Usually, airlines allow one carry-on and one personal item onboard. While the rules for carry-ons are pretty clear, often they’re not for personal items.
And because of that, a lot of passengers don’t really know what exactly a personal item is. Heck, even before writing this article, I wasn’t too sure. I just used my laptop backpack and called it a day.
Well, fear no more, because in this article I’ll:
- Explain exactly what is a personal item
- Give a list of allowed personal items
- Tell you what items can be taken in addition to personal items and carry-ons, free of charge
- Explain how the rules differ between the largest airlines (Southwest, Delta, American Airlines, United, and Air Canada)
- Cover a few other common questions about personal items
What is a personal item?
A personal item is a small bag, purse, backpack, or a similar item that fits under the passenger’s front seat. They’re free to bring on most airlines without any additional fees. Other airlines may call it hand luggage, a personal article, or a personal bag, but essentially it’s the same thing.
Usually, personal items will need to fit in these measurements:
Width: 6-9 inches;
Height: 10-14 inches;
Length: 17-18.5 inches;
Note: Rules vary from airline to airline, so make sure to check your specific airline before boarding. We’ve covered Southwest, Delta, United, American Airlines, and Canada Air down below.
What is the difference between a personal item and a carry-on?
Carry-ons are slightly larger than personal items and have different size and weight restrictions. While carry-ons need to fit in the overhead compartment, personal items need to be small enough to fit under the passenger’s front seat.
For instance, on Southwest Airlines, a personal item shouldn’t exceed 18.5 x 13.5 x 8.5 inches, while carry-ons can be up to 24 x 16 x 10 inches.
Can a backpack be used as a personal item?
Yes, a backpack can be used as a personal item (If it complies with the size requirements and fits under the airplanes front seat.)
Some airlines, like Southwest and American Airlines, haven’t stated anywhere on their websites that backpacks can be used as personal items, which is why so many people are frustrated. By digging around, I found out that 99% of the times people didn’t have any problems with them. You’ll be allowed to use a backpack as a personal item on both airlines.
Personally, I’ve always used my laptop backpack as my personal item, even with the strict European airlines. I’ve never had any incidents or difficulties with this.
Just make sure to use a backpack that fits under the front seat and isn’t packed too full.
A list of things that can be used as personal items
- Shoulder bags
- Laptop bags
- Backpacks (I use the Matein laptop backpack..)
- Food containers
- Suitcases (Just make sure to get something small, like the Travelon wheeled underseat carry-on.)
- Duffels (Although a bit large, the Travelpro Maxlite 5 under seat duffel is pretty good.)
- Garment bags
- Pet carriers
- Musical instruments
- Sports instruments, like tennis, squash or badminton racquets
Generally, you can take almost anything that’s within the personal item size limit and allowed onboard. For any weird, uncommon objects, it’s better to call up the airline first and ask.
A list of things that are NOT counted as personal items
Some items are not counted as carry-ons or personal items. You’ll be able to bring them onboard in addition, free of charge.
Here are the most common items that airlines don’t count as personal items or carry-ons:
- Assistive devices for the disabled
- Other wearable clothes
- Walking canes
- Food in disposable containers meant to consume on the airplane
- Child restraint seats
- Duty-free items
- Reading materials
- Cameras (some airlines consider cameras as personal items, while others don’t.)
- Pet carriers (Some airlines consider pet carriers as personal items, while others don’t.)
Note: These vary between airlines, so make sure to check with the airline first. But in general, assistive devices, duty-free items, clothing, and umbrellas are always free to carry in addition to your carry-on and personal items.
Personal item rules on different airlines
I’ve personally experienced a situation where the person in front of me was arguing with an airline staff member whether a small wheeled suitcase should be considered a personal item. He had two wheeled suitcases, and one was within the personal item limits. In the end, the airline made him check the larger bag in, and counted the smaller bag as a carry-on because that’s their policy.
That’s why you should always learn the airline’s personal items rules before boarding the flight. Here I’ve summarized them for the five most popular airlines in North America.
Southwest Airlines personal item rules
Counted as personal items: purses, briefcases, laptop bags, pet carriers, cameras, food containers. Backpacks aren’t officially included, but most people have said that they’ll also accept backpacks within the size limits.
Size requirements: 18.5 x 13.5 x 8.5 inches
Delta Airlines personal item rules
Counted as personal items: purses, briefcases, camera bags, diaper bags, laptop bags, and all other items that fit under the front seat.
Size requirements: not mentioned, but should fit under the front seat. TravelandLeisure has stated that Delta’s under seat measurements are as follows: 20 x 17 x 11 inches.
United Airlines personal item rules
Counted as personal items: shoulder bags, purses, laptop bags, and all other items within the size limits.
Size requirements: 17 x 10 x 9 inches
American Airlines personal item rules
Counted as personal items: purses, small handbags. Although backpacks and other items aren’t officially mentioned on their site, most people have successfully used backpacks, totes, and smaller suitcases within the size restrictions as personal items.
Size requirements: 18 x 14 x 8 inches
Air Canada personal item rules
Counted as personal items: suitcases, roller bags, backpacks, briefcases, laptops, pet containers, duty-free items, sports racquets, musical instruments, cameras, diplomatic bags, garment bags.
Size requirements: 17 x 13 x 6 inches
What should you pack inside a personal item?
If you’re allowed to bring a carry-on and a personal item, your carry-on will be in the overhead compartment, and your personal item under the front seat. So you should pack all the necessities in your personal item, instead of the carry-on, because it’s more accessible.
Here’s precisely what you should be packing:
- Documents. Pack your passport, visa, boarding passes, tickets, reservations, wallet, e.t.c.
- Items for in-flight entertainment. Pack whatever will make your flight more bearable: books, an e-reader, headphones, a tablet, a laptop, a power bank, e.t.c. Don’t forget the chargers.
- Stuff that will help you stay relaxed. For instance, comfy socks, pajamas, a head mask, a neck-pillow, e.t.c.
- Snacks. Some people don’t know this, but you can freely pack snacks inside your on-flight bags. Sweets, sandwiches, cookies, fruits, e.t.c. This way you can also save some money by avoiding expensive airline meals. You should finish perishables and organics before you arrive because you likely won’t be allowed to clear the customs with them.
- Valuable or fragile items. These can get broken or stolen inside your checked luggage, so it’s advised to keep them next to you at all times. Also, make sure to pack your fragile items correctly, so they don’t get broken.
- Toiletries and medicine. It would be a good idea to pack some pain-killers, napkins, eye drops, and other medication that you might need urgently.
And avoid packing these items in your personal bag:
- Knives and other sharp objects. Instead, pack them in your checked luggage.
- Liquids over 100ml / 3.4 oz
- Alcoholic beverages
- Firearms (pretty obvious, but I’ll leave it here anyway.)
If you need more packing tips, make sure to read the 75 packing tips for international travel.
Can a personal item have wheels?
On most airlines, suitcases can be used as personal items if they fit under the front seat, regardless if they have wheels or not.
However, I’ve personally experienced a situation where an airline denied using a rolling suitcase as a personal item. I dug around the internet and found out I’m not the only one. While some people have used them as personal items numerous times, some have been denied.
On Delta, American Airlines, and Canada Air, you should be safe to use rolling bags as personal items, but on other airlines, you might be denied.
Do personal items have weight limits?
Most of the times, personal items don’t have any weight restrictions. However, some airlines do a combination of both: For instance, your carry-on and personal item can’t weigh more than 22 lbs combined.
Most domestic flights won’t have any weight limits for carry-ons and personal items, but international ones will. So make sure to check with your airline before international flights.
As a rule of thumb, your personal item shouldn’t be too heavy, and definitely lighter than your carry-on.
Other things to consider
- If you’ll be hiking, consider taking a backpack as your personal item. You wouldn’t want to go hiking with a tote, right? If you use a backpack as your personal item, you can later use it for hiking and as your day-pack when walking around the city.
- If you’re going on a business trip, use an under seat rolling bag as a personal item. For those that are frequently going on two-day business trips, it’s worth it to invest in a rolling under seat suitcase and skip the carry-on altogether. We’ve found the Travelpro Crew 11 rolling tote to be the best one.
- Does your personal item stack on top of your carry-on? If you’re getting a bag to use as a personal item, make sure that it has a rear strap that goes around the retractable handle of your suitcase. This way, it’ll be easier to pull both of them together.
- Small duffels are pretty good for weekend getaways. If you’re casually visiting your family for a few days, a smaller duffel is often the best choice for a personal item.