Carry-On vs Personal Item: how to manage your baggage allowance

You’ve booked your flight, decided on your travel wardrobe, and you’re ready to pack. You’ve checked out the airline’s website and see they limit you to bringing (for example) one “personal item,” and/or one “carry-on bag” or “hand luggage” or “cabin baggage” on board the plane. What does all this mean? And how do you determine which bags you should use to make your travel as easy and efficient as possible? Let’s simplify the carry-on vs personal item jargon to make it easy to understand.

Checked luggage, and hand luggage - carry-on vs personal iteam
Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash

When you’re booking a flight, especially flights on budget airlines, be sure to read the fine print. That ticket might be more expensive than you thought when you add in all the additional fees!

Carry-on vs personal item – what’s the difference?

Let’s start from the beginning. There are several ways you can pack your items and bring them along on a flight:

Checking a bag

If you’re traveling with a large suitcase (anything over 22″ or 24″ in height, including the wheels and handles) you will have to check that bag and have it transported in the hold of the plane. The ticketing agent will weigh your bag and issue you a receipt for the bag. You will usually not see that bag until you reach your final destination and retrieve it at baggage claim. (It’s a good idea to have a packing list so you know what you’ve put in each bag.)

Note: extra fees may apply if your ticket doesn’t include checking a bag or if your bag is over the weight limit.

Carrying a bag onto the plane

To save time at baggage claim and possible extra expenses, many travelers prefer to carry their bags onto the plane. In most commercial aircraft there are overhead compartments above the seats in the plane. But, depending on the design of the plane, these compartments are limited. Therefore, the airlines regulate what passenger can bring on board. In most instances each passenger is allowed one piece of luggage that will fit in the overhead compartment. The bag that fits in the overhead compartment is your carry-on bag.

In addition, there is usually a small amount of space under the seat in front of you where you can store a small bag – think purse, laptop bag, diaper bag, camera bag, etc. This is your personal bag.

Note: if you’re in a later boarding group, the overheads may fill up and you may be forced to gate-check your bag. The gate agent will give you a receipt and you’ll be able to retrieve your bag at your arrival gate. (Usually not in baggage claim, but check with the agent if you’re unsure!)

Be prepared to have your carry-on checked at the gate. Don’t pack passports, phones, medications, or anything essential to you in your carry-on bag. And lock the bag.
It’s always a good idea to lock bags in the overhead compartment. Especially on a long flight when you might sleep.

Traveling carry-on only speeds up your travel and lessens the chances of losing luggage. Photo of baggage claim.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Measure your travel bag to see if it fits the airline’s size limits

Different airlines have different rules to the bag sizes allowed on board. The measurements are usually straight forward – height by width by depth – but occasionally they’ll specify a linear inch limit. Hawaiian Airlines sets the maximum size at 45 linear inches. Linear inches is just the total of all three measurements – height + width + depth.

An important thing to remember is that the height measurement INCLUDES wheels and handles.

Below are examples of major airlines carry on vs personal item restrictions for basic economy class travel. (If you’re traveling business class you can carry more. Lucky you!) Check your airline’s website before packing and note also if they’ve specified weight restrictions for carry-on baggage.

2022 Cabin Luggage Size Allowances

Airline Carry-On Bag
Check with Your Airline!

Must fit in overhead compartment

Estimated maximum dimensions:
45 linear inches
U.S. ~ 9″ x14″ x 22″ (some airlines allow up to 24″)
International ~ 21″ x14″ x 9″ (56 x 35 x 23 cm)

Examples of 2022 Carry-On dimensions
Air France – 21.5″ x 15.5″ x 10″ (55 x 35 x 25 cm)
American Airlines – 22″ x 14″ x 9″(56 x 36 x 23 cm)
British Airways – 22″ x 16″ x 10″ (56 x 45 x 25 cm)
Emirates – 22″ x 15″ x 8″ (55 x 38 x 20 cm)
JetBlue -22″ x 14″ x 9″ (56 x 36 x 23 cm)
Lufthansa – 21″ x 15″ x 9″ (55 x 40 x 23 cm)
United Airlines – 22″ x 14″ x 9″(56 x 35 x 22 cm)

Airline Personal Item Allowance
Check with Your Airline!

Must fit under the seat in front of you

Estimated maximum dimensions:
36 – 40 linear inches
~ 17″ x 10″ x 9″

Examples of 2022 Personal Size specifications
Air France – 15.7″ x 11.8″ x 5.8″ (40 x 30 x 15 cm)
American Airlines – 18″ x 14″ x 8″ (45 x 35 x 20 cm)
British Airways – 16″ x 12″ x 6″ ((45 x 35 x 20 cm)
Emirates – (only one piece of hand luggage in economy)
JetBlue -17″ x 13″ x 8″ (43.2 x 33 x 20.3 cm)
Lufthansa – 15″ x 11″ x 3.9″ (40 x 30 x 10 cm)
United Airlines – 17″ x 10″ x 9″ (43 x 25 x 22 cm)

Check the airlines for all legs of your journey. Hand baggage and personal size limits may differ greatly between domestic flights and international flights. If you’re anticipating flying on light aircraft (eg. on a safari) be prepared for weight and bag structure restrictions.

Choose an inflight bag that'll fit under the seat and will fit everything you need.

On the flight: carry-on vs personal item

If your airline allows a carry-on and small personal item, you’re in luck! Choose the right personal item and it’s easy to travel without checking a bag. I can usually travel with a small backpack and a wheeled suitcase for two weeks.

What to pack in your carry-on (overhead bin)

  • Clothing
  • Toiletries (limited to 3-ounce travel-sized containers in a quart-sized bag of liquids)
  • Shoes
  • Sports gear
  • Camera gear and laptop (if you’re comfortable with this overhead)

What to pack in your personal item (under the seat in front of you)

  • Wallet
  • Passport (for international flights)
  • Medications
  • Flight entertainment – tablet, e-reader, headphones, etc.
  • Light sweater or fleece
  • Hand sanitizer, wipes, etc.
  • Water bottle
  • Travel pillow
  • Pens, paper, travel journal
  • Valuable items (if you’re traveling with jewelry, etc., which I don’t recommend)
  • [optional] in anticipation of having my carry-on gate checked, I usually include small compression packing cubes with clothing for one day.

Lithium batteries are prohibited from going in your checked luggage. Be sure that all items with lithium batteries are in the bags you carry onto the plane. This includes external power banks, wireless headphones, etc.

Traveling with assistive devices

The U.S. Department of Transportation mandates that assistive devices be allowed on board flights at no extra charge. Alert the airline if you will be traveling with a wheelchair, or other large mobility aids. Electric wheelchairs are not allowed in the cabin.

Note: Passengers with mobility devices, including crutches, cannot sit in exit rows.

Traveling with pets

Many airlines allow small pets to be carried on board as long as they are in a sturdy well-ventilated carrier. Pet carriers must be able to fit under the seat in front of you. Expect an extra fee on each leg of your trip.

For more information on domestic guidelines for traveling with pets, check out U.S. Pet Air Travel Regulations.

And the rest: sports, music, and destination weddings

In some cases, you can unusual sized articles on to the airplane. Check with your carrier to see if your item is allowed AND to let them know you’ll be bringing it onboard. If possible, print out a confirmation letter from your airline to bring to the airport.

General guidelines:

  • Musical instruments: TSA allows only one small musical instrument (guitar, violin, etc.) on a flight if it (with case) will fit carry-on size restrictions.
  • Sports equipment: tennis rackets up to 29″ can be carried onto the plane. Large sporting equipment, such as skis and fishing gear must be checked at (usually) an extra expense. Equipment considered dangerous by TSA, such a hiking poles, must be packed in a checked bag.
  • Suit bags, wedding clothing, etc.: a folding garment bag will usually be allowed as carry-on luggage. If you need to have your item hung during the flight, confirm this with the airline before leaving home.
can you use a backpack as a carry on? Man with backpack in Austria
Photo by Alex Azabache on Unsplash

Can you use a backpack as a carry-on?

Yes! As long as the size of your backpack fits the dimensions indicated by your airline. Most backpacks will fit but a large hiking backpack with a frame might require checking.

Using a backpack as your carry-on luggage is a great option and is the bag of choice of many world travelers. They’re lighter than wheeled luggage, more squishable, and easier for dashing through the airport.

Measure your backpack to see if it’ll work as a carry-on vs personal item bag. (If you’re looking to purchase a travel backpack, we’ve reviewed a few of the best backpacks to use as a personal item.)

This post is part of our Travel 101 series of posts that will prepare you for your trip. If you’re just beginning to plan, I’d suggest you start with the first in the series – Pack Light, Travel Easy.

Please let me know if you have more questions about air travel and packing. It’s one of my favorite subjects!

Carry-on vs personal item - what's the difference? What can you carry on board a flight? #luggage #travellight #carryon #airlinebaggage photo of woman with luggage at airport #nsyftravel #wanderful

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5 thoughts on “Carry-On vs Personal Item: how to manage your baggage allowance

  1. What an awesome guide! I personally always try to pack light if possible, but these tips are great for long haul and long distance travel.

  2. I sadly must admit that we meet or often stretch the bounds of what we can take on our carry on and personal bag. Most of both bags contain electronics and really essential items we would not want to lose. In Canada woman can usually have a purse too. But in other places I have always had to make sure my purse could squeeze into the 2 bags.

  3. It’s so hard to keep up with airline allowances. We have got it down to a pretty good system – we take all our electronics in one small carry-on, I pile my handbag full, and we usually take 1 large hold suitcase between us. We travel too much to lug a lot around!

  4. Great post! Very helpful tips for both the experienced and unexperienced travelers. I use a backpack as my personal item and a roller bag as my carry-on and only travel with carry-ons. It helps when I travel with my family so we can share the load as none of us check bags!

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