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We know we aren’t the first ones to tell you this, but air travel can be, well, complicated.

With so many rules and regulations to go by, it can be hard to keep them all straight. One of the most commonly-asked questions we get — aside from “what credit card should I get?” — is whether or not backpacks count as personal or carry-on items. So, it’s time to set the record straight.

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The short answer: If it fits under the seat in front of you, it’s considered a personal item. That means small backpacks and daypacks will usually qualify as personal items. But if you’re traveling with a larger multiday bag or a massive 65-liter pack for a month-long trek, it might technically be a backpack — but it’s definitely not going to fit under the seat, making it a carry-on item. And if it doesn’t fit in the overhead bin, well, it’s a checked bag. Regardless of whether or not it has straps to put around your shoulders.

But for more clarity, we reached out to a handful of major US airlines to get their official statements. Here’s what they said:

  • According to Delta, “If the backpack can get under the seat in front of you, then it will be considered a personal item.” Carry-on bags can be up to 22 x 14 x 9 inches, so if your backpack is bigger than that, it’s probably not going in the overhead bin, either.
  • Southwest says, “Rule of thumb, if it fits under the seat in front of you, we would count it as a personal item. In that case, you can still bring a carry-on. That said, if you’d like to bring your backpack and place it in the overhead bin and have a smaller bag or purse under the seat in front of you, you can do that as well.
    Your personal item must be stored under the seat in front of you, fitting within 18.5 x 8.5 x 13.5 inch dimensions.”
  • United has a similar policy, saying, “This will depend on the size of your backpack. The maximum dimensions for a carry-on bag are 9 inches x 14 inches x 22 inches, while the maximum dimensions for your personal item are 9 inches x 10 inches x 17 inches. You can view these sizing guidelines here.”
  • If you’re a JetBlue flyer, know that the policy closely mirrors United’s. Their response was: “It would depend on the size. It can count as a personal item as long as it is no larger than 17 inches long x 13 inches wide x 8 inches high.”
  • Lastly, American Airlines said, “[A backpack] will count toward your allowance, and be considered your personal item, if you place it under the seat — or your carry-on if it’s placed in the overhead bin.” Personal items should not exceed 22 x 14 x 9 inches.

No matter what airline you’re flying, the answer is pretty clear: Better small than sorry.

Featured image courtesy of AleksandarNakic/Getty Images.

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