight will be checked to the customer’s final destination and can be picked up at baggage claim,” said the United representative.
If the airline staff doesn’t explicitly tell you where you’ll need to pick up your bag, you’ll want to ask, as every airline and aircraft has a different policy. The good news is that airlines are working to make gate checking a thing of the past by retrofitting overhead bins to ensure there’s space for every carry-on on board.
“In 2020, we are going to put in the work to start making this dream a reality for more of our customers,” said United. “We have hundreds of planes with a wide variety of bins but, by 2023, we expect over 80% of our mainline fleet to have the new bins.”