If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably found yourself wondering just how much leeway you’ve got when it comes to that personal item you’re allowed on board. Can you squeeze in that extra novel, or should you leave out your chunky camera? 

And most importantly, just how strict are airlines about personal items? After all, no one wants that surprise at the gate of being told their bag won’t fit!

In this post, I’ll dive deep into how airlines view personal items, their level of strictness, and share some insider tips to ensure your next flight is hassle-free. 

How strict are Airlines about personal items?

At its core, most airlines are quite strict about personal items, primarily because of safety regulations and to ensure everyone has enough overhead or under-seat space. Each airline has its specific guidelines on the size and type of personal items you can bring onboard. Typically, the rule of thumb is that the item should fit under the seat in front of you. 

That said, how strictly these rules are enforced can vary. Some airlines might be more lenient, especially if a flight isn’t fully booked and there’s plenty of storage space. Others might adhere rigorously to their stated dimensions and even have sizing boxes at the gate to check if your item fits.

From personal experience, I’ve seen travelers sometimes get away with slightly oversized bags, while others have been asked to check them in. The key is to always be prepared: check your airline’s specific regulations ahead of time and try to stick to them to avoid any travel hiccups. Remember, it’s always better to be safe than sorry when it comes to airline regulations.

Understanding Airline Policies on Personal Items

How Strict Are Airlines About Personal Items?: bag under the seat in an airplane

First off, what is a ‘personal item’?

A personal item refers to a specific category of hand luggage that passengers are allowed to bring on board in addition to their regular carry-on luggage. This item is typically smaller in size and should fit under the seat in front of you during the flight. 

Common personal items include things like purses, handbags, totes, briefcases, laptop bags, duffels, small backpacks, etc. These items are usually smaller in size and are designed to fit under the seat in front of you, leaving the overhead bin space primarily for larger carry-on bags. 

They are also easily accessible during the flight, ensuring that you have your important belongings, like travel documents, electronics, or reading materials, within reach.

I’d like to mention that personal item bags are typically free, whereas you might need to pay for carry-on bags sometimes. 

Variations in Policies Among Airlines

How Strict Are Airlines About Personal Items?: personal item size check

Every airline has its unique take on what qualifies as a personal item for flights. While some airlines grant you a little leeway with sizes and shapes, others stick firmly to their guidelines.

Take American Airlines as an example. They generally accept personal items that measure up to 18 x 14 x 8 inches. On the other hand, JetBlue is a tad more restrictive, allowing items only up to 17 x 13 x 8 inches.

Interestingly, some travelers on Quora and even The Present Perspective mentioned that American Airlines isn’t too fussy about the exact size, as long as the item easily fits under the seat. The Getaway Lounge echoed this sentiment, noting “as long as this personal item is clearly small enough to fit underneath the seat in front of you, you shouldn’t have a problem getting it on board.”

Ryanair on the other hand is known for its strict baggage policies. Travel writer Damian Corrigan of Trip Savvy noted that “the popular budget airline famously has one of the strictest baggage allowances in Europe, and it has recently gotten even stricter.”

The bottom line? My advice would be for you to always review your airline’s baggage guidelines to ensure compliance and sidestep any last-minute hiccups!

  •   Consequences of Going Beyond Airline Limits:

Airlines often have set guidelines for the size of personal items you can bring onboard. If your bag exceeds these limits, you might find yourself facing extra charges or being asked to check in the oversized item. 

A heads-up from The Washington Post warned that airlines are getting stricter on personal item sizes, which can hit passengers in the wallet.

Interestingly, in 2021, a study by IdeaWorks and CarTrawler revealed that American Airlines made an impressive $7.42 per passenger from baggage revenue alone, amounting to a whopping $1.22 billion in total. Christopher Elliott of The Washington Post mentioned that many passengers have reported stricter enforcement of baggage rules, aligning with the rise in revenue. 

Taking a bigger bag might seem like a win if you’re not caught, but remember, it might cramp your leg space and disturb your fellow traveler. My personal advice? Stick to the recommended sizes to ensure a hassle-free and pleasant flight experience for both you and everyone on board.  

Major Airlines and Their Stances on personal item

How Strict Are Airlines About Personal Items?: personal item size check

Like I said, every major airline has its own set of guidelines, and trust me, it pays to be in the know. Let’s dive into some of these major airlines and see what they have to say about personal items.

American Airlines:

   – Personal Item Size: Up to 18 x 14 x 8 inches (45 x 35 x 20 cm).

   – Details: American Airlines is pretty accommodating. As long as your personal item, be it a purse or small handbag, fits under the seat in front of you, you’re good to go.

Delta Airlines:

   – Personal Item Size: No specified dimensions, but it should fit underneath the seat in front of you.

   – Details: Delta is slightly more relaxed when it comes to the exact size of personal items. However, it’s always best to ensure your item is reasonably small to avoid any boarding issues.

Their baggage policy suggests that purses, laptop bags, briefcases, or small backpacks are all good choices.

Interesting tidbit: Andrew Koopman, a writer for SFGATE.com noted that Delta considers cameras and diaper bags as personal items, while other airlines like United do not. So with Delta, if your camera is your “personal item,” you can only bring another bag as your carry-on!

United Airlines:

   – Personal Item Size: 17 x 10 x 9 inches.

   – Details: United is clear-cut with their size requirements. Make sure your item fits within their dimensions, especially if you’re flying Basic Economy.

Southwest Airlines:

   – Personal Item Size: 18.5 x 8.5 x 13.5 inches.

   – Details: According to folks on TripAdvisor, Quora, and also  James Eagleman of Traveling Light, Southwest is generous with their personal item dimensions. They’re particularly noted for their customer-friendly policies.


   – Personal Item Size: 17 x 13 x 8 inches.

   – Details: JetBlue is pretty standard with their sizing. Remember, this is in addition to the carry-on you store overhead.

Frontier Airlines:

   – Personal Item Size: 8 x 18 x 14 inches.

Details: Frontier says your bag must  fit completely within the personal item portion of the their bag sizer. These include purses, totes, computer bags, briefcases, and kids backpacks.  


   – Personal Item Size: 40 x 20 x 25 cm.

   – Details: Famously strict with their baggage allowances, Ryanair has recently become even more stringent as noted by Trip Savvy.

I want to emphasize that while these are the general guidelines, rules can change. Always double-check the airline’s official website or give them a call before packing. 

Tips to Comply with Airline Personal Item Limits

Here are some practical tips I’ve picked up from my travels on how you can navigate these limits:

Research Before You Fly: Before you even start packing, check the airline’s website for their personal item size and weight restrictions. Each airline may have slightly different rules.

Choosing the Right Bag: Opt for bags that are designed to fit under seats or in overhead bins. You can start with these airline-approved 18x14x8 bags that will fit your travel essentials, earn a nod of approval from the airline staff, and most importantly, fit like a dream in the overhead bin and under the seat in front of you.

Measure up: Before heading to the airport, measure your bag to ensure it fits within the airline’s guidelines. Some airlines provide sizing boxes at the check-in area, but it’s better to know in advance. A few inches can make a big difference, especially with stricter airlines.

Pack Smart: Think about what you genuinely need for the flight. Roll clothes to save space, use packing cubes, and consider digital alternatives for heavy books or guides. 

Opt for Soft Bags: Soft bags or totes can be squished and adjusted to fit under the seat easier than hard-shell ones. Also, opt for one with multiple compartments to keep your belongings organized.

Be Ready to Adjust:  If your bag is slightly over the limit, consider wearing some of the heavier items or redistributing some items into your carry-on or checked luggage.

Practice Kindness: If there’s ever a dispute or confusion at the gate, approach the situation calmly and respectfully. Sometimes, a smile and understanding can go a long way. 


Do airlines check your personal items?

Yes, airlines do check personal items. This doesn’t necessarily mean measuring every single bag, but they do have the right to inspect any item to ensure it complies with their regulations. Additionally, security checks will examine the contents of personal items for prohibited objects.

What happens if your personal item on a plane is too big?

If your personal item exceeds the airline’s size limits, you may be asked to check it into the aircraft’s hold, and there might be an extra fee for this. It’s always best to check the airline’s policy in advance to avoid unexpected costs or delays.

How do airlines measure personal items?

Airlines often use sizing boxes at the check-in or boarding areas. If your personal item can fit within this box, it’s usually good to go. They might also use measuring tapes or rulers for a more precise measurement if there’s any doubt.

Do airlines have to allow personal items?

Most airlines do allow one personal item onboard. However, the definition of what constitutes a ‘personal item’ and the size limits can vary from one airline to another. It’s always a good idea to check with your specific airline before flying.

Final thought

Understanding and adhering to airline policies regarding personal items is essential for a smooth travel experience. Always research, pack smartly, and when in doubt, ask the airline directly to avoid any last-minute surprises.

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