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This last weekend my wife and I took a hidden city flight from St. Louis to Houston (and threw away the leg to Tulsa) on United Airlines. Naturally, this only works when you don't check luggage, but as the flight was on a small plane (Embrair RJ145), anyone with "full sized" carry-on luggage was required to do a gate check.

It was no problem, in this case, as they returned the gate-checked luggage to us on the jetway in Houston.

But I have been on flights like this before, where gate-checked luggage was checked to my final destination. Sadly, I can't remember when, or which airline(s) I've experienced this with.

Such a scheme would naturally ruin any attempts at hidden city ticketing.

So my question is: Which airlines and/or flights do a gate-check to the final destination? Is there a way to know, prior to purchasing a ticket, if this will be a problem or a risk for me?

  • Really? I've never seen an airline not return gate-check luggage at each stop, you'd think it'd be extra work to check it all the way through (because they need to know where people are going and they don't have facilities to print the labels, etc). The only time I would think it might happen is a stop where you don't change planes. Also, I'm sure you could insist that the return the luggage at the stopover if you gave some reasonable excuse. – SpaceDog Jun 19 '15 at 3:29
  • I concur with @SpaceDog - it's either gate checked or checked in to a landside claim. I've never seen an instance where gate checking a bag got it checked through to baggage claim at the final destination. It's one or the other and they'll tell you which at the gate as you're boarding. – Ansari Jun 19 '15 at 5:42
  • Even in this regard your fraud would not be frustrated because you could assert that you were finishing your journey at the next stop. Most airlines continue to print boarding passes separately so if you lose the second pass it should be no problem. – Calchas Jun 19 '15 at 8:31
  • I've noticed several different airlines (if my memory serves correctly: Delta, American, United, Air Canada) offering to check bags from the gate to the final destination. I've always understood it being pushed as a "free perk" to get enough people on full flights who lugged a huge bag through security to get their bags out of the way so the flight can easily be boarded. However, there's [evidence here that United has tried forcing customers to check bags to the final destination](flyertalk.com/forum/united-airlines-mileageplus/… – Carl Jun 19 '15 at 23:04
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    @Ansari: No, Flimzy is not crazy! I have also experienced flights where bags were gate checked, and the staff clearly stated that they would be checked to the traveler's final destination. See my answer below. – Nate Eldredge Jun 20 '15 at 1:12
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In my experience on US airlines, the distinction is whether you are on a regional or mainline flight. On regional flights, you usually get your gate-checked bag back at the gate at your connecting airport; on mainline flights, it is usually checked to your final destination.

Mainline flights are the typical flights most people think of: you are on a Boeing or Airbus jet with 90-100 or more seats and 5 or more seats per row, and the plane says "United", "American", etc on it. These flights are actually operated by the main airline (e.g. United).

Regional flights are on smaller planes, a jet or turboprop with fewer than 90-100 seats (common manufacturers are Bombardier and Embraer), and usually 2-4 seats per row. The plane says "United Express", "American Eagle", etc. These flights are not actually operated by the main airline (e.g. United) but by smaller independent "regional" airlines (e.g. CommutAir, SkyWest, ExpressJet, etc) that contract with the main airline, who sells the tickets. See this Wikipedia article for more on these arrangements.

My experience has been as follows:

On regional flights, the overhead bins on the planes are typically too small to hold a "standard" carry-on bag. Thus, gate checking of carry-on bags is the norm. The gates are set up to make it easy for the workers to collect and return your bags right at the gate. (It helps that the planes, and hence the jetways, are smaller and closer to the ground, so it is easier to get a bag from the plane to the jetway. In some cases you may even disembark directly onto the tarmac, via stairs, and be handed your bag by the worker who just pulled it out of the plane's cargo compartment.)

So it is usually on regional flights that your gate-checked bag is returned at the gate at the end of the current leg.

On mainline flights, the bins typically are large enough for standard carry-ons. Gate checking is only necessary if the flight is really full, or a higher-than-average number of people have full-size carry-ons, or if someone has an unusually large bag (probably over the official size limit) that does not fit in the bin at all. (If the flight is known to be full, they often ask for volunteers to gate-check their bags, and only do it involuntarily as a last resort.) As such, since gate checking is the exception, gates for mainline flights are not set up to make it easy to return your bag right at the gate. So the only reasonable place for you to get your bag is at the baggage claim carousel. It would not make sense to send your bag to the carousel at your connection airport (you would have to leave security to claim and recheck it), so they tag it to your final destination and transfer it to your connecting flight just like any other checked bag.

So it is usually on mainline flights that gate-checked bags go straight to your final destination. On the other hand, on these flights it is relatively uncommon for bags to be gate-checked at all, and even rarer that you would have to gate-check your bag if you didn't want to.

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    I think it's a nomenclature thing then :) when I say "gate-checked" I'm not including the situations where it's checked in to the final destination; that would just be regular checked luggage, except it happened at the gate. – Ansari Jun 20 '15 at 6:18
  • @Ansari: To me, "gate check" happens at the gate, regardless of whether it's to the final destination. Any other meaning of "gate check" seems illogical to me. :/ – Flimzy Jun 20 '15 at 20:43

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