Each luggage type (carry-on vs underseat vs checked luggage) has different rules for what items you can pack there. So as a beginner traveler, it’s hard to grasp which items should be packed where. In this article, we’ll explain which items should be packed in underseat luggage, which in carry-ons, and which in checked luggage.
As a general rule of thumb, you should pack items that you’ll need during the flight as well as any valuables and fragile items in your hand luggage, and cheap, bulky, and heavy items that you won’t need during the flight in your checked luggage.
Why Some Items Should Be Packed In Carry-on and Others in Checked Luggage
Let’s start by briefly explaining the differences between hand luggage and checked luggage. In a few words, hand luggage (carry-ons and personal items) is the luggage that you’re allowed to bring on a plane, and checked luggage needs to be packed in the cargo hold of the airplane.
You’ll need to hand over your checked luggage when arriving at the airport, and you’ll be able to access it only once you land. So you shouldn’t pack any items there that you may need during the flight. Checked luggage is also exposed to more damage due to luggage handling, and it may even get lost, so you should avoid packing fragile and valuable items there.
You’ll be able to access your hand luggage (your carry-on and your personal item) while waiting at the airport and during the flight, so it makes sense to put more valuable items there and stuff that you might need during the flight.
The Main Rules for What Items You Can Pack In Hand Luggage
There’s a wide variety of rules that say which items you’re allowed to pack in hand luggage and which not, whether you’re packing something in your carry-on, or personal item. Here are the most important rules:
- Liquids in hand luggage, whether that’s in your personal item or carry-on, must be in 3.4 oz (100 ml) bottles or smaller. All of your liquids, pastes, gels, and aerosols must fit in a single, 1-quart (20 x 20 cm) transparent, resealable bag, and you can have only one bag of liquids
- Sharp items are banned from hand luggage – even scissors and pocket knives
- Firearms, explosives, and their replicas (even toy guns) are banned from hand luggage
- You can’t bring flammable liquids and aerosols, compressed cylinders, and toxic chemicals in hand luggage
What’s a Personal Item and Which Items You Should Pack In It
Hand luggage is smaller than checked luggage, and it’s divided into two main groups – carry-ons and personal items. Carry-ons are larger and need to be stored in the overhead compartments. And personal items, other called “underseat luggage“, need to go under each passenger’s front seat, so they’re the smallest type of luggage.
Underseat luggage is the most accessible type of luggage because to access it, you just need to reach in front of you. So ideally, you should pack most of the items that you’ll need during the flight in your personal item, like:
- Electronics: laptop, headphones, power bank, camera, etc.
- Other things to keep you entertained: e-readers, books, ipads, etc.
- Snacks and homemade food
- Valuables: jewelry, coin collections, cash, etc.
- Important documents: passport, visas, bookings, etc.
- Medicine: Anything that you might need to access quickly during the flight, like inhalers, epipens, etc.
Just remember that personal items need to be pretty small to fit under the airplane seats, so most likely, you won’t be able to pack everything that you’ll need during the flight in them. The remaining ones, you can pack in your carry-on.
Which Items You Should Pack In Carry-on (Hand) Luggage
Because carry-ons are stored in the airplane’s overhead compartments, you won’t be able to access them during the critical stages of the flight – takeoff, landing, and any potential turbulence. In these flight stages, the fasten seat belt light will be turned on, which means that you aren’t allowed to stand up and access the overhead compartments. For context, takeoff and landing usually last for about 10-20 minutes. It’s also worth noting that carry-ons are harder to access if you’re in the middle or window seat because to access them, you need to stand up in the aisle of the airplane.
In your carry-on, you should pack the following items:
- Any items that didn’t fit in your personal item, but you’ll need during the flight
- Sleeping accessories: headphones, sleeping mask and pillow, a travel blanket, and so on
- A warm jacket because air conditioning on planes is usually set to pretty cold
- Duty-free items
- Your bag of toiletries and liquids
- Fragile items
Which Items Should You Pack In Checked (Hold) Luggage
In checked luggage, you’re free to pack almost anything, except dangerous items, like flammables, explosives, and chemicals. Just keep in mind that you won’t be able to access your bag during the flight. If you have a layover, chances are that your luggage will be re-checked, so avoid packing anything that you might need during the layover.
Checked luggage also get’s more beaten during luggage handling. Plus, sometimes items go “missing” there, or the whole suitcase gets lost altogether, so avoid packing there something that you can’t live without.
Another important thing to mention is that you should always pack your electronics and batteries in hand luggage. Batteries are banned from checked bags altogether. Electronics (like laptops, phones, etc.) are theoretically allowed, but they must be switched off and protected from activating and accidental damage. But it isn’t a good idea to pack them anyway, since they can get stolen or lost.
Here are the items that you should pack in checked luggage:
- Drinks over 3.4 oz (100 ml), like wine bottles, juices, etc.
- Toiletries in up to 18 oz (500 ml) containers. Anything larger than that is prohibited by the FAA. Also, the total amount of liquid, gel, paste, and aerosol toiletries in checked luggage is limited to 68 oz (2 kg) per person. To find out if an item is considered a toiletry item or a normal liquid (which aren’t limited in checked luggage), ask yourself whether that item needs to applied to your skin or hair. If yes, then it’s a toiletry item
- Sharp items. Just remember that they must be safely secured, so the security agents can’t get accidentally injured while performing searches
- Clothing to cover your whole trip
- Extra shoes, because they’re bulky and you won’t need them during the flight
- Sports / hiking clothing
- Anything else that doesn’t fit in your hand luggage
Which Items You’ll Need to Remove During Security
Before boarding the plane, you’ll have to go through airport security, which essentially makes sure that nobody is carrying any dangerous or prohibited items. Before going through the airport security scanners, you’ll have to take off some items that could set off the scanner, like:
- Shoes (mostly only in the USA. In other parts of the world, this isn’t common anymore)
- Bulky jackets
- Belts with metal buckles
- Cell phones
But before you go through the scanner yourself, you’ll have to send your hand luggage through an x-ray scanner. There will be a conveyor belt before the scanner, where you’ll have to place your luggage, but first you’ll need to remove some items from it and place them in a plastic bin, such as:
- Laptops and any other electronics larger than a cell phone
- Your bag of toiletries
- Powders (salt, laundry detergent powder, spices, etc.)
- Any loose wires that may clutter the x-ray scanner image
The Differences in Fees, Size, and Weight Restrictions Between Hand and Checked Luggage
Personal Items (Underseat Luggage)
Personal items are pretty much always for free, even on budget airlines, and the size and weight restrictions vary a lot between different airlines. Generally though, personal items need to be under 16 x 12 x 6 inches (40 x 30 x 15 cm), and most airlines don’t have any weight restrictions for them.
Carry-Ons (Goes in the Overhead Compartments on Planes)
Carry-on luggage is usually free for most US airlines, and other premium airlines worldwide. Budget airlines usually charge a fee for carry-on luggage, which is anywhere between 10-40$. Passengers are allowed to bring only one carry-on and personal item, and the carry-on usually needs to be under 22 x 14 x 9 inches (56 x 26 x 23 cm), but they’re different for each airline. Some airlines don’t have any weight restrictions for carry-ons, but other restrict them to 15-45 lbs (7-20 kg). In general though, the size and weight rules are looser for US airlines, and stricter for budget European airlines
Read Next: What if Your Carry-on Is 1 Inch Too Big?
Checked luggage (Goes in the Cargo Hold of the Airplane)
The size and weight restrictions for checked luggage are 62 linear inches (length + width + depth) and 40-70 pounds (18-32 kg). The fees you pay for checked luggage vary with the airport. Most US and European airlines charge 0-50$ for the first checked bag, and 50-150$ for every next bag. Each passenger can have 3-10 checked bags, depending on the destination country and the airline.
Remember that the airlines usually charge you more if you decide to buy an additional checked bag or a carry-on at the airport, usually 20-50$ more. They’ll also charge additional fees if your carry-on or personal item is over the size limits and needs to be checked-in.
Read next: Can Baggage Allowance Be Combined?
If You Become a Minimalist Packer, You Can Do Without Checked Luggage
I consider myself a minimalist packer, and I can usually pack everything that I need in a single carry-on and personal item for a 2-3 week vacation. This allows me to save money in checked luggage fees, time by not dealing with dropping off checked baggage and picking it up at the conveyor belts, and I don’t have to stress about it getting lost.
Here are some tips on how you can become a more minimalist packer yourself:
- Wash your underwear, socks, t-shirts, and shorts during your vacation. You can wash them in the sink very easily, they dry quickly, and this way, you need only 2-3 pairs of each.
- Buy shampoo, toothpaste, soap, and other toiletries when you land.
- Avoid packing too much clothing. Also keep an eye on the weather forecast – if it’s sunny and warm, it doesn’t make sense bringing jeans and warm jackets.
- Wear your stuff for 2-3 days, and only swap anything visibly dirty or smelly.
- Go with a single pair of universal shoes, that’s good for casual wear as well as walking long distances.
- Instead of e-readers and books, download a reading app on your phone.
- Get a universal travel adapter, which also acts as an extension cord.
Tip: Although this won’t help you save space, consider using 3-4 packing cubes to organize your clothing (I use the Shacke Pak 5-piece packing cube set) and an electronics organizer to organize all of your wires, chargers, and small electronics.
At the end of the day, what you pack in your checked luggage, carry-on, and personal item is up to you (unless it’s against the TSA rules). We are here to give you an idea of what to pack where and make your flight more convenient, but you don’t need to follow our suggestions completely.
Generally though, pack anything that you’d need during the flight as well as any valuable items in your hand luggage, and anything else in your checked bag. If you don’t have room to pack everything you’d need during the flight in your personal item, it doesn’t matter too much, because after takeoff, you’ll be able to access your carry-on as anyway.