How to tell if your backpack counts as a personal or carry-on item

Jun 2, 2022

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

If you know me, you’re aware that I loathe checking a bag.

This strategy served me well as a frequent Southwest Airlines flyer, thanks to the carrier’s generous baggage policy permitting two free carry-on items (and two checked bags), regardless of fare type.

Not every airline offers passengers as much flexibility, though. There are various restrictions on what constitutes a carry-on bag suitable for storage underneath the seat in front of you versus the overhead bin.

After years of enduring shoulder pain from carrying a duffle and roller carry-on, I hopped on the backpack trend in 2020 and purchased a Caraa Sport backpack I use as my personal item for all travel. I love this backpack. However, it’s caused me some issues when traveling, since it doesn’t always fit underneath the seat on certain aircraft, including the Embraer 175 aircraft used by American Airlines for regional flights.

Depending on the fare type, airlines generally permit travelers to carry on two items — one that fits underneath the seat in front of you, generally labeled as a personal item, and a second item that fits overhead. However, you must meet certain dimension thresholds, which vary by airline.

This guide outlines current carry-on baggage policies for 10 airlines.

For more TPG news delivered each morning to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

Domestic carry-on policies

A good rule of thumb is that if your carry-on bag fits under the seat in front of you, it’s considered a personal item. This includes small backpacks, purses, briefcases, laptop bags, etc.

Larger bags, including suitcases, must fit in the overhead bin compartment.

You must check any item exceeding the dimensions outlined by airlines.

Southwest Airlines

As mentioned, Southwest stands out among carriers for allowing passengers two free carry-on bags and two checked bags on all fare types.

Carry-on items stored overhead must be 24 by 16 by 10 inches. Personal items for under the seat – including purses, briefcases, cameras, food containers, laptops and backpacks – cannot be larger than 16 1/4 by 13 1/2 by 8 inches.

“Your personal item must be stored under the seat in front of you,” according to Southwest. “If it doesn’t fit or if there’s no seat in front of you, we’ll ask you to place it in an overhead bin.”

Delta Air Lines

(Screenshot from Delta)

“Each passenger flying with Delta can bring 1 carry-on bag and 1 personal item free of charge (such as a purse, laptop bag or item of similar size that will fit underneath the seat in front of you),” according to Delta. “If you plan to bring roll-aboard luggage or a large bag to store in the overhead bin,” note the below size restrictions.

Approved personal items include a purse, briefcase, small backpack, camera bag, diaper bag, laptop bag or other similarly sized item.

The combined length, width and height of carry-on baggage should be less than 45 inches. Individual items must be less than 22 by 14 by 9 inches.

Giving Southwest a run for its money, all Delta fare types, starting with the most restrictive basic economy, allow both a full-size carry-on item and a personal item.

Related: Southwest baggage fees and how to avoid paying them

American Airlines

(Screenshot from American Airlines)

Basic economy passengers on American Airlines are also allowed one full-size carry-on, in addition to one personal item, such as a purse or backpack.

“Your personal item like a purse or small handbag must fit under the seat in front of you,” American outlines on its website, noting that the dimensions must be under 18 by 14 by 8 inches.

Unlike some other carriers, American does not count certain items carried on for babies, such as diaper bags, as one of your carry-on items.

“Diaper bags (1 per child), soft-sided cooler bags with breast milk, child safety seats, strollers and medical or mobility devices don’t count as your personal item or carry-on,” according to American.

American considers overhead bin items to be any baggage less than 22 by 14 by 9 inches (including handles and wheels) and they must fit in the sizer at the gate.

United Airlines

(Screenshot from Google Flights)

United’s basic economy fare is among the most restricted fare types out there. Passengers can only travel with one personal item that fits under the seat, measuring 9 by 10 by 17 inches. That means if you brought a backpack on board, it would be your one and only item allowed.

If you need to bring a second bag for the overhead bin, note that you’ll have to pay $60 round-trip to upgrade to economy. In economy class and above, carry-on bags cannot exceed 9 by 14 by 22 inches, including handles and wheels.

Related: United Airlines baggage fees and how to avoid paying them

JetBlue

Travelers flying JetBlue’s Blue Basic are only granted one personal item that can fit underneath the seat in front of you. Specifically, an item measuring less than 17 by 13 by 8 inches, handles and wheels included. Again, this would include backpacks or comparable items that must suffice as your only piece of luggage.

Any Bue Basic traveler who brings a full-size carry-on bag to the gate will incur a $65 fee to check their first or second bag or $180 for their third bag.

Blue fare types and above allow carry-on luggage that fits in the overhead bin, specifically bags not exceeding 22 by 14 by 9 inches.

There are a few exceptions to JetBlue’s carry-on policy to allow certain customers in Blue Basic to carry on a full-size bag, including for Mosaic status holders, unaccompanied minors, active U.S. military members and customers traveling to and from London.

International carry-on policies

British Airways

(Screenshot from British Airways)

Like JetBlue and United, British Airways’ basic economy fare only permits travelers to bring hand luggage up to 16 by 12 by 6 inches. Economy and premium economy fares afford passengers one full-size cabin bag measuring 22 by 18 by 10 inches. All bags must weigh less than 51 pounds.

“On busy flights, you may be asked to check in your larger cabin bag,” British Airways advises.

Emirates

(Screenshot from Emirates)

Although Emirates also restricts economy passengers when it comes to carry-on baggage, you are able to bring one full-size bag, including one that can fit in the overhead bin, as long as it does not exceed 22 by 15 by 8 inches or weigh more than 15 pounds.

“All carry-on baggage must fit either under the seat in front of you or in one of the overhead lockers,” per Emirates. “Baggage may not be placed behind your legs, in the aisles, or in front of emergency exits.”

Singapore Airlines

(Screenshot from Singapore Airlines)

Similar to Emirates, Singapore Airlines allows premium- and economy-class passengers one piece of luggage on board, under 15 pounds with a combined length, width and height of up to 45 inches. This could be a backpack or a more traditional piece of luggage.

“In addition to the limitations stated here, you must also be able to stow your baggage securely in the overhead compartment or under the seat in front of you,” the airline explains.

Related: JetBlue baggage fees and how to avoid paying them

Cathay Pacific

(Screenshot from Cathay Pacific)

Unlike the other international carriers mentioned, Cathay Pacific allows all customers one piece of carry-on luggage and one additional smaller item, including handbags, laptop bags, small backpacks, camera bags and briefcases, according to its website.

This policy, which applies to all fare types starting with Economy Light, allows for one full-size item measuring 14 by 9 by 22 inches and a personal item with dimensions not exceeding 16 by 16 by 12 inches, both of which must weigh less than 15 pounds.

Virgin Atlantic

All people flying in economy classes on Virgin, which includes Light, Classic and Delight, and those flying in premium cabins may bring one carry-on item that can fit in the overhead bin, as long as it weighs less than 22 pounds.

If you want to carry on a second bag, you would need to book an Upper Class fare, which entitles you to a second bag, and the bags must weigh less than 35 pounds combined.

“Whichever cabin you’re in, the size of your bag needs to be a maximum of 23 x 36 x 56cm (that’s around 9 x 14 x 22 inches),” as noted by Virgin Atlantic.

Bottom line

(Photo by Patchareeporn Sakoolchai/Getty Images)

Whether you are entitled to both a full-size carry item suitable for the overhead bin and a personal item, such as a backpack, depends on the airline and fare type booked.

Certain elite status holders may be granted additional carry-on leniency regardless of cabin class.

Although most domestic airlines do not have weight restrictions for carry-on bags, some do for specific routes and all of the international carriers specify a weight requirement.

Overall, airlines generally do not consider certain items carried on as part of luggage, such as a jacket, umbrella or food bought at the airport.

Related: Which credit cards cover baggage delays?

Featured photo by martin-dm/Getty Images.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.