How to stack your luggage in the overhead bin without ruining it for everyone

You got this.
You got this.
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
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Along with “why is my flight cancelled?” and “what is that smell?” it is one of the greatest enigmas of modern air travel: Why can’t our fellow passengers place their bags in the overhead bin like normal humans?

Missteps abound in this frantic game of luggage Tetris. Otherwise reasonable people violently shove their luggage into bins, lay their bags horizontally, spread items out to hog the space. Passengers routinely stuff items that could easily fit under the seats in front of them in the overhead bins. Some even sneak their stuff into bins meant for passengers closer to the front of the plane, then snatch them in their headlong rush for the exit upon landing.

Granted, travelers loading their (sometimes gigantic) carry-ons into the overhead bins aren’t at their finest. The process follows two other torturous steps of airline travel—an endless airport security line and the interminable wait at a crowded gate—so it’s perhaps understandable that overhead-bin-loading is an exercise in chaos and ineptitude.

But it’s worth taking a moment to focus on the task. Doing it wrong will leave your seat mates feeling vengeful (say goodbye to your armrest), and also tick off your flight attendants. It even could delay your flight entirely. (If you’ve ever seen your flight attendants frantically pacing up and down the aisles shutting bins, it’s because the plane can’t depart if you’re still futzing with your suitcase. It’s not unheard of for flights to be delayed because of overhead luggage drama.)

So let’s all take a moment to go over some rules of etiquette for this scarce, highly valuable few feet of space:

  • Pack light. To avoid paying $25 for a checked bag, passengers increasingly are packing all their luggage as a carry-on, which makes finding space onboard all the more competitive. Bring only what you need, and leave the wardrobe changes (and sporting equipment) to a minimum.
  • Make sure you take out what you need for the flight—ideally before you board the plane. You don’t want a fasten-seatbelt sign to come between you and your book, carrot sticks, or Xanax. And waking up the guy in the aisle seat right after takeoff is just mean.
  • Go to your row first. We are all nervous about getting a spot for our bags, but resist the temptation to hoist them into the bin above row 10 when you’re seated in row 35.
  • Wheels in. If your suitcase has wheels, place it with the wheels facing the back of the bin. That will give you easier access to the handle of the bag when you deplane.
  • Do you really need the overhead bin? Smaller, softer bags and backpacks can fit under the seat in front of you. (This is your only option if you’ve purchased a basic economy ticket that prohibits use of overhead bins.)
  • If the flight is full, hold your coat, or put it under the seat in front of you. You may think that a coat doesn’t take up much room, but if everyone ditches their outerwear in the overhead bin, it eats into space for other bags. Besides, do you really want to spend $12 on a blanket?
  • Once your bag is up in the bin, settle into your seat as quickly as possible.
  • If there’s really no space for your bag, ask crew for help. They’ll find a spot for it, or even check it, free of charge.
  • Or, just treat that check-in fee as a part of your ticket cost. That’s what Parts Unknown host Anthony Bourdain suggests. “I hate the people struggling to cram their luggage in an overhead bin,” he told Esquire in 2013. “So I don’t want to be one of those people.”