To board first, or board last- that is the question. The question though is just a scratch on the surface of many, far more complicated issues, driving passengers mad for decades. Considerations such as: carry on luggage, upgrades, lost seating or boarding lines make this age old problem the most frustrating conundrum in air travel. I’ll weigh in…

It’s All About The Overhead Bins…

The signature mark of the frequent traveler is the carry on. Checking bags is wasted time, so whenever possible it’s carry on only. This is a brilliant strategy-until it’s not. Being last to board all but guarantees that your bag will be gate checked and sent down below for the flight. The trade off? Standing around at the gate waiting to board, and then sitting on board for ages is also wasted time. Board first.

But Lounges Are A Useful, Delightful Escape…

Coffee, wifi, desk space, comfy couches and cocktails. It’s the simple things in life. One of the main arguments for boarding last comes in the form of airport VIP lounges. Why sit in a metal tube for an extra half hour (or well beyond) when you can have one last refreshing glass of something relaxing, while finishing up some work and charging your gear? Board last.

And Now Airlines Are Playing Games With Upgrades…

Airlines upgrades are hard to get. Period. When you do manage to grab one, how awful would it be to lose it, simply for not being at the gate when upgrades are announced. Gary Leff pointed out that American, and perhaps even now other airlines will skip someone on the upgrade list, if they are not present when their name is called. This is a striking argument for board first.

Class Of Service Is Another Consideration…

As we all sadly know, frequent travel or business travel does not always mean business class. Despite carry on risks, it’s very hard to not side with boarding last, if you know you’ll be resigned to a long flight in the economy cabin. Up front, it’s a different picture. With a spacious seat, and now some airlines even offering gate to gate wifi, there’s little reason not to trade your lounge perch for a seat up front, especially since overhead space is rarely ever an issue in first or business class.

And So Are Onward Flight Connections…

Frequent flying is about maximizing time on the ground, minimizing time spent in transit. You simply cannot risk a gate check- having your bag put down below the plane if you’re connecting onto a tight connection. Without a tight connection, if you want to board last, having a small personal item bag, which could carry laptop, headphones and other in flight necessities is a nice way to hedge against your proper carry on getting checked.

What Airlines Should Do To Help…

Airlines should block out overhead space for their highest level frequent travelers. If my preferred airline could somewhat guarantee overhead space, I’d be last to board every single time. Could this be accomplished with simple cardboard signs? It doesn’t seem like it would take any significant investment of time or money, but would be met with very open arms from loyal customers.

My Thoughts…

As someone who needs the items in their carry on- I simply cannot risk boarding last. I do my very best to put useful in flight items into a separate small back pack, but it’s too much of an inconvenience to have things gate checked. On longer flights however, especially those on larger planes, where yields are low (which I check with ExpertFlyer), I will stay in the lounge, knowing that I almost certainly will still get overhead space. I don’t want to spend an extra minute in the aircraft that I don’t have to. Moral of the story: you don’t always have to fly first class-sometimes business class is okay too, just not economy.

 

 

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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3 Comments

  1. If airlines reserved overhead space for elites, it would be a disaster. It would be very hard to enforce; a flight attendant would need to stand by this space to inspect the ticket of anyone placing luggage there. Infrequent flyers are the most aggressive about getting overhead space, and I doubt a “Reserved For Elites” sign is going to stop them. I believe they’re under the impression that if overhead space runs out, they need to pay a fee for checking their bag.

    I know it’s in vogue to bash Basic Economy, but I like that it indirectly charges a fee for overhead space (if you want to use the overhead bin, among other perks, you have to pay the extra $20 for Regular Economy), This is the actual solution for rationing overhead space.

  2. When I saw the headline, I admit to thinking “Obviously, the conundrum is finding saver award space”, which seems to vex almost everyone. As to your specific conundrum, I’d say that reserving overhead space for top tier frequent fliers in economy is a pretty bad idea. Your proposal just seems inefficient. The airlines already have a mechanism to provide improved overhead access: early boarding. If overhead space is that important, leave the lounge 15 minutes early. It just seems that you want all of the advantages without any of the drawbacks.

  3. You’re in business/first. When the overhead bin above you is full, take a bag and ask around who owned it. When you found a bag with nobody near is the owner, take it and give it to FA for gate check or just throw it away. Business/first comes with certain privilage. If some economy passenger failed to respect that, its not your fault to disrespect any belongings to that economy passenger.

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