Can a Backpack Fit Under an Airplane Seat? Here’s What You Need to Know 

 July 8, 2023

By  Keith Terrell

Have you ever tried to put a square peg into a round hole? That's probably how you felt the last time you tried to squeeze your heavily laden backpack under an airplane seat, struggling with the limited space and praying for a miracle. 

Most airlines allow personal items up to 18 x 14 x 8 inches. Generally, backpacks are considered personal items and usually fit comfortably under the seat in front of you. It's best to check the size restrictions with the airline before flying to make sure your backpack will fit.

As jetsetters and frequent flyers, we always struggle with the pressing question, "What backpack size actually fits under an airplane seat?" Today, let's go on an adventurous exploration of airline dimensions, packing techniques, and policies to solve this travel mystery once and for all!

Understanding Airline Backpack Policies

Each airline sets its own rules and regulations on what backpacks passengers are allowed to take on board. Therefore, be sure to research each airline's policies before booking your flight.

A backpack is considered a personal item when flying, as is a handbag or briefcase. Note that the maximum size for personal items that may be stowed under the seat in front of you is 18 x 4 x 8 inches for most major airlines. However, it is always advisable to check with the individual airline as size and weight restrictions may vary.

On one of my recent flights, I encountered a fellow passenger who was traveling with an oversized backpack. The backpack was so big that she was unable to fit it under her seat or in the overhead compartment. The flight crew had no choice but to gate-check her bag as it exceeded the carry-on size allowed by the airline.

To avoid such inconveniences, make sure that your backpack complies with your airline's size guidelines and check their website for any updates or changes to baggage size policies.

Determine the Size and Permissible Weight of Your Backpack

Each airline has its own requirements for maximum baggage weight and dimensions. Before you start packing your backpack, check the baggage policy of your airline to ensure that you meet their requirements.

For example, Southwest Airlines allows two free carry-on bags and two checked bags on all fare types. Personal items stowed under the seat may not exceed 16.25 x 13.5 x 8 inches. On Delta Air Lines, however, each passenger is allowed one carry-on bag and one personal item. The combined length, width, and height of the carry-on baggage should be less than 45 inches, and the individual items must be less than 22 x 14 x 9 inches.

To determine your backpack size and weight allowance, measure the length, width, and height of your backpack, including any protruding pockets or handles. Ensure that your measurements are within the dimensions specified by the airline. Additionally, weigh your backpack on a luggage scale to make sure it is within your airline's weight limit.

Note that some budget airlines charge extra for carry-on luggage or have a reduced baggage allowance. While foregoing the overhead compartment may result in lower airfares, it can also increase the cost of flying as passengers incur additional costs, such as checking in or having their backpacks inspected.

Think of it this way: if you pay a higher fare ticket, you have additional benefits, such as bringing an extra backpack or suitcase on board instead of paying more for baggage fees or switching to a smaller backpack.

Choosing a Backpack that Fits Under an Airplane Seat

Imagine running through the airport, pushing your way through crowds and sweating, only to find that your backpack doesn't fit under an airplane seat. Then not only do you have to pay extra fees to check in your luggage, but you also waste precious minutes repacking your belongings before boarding.

Thus, when you set out to find the perfect backpack, consider various factors such as weight, size, and design. Some airlines require bags to adhere to certain dimensions and weight limits; otherwise, you may incur additional charges.

Spirit Airlines' subjective baggage policy is an excellent example. The airline mandates that personal items be no larger than 18 x 14 x 8 inches and charges passengers for checked or carry-on baggage that exceeds these dimensions. Finding out about this requirement in advance and choosing a smaller backpack that complies with the allowable size will save you time and money.

While many travelers opt for lightweight backpacks that can easily fit under an airplane seat, others may require more substantial backpacks due to their travel needs. Travelers planning a longer holiday, for example, will need larger backpacks than those going on a weekend getaway.

Just like choosing clothes for different occasions, choosing the right backpack depends on the type of trip you want to take. If you opt for large sizes just because they look good in photos, this can lead to additional costs.

Key Takeaway

Choosing the right backpack for air travel is crucial to avoid extra fees and wasting valuable time repacking. When choosing a backpack that will fit under an airplane seat, consider factors such as weight, size, design, and specific airline requirements. Do not opt for larger backpacks just because they look good in photos without considering your travel needs. Choosing wisely can greatly improve your travel experience and save money in the process.

Essential Features of Under-seat Backpacks

In order for a backpack to fit under an airplane seat, it must comply with the dimensions specified in the airline's carry-on regulations. For most major airlines, the size limit for personal items is around 18 x 14 x 8 inches. However, it’s always advisable to check with the airline as size and weight restrictions may vary.

Apart from size, some under-seat backpacks also have additional features that make them suitable for air travel. One of these features is the overall design of the backpack. Airlines require that personal items be placed under the seat in front of you during takeoff and landing. A backpack with a flat or rectangular design fits easily under the seat and remains secure during the flight.

Another important feature is the backpack's durability. Air travel can be very stressful on the luggage, so it’s important that your backpack is made of high-quality materials that don’t wear out quickly. If the backpack is also waterproof or water-resistant, it can protect your belongings from unexpected spills or rain.

An under-seat backpack must also be easily accessible during the flight. Look for a backpack with several compartments in which you can store your essentials and quickly find them again, especially since you won't have access to your carry-on bags in the overhead compartment during takeoff and landing.

For my last trip, I chose a Samsonite Wheeled Backpack that met all these criteria. The rectangular shape allowed me to slide it right under the seat without having to push it into place or worry about it sliding out in turbulence. The material was sturdy enough to withstand bumps or scrapes yet light enough to wear comfortably for long periods of time.

Inside the bag, there were multiple pockets and dividers where I could put my electronic devices and other essentials in separate compartments so that I could easily find what I needed without having to rummage through the entire bag. The backpack also had a sleeve that allowed me to slide it over the handle of my larger, overhead baggage to make it easier to transport.

Packing Your Backpack Properly for the Flight

When traveling with a backpack, it's important to properly pack your bag for the flight so that you can maximize space and ensure you have everything you need while still adhering to airline regulations. Here are some tips on how to properly pack your under-seat backpack:

  1. Start by organizing any electronics or other fragile items in their own separate pockets or compartments. A good backpack will have padded sleeves and compartments specifically designed to protect laptops and tablets while traveling.
  2. Next, pack any non-essential items such as books or jackets at the bottom of the backpack. This will help create a stable base for your other items.
  3. Place all the heavier items on top of the non-essential items in the middle of the backpack. This balances the weight distribution and makes it easier to carry the backpack.
  4. After placing the heavier items in the middle, fill the extra space with clothes or smaller items like travel pillows.
  5. Keep all your important documents such as your passport and boarding pass within easy reach in an outside pocket so you can find them easily.

My personal experience has shown that this method allows me to pack everything I need in my backpack without sacrificing comfort or convenience during the flight. Also, by packing in layers, I can quickly take out anything that needs to be checked by security without having to completely unpack the entire backpack.

By packing your under-seat backpack according to these guidelines, you can ensure that you make the most of the space available as well as keep your belongings organized and within reach during the flight.

Now that we've explored essential features of under-seat backpacks and how to properly pack your backpack for the flight, let's discuss some common problems associated with bringing a backpack on a flight.

Common Challenges of Bringing a Backpack on a Flight

One of the most common problems with bringing a backpack on a plane is navigating through the airport. Backpacks can be bulky and awkward when waiting at the gate or walking from one terminal to another. This is especially true if you have other luggage with you. It’s also frustrating to navigate through a busy airport with an overstuffed backpack crammed with items that aren’t essential to your journey.

Another challenge to bringing a backpack on a flight is airline regulations regarding carry-on baggage. While most airlines allow you to bring a personal item such as a backpack, they often have specific guidelines regarding weight and size l. If your backpack exceeds these restrictions, you may have to pay additional fees or even be forced to have your bag checked altogether. In addition, some airlines have size requirements for personal items that may differ from those of other airlines.

The weight distribution of your backpack is also worth considering because as helpful as it may be when packing, too many items in your backpack can cause neck and back tension. You should also consider how quickly you will need to access certain items on board the airplane, especially if the contents are fragile or perishable. For example, should you put your earplugs in the outside pocket or keep them safely in the main compartment?

Traveling with a backpack does present some challenges, but it shouldn't prevent you from planning your trips if you consider your travel preferences accordingly. 

Make sure you do not pack too much, find out about airline restrictions before you arrive at the airport, and pack important items so you can easily reach them on the plane. If you get it right, traveling with a backpack can make navigating airports and flying easier, so you can focus on enjoying your trip

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the dimensions of typical airplane seats and how do they vary by airline and type of aircraft?

The dimensions of typical airplane seats can vary greatly depending on the airline and the type of aircraft you're flying on. In general, most airlines offer seats with a width of about 17 to 18 inches and a seat pitch (i.e. the distance between your seat and the one in front of you) of about 29 to 32 inches.

For instance, budget airlines like Ryanair and Spirit are known for offering seats as narrow as 17 inches and pitches as low as 30 inches in order to maximize seating capacity and reduce costs. On the other hand, luxury airlines such as Emirates and Singapore Airlines offer wider seats of up to 23 inches in length and more generous seat pitches of up to 60 inches in their premium classes.

When it comes to the type of aircraft you fly on, there can also be significant differences between models. The seats on the Airbus A320 are generally narrower than those on the Boeing 737, while widebody aircraft such as the Boeing 777 and Airbus A380 offer more space for passengers and have wider seats overall.

What backpack sizes can fit under an airplane seat?

The answer is quite simple and depends on the size of your backpack. In general, if your backpack is no larger than 18 x 14 x 8 inches or 45 x 35 x 20 cm (height x width x depth), you should be good to go. These dimensions are the standard carry-on baggage requirements for most major airlines, including Delta, American Airlines, United Airlines, and Southwest.

Remember, however, that each airline may have its own restrictions and rules. Some budget airlines may have lower size restrictions. So be sure to check this before you book or pack your bags.

I would also recommend that you use a backpack with a soft outer shell as these are more flexible and adhere to size restrictions. Hard-shell backpacks offer better protection but can potentially lead to non-compliance if they don't meet the required dimensions.

Are there certain airlines or types of aircraft that have larger or smaller under-seat storage areas?

Yes, there are specific airlines and types of aircraft types that have larger or smaller under-seat storage areas. In general, larger airplanes tend to have more spacious under-seat storage than small regional jets or turboprops. For instance, a Boeing 737 can accommodate larger pieces of luggage than a CRJ-200.

On individual airlines, the space under the seats varies depending on the seat pitch and configuration, as well as the class of travel. On low-cost airlines such as Frontier and Spirit Airlines, for example, the storage space under the seats is among the smallest due to the dense seating.

According to SeatGuru.com, American Airlines' Airbus A320 has a seat pitch of 31 to 32 inches in the main cabin and offers a width of 16.5 to 18 inches under the seats. Meanwhile, Delta's Boeing 717 has a seat pitch of 31 inches in economy class and offers about 18.1 inches of height under the seats for bags.

To avoid problems with placing your backpack under an airplane seat, always check with the airline first or visit their website before booking your flight. You can also measure your backpack against the airline's size restrictions for carry-on prior to traveling.

How can travelers maximize their chances of being able to fit their backpacks under the airplane seat?

The chances of getting a backpack under an airplane seat can definitely be maximized, but it takes some planning and strategic packing. Here are some tips you can use to increase your success rate:

  1. Use a bag that meets airline size restrictions: Make sure your backpack meets airline size restrictions for carry-on baggage. Airlines usually specify the maximum dimensions (length, width and height) that can be stowed in their overhead compartments or under the seats. You can easily find this information on the airlines' websites or by contacting customer service.
  2. Opt for a backpack with soft sides: A backpack with soft sides is more flexible and easier to maneuver into tight spaces than a rigid hard-sided backpack. It also usually weighs less, so your hand luggage is not as heavy overall.
  3. Pack light: The more items you pack in your backpack, the harder it will be to fit under the seat. Be mindful of what you really need and what you want to take with you. Pack only the essentials and leave the non-essentials behind.
  4. Know when to board: If you are one of the first passengers to board, you have a better chance of finding a baggage compartment near your seat or securing a place for your backpack under your seat.
  5. Be prepared: Always keep important items such as passports, medication, and electronic devices in smaller bags so that you can easily stow them under the seat in front of you if needed.

By following these tips, you increase the chances that your backpack will fit comfortably under the airline seats. This is an important consideration when traveling light through various destinations around the world.

What are the consequences for travelers who cannot stow their backpacks under the airplane seat?

Imagine this: you've boarded an airplane after a long and tiring queue. As you settle into your seat, you realize that your backpack won't fit under the seat in front of you. You try to push it, squeeze it, or even push it down with your feet—but to no avail. Finally, you give up and put it on the edge of the aisle, hoping the flight attendants won't notice.

But here's the catch: they will. Flight attendants and ground staff are trained to strictly enforce carry-on baggage rules. This means that anything that exceeds size limits or does not fit under the seat must either be checked in or removed from the cabin. Some airlines even charge for oversized or overweight hand luggage, which can cost you an additional $50 or more.

But even if you manage to sneak in an oversized backpack under your seat, there are other consequences to consider. For starters, it could restrict your legroom and make the flight uncomfortable for you and those sitting next to you. It could also delay boarding as passengers scramble to find space for their luggage, causing frustration for fellow travelers and staff.

Also, if your backpack contains valuable items such as laptops or cameras, stowing them in an overhead compartment could increase the risk of theft or damage. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 1.82 million pieces of luggage were mishandled or lost by US airlines in 2018 alone.

So it’s best to always double-check your airline's carry-on restrictions and pack accordingly. If your backpack exceeds the limits or won't fit under the seat despite your best efforts, you should check it in—especially if it contains fragile or valuable items. Trust me, it's not worth the risk of losing your belongings or incurring additional fees.

About the author

Keith is a one bag traveler and the owner of Backpacks Global. His go to backpack is the Osprey FarPoint 40.

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