Most airlines allow 1 free personal item, but is a backpack a personal item or a carry-on bag? It all comes down to the size and whether it fits under the plane seat.
We’ll explain when a backpack is considered a personal item and when it crosses into carry-on territory, personal item dimensions for different airlines, and everything you need to know to use your backpack as your personal item on your next flight below.
What Is a Personal Item on Flights?
If your airline allows a free personal item but not a carry-on bag, it’s important to know the difference and understand what a personal item is and how big it can be.
When you fly, a personal item is a small bag or item that you keep with you during the flight. It must be small enough to fit under the seat in front of you, making the dimensions of a personal item smaller than a carry-on.
Airlines have different rules for how big a personal item can be, but the measurements always include the handles and/or wheels on the item.
Here’s a look at the maximum personal item dimensions for popular airlines:
- 22x14x9 inches: Delta Air Lines
- 18x14x8 inches: American Airlines, Spirit Airlines, Frontier Airlines
- 17x13x8 inches: JetBlue Airways
- 17x10x9 inches: United Airlines
- 16.25×13.5×8 inches: Southwest Airlines
Note that you can always bring a personal item that’s smaller than these dimensions – it just can’t be any bigger, or else it won’t fit under the seat in front of you.
Delta offers the roomiest personal item dimensions, allowing bags as large as a standard carry-on bag. Other airlines limit personal item size to 16.25″-18″ in height, 10″-14″ in width, and 8″-9″ in depth.
The size restrictions on personal items are due to the limited space for these items in the cabin. Since personal items aren’t always guaranteed overhead bin space, they have to be stored under the seat in front of you.
All planes have different under-seat storage dimensions, so a personal item that fits perfectly under the seat on a Delta flight may not be able to fit under the seat on a Spirit flight.
That’s why it’s important to know the personal item size limits for the airline you’re flying with. You can measure the bag you’re considering using as your personal item and make sure it fits!
Is a Backpack a Personal Item?
A small backpack can be a personal item on a plane, but it depends on the dimensions your airline allows.
Some medium or larger-sized backpacks won’t fit under a plane seat, making them off-limits as personal items on flights.
We’ve found that children’s backpacks, ultralight and slim backpacks, small laptop backpacks, and some daypacks and small carry-on bags fit the personal item dimensions for most airlines.
It’s usually a safe bet to bring a children’s backpack as a personal item, with most kid’s backpacks measuring around 16-17″ (H) by 11-12″ (W) by 6-7″ (D).
Small daypacks, ultralight packs, and travel packs are often within the size limits for a personal item on most airlines, too. Most measure around 15-18″ (H) by 8.5-11″ (W) by 4-7.5″ (D).
Laptop backpacks aren’t always the correct dimensions to be used as a personal item on a plane. Sometimes, they’re too big for airlines other than Delta, which offers the biggest personal item dimensions.
We did find small laptop backpacks, like the Osprey Arcane™ and Lenovo B210 Laptop Backpack, that will work for Delta, American Airlines, Spirit, and Frontier but not United, Southwest, or JetBlue.
Here’s a look at different backpack examples in a range of sizes and which airlines they can work as personal items on:
- G4Free 10L Hiking Daypack (15.5″x9″x3.5″): Works for all airlines
- KL928 Canvas Sling Bag (16″x10″x7″): Works for all airlines
- Jansport Superbreak Children’s Backpack (16.2″ x 12.5″ x 5.5″): Works for all airlines
- Coowoz Large Travel Backpack (16.5″x12.5″x8″): Works for JetBlue, AA, Spirit, Frontier, and Delta
- Adida’s Ready Children’s Backpack (17″x12″x7″): Works for JetBlue, AA, Spirit, Frontier, and Delta
- Amazon Basics Ultralight Day Pack (17.5″x11.5″x7.5″): Works for AA, Spirit, Frontier, and Delta
- Peak Design Everyday Backpack 15L (17.5″x10.5″x8″): Works for AA, Spirit, Frontier, and Delta
- L.L.Bean Stowaway Ultralight Day Pack (18″x8.5″x 7″): Works for AA, Spirit, Frontier, and Delta
- Osprey Arcane™ Large Day Pack (18″x12″x9″): Works for AA, Spirit, Frontier, and Delta
- Lenovo B210 Laptop Backpack (18″x13.5″x6″): Works for AA, Spirit, Frontier, and Delta
- Matein Laptop Travel Backpack (18″x14″x8″): Works for AA, Spirit, Frontier, and Delta
- Osprey Farpoint® Fairview® Travel Daypack (18.5″x11″x8″): Works for Delta only
- Amazon Basics Laptop Backpack (19.5″x13.5″x7″): Works for Delta only
Since the personal item dimensions are smaller for United, Southwest, and JetBlue, you’re more limited on your backpack choice with these airlines. You’ll have to look for packs that measure 16-17″ high by 10-13.5″ wide and 8-9″ deep.
You’ll have the best luck looking for children’s backpacks, ultralight/slim daypacks, or small sling bags if you’re flying United, Southwest, or JetBlue.
There are a few slim laptop bags for smaller laptops that can work on United, Southwest, or JetBlue, but you’ll have to pay close attention to the dimensions when you’re browsing since many measure 18+ inches in height to accommodate larger laptops.
Examples of Personal Items on Flights
Now that you know that backpacks can be brought on a flight as your free personal item, are you limited to bringing backpacks only? Definitely not!
There are a range of bags and items that can be brought instead of a backpack as your personal item. Examples of personal items for flights include:
- Laptop bags
- Small backpacks
- Diaper bags
- Camera bags
As you can see, there are plenty of options for personal items when you’re preparing for a flight. Choose the roomiest bag you have that still fits within the airlines’ personal item dimensions.
You might find that it’s better to bring a small backpack instead of a purse, for example, because you can fit your purse and other items into it for the trip.
If you don’t need much during your flight (such as short flights), it’s still a good idea to bring a small personal item along. You can store snacks, headphones, books, medicine, or portable chargers in it.
The list of allowed items is even longer when you consider that most airlines allow you to bring the following items in addition to your free personal item:
- Mobility devices (crutches, canes, wheelchairs, etc.)
- FAA-approved portable oxygen concentrators (POCs)
- Diaper bag/breast pump/childcare necessities
- Stroller/car seat
- Coat/jacket, hat, etc.
- Reading materials
- Snacks purchased at the airport
Most airlines will allow you to tote these items along on your flight in addition to your free personal item. You should never be without essentials you, your child, or traveling mate need during the flight!
For example, you could bring a small backpack as your personal item along with a diaper bag and stroller. Or bring a purse as your personal item as well as a wheelchair and FAA-approved POC.
Larger items, like wheelchairs and strollers, may need to be checked during the flight if space isn’t available in the cabin. But you’ll always be able to keep your personal item with you because it can be stored under the seat in front of you.
Things to Consider
When you’re flying to your destination for a trip, bringing a backpack as a personal item is really helpful for tucking all your essentials away while keeping them nearby.
Here are a few air travel tips to organize, pack, and store your personal item perfectly!
- Measure your backpack after it’s filled. It’s a common mistake to measure only the empty backpack you’ll be using as your personal item. The backpack has to meet the dimension requirements when it’s full, so do a measurement at home after packing your bag to make sure it still meets the criteria.
- Include any handles, straps, or wheels. When you measure the backpack you want to use as your personal item, make sure to include the handles, straps, or wheels in your measurements. The entire bag has to be able to fit under the seat in front of you, so if the wheels or straps overhang the edges or add additional depth, width, or height to the pack, it needs to be reflected in the measurements.
- Pack essentials at the top. The last thing you want is to have to pull everything out of your backpack during a flight to get to something important! Pack the less-important stuff near the bottom, leaving space at the top to slip in the items you might need to pull out during the flight or as soon as you touch down in your destination.
- Invest in a quality backpack. Backpacks can be purchased super-cheap these days, but if you travel often, you’ll want to invest in a quality backpack that will hold up for many trips to come. Since most airlines allow you to bring a free personal item, spending a little more to invest in a high-quality backpack you can use for every single flight is a better deal than needing to purchase multiple cheap packs that fall apart at the seams after a few uses.
- If you sit in the front row, use the overhead bin. Since a plane’s front row seats don’t have any seats in front of them, you won’t be able to store your personal items like others on the plane. Instead, you’ll need to use the overhead bin as long as there’s available space. Don’t place your item under your own seat, which is the space allotted for the personal item of the passenger behind you.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is a backpack a personal item or does it count as a carry-on? How big can a backpack be if it’s your personal item on a flight?
We answer the most frequently asked questions below, so take a look to learn more!
What size backpack is a personal item?
Small backpacks can be brought on as personal items on flights. Most airlines allow backpack sizes 17-18” (H) by 10-14” (W) by 8-9” (D) for personal items.
Southwest dimensions are smaller (16.25x13.5x8) and Delta dimensions are larger (22x14x9). In general, personal item backpack sizes must be small enough to fit under the plane seat in front of you.
Does a backpack count as a carry-on on a plane?
A backpack can count as a carry-on or personal item on a plane, depending on the size of the pack. Backpacks that measure up to 22x14x9 inches may be considered carry-on size for most airlines.
Backpacks under 18x14x9 inches may be considered personal items (which are usually free to bring).
What size backpack will fit under airplane seat?
Small backpacks will fit under an airplane seat easily, like children’s backpacks, slim laptop backpacks, ultralight/slim backpacks, and small daypacks.
Check the dimensions on your backpack; if it’s smaller than 18”H, 14”W, and 9”D, it may be able to fit under an airplane seat. Dimensions vary by airline, so check your airline’s website for personal item rules to be sure.
What is considered a personal item on a flight?
Personal items on a flight include small backpacks, purses, laptop bags, diaper bags, briefcases, totes, and camera bags that are stored in the cabin under the seat in front of you.
The difference between carry-on bags and personal items is the size and storage. Carry-on bags can be larger because they’re stored in the overhead bins. Personal items must be smaller because they’re stored under the plane seat in front of you.
Does TSA consider a backpack a personal item?
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) doesn’t have rules for personal item sizes, only the contents of them.
Your airline makes the rules for personal items, and backpacks may be considered personal items if they’re small enough to fit under the plane seat in front of you.
So, When Is a Backpack a Personal Item?
A backpack counts as a personal item when it’s small enough to fit under the plane seat in front of you – usually measuring around 18x14x8 inches or smaller.
There are exceptions, with Delta allowing backpacks used as personal items to be as big as a carry-on (22x14x9 inches) and JetBlue and United limiting height to 17″ and width to 10-13″.
Southwest has the strictest dimension rules for personal items (including backpacks) with limited under-seat space leaving room for backpacks that are no bigger than 16.25×13.5×8 inches.
If your backpack meets the personal item dimensions requirements for the airline you’re flying with, it’s fine to bring it along on your flight!
If it’s too big, it can still be flown as a carry-on bag as long as it’s no bigger than 22x14x9 inches. You might have to pay an additional fee if your airline doesn’t include a free carry-on bag with your flight.
You can always look for a smaller backpack, a laptop bag, or other small bag to use if yours is bigger than the personal item dimensions listed for your airline and you want to avoid the extra baggage fees!