Most major airlines allow you to bring one carry on and one personal item in the cabin with you. Planned right, 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 as each airline has its own rules. 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’s a Personal Item?
The TSA’s website says that you are allowed “one personal item such as a laptop computer, purse, small backpack, briefcase, or camera case.”
General rule for this personal item is simple: The bag must fit below the seat in front of you.
Various 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).”
The main theme of all airlines is the personal item is a small bag, like a daypack, tote, purse, or laptop bag.
A small duffle 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 (3 x 2 maximum) for use during prayer
- Pet carrier
Personal Item Size
This is where it gets sticky. Check with the airline you’re flying with because the allowed size for a personal item varies. The common theme is: Your personal item must be small. 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 + Personal Item
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. I see your skeptical raised eyebrows, but let me tell you, it’s been done before. I’ve done it.
Is a Duffle a Personal Item?
The short answer, is yes.
But it’s not the always-right answer. Depending on the size and appearance of your duffle bag, it may not look like a normal personal item like a briefcase or handbag. Many of the airlines specifically list out briefcase, handbag, or small backpack as a personal item.
Be prepared that airline employees might single out your duffle because it’s not a normal personal item bag.
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 Packing List
So what can you bring in your duffle personal item? Here is what I’ve packed in the past in my personal item:
- 3-1-1 quart bag
- Book to read on flight
- Medical necessities
- Sweater or jacket for chilly flights
- Any necessity for the flight like snacks, tickets, water
If you’re using a duffle as your one bag, split up the interior space with packing cubes to stay organized. Think strategically about what you need to bring versus what you want to bring, so you won’t waste space on items that just hog valuable space.
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.