Most major airlines allow you to bring one carry on and one personal item in the cabin with you. If you plan ahead, you can use that personal item as “overflow” from your carry on and avoid baggage fees.
What’s allowed onboard as your personal item varies by airline. Every airline has its own rules about personal items. In this article, I’ll cover what’s generally allowed as a personal item, whether a duffle bag falls under that allowance, and what to pack in your personal item.
What is a Personal Item?
The TSA no longer publishes a definition for personal items.
The general rule for personal items is simple: the bag must fit under the seat in front of you.
Airlines have different definitions of what that personal item looks like. Here are some examples:
- American Airlines: “One carry-on bag and one personal item (purse, briefcase, laptop bag).”
- Delta: “One carry-on bag and one personal item (purse, briefcase, laptop bag) per passenger.”
- Emirates: “One briefcase plus either one handbag or one garment bag.”
- Cathay Pacific Airways: “One small item aboard the aircraft fit under the seat in the front: small handbags, laptop bags, small backpacks, camera bags, briefcases.”
- United Airlines: “Shoulder bag, purse, laptop bag or other small item.”
- Qantas: “One small personal item such as a handbag, laptop computer in slim bag, overcoat, small camera, a reasonable amount of reading material or a small amount of duty free goods (where permitted).”
A small duffle bag fits in the spirit of this rule.
In addition to a personal item and carry on, most airlines will let you bring the following on board:
- Coat, jacket, or hat
- 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
Personal Item Sizes
This is where it gets tricky. Check with the airline you’re flying with because the allowed size for a personal item varies.
For every airline, your personal item must be small enough to fit under the seat in front of you.
Here are the personal item dimensions for a handful of airlines:
- American Airlines: “Your personal item must fit under the seat in front of you. Dimensions should not exceed 18 x 14 x 8 inches (45 x 35 x 20 cm ).”
- British Airways: “Maximum size of the handbag/laptop bag is now 40cm x 30cm x 15cm (16in x 12in x 6in).”
- Cathay Pacific: “Maximum dimensions of 15cm x 30cm x 40cm (6in x 12in x 16in).”
- United: “9 inches x 10 inches x 17 inches (22 cm x 25 cm x 43 cm).”
Basic Economy and Personal Items
On the new Basic Economy tickets offered by airlines like United and American Airlines, your personal item is the only luggage you’re allowed to bring on board the plane.
Per United, “Everyone else who brings a full-sized carry-on bag to the gate will be required to check their bag and pay the applicable checked bag fee plus a $25 gate handling charge.”
In this case, bringing a small duffle as a personal item is a smart choice.
If you pack light, you’ll be able to pack for your trip in one bag: your personal item.
Can You Carry a Duffle Bag as a Personal Item?
The short answer is yes.
However, a duffle bag isn’t the most common type of personal item. Briefcases, handbags, and small backpacks are more popular styles.
Depending on the size and look of your bag, be prepared that airline employees might single out your duffle because it’s not a “normal” personal item.
Keep the size of your duffle within the airline’s personal item dimensions and make sure the duffle will fit below the seat in front of you.
Duffle Bag Packing List
You’ve decided to pack a carry on and a duffle as your personal item. Let’s maximize that space. Here’s what I’ve packed in the past in my personal item:
- 3-1-1 toiletry bag
- Book to read on flight
- Medical necessities
- Sweater or jacket for chilly flights
If you travel with a small duffel that fits within the airline’s personal item dimensions, your duffle is allowed onboard as a personal item. Use your duffle as overflow from your carry on or as your one bag if you’re traveling on a Basic Economy ticket.