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Some Airlines Let You Bring Your Belongings But Not Take Them Back Home: Carry-On Rules are Erratically Enforced

I have just returned from an international trip. As you can probably imagine of a travel journalist, I have my packing down to a science. I take my standard amount every time. On my flight going to Europe, I had no issues. My checked luggage was underweight (I also hate fees) and my carry-on baggage fit perfectly under the seat in front of me, just how I like it.

But on the way back, the airline's Bag Drop clerk instructed me to place my carry-on on a scale. To my shock, he told me I couldn't bring it. It was two pounds too heavy.

I told him that I brought it to Europe on the same airline (Virgin Atlantic), and no one at JFK had weighed it or stopped me, and it fit perfectly under the seat. I asked him how it could be that Virgin Atlantic could let me bring my posessions into Europe but not take them home with me again.

He told me that it was the law of the country, and that the laws of my country were different.

This was a lie. Handbag weight restrictions are designated by the airline. In fact, earlier this year, Virgin Atlantic voluntarily increased the weight limit from a mere 13.2 pounds (6kg) to 22 pounds (10kg). 

I asked the clerk what I should do, then. My checked luggage was already at the 50-pound limit. There were no empty bags for sale to transfer the extra pounds to. I couldn't check my carry-on, either.

"My laptop is in this carry-on," I said.

"You'll have to leave it behind," he said. 

Rather than ponder how ridiculously unhelpful that suggestion was, I must concede that part of this was my fault. The airlines clearly post the weight restrictions for their carry-ons on their websites, and my carry-on was two pounds over. (Granted, I had no method for weighing my carry-on in my European hotel, but that's another matter.) 

But the other, larger problem is erratic enforcement of the carry-on weight rules. By allowing me to bring my slightly overweight (by only two pounds) carry-on to Europe but not bring it home with me again, Virgin Atlantic was putting me in a terrible position, one for which it offered no solution, and one for which it lied me about, blaming the government when it was merely company policy.

A bizarre solution was eventually found. I could carry my laptop in my hand and that would render the rest of my bag, in my other hand, underweight. This meant I could still travel with the exact same amount of weight—I just had to carry it in two hands, cords dangling and all. The idea was preposterous and pointless, but it seemed to satisfy the unhelpful employee behind the desk.

Airlines have many reasons to impose weight limits for carry-ons. One is to minimize injury should a bag fall out of an overhead bin, but they are also powerful motivations to force customers to check more, raising more cash through excess baggage fees. Therefore, if an airline deigns to suddenly crack down on the limits, it has little incentive to be kind to you.

For your next trip, take care to note your airline's carry-on weight limit. It may not enforce it when you leave home, but if it elects to do it on the way back, you'll be stranded, and if your experience is like mine, the airline will not lift a finger to help you.