Navigating air travel can often feel like a puzzle, particularly when deciding what kind of bag to take. The choice between a carry-on and a personal item isn’t always clear-cut.

In this article, we’ll clear up any confusion you might have. From defining each type of luggage to understanding the benefits and limitations, we’ll cover everything you need to know about carry-ons and personal items. This guide is especially handy for those new to traveling or for anyone looking to streamline their packing process.

Personal Item vs. Carry-On: What’s the Difference?

In the simplest terms, the main differences between a personal item and a carry-on are their size, where they’re stored on a plane, and what they’re best used for. A personal item is smaller, fitting under the seat in front of you – think purses, small backpacks, diaper bags, or laptop bags. A carry-on, however, is larger, stored in the overhead bin, and can accommodate more items.

Most airlines give specific dimensions for both, ensuring they fit in the plane’s designated spaces. For example, American Airlines suggests a carry-on should not exceed 22 x 14 x 9 inches, while a personal item dimensions should not exceed 18 x 14 x 8 inches (45 x 35 x 20 cm), and should be smaller to fit under the seat.

Meanwhile, Delta Airlines also allows each passenger to bring 1 carry-on bag and 1 personal item free of charge. The airline has no specific size limit, as long as it fits under the seat.

Understanding carry-on and personal item bags

Personal Item vs. Carry-On: a backpack and suitcase at the airport

A carry-on is essentially your main piece of luggage for the plane. It’s something like a small suitcase, duffel bag, or backpack, designed to fit in the overhead bin. The idea is that it’s big enough to hold essentials for your trip but small enough to fit in designated spaces on the plane.

Carry-on bags vary in shape and size, but there’s a general rule of thumb: if it measures 22 x 14 x 8 inches and fits snugly in the overhead compartment, you’re good to go. I’ve noticed that most domestic airlines are pretty consistent with this, allowing one carry-on per passenger.

Tortuga, a known brand in the travel gear world, points out that “Carry on bag limits are set to ensure that cabin bags will fit in the overhead bins while theoretically providing room for each passenger to bring one on board. This is a matter of safety, organization, and convenience.” I couldn’t agree more. It’s all about making sure that everyone has space for their belongings and keeping the cabin orderly and safe.

Now, what about personal items?

These are smaller bags that accompany you onto the plane alongside your carry-on. We’re talking about things like a laptop bag, a duffel bag, a small purse, or a compact backpack. The key requirement here is that it must fit underneath the seat in front of you, and the common size is 18 x 14 x 8 inches. It’s perfect for those in-flight essentials – your gadgets, a book, or maybe some snacks and medications.

In summary, when you’re packing for a flight, remember: a carry-on goes in the overhead bin and holds the bulk of what you need, while a personal item slides under the seat in front of you, keeping your travel essentials close at hand.

Personal Items VS. Carry-ons: The Differences 

Here’s how you can differentiate between the two:

Size and Weight Restrictions

The main thing that sets a personal item apart from a carry-on is its size. Carry-on items are usually larger with a general size limit of 22 x 14 x 9 inches, while personal items are smaller, needing to fit under the seat. For instance, United Airlines outlines that while a carry-on item can be as big as 22 x 14 x 9 inches, a free personal item should not exceed 17 x 10 x 9 inches. This distinction is crucial because if your bag exceeds these dimensions, it may lead to extra fees or the inconvenience of checking your bag at the last minute.

My advice? Always double-check the specific restrictions of your airline to avoid any unforeseen charges.

Storage Locations on the Plane

Another significant difference between carry-on bags and personal items is where they’re stored on the plane. Carry-on items go in the overhead bins, while personal items slip under the seat.

This difference affects how easily you can access your belongings during a flight. For instance, I like having my personal item within arm’s reach, under the seat, as it is incredibly convenient for accessing things like my headphones, a book, or a snack, without the hassle of getting up and digging through the overhead bin.

Airline Policies and Fees

Another difference is in the airline policy for luggage fees. Some airlines charge for carry-ons but not for personal items. Budget airlines are particularly strict about this.

Spirit Airlines, for example, allows a personal item for free but might charge for a carry-on item. So, a heads-up: double-check those airline policies to know the ones that allow for free carry on bags before you head to the airport! 

Carry-on vs personal Item: which is best for your trip?

Personal Item vs. Carry-On: a personal item bag under the seat and bags in the overhead bin

Your choice between a carry-on and a personal item depends on the kind of traveler you are and the journey you’re embarking on.

·         Carry-ons for longer journeys

For those longer trips where you need more than a few items, carry-on baggage is your best bet. You can fit in clothes, shoes, and those extra bits you can’t leave behind.

There’s a sense of security in knowing your belongings are right above you in the overhead bin. And since your bag stays with you throughout the journey, there’s no waiting at baggage claims or worrying about lost luggage.  Plus, there’s the convenience of mobility – you can just grab your bag and go.

·         Personal items for short trips and easy access

Now, if you’re just zipping off for a short business meeting or a quick weekend getaway, a personal item could be all you need. It’s perfect for your essentials – think a laptop, documents, or a change of clothes. 

The real beauty of a personal item lies in its accessibility. Stowed under the seat in front of you, it keeps your travel essentials at hand – whether that’s your e-reader, headphones, or that all-important phone charger. It’s the kind of convenience that can make a long flight much more bearable.

·         Balancing both for d00ifferent Needs

Sometimes, the best strategy is a combination of both. A carry-on for your bulkier items and a personal item for essentials. This way, you’re prepared for almost any travel scenario and avoid the extra costs of checked luggage.

·         Making Your Choice

So, which should you choose? Whether to choose a carry-on, a personal item, or both depends on your trip’s length and purpose. For short trips, a personal item might be enough, while longer journeys might require the additional space of a carry-on. Consider the type of traveler you are and the nature of your trip when choosing your bag.

Smart tips for effortless travel with hand luggage

Traveling light with just a carry-on or a personal item can be liberating, but it does require a bit of savvy. Here are some foolproof tips to ensure your journey is as smooth as your flight.

Travel light and right:

Overpacking is a common pitfall. I’ve seen travelers, including myself, stuff personal items to the brim, only to find them too bulky to fit underneath the seat. This can lead to last-minute checking and unnecessary stress. A good rule of thumb is to pack only what you need and ensure your personal item can comfortably slide under the seat.

Maximize luggage space: 

Packing cubes are a traveler’s best friend. They’re not just a personal favorite; many seasoned travelers swear by them. These little cubes let you organize and compress your clothes, making more room in your bag and reducing wrinkles. If you don’t have packing cubes, try rolling your clothes instead of folding. It’s amazing how much space you save, and it keeps your clothes relatively wrinkle-free.

Another tip I’ve found helpful is wearing your bulkier items, like jackets and boots, rather than packing them. This saves a ton of space in your luggage.

Stick to airline policies:

Every airline has its own set of rules, especially budget airlines. For example, Spirit Airlines allows one personal item for free but charges for bigger carry-on bags. As their website suggests, paying for extra luggage during booking can save you from hefty fees at the airport.

Packing essentials and valuables:

Always pack items you’ll need during the flight in your carry-on luggage or personal item. This includes things like books, chargers, a change of clothes, and essential medications. Also, keep your valuables and fragile items in your carry-on. This way, they stay with you, ensuring their safety.

Know what not to pack

Not everything is allowed in your carry-on or personal item. So be mindful of what you can and can’t bring in your hand luggage. Prohibited items like explosives, sharp objects, and large amounts of liquids or gels are not allowed. You can find a detailed list of these restrictions on the TSA website.

Traveling with just hand luggage can be a breeze if you pack smart and stay informed. Remember, the key to a hassle-free journey is being prepared and adaptable.


How strict are airlines about personal item sizes?

Airlines can be quite strict about the size of personal items, primarily because of safety regulations and to ensure everyone has enough overhead or under-seat space.

Each airline has specific dimensions for what they consider a personal item, and they often check these at the gate. If your personal item is too big, you might have to check it in and possibly pay extra fees. 

What happens if my carry-on is over the size limit?

If your carry-on is over the size limit, the airline may require you to check it in as checked baggage. This usually means you’ll have to pay a fee, which can be quite costly, especially if you find out at the gate. To avoid this, make sure your carry-on meets the airline’s size and weight requirements.

What is the difference between carry-on and personal item?

The main difference between a personal item or carry on is size and where you store them on the plane. A carry-on is larger and goes in the overhead bin. It’s typically used for clothes, shoes, and larger personal items. 

A personal item is smaller, fitting under the seat in front of you, and bags like a laptop bag, small backpack, purse or fanny packs are usually the bags used.

Can I put my personal item in my carry-on?

Yes, you can, especially if you’re trying to consolidate bags. However, keep in mind that it should be a very small personal item like a small purse, fanny pack or laptop bag, to avoid making your carry-on look bulky, as this might cause it to be considered as checked luggage.

Is my backpack a personal item or carry-on?

Whether your backpack is considered a personal item or a carry-on luggage depends on its size. If it’s small enough to fit under the seat in front of you, it’s a personal item. If it’s larger and needs to go in the overhead bin, then it’s a carry-on.

Final thought

Personal Item vs. Carry-On: a tote bag and suitcase at the airport

Understanding the nuances between personal item bags and carry-ons is crucial for hassle-free travel. Always tailor your choice to the specific needs of your trip and the airline’s policies. If you have any questions or suggestions on this topic, please let us know in the comments. 

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