Is a backpack a personal item? The short answer: Yes, a backpack is generally considered a personal item if it fits under the seat in front of you.
Most airlines offer a few examples of things that fit into the “personal item” category, such as a purse, laptop bag, or a briefcase, but they don’t usually include “backpack” on those lists.
This is likely due to how big an umbrella term “backpack” is, encompassing everything from those tiny string bags athletes use to the massive packs a through-hiker might carry on the Pacific Coast Trail.
The question about whether something—anything—can be a “personal item” comes down not to what it’s called, then, but whether it will fit under the seat in front of you. So, yes, if your backpack is small enough that you can fit it under the seat in front of you, then it’s a personal item.
This designation becomes especially important when you’re flying on a low-cost carrier or have booked a basic economy ticket on a larger airline. Charging for a piece of carryon luggage on those tickets is becoming more common, but in many cases passengers are still allowed to bring one “personal item” for free. And, even if you’re allowed a carryon bag for free with your ticket, being able to also bring a backpack in the cabin can help you avoid paying extra to check a bag.
It’s a good idea to always pay attention to what’s included with a ticket before you hit the “buy” button, since extra fees for things like carryon bags can negate any savings on a fare that looks cheap. Also note that both carryon and personal item size limits are typically different between domestic and international flights.
Which airlines only allow a personal item with a basic economy fare?
- Allegiant Air
- JetBlue Airways (Exceptions are Blue Basic ticket holders flying to or from London and those who have reached Mosaic status; both can bring a carryon bag for free.)
- Frontier Airlines
- Spirit Airlines
- Sun Country Airlines
- United Airlines (Exceptions are United travelers on trans-Atlantic flights Europe, Africa, and the Middle East to and from the US, on trans-Pacific flights to and from the US, and on flights to and from El Salvador, Panama, and South America, all of whom can bring a carryon bag for free.)
What are the maximum dimensions for a backpack to qualify as a personal item?
- Alaska Airlines: 22 x 14 x 9 inches (56 x 35.5 x 22 cm)
- Allegiant Air: 7 x 15 x 16 inches (17.8 x 38.1 x 40.6 cm)
- American Airlines: 18 x 14 x 8 inches (46 x 35.5 x 20 cm)
- Delta Air Lines: 22 x 14 x 9 inches (56 x 35.5 x 22 cm)
- Frontier Airlines: 18 x 14 x 8 inches (46 x 35.5 x 20 cm)
- Hawaiian Airlines: 22 x 14 x 9 inches (56 x 35.5 x 22 cm)
- JetBlue Airways: 17 x 13 x 8 inches (43.2 x 33 x 20.32 cm)
- Southwest Airlines: 18.5 x 13.5 x 8.5 inches (47 x 34 x 22 cm)
- Spirit Airlines: 18 x 14 x 8 inches (46 x 35.5 x 20 cm)
- United Airlines: 9 x 10 x 17 inches (22 x 25 x 43 cm)
Airline carryon and personal item rules
- Alaska Airlines’ personal item policy: Passengers can bring one personal item plus one carryon bag for free, and if you have both the personal item must be stowed under the seat in front of you.
- American Airlines’ personal item policy: Passengers can bring one personal item plus one carryon bag for free on both domestic and international flights. If you have both the personal item must be stowed under the seat in front of you.
- Allegiant’s personal item policy: Allegiant’s tickets only include a personal item, not a carryon bag. Adding a carryon bag to a ticket starts at $10.
- Delta’s personal item policy: Passengers can bring one personal item plus one carryon bag for free on both domestic and international flights. If you have both the personal item must be stowed under the seat in front of you.
- Frontier’s personal item policy: Frontier’s tickets only include a personal item, not a carryon bag. Adding a carryon bag to a ticket starts at $30.
- Hawaiian’s personal item policy: Passengers can bring one personal item plus one carryon bag for free, and if you have both the personal item must be stowed under the seat in front of you.
- JetBlue’s personal item policy: Blue Basic (JetBlue’s Basic Economy) fares only include a free personal item (exceptions listed in the section above), not a carryon bag. Carryon bags on Blue Basic tickets will be checked at the gate starting at a cost of $65.
- Spirit’s personal item policy: Spirit’s tickets only include a personal item, not a carryon bag. Adding a carryon bag to a ticket starts at $36.
- United’s personal item policy: United’s size limits on personal items are smaller than most standard backpacks, so bear this in mind. Basic Economy fares only include a free personal item (exceptions listed in the section above), not a carryon bag. Adding a carryon bag to a Basic Economy ticket starts at $30.
How to pack for a trip with just a personal item
We’re big fans of packing light no matter where we’re going, but it’s even more front-of-mind when we would have to pay extra fees for a carryon bag. While it’s significantly harder to squeeze everything you’d need for a month-long January visit to Norway than a beach weekend in Maui into a bag the size of a personal item, here are a few tips that can help.
- Plan to do laundry along the way. There’s no need to bring an outfit for each day of your trip. This is especially true with small things that are easy to wash in hotel room sinks, like underwear and socks.
- Buy toiletries on location. Use them while you travel and don’t bother bringing them home with you.
- Use packing cubes. You might even want to try the ones that compress after they’re full to maximize space even more.
- Wear your bulkiest clothing on the plane. Even if they’re not weather-appropriate for one end of the flight or another, carry that big winter coat and wear your heavy hiking boots. And if you’re going somewhere cold, bring an oversized scarf or wrap that can double as a blanket during the flight.
- Stick to one pair of shoes. This isn’t always possible, but you’ll save loads of space in your personal item bag if you don’t bring a second pair of shoes.
The airport bag trick
Most airlines won’t count a bag of items purchased in the airport as additional luggage, but of course, there are limits. If you roll up with a small airport-shop bag containing some snacks, a book, and some bottled water, gate agents may not bat an eye. But if you try to get away with a bag stuffed to the gills with extra clothing, shoes, or other items that should be in your backpack, you may be stopped and told you need to consolidate your bags.
The pillow hack for extra luggage at no cost
You probably know that those U-shaped neck pillows many travelers love don’t count as a personal item, but did you know that actual pillows don’t count, either?
There’s a travel packing hack that takes advantage of the fact that pillows slide under airline baggage policies. One TikTok user’s video demonstrates how she stuffs a decorative pillowcase that has a zipper closure full of clothing instead of a pillow. And, since the pillowcase is full, it actually functions as a pillow if you’ve got a window seat you can lean against—plus you get to bring a little more stuff with you on your trip.
It’s a cute trick, but keep in mind that this isn’t our idea or recommendation—try it at your own risk.
Check out even more tips from our SCF community members.
How strict are most airlines with the personal item limit?
It’s always going to be risky to try to get away with a bigger personal item than the rules allow. If your bag is only marginally larger than the allowed size, gate agents (remember, it’s the airline’s gate agents who enforce the rules, not TSA) may not notice, but the larger your item is compared to the standard size, the more chance they’ll measure or weigh it.
If your item is too big and it’s a malleable shape (like a soft-sided backpack) you may be able to take out some items to make it smaller and prove it can fit under your seat. The worst case scenario is that you’ll either be required to gate check the item, which can incur significant cost, or in rare cases, you may even be forced to go back outside of security to the check-in desk.