Is a Backpack Considered a Personal Item or Carry On? Here’s What You Need to Know 

 December 13, 2023

By  Keith Terrell

You're about to embark on a much-needed vacation, and you've meticulously packed all your essentials in your trusty backpack. only to face the dreaded question at the check-in counter—is your backpack a carry-on or a personal item? Suddenly, you’re left frantically weighing your luggage options, while the queue behind you grows longer. But don't let this scenario deter your travel plans.

Most airlines classify backpacks as personal items as long as they can fit below the seat in front of you; however, some airlines have restrictions on the size and may count larger backpacks as carry-on bags. It is important to check the airline's specific policies before traveling to avoid unexpected fees or issues at the gate.

In this blog post, we decode all the tricky nuances of airline baggage policies and the age-old dilemma guaranteeing smooth sailing (or flying!) This guide ensures that you'll be an informed traveler, ready for any baggage conundrum headed your way. Travel can be unpredictable, but with the right knowledge, your luggage situation doesn't have to be.

Understanding the Difference: Carry-on vs Personal Item

When packing for air travel, it is important to understand the difference between a carry-on and a personal item. Knowing the distinction helps you pack smarter, avoiding unexpected baggage fees and time spent repacking at the airport.

A carry-on bag is generally larger than a personal item and should be stowed in the overhead compartment. You can bring one such bag, along with a personal item on the plane. The carry-on bag should contain essential items foryour trip as well as expensive and delicate belongings that you want to keep close to you during the flight.

On the other hand, a personal item should be small enough to fit under the seat in front of you. You are allowed to bring one personal item onboard in addition to your carry-on bag. Personal items cinclude a purse, a briefcase, a laptop bag, or a small backpack among others.

Note that each airline has its own restrictions for both types of bags. Some may allow passengers two carry-on bags while others may limit travelers to just one. Moreover, the dimensions and weight limits for both types of bags vary between airlines.

For instance, American Airlines allows basic economy passengers one full-size carry-on in addition to one personal item such as a purse or a backpack. Southwest Airlines also permits one carry-on bag and one personal item depending on the fare type with strict dimensions for carrying items under the seats. Always check with your airline before you pack your bags to avoid disappointment at security or at the boarding gate.

Size and Placement Guidelines

To avoid confusion or trouble when traveling by air, it is essential that travelers adhere to the standard size guidelines for personal and carry-on bags.

For personal items, most airlines will allow passengers to bring along a small backpack, purse, briefcase, or laptop bag. The item should be able to fit under the seat in front of you or on the overhead storage.

Typically, personal items should measure 18 x 14 x 8 inches (46 x 36 x 20cm), but make sure to check with your airline’s specific requirements before flying out.

Carry-on bags are the larger of the two types of luggage. They should be compact enough to fit in the overhead compartments but still be large enough to carry everything you need. Although carry-on baggage sizes can vary from airline to airline, they generally range from 22 x 14 x 9 inches to 24 x 16 x 10 inches.

JetBlue considers bags measuring less than 17 x 13 x 8 in (43 x 33 x 20 cm) to be a personal item, while United Airlines considers rucksacks less than 17 x 10 x 9 in (43 x 25 x 22 cm) to be a personal item. On Air France, some larger backpacks can be considered personal items if they do not exceed 16 x 12 x 6 in because they can still fit under the seat. However, American Airlines will only accept items measuring up to 18 x 14 x 8 in(45 linear inches).

It is advisable not to pack too much as this can lead to you having to pay additional fees, losing more time at security checks, and taking up the limited space in the cabin that is intended for everyone. When packing your baggage, make sure you have the right balance between essentials and extra comfort and that your baggage complies with the airline's airline regulations.

In addition to the size requirements for air travel, passengers must also adhere to strict placement guidelines. Personal items should always be stowed under the seat, while hand luggage must fit neatly in the overhead compartments.

Packing success lies in traveling light and following packing strategy guidelines offered by your chosen airline. This way, passengers can maximize their hand baggage while still complying with airline regulations.

If there's insufficient space in the overhead compartment for all passengers' carry-on baggage during boarding time, some airlines require the entire aircraft to take off late until the situation is satisfactorily resolved as passenger frustration at losing valuable overhead compartment space can lead to dissatisfaction or even protests.

Think of the overhead storage compartment as a communal space. It is essential to utilize this shared space appropriately so that all passengers can have enough room for their carry-ons. Just as you would not park your car in two parking spaces, you should not use more than the permitted space for your carry-on luggage.

Security Considerations

When you’re packing for a trip, the last thing you want is an issue with security. To avoid potential problems, it’s important to understand the security considerations that come with traveling with a backpack as a personal item or carry-on.

One major consideration is the TSA's rules and regulations. The TSA has strict guidelines on what is allowed in your carry-on backpacks and personal items. Liquids, gels, and aerosols must be 3.4 ozs or less and placed in a clear plastic bag. They also require electronic devices to be removed from your bag and placed in a separate bin for screening.

Another security concern is ensuring that all items in your backpack can be legally broughtg on board. Items such as weapons, explosives, and flammable objects are prohibited on flights, although there are some exceptions for items like lighters or lithium batteries that are properly stored.

In addition to prohibited items, you should bear in mind that in-flight security measures such as random searches may be carried out during the flight. While these searches may be perceived as intrusive or inconvenient, remember that they are in place for our safety.

Packing smartly can help ease some of these security concerns. Keep your backpack organized and only pack necessary items. Be mindful of what you are carrying on board and double check your bag to ensure there are no prohibited items inside.

Airlines Specific Backpack Policies

While most airlines do have size and placement guidelines for personal items and carry-ons, there are also airline-specific backpack policies that you need to be aware of. As mentioned earlier, the size of your backpack can determine whether or not it can be considered a personal item or a carry-on.

To give you an idea of the different regulations in place for different airlines, here are a few examples:

  • American Airlines considers bags less than 18 x 14 x 8 in (46 x 36 x 20 cm) to be personal goods.
  • Delta allows bags of comparable size to a handbag, briefcase, camera bag, or diaper bag as a personal item.
  • Southwest requires personal items to be less than 18.5 x 13.5 x 8.5 in (47 x 35 x 22 cm).
  • United Airlines considers rucksacks less than 17 x 10 x 9 in (43 x 25 x 22 cm) to be personal goods.
  • JetBlue considers bags with dimensions less than 17 x 13 x 8 in (43 x 33 x 20 cm) to be personal property.

These are just a few examples and there may be other airlines with their own unique policies. That said, these should give you an idea about the regulations in place for backpacks as personal items or carry-ons.

The size restrictions on backpacks as personal items or carry-ons may seem frustrating, but they're in place for good reason. Airlines need to ensure that everyone's belongings can fit safely in the cabin without causing inconvenience or safety hazards.

For example, if everyone were allowed to bring oversized backpacks on board, it would create chaos when trying to find available storage space in the overhead compartments or under the seats. It may also create a safety hazard if larger bags were to fall out of storage bins or block emergency exits.

So while it may seem like airlines are being unnecessarily strict with their backpack policies, they're trying to create a safe and comfortable flying experience for everyone.

However, there are also potential inconveniences that these restrictions can cause for travelers. For example, if you're backpacking and traveling around multiple destinations in a short amount of time, having to constantly check your bag because it doesn't meet the size requirements can become costly and time-consuming.

Additionally, some travelers may have valuable or fragile items in their backpacks that they don't want to risk checking in. Therefore, while the size regulations are necessary for airline safety and comfort, it's essential for airlines to strike a balance between these regulations and providing convenience for passengers.

Preparing Your Backpack for Travel

Now that you understand the differences between personal items and carry-ons and have familiarized yourself with different airline policies on backpacks, it's time to prepare your backpack for travel.

When packing your backpack, consider separating your belongings into two categories: essentials and non-essentials. This will not only help when TSA checks your bag but also ensure you have everything you need within reach during the flight.

Some essentials include:

  • Passport/ID
  • Wallet
  • Phone charger
  • Headphones/earplugs
  • Medications
  • Toiletries
  • Change of clothes (if you're backpacking, it's essential to have at least one outfit in case your main bag gets lost or delayed)
  • Snacks
  • Water bottle

When packing your non-essentials, think about whether or not it's something you can buy at your destination. If it is, it might be worth leaving behind to save space and weight.

One way to maximize space is to use compression bags or vacuum-sealed bags for clothing. These not only minimize the space your clothes take up in your backpack but also help keep everything organized.

Knowing the different airline guidelines for backpacks and how to best prepare your backpack for traveling will help you avoid unnecessary baggage fees and ensure a smooth journey.

Pro Tips: Successfully Navigating Airline Regulations

When it comes to traveling with a backpack, there are some tips and tricks you can follow to ensure you navigate airline regulations with ease. Here are some pro tips to help you:

  1. Read and Understand the Airlines Policies: It is important to read and understand the airline's policies on backpacks as personal items or carry-ons before packing. This will help you avoid unnecessary fees at the airport and make your travel experience more enjoyable.
  2. Proper Packing: Packing your backpack correctly can also help you avoid additional fees, and it makes boarding easier for you and other passengers. Ensure that your backpack adheres to the airlines' size restrictions; Place heavier items in the bottom of your backpack and use packing cubes to maximize space.
  3. Consider Investing in a Backpack that Meets International Standards: In some countries, there are different regulations as to what counts as a personal item or carry-on. Investing in a backpack that meets international standards can save you time and money in the long run.
  4. Be Mindful of Weight Restrictions: Airlines also have weight restrictions for both personal items and carry-on baggage. Before leaving home, check your airline's website to determine what their weight limit is. This will prevent you from having to repack your bag at the airport or weighing down chock-full of souvenirs!
  5. Choose Your Backpack Wisely: When choosing the right backpack for air travel, you should choose one that naturally conforms to your body shape so that you can carry it comfortably on board. Look out for features like padded shoulder straps or breathable material.

The above tips are simple but effective ways to safely circumvent airline regulations regarding the use of a backpack as carry-on baggage or personal item when traveling domestically or internationally by air.

Real-life Cases: Backpacks as Carry-on Items

Whether it's for work or pleasure, more people are traveling with backpacks rather than suitcases. One of the main reasons for this is that backpacks provide greater flexibility than traditional air travel luggage. Here are some real-life cases about backpacks as carry-on items:

  • Case 1: A traveler from Seattle had a backpack and suitcase as his personal items during a United Airlines flight. He was confronted by the airline's staff telling him he can only bring one or the other or pay an additional fee after arriving at the boarding gate.
  • Case 2: A solo traveler on a budget chose to reduce his costs by packing everything he needed in his hiking bag before embarking on his international trip with Lufthansa. Upon check-in, the carrier considered the bag to be too large for their allowable dimensions.
  • Case 3: A frequent domestic and international flier swears by using only her backpack as her carry-on item. She always ensures it meets the airline's size restrictions, places security-sensitive items at top layers reachable to TSA Agents, and packs every essential item into smaller packages.

These real-life cases show that although airlines have clear regulations regarding personal items and carry-ons, there can be inconsistencies in the strict implementation of these rules. However, it is important to understand these rules and pack accordingly by checking official websites or contacting customer service representatives a few days before departure.

It is crucial that you adhere to the prescribed dimensions of each airline when traveling with your backpack as this will determine whether you can board without any problems or unexpected fees. A seemingly harmless detail at check-in can prove costly if not confirmed where it matters most—at boarding time itself.

Traveling with a backpack as a carry-on item is like climbing a mountain; you need to prepare well for this adventure just like you would for a mountain. Mountains can be unpredictable, as can airlines in enforcing their policies, but with the right planning and preparation, both your mountain and traveling adventures will be more enjoyable and fulfilling.

Frequently Asked Questions

What fees may be associated with bringing a backpack as either a personal item or carry-on?

When it comes to traveling with a backpack, fees can quickly add up if you're not careful. The fees levied by airlines vary widely, but generally speaking, the more bags you bring on board, the higher your costs will be.

If you choose to bring your backpack as a personal item without  additional carry-on luggage, most airlines won't charge you extra fees. However, if you want to carry a standard size backpack as your carry-on luggage, be prepared to pay an additional fee depending on the airline's regulations and whether your backpack meets the specific weight and size requirements.

How do airlines typically define a personal item versus a carry-on?

When it comes to packing for a flight, understanding the difference between a personal item and a carry-on can be crucial in avoiding unexpected fees and complications. But how do airlines typically define these two categories?

In general, a personal item is \smaller than a carry-on and \designed to fit under the seat in front of you. Common examples of personal items include purses, backpacks, laptop bags, and briefcases, whereas a carry-on is usually larger and designed to be stored in the overhead compartment. The exact dimensions that count as a carry-on vary by airline but are generally 22 x 14 x 9 inches.

According to data from the Department of Transportation, in 2019, U.S. airlines collected more than $2.8 billion in baggage fees alone. So it's important to know the rules before traveling to avoid any unnecessary expenses.

While specific policies may vary depending on the airline, most follow similar guidelines when it comes to personal items and carry-ons. Understanding these distinctions can save you time and money when packing for your next flight.

Can I bring both a backpack and a larger carry-on item on my flight?

Whether you can bring both a backpack and a larger carry-on item on your flight depends on your airline's policies. Most airlines allow you to bring one personal item, such as a backpack or purse, and one carry-on item, such as a larger bag or suitcase. With some low-cost airlines, however, you will have to pay an additional fee to take both items with you.

It is essential to check with your airline before boarding to ensure you are following their specific rules and regulations regarding baggage. Keep in mind that even if your airline allows two items, they may have size and weight limitations for each piece of luggage.

It is possible to bring both a backpack and a larger carry-on item on your flight with most airlines. However, it is crucial to verify with your carrier's policy beforehand to avoid unnecessary fees or inconvenience.

Are there any size restrictions for a backpack when it comes to being considered a personal item or carry-on?

When it comes to size restrictions for backpacks as personal items or carry-ons, the answer is—it depends. Most airlines have their own specific guidelines and policies with regard to the size and weight of personal items and carry-ons. Generally, personal items must fit under the seat in front of you and cannot exceed 18 x 14 x 8 inches (45 x 35 x 20 cm), while carry-ons can be larger but must still fit in the overhead bin.

However, there are variables like airline, class of travel, and destination that can impact size restrictions. For example, budget airlines tend to have stricter rules compared to premium airlines. And international flights may have different restrictions from domestic ones.

Considering these factors, always check with your airline before packing your backpack. Many airlines even allow passengers to measure the bag at home using a cardboard box or measuring tape on their website or app.

In conclusion, while there are no universal size restrictions for backpacks as personal items or carry-ons across all airlines, it's always best to consult your airline to avoid unnecessary baggage fees or forced check-ins at the gate. Travel smart, pack light!

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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