And more importantly, they share what to do instead.
Flight attendants are the unsung heroes of travel. Even during turbulent times, they keep us comfortable, safe, well-fed, and hydrated. Most importantly, they do all of this with a smile on their face. And, though they stay very busy during the flight and are racing to catch their next one, they still manage to stay in-tune with their passengers — and have picked up on their countless in-flight woes, especially when it comes to luggage. Internally, there’s a long, unspoken list of things flight attendants never pack and an equally long list of ways they pack strategically. Still, us passengers don’t always get the memo, and mistakes happen.
For example, as passengers, we’re not supposed to ask flight attendants to help lift our bags into the overhead bin. Flight attendants are forbidden to assist with this because if they get injured while doing so, it’s not covered under their worker’s compensation. Instead of asking them to help, we can do our part by packing bags we know we can handle on our own.
To save you time, money, and stress on your next trip, we found a few friendly flight attendants willing to talk about other common luggage mistakes passengers make as well as what to do instead to ensure a smoother, hassle-free trip. Again, not all superheroes wear capes. Some are disguised as cabin crew.
Relying on a flimsy paper tag
What to do instead: Slip an Apple AirTag in your bag
Many airlines give out free paper name tags to stick on your checked luggage, and they have a tendency to fall off. Even if you use a real tag, it’s useless when it comes to tracking your bag. That’s why Lisa Wilkes, a flight attendant of 13 years, advises passengers to put an Apple AirTag in the suitcases they’re checking. “If anyone takes the wrong suitcase, you can track it instantly,” she tells Travel + Leisure. On Amazon, the Apple AirTag has nearly 96,000 five-star ratings, and one traveler wrote that it “saved” their vacation.
To buy: amazon.com, $28
Packing your bulkiest shoes
What to do instead: Wear them on the plane, or don’t pack them at all
“Footwear takes up a ton of room in suitcases,” Wilkes said. “So you’ll save space by wearing your largest shoes during your flight.” Personally, she likes to pick up a lightweight pair of shoes from a thrift shop that employs people with disabilities. But, if you’re looking for something that can be delivered to your doorstep before your flight, consider these Toms Slip-On Shoes, which also have a feel-good component since the brand donates one-third of its profits to organizations that provide mental health resources, increase access to opportunity, and end gun violence. These particular slip-ons have nearly 4,000 five-star ratings, feature supportive memory foam insoles, and come in 15 colors and styles. They’re also currently up to 53 percent off.
To buy: amazon.com, $26 (originally $55)
Packing an attitude
What to do instead: Pack a small gift for a flight attendant
“Bring a small gift for flight attendants,” Wilkes suggests. “We see a lot of super difficult [and] mean passengers, so when someone does something nice, we really appreciate it.” It can be something as simple as a granola bar, notes flight attendant Shea Kepler. Or, you can give them something like a travel-sized bottle of Evian Facial Spray, which will keep their skin hydrated and healthy at any altitude. You can get a six-pack of these for $45 at Amazon, where they have nearly 5,800 five-star ratings. And, don’t be surprised if your gift begets a gift. Wilkes says they often give passengers who give them gifts complimentary snacks.
To buy: amazon.com, $45
Not packing another layer for the plane
What to do instead: Pack a lightweight sweater that will keep you warm
We’ve all been there: teeth chattering at cruising altitude and trying to make the most of the thin blanket the airline (hopefully) provides. That’s why Wilkes says it’s smart to always have a sweater on your person: “Even if it’s blazing hot outside, the plane might be chilly.” To save space in her bag, she rolls her clothes, a trick many flight attendants swear by. For a layer that will keep you warm but isn’t bulky, consider the Mongolian Cashmere Full-Zip Hoodie from Quince. It’s made of sustainable cashmere, is incredibly soft, and it goes with pretty much everything.
To buy: onequince.com, $100
Packing critical items in hold
What to do instead: Store your plane essentials in your carry-on
Before he started the website Turtle Trip, James Kinsella was a flight attendant. And every week he’d see passengers, especially on long-haul flights, forget things like their medication, contact lens cases, earplugs, and other essential items. “We very much stress to take your time and create a list of what you’re packing and where it needs to go before you fly,” Kinsella explained. Of course, it helps to have a separate smaller bag for these items you want on the plane. Consider something like these TSA-compliant Packism toiletry bags, which are clear so you can see their contents and will immediately know if you’re forgetting something. And, a set of three costs less than $20.
To buy: amazon.com, $16
Bringing oversized hand luggage
What to do instead: Get a carry-on bag you’re confident will fit
While Kinsella acknowledges that sometimes if you’re friendly to your gate attendant you can get on your flight with oversized hand luggage, it’s best to not even bring it in the first place. This is especially true if you’re flying on discount airlines that will penalize you with hefty checked baggage fees. He personally loves the brand Tripp for carry-on luggage, but since it’s U.K.-based, it’s not the easiest to get stateside. Instead, consider Travelpro’s Maxlite 5 International Expandable 21-Inch Carry-On Suitcase. It’s designed to fit the carry-on restrictions of most international airlines, which tend to be slightly stricter than those in the U.S., and equipped with thoughtful features for stress-free packing
To buy: travelpro.com, $145 (originally $170)
Trying to sneak on with overweight bags
What to do instead: Invest in a portable luggage scale
According to Kinsella, almost every flight sees one or two passengers going over the weight limit with their bags. “That sometimes leads to heated debates at the check-in counter, with extra fees or a last-minute repack being the options,” she warned. You can avoid this, however, if you have a portable luggage scale like the best-selling Etekcity Luggage Scale. It’s small, accurate, and easy to use; simply hang your bag on it and hold it up, and it will show what your bag weighs in both pounds and kilograms. On Amazon, it has nearly 45,000 five-star ratings. One shopper wrote,“This has been a lifesaver and has made traveling less stressful.”
To buy: amazon.com, $11
Using flimsy luggage with breakable components
What to do instead: Invest in a bag that can take a beating
Before she founded In-Flight Insider, Carolyn Paddock was a flight attendant for both commercial airlines and private jets. One phenomenon she witnessed was passengers using bags that were either low quality and/or on their last legs. “Cheap bags can and do give out mid-trip,” according to Paddock, who cites busted zippers, wheels that fall off, and broken handles being common occurrences. That’s why she recommends making a “decent investment” in your luggage by opting for something like Tumi’s International Expandable 4-Wheeled Carry-On Suitcase. At $895 it’s not cheap, but it has protective bumper rails and impact-resistant side panels. It also comes with a five-year limited warranty.
To buy: tumi.com, $895
Using soft-sided luggage
What to do instead: Switch to hard-sided bags
Flight attendants make mistakes, too. For example, in his nearly two decades of working as a flight attendant, Nick Wilson has mostly relied on his fabric Travelpro suitcases issued by his employer. However, his airline is in the process of retiring them. “They are not as trendy or in style anymore,” Wilson explained. “So we are going to be using hardshell plastic luggage. They weigh less, look better, and are less prone to liquid damage.” When he’s traveling for leisure, not business, Wilson uses his Monos Carry-On Pro Suitcase, which features a handy built-in front compartment for easy access to your travel essentials and is built with durable polycarbonate to create its “unbreakable” shell.
To buy: monos.com, $295 (originally $311)
Not packing an extra bag
What to do instead: Stash a collapsible bag in your luggage
Flight attendants can often tell if a passenger is headed out on their trip or returning from it based on how many bags they have. And passengers who shop a lot often have to carry their purchases by hand or buy an extra bag during their trip. Of course, that can be avoided if you think ahead. “I always keep a small collapsible bag inside my luggage so in case I return with more than I left with I can then use it as a shoulder bag on the way home,” Wilson assured. This foldable duffle bag from Amazon-favorite brand Narwey has nearly 13,000 five-star ratings and leaves travelers in awe with its packable construction that hardly takes up any space in your suitcase.
To buy: amazon.com, $14