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On many US flights carry-on bags must be checked if the overhead bins are full. In this case the airline forces you to check your bag (for free) against your will. If an item in your bag is worth more than the airline's liability limit for checked bags and you informed the airline of this prior to them forcing you to check your bag, does the liability limit apply? If the liability limit does still apply and you deem that it isn't worth the risk to check the bag, can you cancel your flight and ask for a refund on the spot?

The question is with regards to all major US airlines. None of the following airlines have any details on damaged items that were checked against the passengers will: Delta, US airways, United (I haven't checked any others). I called US Airways and they did not answer the question. Note I am preparing to travel with an expensive item in a carry-on, but have not yet experienced this situation, but could see it coming up.

  • Out of interest, did US Airways actually decline to answer?? – Mark Mayo Jan 15 '15 at 23:58
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    Can you extract the item so you can still take it on-board? I know this is not the question you asked. – mkennedy Jan 16 '15 at 0:09
  • I bet it doesn't matter--that they won't cover beyond the liability. What if an attendant was moving bags in the overhead bin, and yours fell out. What if someone kicked an item you had under the seat in front of you and broke something? I can't see them accepting liability beyond what was stated in the carriage terms. – mkennedy Jan 16 '15 at 0:11
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    @MarkMayo They didn't officially say "I decline to answer", but they basically gave me a run around that was equivalent to declining to answer. My guess is that the 3 people I talked to had never seen this issue come up and they weren't willing to answer the question hypothetically prior to an incident actually occuring. – WetlabStudent Jan 16 '15 at 0:11
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    @MHH: Delta has the following passage in their terms and conditions: "Acceptance of carry-on baggage is subject to space availability on the aircraft at the time the passenger boards. If adequate space is not available, Delta may require that the baggage be checked." The risk that intended carry-on luggage will be checked, is therefore known when booking a ticket. Other airlines will have similar disclaimers in their terms and conditions as well. – Tor-Einar Jarnbjo Jan 16 '15 at 17:49
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The airlines all make it clear that they do not guarantee space on board for all items that are eligible carry-on luggage, as pointed out in another answer. I would presume that you cannot claim a higher loss allowance for a bag just because it is forced to be checked during boarding. I wouldn't rely on an agent's word at the gate, either.

The best way to protect yourself is to plan to remove the valuable items and carry them on (often times there is enough space for individual items even if there is not enough space for a standard carry-on suitcase).

There are certain types of smaller aircraft that do not accommodate standard carry-on suitcases. Check your itinerary to ensure you aren't flying on one of those planes. They include Canadair Regional Jets, many Embraer regional jets and all prop style planes like the Dash-8 or ATR. Larger bags on these planes are always checked at boarding and returned to you upon arrival at the gate.

If you cannot remove the items and carry them on safely, then you should be prepared to make the case with an airline agent to be moved to another flight. I don't know how successful you will be, and you may have to wait out many full flights before it happens, but that may be your best best to avoid checking a larger but valuable item.

Edit: I will mention something from a helpful comment by Tor-Einar Jarnbjo: you might be able to purchase a second seat to accommodate a very valuable item like a musical instrument. Contact your airline to discuss this option.

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    The best bet to be guaranteed to bring valuable or fragile items as carry-on luggage is to book an extra seat for the luggage. It may sound odd, but most airlines actually allow you to do so. It is often used for music instruments, but I would assume that this option can be used for other items as well, as long as the item does not violate any security restrictions for carry-on luggage. – Tor-Einar Jarnbjo Jan 17 '15 at 19:08
  • @Tor-EinarJarnbjo that is a very interesting option. – WetlabStudent Jan 17 '15 at 23:38
  • I added your helpful comment to my answer. Thanks! – Michael Mathews Jan 22 '15 at 20:16
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As an example, read American Airlines Conditions of Carriage, specifically Carry on Baggage and Liability.

The suitability of carry-on baggage will be determined by American. Each customer will be limited to one carry-on bag and one personal item. A personal item includes a purse, briefcase, laptop, or small book bag style backpack. A personal item must be smaller than your carry-on bag and must fit under the seat in front of you. Fragile or valuable items, such as keys, medication or computers should be carried in your personal item.

That's the first point. A personal item wouldn't be checked, since it is supposed to fit under the seat, not in the overhead, and all valuable items should be in it, and not carry-on baggage.

The second point is under liability:

American does not assume liability for any of the following items in or as checked baggage: antiques, artifacts, artwork, books and documents, china, computers and other electronic equipment, computer software, fragile items (including child/infant restraint devices such as strollers and car seats), eyeglasses, prescription sunglasses, non-prescription sunglasses and all other eyewear and eye/vision devices whether lenses are glass, plastic, or some other material, furs, heirlooms, keys, liquids, medicines, money, orthotics, surgical supports, perishable items, photographic, video and optical equipment, precious metals, stones or jewelry, securities and negotiable papers, silverware, samples, unique or irreplaceable items or any other similar valuable items.

If your carry-on is checked, and it contains valuables, they are not liable. Period. Valuables belong in your personal item.

Next paragraph starts out:

With the exception of strollers, American does not accept these items in or as checked baggage and assumes no responsibility or liability for such items, regardless of whether American knew or should have known of the presence of such items in checked or transferred baggage.

And then, the piece de la resistance is paragraph 6 under liability:

American assumes no liability for articles carried in the passenger cabin.

It is my assumption, that every other airline, large or small, will have quite similar statements as these in their fine print.

The bottom line: mail, and insure.

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Without checking every airline's conditions, most (if not all) airlines only allow carry-on luggage under the provision that there is available space. Basically, there is usually not enough stowage in the cabin should all passengers bring the maximum allowed amount of carry-on luggage, so it is bound to happen now and then that some intended carry-on luggage will have to be moved to the luggage room.

I find it odd that noone at US Airways were able or willing to answer your question regarding this issue. The relevant part in their contract of carriage is pretty clear:

Carry-on baggage allowance may be restricted due to lack of space on board the aircraft.

They are not even trying to hide the fact behind unintelligible legalese, but stating clearly that they don't guarantee you any right to bring carry-on luggage on any flight.

In Delta's terms and conditions, you will find the following disclaimer:

Acceptance of carry-on baggage is subject to space availability on the aircraft at the time the passenger boards. If adequate space is not available, Delta may require that the baggage be checked.

While United writes in their contract of carriage:

Operations, space constraints, security directives and/or other safety considerations may require limitations to the allowable Carry-on Baggage on a specific flight.

That covers the three airlines you were especially asking about. Other airlines are likely to have similar disclaimers in their terms and conditions or contract of carriage.

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    This is all true, but it doesn't answer the question about liability to the bag. My advice is that if you are forced to gate check a bag, you should be prepared to remove all critical items. It isn't just the price of the item, but if your medication or glasses is there, you should take those out as well, even if doing this delays other passengers. I would not presume that your can somehow claim a higher lost baggage allowance for a gate-checked bag. – Michael Mathews Jan 16 '15 at 23:37
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    @MichaelMathews: It does not directly answer the question, but it explains why the assumptions leading to the question are wrong. Since you have no unconditional right to bring carry-on luggage in the cabin, you will essentially not be forced to do anything unexpected and have of course no rights to claim anything extra (additional liability or to be booked on another flight) if the airline has to transport your intended carry-on luggage in the luggage room. – Tor-Einar Jarnbjo Jan 17 '15 at 19:04

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