So you’re just getting into the world of traveling, but you aren’t really sure what are the differences between various luggage sizes. There’s checked luggage, hand luggage, carry-ons, and personal items – each one with slightly different restrictions. In this article, we’re focusing specifically on personal items.
We’ll tell you everything you need to know about using personal item bags on airplanes. We’ll explain what are personal items, what are the size and weight restrictions for them, what items can be used as personal items, what to pack inside them, and much more. After reading this article, you won’t have any more questions about personal items, and you’ll be ready to pack your bags and start your adventure!
What Is a Personal Item?
Airlines consider a personal item to be a small bag, purse, backpack, or a similar item that fits under each passenger’s front seat. Other airlines may call it hand luggage, a personal article, a personal bag, a personal item bag, underseat luggage, or an underseat bag but they all mean the same thing.
A personal item is the smallest type of luggage. It’s also the most accessible one because it’s always in front of you, under your front seat, and you’re able to access it during the flight (not including takeoff and landing). Usually, people pack their most valuable items in there and items that they’ll need during the flight, such as laptops, headphones, snacks, e.t.c.
Carry-ons and checked bags have very strict rules for size and weight, but personal items are a bit less-enforced. The only rule is that the bag must fit under the front seat of each aircraft.
Size Restrictions for Personal Items
Personal items need to be 14-18.5 inches in height, 9.8-16 inches in width, and 3.9-9 inches in depth. Unfortunately, there isn’t a single standard when it comes to personal item size. Each airline has a different size restriction because each one uses a different type of aircraft with a varying amount of space under the seats.
To accommodate the size restrictions for most airlines, choose a stretchy fabric bag as your personal item (such as a backpack, duffel bag, tote, purse, e.t.c.) that’s under 16 x 12 x 6 inches (40 x 30 x 15 cm). Only a few airlines have personal item size limits below this measurement.
To see the personal item size restrictions for 20 of the most popular airlines, scroll down to the FAQ section for a quick version, or check out our full, in-depth article about underseat luggage size restrictions between different airlines.
Weight Restrictions for Personal Items
Most commonly, personal items don’t have any weight restrictions. Personal items don’t have weight limits because they’re very small, and passengers usually don’t bring anything heavy in them. However, some airlines have a weight limit for the total weight of the personal item and carry-on, which usually is somewhere around 20-30 lbs.
Fees for Personal Items
Personal item bags are always free. At least for now, we haven’t found a single airline that would charge their passengers additional fees for personal items. That said, the rules are getting stricter every year, so we wouldn’t be surprised if some budget airline would start charging small fees for personal items.
However, if your personal item is too large, you might incur fees in other ways. Airlines require oversized personal items to be used as carry-ons (if they’re within the carry-on restrictions), and if you already have a carry-on, you’ll need to check it in, because each passenger can have only one carry-on. Checked luggage, and sometimes even carry-ons are paid service, and the fees can range between 20-50$. They’re a bit higher if the bag needs to be checked in at the gate. So always make sure that all of your bags are within the size limits to avoid paying extra fees.
What Is the Difference Between a Personal Item and a Carry-On?
Carry-ons are slightly larger than personal items and have different size and weight restrictions. For instance, on Southwest Airlines, a personal item shouldn’t exceed 18.5 x 13.5 x 8.5 inches, while carry-ons can be up to 24 x 16 x 10 inches. That’s because, on aircraft, carry-ons need to be stored in the overhead compartments, and personal items under each passenger’s front seat. Overhead compartments can accommodate a slightly larger bag.
Most of the time, personal items are completely free and don’t have any weight restrictions. Carry-ons, on the other hand, need to be under 22 x 14 x 9 inches (slightly different for each aircraft) and under 17-40 lbs in weight. Some airlines, especially budget ones, also charge a small fee for carry-ons, somewhere between 6-20$.
For carry-on luggage, most people tend to choose rolling suitcases because if they’re also traveling with a personal item, it makes it easier to carry both of them. For instance, bringing a large backpack as a carry-on and a small one as a personal item wouldn’t make much sense, as it would be very hard to carry both of them at the same time. That said, carry-ons aren’t limited only to suitcases. You can use any item as your carry-on, as long as it fits in the overhead compartments, even a shopping bag.
Carry-ons and personal items are both called hand luggage. That’s because both of them need to be carried on board the aircraft. This means that you’ll need to take both of them through airport security, where they’ll be scanned to look for any dangerous goods that are banned on aircraft.
Most people choose to pack their valuables, fragile items, and anything else they might need during the flight in carry-ons and personal items. However, you should aim to pack your most necessary items (headphones, medicine, e-reader, etc.) in your personal item because you’ll be able to access them more easily from your airplane seat. Accessing your carry-on would be a bit harder, especially if you have the window seat, as you’d need to get past everyone in your row, stand up, open the overhead compartment, and get your carry-on.
Things That Can Be Used as Personal Items
As a rule of thumb, any bag can be used as a personal item if it fits under the seats of the aircraft. Down below we’ll cover the most commonly used items and what you should know when using each one of them.
Most people, including me, like to use small backpacks as their personal items. They’re perfect because if you travel only with a carry-on suitcase and a backpack, then you can always have one of your hands free – your backpack stays on your back and you hold the suitcase with one of your hands. It’s a very mobile way of moving around when compared to using personal items that can only be carried by a handle. Backpacks are also very flexible, which means that they’ll fit under the aircraft seats very easily.
Tip: If you’re looking for a cheap backpack to use as a personal item, check out the Matein travel laptop backpack, which I’ve used myself for a long time now. For a personal item, it’s pretty large but I’ve never had any problems because it’s very flexible and I never pack it full (In-depth review over here).
2. Duffel Bags
Another great item to use as a personal item is small duffel bags. They’re incredibly flexible, versatile, lightweight, and easy to pack into. Plus, if you wrap the shoulder strap around the retractable handle of your carry-on suitcase, you can keep it on top of the carry-on, which makes it very easy to move both of them around the city.
3. Rolling Underseat Suitcases
A lot of people who travel for business only need to fly somewhere for a quick overnight trip. That’s why a lot of them travel only with a personal item, instead of also bringing a carry-on. Most of them use small, rolling underseat suitcases as their personal items and pack everything in there.
One disadvantage of rolling underseat suitcases is that they aren’t flexible. If they’re one inch larger than the allocated space underneath the seats, well, you’re out of luck – you can’t squish to make them smaller.
4. Garment Bags
A lot of business travelers need to travel in a suit. And wearing your during the flight isn’t really ideal, as it gets wrinkled and sweaty pretty easily. A much smarter choice would be to bring a garment bag, where you could pack your suit in and it would stay wrinkle-free.
The problem with garment bags is that almost all of them are over the personal item size requirements, being over 20 inches wide. Some premium airlines will still allow you to use them as personal items, but a smarter choice would be to use the garment bag as a carry-on in combination with a small, rolling underseat suitcase. You could secure the garment bag around the retractable handle or carry it with the shoulder strap, which would make it very easy to carry both of them together. In fact, a lot of business travelers use this combo.
5. Totes and Purses
Another very common personal item bag is totes and purses, especially among women. They’re easy to pack into and they’re very flexible, which makes them an ideal choice for personal items. Plus, almost all of them are within the personal item size requirements.
6. Messenger Bags
One type of bag that’s a very good choice for personal items is messenger bags. They’re lightweight, flexible, and within the personal item size requirements. What makes them so good is that they have a shoulder strap, which means that if you use them in combination with a carry-on, you can carry both of them together effortlessly.
Some people use briefcases as their personal items, but, in our opinion, they’re a pretty bad choice for a personal item. Theoretically, you can use them as personal items, but they’re pretty limited in space, they’re heavy, they aren’t flexible, and some of them don’t even have shoulder straps. Instead, you could use a backpack or a messenger bag.
8. Coolers and Food Containers
A lot of people don’t know this, but you can cook and consume your own food during the flight. If you like to cook your own food, you can get a dedicated fabric cooler bag or a backpack with a cooler compartment within the personal item size restrictions. This will ensure that your food stays fresh during the flight.
9. Pet Carriers
The rules for pet carriers are different for each airline but in general, most of them count pet carriers as personal items and they must be stored under the front seat during take-off, landing, and turbulence. You won’t be able to take out your pet and hold it in your lap, as your pet needs to stay inside the carrier for the whole flight. That said, you can hold the carrier in your lap with your pet inside while the seatbelt sign is turned off.
If the pet carrier is too large, unfortunately, it will have to be stored in the cargo hold, as pet carriers usually can’t be stored in the overhead compartments.
10. Small Musical Instruments
If you need to carry a musical instrument in its container and it’s within the personal item size requirements, you can use it as a personal item and store it under your front seat. Some instruments that may fall within this category are flutes, trumpets, small ukuleles, and others.
11. Small Sporting Equipment
Small sporting equipment within the personal item size requirements can also be used as personal items.
What’s the Best Type of Bag to Use as a Personal Item?
Every one of us has different needs, but in general, I think that for most people a small backpack is the best type of personal item. Because it’s so small, you won’t have any difficulties carrying it on your back. If you use it together with a carry-on suitcase, you can store the backpack on top of the suitcase, which makes it very easy to move both of them around. If you’re getting a backpack as a personal item, make sure that it has a back-strap, which is meant to secure it around the retractable handle of the carry-on.
Backpacks are very lightweight and they’re usually pretty flexible, which means that you can easily store them underneath most airplane seats. You could also get a slightly larger backpack and pack it half-full when traveling on the plane, and use its full capacity during your vacation when you need to carry more things on your day trips.
Personally, I use the Matein travel laptop backpack. I’ve used it for a few years now without any issues – it’s spacious, lightweight, flexible, has a laptop compartment, and has plenty of compartments and pockets for storing all the smaller items. Oh, and it’s also very affordable (full review over here).
Things You Can Take for Free in Addition to Personal Items
Some items are not counted towards the hand luggage allowance (carry-ons and personal items). You’ll be able to bring them on board in addition to your personal item and carry-on, free of charge.
Here are the most common items that airlines don’t count as personal items or carry-ons:
- Assistive devices for people with special needs
- Other wearable clothes (not your whole wardrobe; just pieces of clothing that you might put on during the flight)
- 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)
These items vary between different 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.
What You Should Pack Inside Personal Items
Carry-ons need to be stored in the overhead compartments, and personal items under the front seats. That’s why you should always pack your most valuable and fragile items, and any items that you might need during the flight in your personal item, not your carry-on. Personal items are much more easily accessible – you just need to reach under your front seat. Also, someone could snatch something from your carry-on while you’re sleeping, but not from your personal item because it will always stay right next to your feet.
You should pack these items in your personal item bag:
- Documents. Pack your passport, visa, boarding passes, tickets, reservations, wallet, and similar items.
- Items for in-flight entertainment. Pack whatever makes your flight more bearable: books, an e-reader, Bluetooth headphones, a tablet, a laptop, a power bank, and so on. Don’t forget your chargers!
- Things that will help you stay relaxed. Bring comfy socks, loose and breathable clothing, a head mask, and a neck pillow.
- Snacks. Some people don’t know this but you can freely pack snacks in your hand luggage and consume them during the flight. This way you can also save some money by avoiding expensive airline meals. Just make sure to eat all the perishables and organics before you arrive because most likely you won’t be allowed to clear the customs with them.
- Valuable or fragile items. Packing your most valuable items in your carry-on is also a pretty good idea, but packing them inside your personal item is slightly safer. 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 painkillers, napkins, eye drops, prescription medicine, and other medication that you might need urgently in your personal item. Just remember to bring the prescriptions for prescription medicine because you’ll need them to clear the customs. Also, all of your medicine will need to stay in its original packaging.
What You Shouldn’t Pack inside Personal Items
Some items should be packed in checked luggage or your carry-on. Remember that you only want items you might need during the flight in your personal item, and store the rest in your carry-on. If you’re struggling with room in your carry-on, obviously you can throw something in the personal item as well. But remember that less is always better.
- Dangerous and prohibited goods. Sharp objects, explosives, firearms, and some other items are classified as dangerous goods and are banned in hand luggage.
- Liquids over 3.4 oz. All the liquids and gels stored in a container over 3.4 oz need to be packed in checked luggage.
- Spare lithium batteries. Spare batteries for your laptop and other devices usually aren’t allowed in hand luggage.
- Power banks over 100 watt-hours. You can calculate watt-hours by multiplying the Voltage of the power bank with its mAh rating. Most power banks operate on 5 Volts, which means that you can bring power banks up to 20 000 mAh on airplanes. Also, power banks can only be packed inside hand luggage, not checked luggage.
- Perishable organic foods that aren’t meant for consumption during the flight. If you’re flying internationally, you won’t be able to clear the customs and immigration with most perishables, such as fruit and vegetables.
- Plants. You won’t be able to clear the customs and immigration with most plants due to fears of invasive species. This is only relevant for international flights though.
- Your bag of toiletries*. Unless you’ll need something from it during the flight, you can keep your transparent, quart-sized bag of toiletries in your carry-on.
- Spare clothing. If you travel only with a carry-on and personal item (no checked luggage), you should pack your spare clothing in your carry-on because it will leave more space in your personal item. Just make sure to take something warm with you in the personal item because the air on the flight can sometimes be a bit chilly.
- Other items you won’t need during the flight. Any sporting gear, miscellaneous electronics, and anything else that you won’t need during the flight should be packed in your carry-on or checked luggage.
*Important tip: If you have enough room in your personal item, you should pack all of the items that will need to be taken out during screening in your personal item. This includes laptops, electronics, your bag of toiletries, powders, and food. That way you’ll only have to unpack your personal item and slide your carry-on suitcase through the screening machine as-is. You won’t need to pack and unpack everything from your carry-on suitcase, which will save a bit of time.
Read Next: 80 Packing Tips For International Travel
FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)
Can You Bring Two Personal Items on a Plane?
Airlines don’t allow passengers to bring two or more personal items. The general rule of thumb when it comes to hand luggage is that you are only allowed to bring one small carry-on suitcase and one personal item, such as a tote, backpack, purse, or something similar.
The reasoning for this is simple – personal items have to be stowed under each passenger’s front seat. If the airplane is full, it can carry the same amount of personal items as the total count of passengers due to a limited count of passenger seats.
Can Personal Items Have Wheels?
On most airlines, personal items can have wheels. Suitcases can be used as personal items if they fit under the front seat, regardless of whether they have wheels or not.
However, I’ve personally experienced a situation where an airline denied using a rolling suitcase as a personal item for the passenger in front of me. They asked him to check in his carry-on and use his rolling understater as a carry-on. That’s why my advice would be to call the airline ahead and ask directly or be prepared to check in your carry-on.
What Are the Personal Item Size Restrictions on Different Airlines?
The personal item size restrictions are different for each airline. That’s because personal items have to be stowed under each passenger’s front seat, and each aircraft has a different amount of space underneath the seats. Some airlines even operate multiple aircraft models, so they have a varying amount of space under each seat for the same airline.
- American Airlines: 18 x 14 x 8 inches
- Delta Airlines: Not specified
- United Airlines: 17 x 10 x 9 inches
- Southwest Airlines: 18.5 x 13.5 x 8.5 inches
- Air Canada: 17 x 13 x 6 inches
- Alaska Airlines: 14 x 12 x 9 inches
- Spirit Airlines: 18 x 14 x 8 inches
- JetBlue: 17 x 13 x 8 inches
- Air France: 16 x 12 x 6 inches
- KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines): 15.7 x 11.8 x 5.9 inches
- Lufthansa: 15.7 x 11.8 x 3.9 inches
- Ryanair: 15.7 x 9.8 x 7.8 inches
- Wizz Air: 15.7 x 11.8 x 7.8 inches
- Norwegian Airlines: 14.9 x 11.8 x 7.8 inches
- Finnair: 15.7 x 11.8 x 5.9 inches
- British Airways: 16 x 12 x 6 inches
- Turkish Airlines: 15.7 x 11.8 x 5.9 inches
- Allegiant Air: 16 x 15 x 7 inches
- EasyJet: 17.7 x 14.2 x 7.9 inches
- Frontier Airlines: 18 x 14 x 8 inches
*Note: These restrictions occasionally change, as airlines are constantly updating their fleets with new aircraft, so always make sure to double-check each airline’s website for accurate and up-to-date restrictions.
Other Tips for Using Personal Items
- 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 or 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 quick overnight business trips, it’s worth it to invest in a rolling under-seat suitcase and skip the carry-on altogether. The Travelpro Maxlite 5 15-inch underseat suitcase is a very solid choice (full review).
- 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. It’s very easy to pack into, they can be secured on top of a suitcase, and they’re flexible enough to fit most personal item size requirements.
- When purchasing a personal item smaller is better. The size restrictions for personal items vary quite a lot, so our advice would be to purchase something on the smaller end under 16 x 12 x 6 inches (40 x 30 x 15 cm). That way you’ll be compliant with the underseat luggage restrictions on most airlines. Also, a smart idea would be to use a flexible bag that would fit basically anywhere when not packed completely full.
Choosing the right bag for your personal item is a very important thing to do. Not only will you save some money in potential fees but it could also make your vacation much easier by being able to carry all of your luggage in a much more mobile way. Another important thing to learn is to understand which items need to be packed in personal items, which ones in carry-ons, and which ones in checked luggage. Hopefully, after reading this article, you now understand everything about bringing personal items on planes.