Is a Backpack a Personal Item?

Fred Perrotta

Airlines allow you to bring one carry on and one personal item in the cabin with you when flying.

Airline rules for personal items are not nearly as clear as their rules for carry on luggage. Many airlines don’t publish any rules for personal items. The airlines that do have rules don’t have a standardized size of personal item 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 is a Personal Item?

The TSA no longer publishes a definition for personal items. While every airline has a different list of acceptable bags, the intention is the same. Here are example personal items from a handful of airlines:

  • Air Asia: “[L]aptop 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: “Another small item of baggage (max. x=30 cm y=40 cm z=10 cm, e.g. handbag, laptop bag).”
  • 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 guiding principle is that a personal item should be a small bag like a daypack, laptop bag, purse, camera bag, or tote. For your personal item, think bag, not luggage.

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 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 Sizes

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 people do this and take up two spots in the overhead bin. Don’t be a jerk. Share the overhead bin space with your fellow travelers.

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 such 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: 17 x 10 x 9 inches (43 x 25 x 22 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 more than twice as deep as the personal items allowed by Lufthansa.

Other 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 your airline’s guidance 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 small, slim, and inconspicuous. 

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

Can You Carry a Backpack as a Personal Item?

Yes, a backpack counts as a personal item.

If you want to carry a backpack as a personal item, use a laptop backpack or a 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.

The Best Personal Item Backpacks

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.

Outbreaker Laptop Backpack ($225)

Maximize your comfort and organization with the Outbreaker Laptop Backpack. You’ll have plenty of pockets, ultra-cushy shoulder straps, and premium weather resistance in a larger, structured bag.

Outbreaker Daypack ($99)

Bring your laptop and in-flight accessories in the ultralight Outbreaker Daypack. 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.

Setout Laptop Backpack ($125)

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.

Setout Packable Daypack ($39)

Our lightest daypack packs into itself when you don’t need a personal item. When you do, the Setout Packable Daypack is the small enough to fit under the seat but has enough room to pack your jacket and a few snacks for the flight.


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