Personal Item Size: Make the Most of Your Space

Stacey Ebert

Backpacker, business traveler, leisure holiday planner, and everyone in between—we’re all carrying belongings on the road. If you’re traveling by plane, there are rules, regulations, and restrictions involved in what airline passengers can bring and be advised: specifications differ between companies. 

Accessing this information can be tricky and, to compound difficulties, the rules change. The airline industry changes so often that it’s hard to keep up. 

With the addition of bare-bones fares, even major airlines are introducing draconian measures surrounding personal item dimensions in an attempt to squeeze an extra buck from passengers with a bag just a little bit too big. The best advice is to check with your carrier for up-to-date information and plan to pack light in a personal item-sized backpack.

If you’re looking to maximize your flight experience, minimize your luggage, and find the perfect personal item that will fly on most airlines without fees, keep reading.

Major factors in choosing the perfect personal item include:

  •       Size: Keep it small
  •       Airline requirements: Choose a bag that fits the airlines you fly most
  •       Easy to carry: Make sure it doesn’t kill your back and fits under your seat

What is a Personal Item, Anyway?

In short, a personal item is a bag that is smaller than your carry on, holds those items that can’t be out of your reach on the plane, and will fit under the seat in front of you. Your carry on is the bigger bag you must fit in the overhead bin. The Outbreaker 45 and Setout Backpack are maximum-sized carry on bags.

For personal items, we’re talking backpacks, purses, slim laptop bags, a packable duffle, or something of that size. For those traveling with little ones, diaper bags can be brought as an extra piece in addition to a personal item, in most cases. 

What’s the Basic Rule When it Comes to Personal Items?

A personal item MUST fit under the seat in front of you. Traditionally, the specs given are 10x10x16 inches but that varies from airline to airline and aircraft to aircraft. Extra stuff like walkers, umbrellas, diaper bags, jackets, crutches, and strollers are typically allowed as well.

How to Pick a Personal Item

When choosing a personal item, think practicality, ease, and access. You’re looking for a bag that’s easy to carry, can be accessed quickly, and has space for whatever you might need. Keep in mind that on airplanes, it’s going to sit under the seat in front of you. On busses, it might fit next to you or under your feet.

Airlines describe a personal item as a purse, slim laptop bag, camera bag, briefcase, or backpack. Bigger than that is a no-go—choose accordingly.

I’m 4’11—my feet don’t even reach the floor. The best type of personal item for me is one that fits under the seat but also raises the floor to meet my feet so my legs aren’t dangling for the entire flight. The Outbreaker 35 backpack is perfect for this, and while it fits the personal item size requirements of some airlines, it’s a little too big on others.  

My husband, on the other hand, is a foot taller than me. He’d rather have one bag (counting as the personal item and/or carry on) that will fit in the overhead compartment (or if necessary put it at his feet) and put his book, passport, phone, and headphones in a pants pocket.

When purchasing a personal item ask yourself a few questions. 

Can I Fit Everything I’d Like Inside?

If you buy a bottle of water or a packet of snacks at the airport—will it fit?

Does the Shape Work to Hold Multiple Items?

Those open-design items (think a daypack with only one opening, not compartments) can carry less, or more, depending on the journey. A flexible shape works better than a rigid shell just in case you need to shove it under that seat.

Is It Water-Resistant and Will It Stain?

If you can easily wash off that soda spill when that unexpected turbulence kicks in, that’s a bonus.

How Does It Close?

Open-top bags might seem like a great idea, but a zipper closure is far stronger security to avoid theft and contain loose items. Plus, you don’t have to root through it garbage-bag-style to find one item lodged at the bottom. 

Will it Fit Under the Seat in Front of You?

If not, it’s the wrong bag.

Specs:

  • 17 x 11 x 6.5
  • 21 L
  • 1.1 lbs
  • Laptop: Up to 15”
  • Tablet: Up to 10”

Features:

  • Weather-resistant
  • Pack-flat design
  • Ariaprene padding
  • 15” laptop sleeve
  • Tablet sleeve
  • Front organization pocket
  • Key clip

Made of waterproof sailcloth, this bag will protect what’s inside during a rain shower or a splash at the beach.

It’s small enough and light enough to make the perfect personal time or lay flat in the top of your carry on.

Specs:

  • 18.5” x 12” x 6.75”
  • 25L
  • 2.8 lbs
  • Laptop: up to 15”
  • Tablet: up to 9.7”

Features:

  • Clothing compartment
  • Luggage handle pass-through
  • Hideaway shoulder straps
  • Laptop and tablet sleeves
  • Weather-resistant
  • Organization panel
  • Mesh pockets for chargers
  • Lockable zippers
  • Top and side grab handles
  • Removable sternum strap
  • Zip-flat water bottle pocket

The luggage handle pass-through makes this the perfect bag for traveling with a carry on roller bag.

  • 18.5” x 12” x 9”
  • 27L
  • 3.2 lbs
  • Laptop: up to 16?
  • Tablet up to 9.7?

Features:

  • Fits under the seat
  • Front-loading clothing compartment
  • Luggage handle pass-through sleeve
  • Hideaway shoulder straps
  • TSA-compliant lie-flat laptop compartment
  • Premium weather resistance
  • Organization panel
  • Mesh pockets for chargers
  • Lockable zippers
  • Top and side grab handles
  • Removable sternum strap
  • Zip-flat water bottle pocket

The ideal under-the-seat personal item for a frequent traveler. You can safely stack it on your suitcase thanks to the luggage handle pass-through sleeve.

Specs:

  • 17.5” x 11.5” x 5” (daypack)
  • 7” x 5” x 2.5” (pouch)
  • 19L
  • 8.5 oz (0.53 lbs)

Features:

  • Packable
  • Zippered front compartment
  • Water bottle pockets
  • Removable sternum strap
  • Fits under the seat of an airplane

This handy little bag folds away into its own little pocket, so it takes up almost no room in your carry on.

It doesn’t have a laptop sleeve, so it’s perfect for a day of disconnected sightseeing.

What to Pack in a Personal Item

The less stuff you have to carry the better in terms of your carry experience. Where your personal item is concerned, think of those things you remind yourself of each day as you leave the house—you know, that ‘phone, wallet, keys’ thing? That’s what goes in your personal item.

For me, that’s my wallet, Epi-pen, inhaler, passport, phone, unscented hand lotion, chapstick, mint, gum, and peppermint oil. I put all of these into a small bag or packing cube that fits in a larger carry on bag (like those of the Setout collection). 

Then I add anything else I might need (cables, camera and batteries, liquids bag, laptop, chargers, book, snacks, medications, headphones) and any other little things I may want to the bag. Since that ‘larger bag’ fits under my seat it’s now considered my personal item.

Airline Requirements for Personal Items

Each airline has its own rules and restrictions for cabin luggage. If your bag(s) fit in their bag checker stand or are under the weight and size limit, you’re good to go. If you go over the size of that bag checker stand you may have to gate check free of charge or, depending on the airline, there could be a fee. 

Many airlines use linear inches to delineate their maximum dimensions. Linear inches is the term for the measurement of the total dimensions of your bag (length, plus width, plus height). 

The greatest obstacle in air travel is change. Your gate can change at the last minute, the drink you decided you were going to order is no longer available, you might have to completely unpack your electronics, or somehow the numbers on your home luggage scale may differ from those on the airport ones. The rules and the restrictions are always changing. As new planes come onto the market and older models are taken offline, airlines alter their specifications and restrictions for all sorts of luggage allowances, including personal items. Be sure to check with your carrier before packing your bags.

Personal Item Sizes for Common Airlines

To save time, here are the basic personal item allowances and exceptions for most of the major airlines flying in and around the USA, at the time of writing.

Keep in mind that if you have flights with multiple carriers you’ll need to check with each airline as smaller connecting flights or partner airlines might have different cabin baggage allowances than your primary carrier. Economy airlines like Ryanair are strictest about baggage limits.

Spirit Airlines

Allowance: 1 personal item fitting under the seat

Personal Item Dimensions: 18.14.8 inches

Jet Blue

Allowance: 1 carry on + 1 personal item

Total Dimensions:  Overhead bin: 22.14.9 inches

Under-seat: 17.13.11 inches

Additional Items: Duty-free (in reasonable/limited amounts), 1 diaper bag (if traveling with lap infant), coats, umbrellas, wheelchairs, canes, walkers, child car seats

Southwest Airlines

Allowance: 1 carry on + 1 personal item (not specified size)

Total Dimensions: Overhead bin size is max 24.16.10 inches

Pet carriers may count as a personal item at the discretion of attendants.

British Airways

Allowance: 1 cabin bag + 1 handbag/laptop bag that fits under the seat

Personal Item Dimensions: 16.12.6 inches

United

Allowance: 1 carry on + 1 personal item

Total Dimensions: Carry on max: 22.9.14 inches, personal item: 17.10.9 inches

Basic Economy Fare: Personal item only

Additional items: Assistive devices, diaper bag, jackets, child car seat

Allegiant Air

Allowance: 1 carry on + 1 personal item

Personal Item Dimensions: 7.15.16 inches

Frontier

Allowance: 1 personal item fitting under the seat

Personal Item Dimensions: 18.8.14 inches

American Airlines

Allowance: 1 carry on + 1 personal item (handbag, laptop bag, briefcase, or item of similar size)

Total Dimensions: Carry on 14.9.22 inches total/personal item 14.8.18/fit by feet

The personal item MUST be tinier than your carry on and fit by your feet.

Basic Economy ticket: Personal item only: 18.14.8 inches

Additional Items:  Assistive devices, jackets, child car seat, stroller, diaper bag if traveling with a child, a reasonable amount of duty-free items, pillow/blanket, food

Virgin Atlantic

Allowance: 1 carry on + 1 personal item (no specific dimensions)

Total Dimensions: 24.10.16 inches will fit in the overhead compartment or under the seat

Delta Airlines

Allowance: 1 cabin bag + 1 personal item *personal item must fit under the seat

Total Dimensions: 22.14.9 (must not exceed 45 linear inches)

Items must fit in the baggage checker, which measures 22.14.9 inches. 

Additional Items: Crutches, wheelchairs, child car seats, strollers, duty-free purchases, food/drink, jackets, umbrellas

Delta Connection flights with 50 or fewer seats can ONLY bring a personal item that will fit under their seat on board & carry on items will be gate checked free

 

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