How your baggage can change your carbon footprint when you fly

Suitcase and shades

Checked luggage for comfort, or carry on for speed?

Deciding how much to travel with, and if you check in your luggage or not, often comes down to your values.

Do you want the ease of checking in your luggage and only having your most important items with you? Or do you want to avoid the crowds at the luggage carousel and only pack what you need for a carry-on?

Neither of those priorities answer the question of what has the lowest environmental impact. We wanted to look into whether checked luggage or carry-on is better for the environment.

Well, it turns out there’s no way around it. In short, the lighter you pack, the better for the environment.

The more weight you put in an airplane, the more fuel you need to burn to keep it in the air.

Whether you put your bag in the haul or the overhead compartment, it doesn’t make that big a difference for fuel consumption. What does make a difference is what you pack and how much it weighs.

Try to challenge yourself and see how light you can get your luggage.

Depending on the purpose of your travel, you can opt for items with dual purposes, for instance using a sarong as a scarf or replacing your books with a Kindle.

Same weight, different outcome – Why check-in does matter

Let’s say you and your friend are traveling together, and your luggage weighs exactly the same. Your friend is checking in their luggage, and you are bringing yours with you in the cabin.

Here, we actually do see a difference. Because the checked-in bag isn’t just magically transported from your friends’ hand onto the plane. There are a number of steps in the process.

1: Check-in: Here, your bag is weighed and put on a conveyor belt that will transport it from the check-in counter to a luggage cart. That entire journey requires power and energy. Getting the bag onto the flight then requires gas for the luggage cart.

2: Landing: This is all repeated when the bag has to get off the airplane.

3: The carousel: Depending on how long the customs line is, your bag could be going round and round on that carousel for ages. The more weight on the carousel, the more power is needed to run it. It might not seem like a lot, but considering the millions and millions of people who travel every day, this makes a huge difference.

So, if you want to cut down on your flight emission, pack lighter and opt for carry-on.

Remember, the more people who bring on carry-on, the bigger that chance that something needs to be checked in. If your bag happens to get picked for last-minute check in, you don’t want all your valuables to go for a bumpy luggage carousel ride. Therefore, make sure you always carry a lightweight foldable shopping bag. This allows you to quickly grab your laptop, headphones, and water bottle, before having your bag checked in. As a bonus, it’s handy for carrying snacks around the airport.

Other ways to cut your flight-related emissions are:

Consider train, bus, or driving. For any trip below 965 kilometers (600 miles) they are often more efficient.

Choose a non-stop flight wherever possible. Around 25 percent of the fuel used is consumed during takeoff. Once the flight is at cruising altitude, it becomes much more fuel-efficient.

Offset your flight. Once you’ve lowered the footprint of your flight as much as possible, you can address the remainder of your carbon footprint by choosing to offset your flight. CHOOOSE have developed a travel footprint calculator in partnership with Heathrow Airport that can calculate and offset the emissions of any flight, anywhere in the world. Try the calculator here.

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