Personal Item Size Cheat Sheet

Jessie Beck Fred Perrotta

Even light packers sometimes need a second bag. You don’t “one bag” every trip you take. Just because you need to bring a bit more stuff doesn’t mean you’re willing to pay for or deal with checked luggage. So you bring a personal item to supplement your carry on travel backpack or suitcase.

While personal item size restrictions vary across airlines, most airlines consider a small backpack, purse, briefcase, or laptop bag to be a personal item. These must always fit under the seat in front of you. Many airlines restrict passengers to one personal item and one carry on bag. 

Unfortunately, even if you travel as lightly as possible, you can still get in trouble with airlines for bringing too much onboard. Between ultra-restrictive basic economy fares and budget airlines charging for carry on bags, it’s increasingly important to know what qualifies as a personal item—and what doesn’t—when you fly.

To make things more challenging, measurements differ from one airline to the next.

To spare yourself from last-minute scrambles and unwanted baggage fees, you need to know what actually counts as a personal item. In this article, we’ll break down in-cabin luggage restrictions across popular airlines and bag recommendations if you’re in the market for a new one. We’ll start with some basic definitions.

What’s the Difference Between a Carry On and a Personal Item?

A carry on is your main piece of luggage which you bring onboard the airplane and store in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of you (if you don’t have a second bag). Carry ons may also be called hand luggage. Airlines’ have more generous size and weight guidelines for carry ons. Think of a maximum-sized travel backpack or a roller suitcase.

A personal item is your secondary bag which you bring onboard the airplane and store under the seat in front of you. Your personal item may be a purse, laptop bag, backpack, tote, or any other small bag. Think bag, not luggage. Airlines’ are more strict with the size and weight of your personal item if they even publish rules. Most importantly, your personal item must fit under the seat in front of you.

You can, in general, bring one carry on and one personal item with you onto the plane. The exceptions to this rule are the basic economy fares now offered by both major and budget airlines. Basic economy fares are typically cheaper but only include one personal item. You’ll have to pay extra for your carry on. Some budget airlines even make you pay for any carry on.

Checked luggage is any additional bag or suitcase which you give to your airline to carry in the luggage hold—not the cabin—of the plane. Airlines’ rules are most generous for checked luggage, but you will have to pay for each item that you bring.

Tortuga believes in carry-on-only travel and won’t be covering checked luggage in this article.

What Counts as a Personal Item?

Most airlines define a personal item as a purse, briefcase, or laptop bag. A small backpack, duffle, or tote is also acceptable, as long as it fits under the seat in front of you. Suitcases are usually not considered personal items regardless of their size.

The TSA does not publish a definition for personal items, so you will have to rely on the rules of thumb covered in this article along with specific guidance from your airline.

For a standard or premium economy ticket, you’re allowed one personal item and one carry on bag free of charge. Basic economy fares and budget airlines charge for carry on bags, making your personal item the only piece of luggage you get to bring for free.

Carry on restrictions are more generous for business and first-class tickets but are the same across all economy fares (basic, standard, and premium).

Below, you’ll find a table of personal item sizes by airline and region. After each region, I’ve summarized the smallest, largest, and most common size ranges.

Personal Item Sizes by Airline

Now that you know what a personal item is, the next question is, “How big can a personal item be?”

The rule of thumb is that it must fit under the seat in front of you. But most of us don’t know exactly how big that seat is. You should also consider how much leg and foot room you’ll want to have versus how much you’re willing to sacrifice for your personal item.

Personal item size restrictions are not the same on every airline. If you’re flying on multiple airlines within a single trip, your planning can get complicated.

Most airlines will base their size limits on the total size of your bag, not just the weight in pounds like checked bags. Some airlines only give a guidance on “linear inches,” i.e. the sum of the length + width + depth of your bag.

A limit of 40 linear inches could also be expressed as 18 x 14 x 8 inches.

Use the chart below to compare personal item size restrictions for economy fares across the popular international and regional airlines. Remember to always double check the size restrictions on your airline’s website before flying.

North American Airlines’ Personal Item Sizes

AirlinePersonal Item Size (in)Personal Item Size (cm)
AeromexicoNot specifiedNot specified
Air Canada17 x 13 x 6 in43 x 33 x 16 cm
Alaska AirlinesNot specifiedNot specified
Allegiant Airlines16 x 15 x 7 in41 x 38 x 18 cm
American Airlines18 x 14 x 8 in45 x 35 x 20 cm
Avianca Airlines17.5 x 14 x 8 in45 x 35 x 20 cm
Delta Air LinesNot specifiedNot specified
Frontier Airlines18 x 14 x 8 in45 x 35 x 20 cm
Hawaiian AirlinesNot specifiedNot specified
JetBlue Airlines17 x 13 x 8 in43 x 33 x 20 cm
JSX (JetSuiteX)17 x 13 x 11 in43 x 33 x 28 cm
Southwest Airlines18.5 x 13.5 x 8.5 in 47 x 34 x 22 cm
Spirit Airlines18 x 14 x 8 in45 x 35 x 20 cm
Sun Country Airlines17 x 13 x 9 in43 x 33 x 23 cm
United Airlines17 x 10 x 9 in43 x 25 x 22 cm
WestJet16 x 13 x 6 in41 x 33 x 15 cm
Minimum16 x 10 x 6 in41 x 25 x 15 cm
Maximum18.5 x 15 x 11 in47 x 38 x 28 cm
Mode17 x 13 x 8 in43 x 33 x 20 cm

Even the North American airlines that specify personal item sizes don’t have consistent numbers.

Allegiant Personal Item Size

Allegiant Airlines allows every passenger to bring one free personal item onboard.

Your Personal Item (like a purse, briefcase, or a small backpack) must be stored completely underneath the seat in front of you.

Maximum dimensions are 7 x 15 x 16 inches (17.8 x 38.1 x 40.6 centimeters)

American Airlines Personal Item Size

American allows one personal item and one carry on.

Your personal item like a purse or small handbag 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).

Diaper bags (1 per child), soft-sided cooler bags with breast milk, child safety seats, strollers and medical or mobility devices don’t count as your personal item or carry-on.

Delta Personal Item Size

Delta Airlines allows each passenger one carry on bag and one personal item free of charge.

As examples, Delta suggests:

  • 1 purse, briefcase, small backpack, camera bag or diaper bag
  • 1 laptop bag (computers cannot be checked, unless directed to by security)
  • 1 item of similar or smaller size to those listed 

Note that you can bring one of the above, not one from each category.

In addition to your carry on and personal item, Delta allows the following additional items:

  • A jacket and/or umbrella
  • Food or drink purchased past the security checkpoint
  • Duty-free merchandise
  • Special items like strollers, wheelchairs, child safety seats or assistive devices like crutches

Frontier Personal Item Size

On Frontier Airlines:

Personal items can be no larger than 14” tall, 18” wide, and 8” long. Personal items must  fit completely within the personal item portion of the bag sizer. Think purses, totes, computer bags, briefcases, diaper bags and kids backpacks!

JetBlue Personal Item Size

On JetBlue Airlines, all fares include one personal item to be stored under the seat in front of you.

This could be a purse, daypack, laptop bag or approved pet carrier. Personal items cannot exceed 17″ L (43.2 cm) x 13″ W (33 cm) x 8″ H (20.32 cm).

Southwest Personal Item Size

Personal-type items include purses, briefcases, cameras, food containers, or laptops (case included).

Your personal item must be stored under the seat in front of you, fitting within 18.5 x 8.5 x 13.5 inch dimensions.

A friendly reminder: If your personal item does not fit under your seat, you will be asked to place it in an overhead bin.

In addition to your personal item and carry on, Southwest Airlines allows the following:

  • A child restraint device for a ticketed child with a reserved seat or when complimentary, available space exists.
  • Assistive/mobility devices for individuals with a disability. There is no limit to the number of assistive/mobility devices a Customer can bring onboard the aircraft.
  • Outer garments or other wearable articles of clothing.
  • Food for consumption during flight contained in disposable packaging.
  • Walking canes or umbrellas.

Spirit Personal Item Size

Spirit Airlines charges extra for carry ons and checked luggage but allows one free personal item.

Personal item (e.g., purse, small  backpack, etc.): Dimensions must not exceed 18 x 14 x 8 inches (45 x 35 x 20 cm) including handles and wheels.    

United Personal Item Size

On most United Airlines flights, you may bring one carry on and one personal item.

Your personal item should fit underneath the seat in front of you. The maximum dimensions for your personal item are 9 inches x 10 inches x 17 inches (22 centimeters x 25 centimeters x 43 centimeters).

Additionally, you can bring the following on board, free of charge:

  • A jacket
  • An umbrella
  • Reading material
  • Food or merchandise that you buy in the airport
  • Assistive devices (such as a collapsible wheelchair, cane, crutches, medical device for prescription medications, or portable oxygen concentrator)
  • FAA-approved child restraint system or safety seat
  • A diaper bag
  • A breast pump
  • A camera
  • A pet carrier (service charges apply for in-cabin pets)

European Airlines’ Personal Item Sizes

AirlinePersonal Item Size (in)Personal Item Size (cm)
Aer Lingus13 x 10 x 8 in33 x 25 x 20 cm
AeroflotNot specifiedNot specified
Air France16 x 12 x 6 in40 x 30 x 15 cm
Alitalia17.5 x 14 x 8 in45 x 36 x 20 cm
British Airways16 x 12 x 6 in40 x 30 x 15 cm
easyJet17.5 x 14 x 8 in45 x 36 x 20 cm
Iberia 16 x 12 x 6 in40 x 30 x 15 cm
Icelandair16 x 12 x 6 in40 x 30 x 15 cm
KLM16 x 12 x 6 in40 x 30 x 15 cm
Lufthansa16 x 12 x 4 in40 x 30 x 10 cm
Norwegian Air Shuttle15 x 12 x 8 in38 x 30 x 20 cm
Ryanair16 x 10 x 8 in40 x 25 x 20 cm
SAS Scandinavian Airlines16 x 12 x 6 in40 x 30 x 15 cm
Swiss Air Lines16 x 12 x 4 in40 x 30 x 10 cm
Turkish Airlines16 x 12 x 6 in40 x 30 x 15 cm
Vueling16 x 12 x 8 in40 x 30 x 20 cm
Minimum13 x 10 x 4 in33 x 25 x 10 cm
Maximum17.5 x 14 x 8 in45 x 36 x 20 cm
Mode16 x 12 x 6/8 in40 x 30 x 15/20 cm

European airlines’ under seat luggage guidelines are more consistent but also more restrictive than those in North America.

Asia Pacific Airlines’ Personal Item Sizes

AirlinePersonal Item Size (in)Personal Item Size (cm)
AirAsia16 x 12 x 4 in40 x 30 x 10 cm
Air ChinaNot specifiedNot specified
Air New ZealandNot specifiedNot specified
ANANot specifiedNot specified
Asiana AirlinesNot specifiedNot specified
Cathay Pacific16 x 12 x 6 in40 x 30 x 15 cm
Cebu Pacific AirNot specifiedNot specified
China AirlinesNot specifiedNot specified
JAL (Japan Airlines)Not specifiedNot specified
JetstarNot specifiedNot specified
Korean AirNot specifiedNot specified
Malaysia AirlinesNot specifiedNot specified
QantasNot specifiedNot specified
Singapore AirNot specifiedNot specified
Thai AirwaysNot specifiedNot specified
Virgin AustraliaNot specifiedNot specified

Middle Eastern Airlines’ Personal Item Sizes

AirlinePersonal Item Size (in)Personal Item Size (cm)
El Al Israel Airlines15 x 12 x 7 in38 x 30 x 18 cm
EmiratesNot specifiedNot specified
Etihad Airways15 x 9 x 7 in39 x 23 x 19 cm
Saudia AirlinesNot specifiedNot specified

Most airlines in Asia and the Middle East—even those that allow a personal item—don’t publish size guidance. I told you this was confusing.

Summary of Airlines’ Personal Item Sizes

TypePersonal Item Size (in)Personal Item Volume (L)Personal Item Size (cm)Personal Item Volume (L)
Minimum13 x 9 x 4 in8L33 x 23 x 10 cm8L
Maximum18.5 x 15 x 11 in50L47 x 38 x 28 cm50L
Median16 x 12 x 740L40 x 30 x 19 cm23L
Mode15.6 x 12 x 6 in18L40 x 30 x 15 cm18L

This final chart summarizes all of the airlines’ personal item sizes. The variety of sizes is clear. The maximum dimensions allow a bag over 6X the size that the minimum dimensions do. Finding a perfect bag that would measure up on every single airline is impossible.

How Strict are Airlines About Personal Items?

As long as your bag fits under the seat in front of you, you can probably get away with a bag that’s slightly over your airline’s size guidelines.

However, just as the size restrictions vary by airline, so does their enforcement of those restrictions. United probably won’t force you to measure your bag because it seems a bit over the limit. RyanAir absolutely will. In general, budget airlines are stricter about enforcing personal item limits and eager to upcharge you.

The most important thing is to be sure it will fit under the seat, especially if you’re bringing both a personal item and a carry on. If the overhead bin is full, and you can’t fit your personal item under the seat in front of you, you might be asked to check one of your bags (and to pay the checked bag fee, of course).

The Best Personal Item Bags

If you’re buying a new bag to be your personal item, you have some flexibility on size but should limit your choices to smaller, secondary bags. Whether you plan to fly with just a personal item or to bring one in addition to your carry on, these bags will meet the under seat guidelines and are made for travel.

Outbreaker Laptop Backpack

Outbreaker Laptop Backpack

Dimensions: 18.5 x 12 x 9 inches

At 18.5 x 12 x 9 inches, the Outbreaker Laptop Backpack is a smidge over the personal item size restrictions for most airlines, but—as long as it’s not packed to the brim and still fits under the seat in front of you—shouldn’t be a problem.

While it won’t pass for every flight, this laptop backpack is a great option if you’re only flying with a personal item like on a budget airline or basic economy ticket. The Outbreaker Laptop Backpack has plenty of organization, a padded section for your electronics, and a large, front opening for easy organization.

Outbreaker Travel Daypack

Outbreaker Daypack

Dimensions: 17 x 11 x 6.5 inches

A bag you can use both in transit and at your destination, the Outbreaker Daypack fits within most airlines’ personal item size limits. 

This daypack was made to pack flat into a larger bag so that you have the option of using it as a personal item or stowing it if you plan to “one bag.”

Baggu Duck Bag

Baggu Duck Bag

Dimensions: 15.75 × 11 × 4.75 inches

Baggu’s bare-bones Duck Bag is a better personal item than carry on because it only has one small pocket for organization. If you’re using another bag as your carry on, the Duck Bag is a great option as your secondary bag.

I especially love carrying the Duck Bag alongside a travel backpack, since it has strap options to carry it either on your shoulder or to hold it with your hands. The Duck Bag is sturdy, affordable, and doubles well as your main purse while at your destination.

Herschel Strand Duffle

Dimensions: 17 x 12 x 5.5 inches

Herschel’s Strand Duffle can fit a lot as your secondary piece of in-cabin luggage at 28.5L of carrying capacity.

The duffle has a full-zip top to keep your stuff packed away, as well as outer and side pockets for quick access while in-transit.

While personal item size restrictions vary across airlines, most consider a purse, laptop bag, briefcase, or small backpack to count as a personal item. They must always fit under the seat in front of you. 

If you’re looking for a personal item bag that will fly across all airlines, try to find one that stays under 34 total inches. This will give you the most flexibility across airlines—whether you’re traveling with a carry on and a personal item, or trying to make it work with a personal item on a budget airline or basic economy fare.