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

 June 27, 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 as the line behind you grows longer. But don't let this scenario deter your travel plans.

It depends on the airline and the size of the backpack. Most airlines classify backpacks as personal items as long as they can fit underneath 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 in size than a personal item and intended to be stowed in the overhead bin. You can bring one such bag, along with a personal item on board the plane. The carry-on bag should contain essential items that you may need during your 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 is meant to be small enough to fit under the seat in front of you. You are allowed to bring one personal item per passenger onboard in addition to your carry-on bag. Personal items can include a purse, briefcase, laptop bag, or small backpack among others.

It’s important to 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 will 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 backpack while Southwest Airlines permits the second free-hand luggage in addition to one checked baggage and two checked as per fare type with strict dimensions for carrying items beneath seats.

Therefore, always check with your airline before packing so as not to face any disappointment at security checks or the gate.

Now that we have established carry-ons and personal items’ definition let's look into their size and placement guidelines.

Size and Placement Guidelines

To avoid any confusion or trouble when travelling by air, it is essential that travelers abide by standard size guidelines for both 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 underneath the seat in front of you or on the upper cabin 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 overhead bins but must still be big enough to contain everything you need. While sizes may differ between carriers for carry-on bags, they usually range between 22 x 14 x 9 inches and 24 x 16 x 10 inches.

It is advisable that you avoid over-packing as it may lead to paying extra fees, taking more time during security checks besides taking up limited cabin space meant for everyone. When packing your luggage, aim to strike a balance between essentials and added comforts while still making sure your bags comply with airline regulations.

JetBlue considers bags with dimensions less than 17 x 13 x 8 in (43 x 33 x 20 cm) to be personal property while United Airlines considers rucksacks less than 17 x 10 x 9 in (43 x 25 x 22 cm) to be personal goods.

In addition to abiding by size guidelines while travelling by air, passengers also need to adhere to strict placement guidelines. Personal items should always go under the seat while carry-ons must fit well in overhead bins.

If there's inadequate space in the overhead bin for all passengers' carry-ons during boarding time, some airlines require that entire aircraft gets delayed until things get sorted out satisfactorily as passenger frustration arising from losing precious overhead bin space may result in dissatisfaction or even protest.

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 like you would not park your car in two parking spaces, you should not use more than the permitted space for your carry-on luggage.

Some airlines may allow oversized personal items as long as they fit under the seat while others are strict with their regulations such that bags that don't fit beneath seats are considered blatant violations of the limit. This leads us to consider what constitutes a ‘personal bag.’

For instance, on Air France, some larger backpacks can be considered personal items if they do not exceed 16 by 12 by 6 inches because they can still fit under the seat. However, American Airlines will only accept items measuring up to 18 x 14 x 8 inches (45 linear inches).

It is worth noting that packing success lies in traveling light and following packing strategy guidelines offered by your desired airline. That way, passengers can maximize their cabin baggage allowance while still complying with airline regulations.

Now that we have covered some basic rules about personal items and carry-ons, next, let's delve into backpack policies determining whether a backpack is classified as a personal item or carry-on bag.

Security Considerations

When you’re packing for a trip, the last thing you want is an issue with security. To avoid any 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 ounces or less and placed in a clear plastic bag. They also require electronics to be removed from your bag and placed in a separate bin for screening.

Another security concern is ensuring all items in your backpack are legal to bring on board. Items such as weapons, explosives, and flammable objects are prohibited on flights, with some exceptions for items like lighters or lithium batteries that are properly stored.

In addition to banned items, it’s important to keep in mind that in-flight security measures such as random searches can occur. While these searches may seem intrusive or inconvenient, it’s important to remember 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 aren’t any prohibited items inside.

With those security considerations in mind, let's take a closer look at whether your backpack should qualify as a personal item or carry-on.

Backpacks: Carry-on or Personal Item?

Many travelers wonder whether their backpack will count as a personal item or carry-on when boarding their flight. The answer isn’t always straightforward; each airline has different policies regarding backpacks and their size restrictions when used as either a personal item or carry-on.

Some airlines consider backpacks one of the passengers' carry-ons while others allow them as a personal item. For example, American Airlines permits a full-sized carry-on bag in addition to a personal item such as a backpack or purse.

Think of it this way: if your bag can fit under the seat in front of you, it will likely be considered a personal item. If not, then it's typically considered your carry-on.

To ensure your backpack meets airline requirements, be sure to check the dimensions for both personal items and carry-ons on the specific airline’s website before your flight. You don't want to arrive at the airport only to find out that your backpack is too large to be considered a personal item.

Some airlines, such as JetBlue, specify exact measurements for both personal items and carry-ons. JetBlue considers anything less than 17 x 13 x 8 inches to be a personal item while they allow bags with dimensions up to 22 x 14 x 9 inches as carry-ons.

Additionally, it's important to properly prepare your backpack for travel by organizing its contents and packing smartly. This can help you avoid time-consuming searches at security checkpoints while also increasing the chance of your backpack being accepted as a personal item.

Now that you understand how to navigate airline regulations and prepare your backpack for travel, let's take a look at some pro tips for successfully navigating airline regulations when traveling with a backpack.

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.

It's worth noting that these are just a few examples and there may be other airlines with their own unique policies. That said, these examples should give you an idea of the type of regulations that are 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 and comfortably in the cabin without causing any 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 bins or under 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, it's also important to consider the potential inconvenience 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.

It's important to be aware of airline-specific backpack policies when packing for a flight, as the size of your backpack can determine whether it's considered a personal item or carry-on. Different airlines have different regulations in place, and travelers should consider the potential inconvenience and costs that size restrictions may cause. While these regulations are necessary for safety and comfort reasons, it's important 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.

Firstly, you need to make sure that your backpack meets the size requirements set by the airline you're traveling with. If your backpack is too big or too heavy, you risk having to check it in at an additional cost. Similarly, if your backpack is too small or doesn't fit any of the airline's personal item guidelines, you'll have to check it in regardless of what's inside it.

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.

For example, some essentials might 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, consider 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.

Think of your backpack like a puzzle that you need to fit together perfectly. By maximizing the space inside your backpack, you'll be able to pack more efficiently and minimize the number of bags you need to check.

One way to maximize space is by using compression bags or vacuum-sealed bags for clothing. These not only minimize the amount of space clothing takes up in your backpack but also help keep everything organized.

By understanding the different airline policies on backpacks and how best to prepare your backpack for travel, you'll be able to avoid any unnecessary baggage fees and ensure a smooth travel experience.

Pro Tips: Successfully Navigating Airline Regulations

When it comes to travelling 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 guidelines, place heavier items in the bottom of your backpack, and utilize packing cubes to maximize space.
  3. Consider Investing in a Backpack that Meets International Standards: Some countries have different specifications for what constitutes 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 being asked to repack your bag at the airport or weigh down chock-full of souvenirs!
  5. Choose Your Backpack Wisely: When selecting the right backpack for air travel, choose one that naturally conforms to your body shape so that it is comfortable when you wear it on-board. Look for features like padded shoulder straps or breathable material.

The above-provided tips are basic but effective ways to navigate any airline regulations with regard to using a backpack as a carry-on item or personal item while traveling by plane domestically or internationally safely.

Real-life Cases: Backpacks as Carry-on Items

Whether it's for work or pleasure, more people are opting to travel 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 got 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 flier who often flies both domestically and internationally 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 while airlines have clear regulations regarding personal items and carry-ons, there can be inconsistencies when implementing them strictly. However, it is important to understand these rules and pack accordingly, possibly checking official websites or contacting customer service representatives several days prior to departure.

It is crucial that you follow the prescribed dimensions of each airline when travelling with your backpack since it will determine how you will board with ease without unexpected charges. A seemingly harmless detail when checked-in might prove costly if not confirmed where it matters most - at boarding time itself.

Traveling with your backpack as a carry-on item is akin to mountain climbing; you need to prepare well for this adventure just like you would with mountains. Mountains can be unpredictable, the same way airlines can be with enforcement of their policies; but with proper planning and preparation, both your mountain and traveling adventures become 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 any 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 if your backpack meets their specific weight and dimension requirements.

For instance, according to a 2022 survey conducted by SmarterTravel in the United States, the average checked baggage fee is roughly $30 per bag while some may cost over $50. On top of that, adding a carrying-on bag fee ranges from $20 to $100 across different airlines.

To avoid these costs, it's essential to do your research on the airline's specific baggage policies before booking your flight and packing your backpack. Be mindful of size and weight restrictions, avoid overpacking and adjust what you're bringing when necessary. Remember that every additional bag brought on board adds time and money to your travels—not just for you but for everybody else on the flight too.

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 usually smaller in size compared to a carry-on and is designed to fit under the seat in front of you. Common examples of personal items include purses, backpacks, laptop bags, and briefcases.On the other hand, a carry-on is usually larger in size and is intended to be stored in the overhead bin. The exact dimensions that qualify as a carry-on vary by airline but typically fall within 22 x 14 x 9 inches.

According to data from the Department of Transportation, in 2019, U.S. airlines collected more than $4.9 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 adhere to similar guidelines when it comes to personal items and carry-ons. Understanding these distinctions can help 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 policy. The majority of airlines allow passengers to bring one personal item, such as a backpack or purse, and one carry-on item, which can be a larger bag or a suitcase. However, some budget airlines may require you to pay an additional fee for bringing both items.

According to the 2019 Airline Baggage Fee Chart published by The Points Guy, out of the top ten airlines in the United States, nine allow two carry-on items. Additionally, according to the 2021 Global Airline Baggage Policy report by SITA, 83% of airlines worldwide allow passengers to bring both a personal item and a carry-on bag.

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 any 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 in regards 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 than domestic ones.

Considering these factors, it's recommended to 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 as per a survey conducted by American Express.

In conclusion, while there's no universal size restriction 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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