Is a Backpack a Personal Item?

Fred Perrotta

Most airlines allow you to bring one carry on and one personal item in the cabin when flying. Depending on the airline and the length of your trip, a travel backpack is the perfect choice for your carry on bag.

Airline rules for personal items are not as clear as the rules for carry on luggage. Many airlines don’t publish rules for personal items. The airlines that do have rules don’t agree on the size of personal items that they allow.

As a result, people abuse the implicit rules.

In this article, we’ll clarify:

  1. What you can bring as a personal item
  2. How big your personal item can be

We’ll cover what’s generally acceptable since rules vary. 

What Personal Items Can You Take on Airlines?

The TSA’s website says that you are allowed “one personal item such as a laptop computer, purse, small backpack, briefcase, or camera case.”

Different airlines deem different items acceptable, but the intention is the same. Here are example personal items from a handful of airlines:

  • Air Asia: One “laptop bag, handbag, backpack or any other small bag that must not exceed 40cm x 30cm x 10cm. This item must be able to fit under the seat in front of you.”
  • American Airlines: “Your personal item must fit under the seat in front of you. Dimensions should not exceed 18 x 14 x 8 inches.”
  • Delta: “1 purse, briefcase, camera bag or diaper bag, or 1 laptop computer (computers cannot be checked), or 1 item of a similar or smaller size to those listed above”
  • Emirates: “Economy class travelers are permitted one piece of carry on baggage: 55x38x20cm, weight must not exceed 7 kg (15 lbs)”
  • Lufthansa: “The permitted dimensions for the personal item are max. 40 x 30 x 10 cm/ 15 x 11 x 3.9 inches.“
  • Virgin America: “Personal items should not exceed: 36 linear inches (17 x 10 x 9 in) or 90 centimeters (43 x 25 x 22 cm) and must fit in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of you.”

The spirit of the rules is that your personal item should be a small bag like a daypack, laptop bag, purse, camera bag, or tote. The Outbreaker daypack fits most personal item requirements nicely, and is foldable so that it packs down easily into your other luggage when you aren’t using it. The Setout Packable Daypack folds down even smaller and it perfect for sightseeing and carrying your in-flight necessities. If you need something a bit more robust and are carrying your computer, then either the Setout Laptop Backpack or the Outbreaker Laptop Backpack are perfectly designed to hold your office setup and the essentials. All four fit the personal item requirements of most airlines.

For your personal item, think bag, not luggage. Here’s how Air New Zealand differentiates between cabin baggage and a personal item:

(Source: Air New Zealand)

Most airlines will allow certain small items in addition to your carry on and personal item. For example, you can usually bring:

  • Coat, jacket, or hat
  • Umbrella
  • Pillow or blanket
  • Book or newspaper
  • Food or drinks purchased after clearing security
  • FAA-approved safety seat, stroller, and diaper bag for lap or ticketed child
  • Assistive devices for passengers such as wheelchairs, walkers, canes, crutches, braces, portable oxygen concentrators, and CPAP machines
  • Duty-free merchandise
  • A foot rug (3? x 2? maximum) for use during prayer
  • Pet carrier

In most cases, the above items do not count as a carry on or as a personal item.

Personal Item Size

Just as the rules vary for the type of items you can bring, so do the rules for the size of those items.

The rule of thumb is that your personal item should fit under the seat in front of you.

The personal item allowance is not an excuse to bring a second carry on bag. I’ve seen many people do this and use two spots in the overhead bin.

Don’t be a jerk. Other people need to use the overhead bin space too.

The “under the seat” guideline seems simple enough. But, how much space is under that seat? As a tall person with big feet, the space feels pretty small to me.

Not all airlines provide size guidelines for personal items. The ones that do have different rules.

Carry on luggage sizing rules also vary. However, keeping your carry on within 45 linear inches (22 x 14 x 9?) will work on most airlines.

Unfortunately, no consensus exists for the size of personal items. Let’s look at a few airlines that publish size guidelines:

  • Air Canada: 21.5 x 15.5 x 9 inches (55 x 40 x 23 cm) including handles and wheels
  • American: 18 x 14 x 8 inches (45 x 35 x 20 cm)
  • Spirit: 18 x 14 x 8 inches (45 x 35 x 20 cm) including handles and wheels
  • United: 9 x 10  x 17 inches (22 cm x 25 cm x 43 cm)
  • Lufthansa: 15 x 11 x 3.9 inches (40 x 30 x 10 cm)

The numbers aren’t even close. Spirit Airlines allows personal items to be 3 times as deep as the personal items allowed by Lufthansa.

Many major airlines, including Air New Zealand, Emirates, Qantas, and Singapore Airlines don’t publish any specific dimensions for personal items.

The rules, when they even exist, are inconsistent. Always check with your airline before flying. 

As with carry on luggage, the more discreet your personal item is, the less likely it is to draw the attention of the gate agent. Keep it inconspicuous. 

Personal items are best kept to purses, slim laptop or messenger bags, or tote bags.

Can You Carry a Backpack as a Personal Item?

If you want to carry a backpack as a personal item, use a slim laptop backpack or an unstructured, packable daypack.

Store your personal item under the seat in front of you or on top of your carry on in the overhead bin. Do not use a second spot in the overhead compartment.

As always, your best bet is to pack as light as possible. Don’t give your airline a reason to single you out.

Which Backpack is the Best Personal Item?

Well, that depends on what kind of travel you’re doing. Traveling with a laptop? The Laptop backpack or Outbreaker daypack both have robust straps and a sleeve for your computer. Worried about rain? The Outbreaker daypack is made of waterproof sail cloth. Concerned about weight and just want a bag to whip out and take a day trip with? The Setout packable daypack is a lightweight and economical option.

Compare the four best below:

The Outbreaker Laptop Backpack has plenty of pockets, ultra-cushy shoulder straps, and premium weather resistance. Keep your laptop, tablet, cords, and everything organized at work or school.

When you hit the road, the Laptop Backpack is the ideal under-the-seat personal item for a frequent traveler. You can safely stack it on your suitcase thanks to the luggage handle pass-through sleeve.

Pack the Outbreaker Daypack flat in your carry on for one bag travel. When you arrive at your destination, carry the daypack for any day of adventure: from sightseeing to working remotely from a cafe to exploring a new city on a drizzly day.

No extra rain protection required.

The Setout Laptop Backpack is a versatile secondary bag with considered details for air travelers. Slide it under the seat of most airplanes and carry all your electronics, chargers, a change of clothes, and your in-flight essentials.

It’s the perfect companion to a duffle bag or rolling suitcase.

With the Setout Packable Daypack, you can carry everything you need for a day of sightseeing. The padded, mesh shoulder straps and back panel will breathe and feel comfortable, even on a hot day.

For one bag travel, it packs into its own front pocket and is easily stowable inside your carry on.


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