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Can I Bring a Backpack on a Plane?

It is no secret that air travel can, at times, be challenging. 

With dozens of regulations to comply with, it can be difficult to remember and keep track of them all. A question that lingers in the minds of many travelers is, “can I bring a backpack on a plane?” If so, would it be considered as a personal item or carry-on bag?

The answer to this is yes. Most airlines allow you to bring a backpack on board. The one thing you should be mindful of is your backpack’s size. This is what determines whether it’s considered a personal item, carry-on or checked bag. 

In the following post, we’ll look at the criteria used to distinguish between personal items and carry-ons. We’ll also highlight the size restrictions of each for the most popular airlines in the U.S. Read on to learn more.

Is a Backpack Considered a Carry-On or a Personal Item?

This is a crucial point to consider as it determines where you’ll place your backpack and whether you’ll be charged for it. 

The general consensus is that any backpack that can fit underneath the seat in front of you is a personal item. If it’s a little too big for that but can still fit in the overhead cabin, then it’s a carry-on. 

However, if it’s too big to fit in either of these places, then it’s a checked bag. 

If you’re traveling on a budget, consider bringing a small backpack so that it’s classified as either a carry-on or personal item. If it ends up getting checked, you’ll incur baggage fees that can add pretty quickly depending on its weight. 

Personal vs Carry-on Backpack Size Recommendations

Knowing the size regulations for carry-ons and personal items is crucial. This way, you won’t end up placing your backpack in the wrong spot and inconvenience other travelers. 

Thankfully, most airlines provide clear guidelines regarding the weight and size of each type of bag. But before we dive into these stipulations, here are a few points you should keep in mind:

  • The dimensions provided by most airlines refer to the length, width, and height of the bag. These are often inclusive of the sizes of bag’s wheels and handles.
  • These measurements mostly apply to individuals flying in economy class. Some airlines offer more generous baggage allowances to flyers in first or business class. 
  • If you’re going for a short trip or flying in a smaller plane, you’ll likely have to check your carry-on bag even if it’s small. 
  • Airlines change their regulations from time to time. So it’s smart to call ahead and confirm before you book your flight.

United Airlines

United Airlines states that the dimensions of a personal item should not exceed 9” x 10”  x 17”. Similarly, a carry-on bag should not exceed 9” x 14”  x 22” .

United goes on to state the following:

Most travelers can bring on board one full-size carry-on bag and one personal item for free.” 

What’s important to note here is that not all flyers are permitted to bring a carry-on bag for free. Those flying on Basic Economy tickets will incur baggage fees and an additional $25 gate handling fee. 

Delta Airlines

Even though Delta’s checked bag policy is strict, they are one of the few airlines that does not have any size or weight restrictions for a personal item. According to their website, the following are classified as personal items:

1 purse, a small backpack, briefcase, camera bag or diaper bag.

Here are the stipulations for carry-on bags:

“Make sure your bag fits this size or reference size check displays located at ticket counters and gates.

Combined length + width + height of baggage must not exceed 45 linear inches (114 cm) 

Individual length, width and height measurements may not exceed 22” x 14” x 9” (56 cm x 35 cm x 23 cm) respectively 

These measurements include any handles or wheels, but do not apply to small musical instruments that fit in the overhead or under-seat space 

Southwest Airlines

As for Southwest Airlines, personal items should be able to fit in the space underneath your front seat. The company estimates this area to have the following dimensions, 16.25” (L) x 13.5” (W) x 8” (H). 

However, Southwest goes on to state the following:

Measurements vary by seat type and aircraft. These dimensions reflect the smallest available length, width and height under the seat.

As for carry-on bags, they ought to be smaller than 24” (L) x 16” (W) x 10” (H). If they are bigger than this, then the bag has to be checked. 

Alaska Airlines

Like Delta, Alaska does not have any size limitations for a personal item.

However, the maximum dimensions allowed for a carry-on bag are 22” x 14” x 9”. According to Alaska airline, “these dimensions include the wheels and handles.

What Can I Carry in my Backpack on a Plane?

You should be very careful when packing items in the backpack you plan to bring onboard. You don’t want to end up packing so many items that it ends up being overweight.  

To help you out, here are the most essential items that you should consider storing in your backpack:


If you’re carrying any important documents, then you should have them with you at all times. These include items like your passport, a photocopy of the passport, visa, hotel reservation documents and copies of rental cars. 

Clothing and accessories

You never know the kind of challenges you’ll experience when you’re at the airport. Your flight may get delayed for hours or your checked luggage may get lost.

Taking this into account, it’s smart to pack a spare outfit – a clean T-shirt, some pants and undergarments- in your backpack. You can also carry a lightweight jacket to combat the chilly atmosphere on board. An inflatable pillow that folds into a compact size after use, is another excellent addition. 

Entertainment and Electronics

We’ll start off by saying that you should keep your electronics and entertainment gadgets to a minimum. 

Chances are, your airline will provide some form of entertainment, which eliminates the need to carry a ton of electronics. So a small, lightweight book and your favorite magazine are enough. 

If you’ll be carrying your laptop, you can download a couple of movies ahead of time. Learn how to watch Netflix on a plane here

Delicate electronics like a digital camera, handheld gaming system and DVDs should also be packed in a backpack. 

They’re safer here than in a checked bag that will be handled by strangers. If you’re traveling overseas, consider carrying a small converter too. This will help you charge your electronics at differently-configured outlets. 

Personal Care Items

Another thing that shouldn’t miss from your backpack is a toiletry bag. It should be well-stocked with items such as a folding toothbrush, shampoo, body lotion and washcloth. 

We also recommend packing a first aid kit with a general painkiller and motion sickness pills to combat airsickness.

Can I Bring a Backpack through Airport Security?

Yes, you can. Carrying your backpack through security is a fairly smooth process. 

The one thing you should pay attention to are the contents inside. For instance, if you’ve packed liquid items in a separate bag, you should take it out and have it screened separately. 

Final Thoughts

With the ever-increasing fees charged for checking luggage, it’s important to know what you can or can’t bring on a plane. If you’ve been wondering whether a backpack is allowed, the answer is yes, it is. However, you should be mindful of its size and weight.

If it’s small enough to fit under an airplane seat, then it’s classified as a personal item. Such a bag doesn’t attract any baggage fees. 

But if it’s big enough to fit in the overhead cabin space, it’s considered a carry-on. Now, depending on the airline you choose, you may be required to check your backpack carry-on. Fortunately, most airlines let you bring one carry-on bag onboard for free.  

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Hayden Wall

Hayden is the founder of Travel Gear Discounts and tries to vacation as much as possible. He loves finding the latest travel accessories that will make getting out easier and planning the perfect weekend getaway.