Personal Item Rules Differ by Airline — Here’s a Cheat Sheet

Jessie Beck

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

Even if you travel as lightly as possible when you fly, sometimes it seems like you’re still getting 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.

The complicated part? Measurements are not consistent across every airline. Recently, my partner and I were flying home from New York — him on Southwest, me on United. Last minute, we swapped bags so he could avoid a carry on fee from Southwest. He took my Setout Laptop Backpack and I took his Setout Divide, since the laptop bag would be accepted by Southwest as a personal item, and I was allowed a regular carry on with United.

To spare yourself from last-minute scrambles and unwanted baggage fees, it helps to understand what actually counts on a personal item. Don’t worry, you won’t have to navigate this one alone. 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.

What Counts as a Personal Item on an Airplane?

Most airlines define a personal item as a purse, laptop bag, or briefcase. A small backpack or duffle is also acceptable, so long as it fits under the seat in front of you. Suitcases are not, generally, treated as a personal item; no matter how small. Of all the airline size limits I examined (in the next section) the smallest personal item size was 16 x 13 x 6 inches (41 x 33 x 15 cm) on WestJet and the most generous (surprisingly) was 18.5 x 8.5 x 13.5 inches on Southwest.

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

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

How Strictly do Airlines Enforce Personal Item Restrictions?

If you’re only an inch or so over the personal item bag limit, and it still fits under your seat, most likely, you’ll get away with it. But, just as the size restrictions vary by airline, so does their enforcement. While United probably won’t force you to measure your personal item because it seems a smidge over, RyanAir absolutely will. In general, budget airlines are more strict about enforcing carry on limits.

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 bins are full and you can’t fit your personal item under your seat, you might be asked to check one of your bags.

Personal Item Size Restrictions on International and Regional Airlines in 2019

Personal item size restrictions are not the same on every airline. If you’re flying on multiple airlines within a single trip, this gets complicated. For example, a transatlantic flight with Delta, and one within Europe on RyanAir, or trying to figure out if your favorite laptop bag, that passed on Southwest, will fly with a United Basic Economy ticket. 

Also, most airlines will base their size limits on the total size of your bag. So, if their limit is 18 x 14 x 8 inches, that’s 40 linear inches. Therefore, if your bag is 19 x 10 x 6 inches, that’s 35 linear inches, and within the restriction.

Rather than flip between multiple airline websites, use this chart to compare personal item size restrictions for economy fares across the popular international and regional airlines:

AirlinePersonal Item Size LimitCarry-on Dimensions (Economy)
Africa/Middle East

Emirates AirlineNot specified22 x 15 x 8 inches (55 x 38 x 20 cm)
Asia/Pacific

AirAsia15 x 11 x 4 inches (40 x 30 x 10 cm)22 x 14 x 9 inches (56 x 36 x 23 cm)
Air Chinanot specified22 x 16 x 8 inches (55 x 40 x 20 cm)
Air New Zealand Groupnot specified22 x 14 x 9 inches (56 x 36 x 23 cm)
ANA – All Nippon Airwaysnot specified22 x 16 x 10 inches (55 x 40 x 25 cm)
Asiana Airlinesnot specified22 x 16 x 8 inches (55 x 40 x 20 cm)
Cathay Pacific12 x 16 x 6 inches (30 x 40 x 15 cm)22 x 14 x 9 inches (56 x 36 x 23 cm)
Cebu Pacific Air8 x 8 x 14 inches (20 x 20 x 35 cm)10 x 14 x 22 inches (23 x 36 x 56 cm)
China Airlinesnot specified22 x 14 x 9 inches (56 x 36 x 23 cm)
Hainan Groupnot specified22 x 16 x 8 inches (55 x 40 x 20 cm)
JAL Group (Japan Airlines)not specified22 x 16 x 10 inches (55 x 40 x 25 cm)
Jetstarnot specified22 x 14 x 9 inches (56 x 36 x 23 cm)
Korean Airnot specified22 x 16 x 8 inches (55 x 40 x 20 cm)
Lion Airnot specified16 x 11 x 8 inches (40 x 30 x 20 cm)
Malaysia Airlinesnot specified22 x 14 x 9 inches (56 x 36 x 23 cm)
Qantas115 cm (total dimensions)115 cm (total dimensions)
Singapore Airlines16 x 11 x 4 inches (40 x 30 x 10 cm)115 cm (total dimensions)
Thai Airways15 x 10 x 5 inches (37.5 x 25 x 12.5 cm)22 x 18 x 10 inches (56 x 45 x 25 cm)
Virgin Australia48 x 34 x 23 cm22 x 14 x 9 inches (56 x 36 x 23 cm)
Europe

Aer Lingus13 x 10 x 8 inches (25 x 33 x 20 cm)21 x 15 x 9.5 inches (55 x 40 x 24 cm)
Aeroflot Russian Airlinesnot specified21 x 15 x 10 inches (55 x 40 x 25 cm)
Air France / KLM16 x 12 x 6 inches (40 x 30 x 15 cm)22 x 14 x 10 inches (55 x 35 x 25 cm)
Alitalia18 x 14 x 8 inches (45 x 36 x 20 cm)22 x 14 x 10 inches (55 x 35 x 25 cm)
British Airways / Iberia (IAG)16 x 12 x 6 inches (40 x 30 x 15 cm)22 x 18 x 10 inches (56 x 45 x 25 cm)
easyJet18 x 14 x 8 inches (45 x 36 x 20 cm)22 x 18 x 10 inches (56 x 45 x 25 cm)
Lufthansa15 x 11 x 4 inches (40 x 30 x 10 cm)21 x 15 x 9 inches (55 x 40 x 23 cm)
Norwegian Air Shuttle (Norwegian)10 x 13 x 8 inches (25 x 33 x 20 cm)21 x 15 x 9 inches (55 x 40 x 23 cm)
Ryanair16 x 8 x 10 inches (40 x 20 x 25 cm)21 x 15 x 7.8 inches (55 x 40 x 20 cm)
SAS Scandinavian Airlines16 x 12 x 6 inches (40 x 30 x 15 cm)21 x 15 x 9 inches (55 x 40 x 23 cm)
Swiss15 x 11 x 4 inches (40 x 30 x 10 cm)21 x 15 x 9 inches (55 x 40 x 23 cm)
Turkish Airlinesnot specified21 x 15 x 9 inches (55 x 40 x 23 cm)
Vueling Airlines14 x 8 x 8 inches (35 x 20 x 20 cm)21 x 15 x 8 inches (55 x 40 x 20 cm)
Latin America/ Caribbean

Aviancanot specified22 x 14 x 10 inches (55 x 35 x 25 cm)
Copa Airlines17 x 10 x 9 inches (58 x 35 x 22 cm)22 x 14 x 10 inches (56 x 36 x 26 cm)
North America

Air Canada17 x 13 x 6 inches (43 x 33 x 16 cm)21.5 x 15.5 x 9 inches (55 x 40 x 23 cm)
Alaska AirlinesNot specified22 x 14 x 9 inches (61 x 43 x 25 cm)
American Airlines18 x 14 x 8 inches (45 x 35 x 20 cm)22 x 14 x 9 inches (56 x 36 x 23 cm)
Delta Air LinesNot specified22 x 14 x 9 inches (56 x 35 x 23 cm)
Frontier Airlines18 x 14 x 8 inches (45 x 35 x 20 cm)24 x 16 x 9 inches (61 x 40.5 x 23 cm)
Hawaiian AirlinesNot specified24 x 16 x 9 inches (61 x 40.5 x 23 cm)
JetBlue Airways17 x 13 x 8 inches (43 x 33 x 20 cm)22 x 14 x 9 (56 x 35.5 x 23 cm)
Southwest Airlines18.5 x 8.5 x 13.5 inches (47 x 21.5 x 34 cm)24 x 16 x 10 inches (61 x 40.5 x 25 cm)
Spirit Airlines18 x 14 x 8 inches (45 x 35 x 20 cm)22 x 18 x 10 inches (56 x 46 x 25 cm)
United Airlines17 x 10 x 9 (22 x 25 x 43 cm)9 x 14 x 22 (22 x 35 x 56 cm)
WestJet16 x 13 x 6 inches (41 x 33 x 15 cm)21 x 15 x 9 inches (53 x 38 x 23 cm)

The Best Personal Item Bags

Need a new bag to bring as your personal item when you fly? Whether you plan to fly with just a personal item, or in addition to your carry on sized travel backpack, these bags are restriction-ready and travel-friendly:

Dimensions: 18.5 x 12 x 6.75 inches

At 18.5 x 12 x 6.75 inches, the Setout Laptop Backpack is a smidge over the personal item size restrictions for most airlines — except for Southwest. It’s absolutely perfect for Southwest. A half inch too big for Frontier and American, which (as long as it’s not packed to the brim and still fits under your seat), shouldn’t be a problem.

While it won’t pass for every flight, it’s a great option if you’re only flying with a personal item — and no other luggage. Unlike most personal items, it has many of the same great organizational features as the rest of Tortuga’s backpacks.

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. As far as organizational features goes, it has a water bottle holder, outside pockets, and a laptop sleeve inside to keep your computer separate from the rest of your luggage.

If you’re using it in addition to your carry on luggage, it also packs down nicely inside your bigger bag if/when you don’t need both.

Dimensions: 17.5 x 11.5 x 5 inches

The Setout Packable Daypack is a personal item-sized backpack that can double as your on-the-ground daypack. With a zippable outer pocket and mesh water bottle pocket, you can keep your essentials within easy reach — no mid-flight rummaging for that snack bar (because, hey, you’re flying RyanAir).

It also packs down small so you can throw it in your carry on as a just-in-case second piece of luggage to bring your souvenirs home in, but also works well as your only piece of luggage if you’re going the personal-item-only route on a short trip.

Dimensions: 15.75 × 11 × 4.75 inches

Since Baggu’s bare-bones Duck Bag lacks lots of organizational features (it has one small pocket for items you need to access frequently) it’s not the best option as your only piece of luggage. However, if you’re using something else as your carry on, it’s a great option as your second bag and personal item.

I especially love it when I travel with a backpack (typically the 35L Setout), since it has strap options to carry it either on my shoulder or hold it with my hands. It’s also incredibly sturdy, affordable, and doubles well as my main purse while I’m at my destination.

Dimensions: 17 x 12 x 5.5 inches

With 28.5L of carrying capacity, and at about the maximum size that would pass for a personal size item, the Herschel Strand Tote can fit a lot as your secondary piece of in-cabin luggage.

It has a full-zip top to keep your packing list packed away, as well as outer and side pockets for quick access to in-transit necessities. Sturdy, with reinforced straps, this tote won’t quit on you while you travel.

TL;DR

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 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 just a personal item on a budget airline or basic economy fare.

 

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