The Personal Item

Quite often I get asked about “the personal item,” the smaller carry-on bag that most airlines allow passengers to take on board to keep under the seat in front of them.

And the question asked is always the same: Why don’t you allow people to carry personal items?

My response is always the same: Who says I don’t?

I carry a personal item. It’s usually a smaller bag that does double duty. When traveling, it has in it everything I need during the flight, train or bus trip while my main carry-on bag is in the overhead compartment.

When at my destination, it becomes as my day bag.

The only difference I suggest is when traveling, place the “personal item” INSIDE your carry-on bag and take it out at your seat. This way you only have ONE BAG to worry about at all other times.

I make note of this in section 7 of “Core Principles of One Bag Travel:”

7) Everything you eventually take with you must fit in one, wheel-less*, carry on bag measuring no more than standard carry-on dimensions:  22″ x 14″ x 9″/56cm x 35cm x 22cm. (This will vary depending on the airline you are flying.)  The use of a second, smaller, personal item is optional. (Gold stars to those who can put their personal item inside their carry-on.)

I hope this clears up any confusion for those who thought I meant no second bag at all was allowed and everything had to be kept loose in their one bag.

15 Responses to The Personal Item

  1. Pingback: The Personal Item | One Bag, One World

  2. Jeff Mac says:

    I am an even bigger fan of this approach now that American is doing the “Light traveler” boarding BEFORE group 1. It is only available to people that are carrying a single bag and they are being strict about it…

    • GearGuy68 says:

      The one bag rule for American is 36
      ci right? Even a western flyer is bigger so I don’t really see why I would even try at that size. Just not enough space. They are doing to encourage people to check bags of course and I do not do that for any reason. I would as soon leave extra items on my hotel bed and lose them as pay the 25 dollars. I will not pay ever and if other air lines begin to try forcing the issue I will cease flying. I do check a bag on delta as that is free for me. I hate American and I hope the merger with us airways dies.

  3. GearGuy68 says:

    Where I fly out of I must gate check. I use an MEI main bag with a zip on back pack. It is the best set up I have found EDP when stacked with tactical pants and scottevest shirt and vest.

  4. Lomo says:

    I am planning a trip on AA. I was hoping to bring my Tom Bihn Empire Builder as my only bag and qualify for LIght Traveler boarding. But at 38 inches, I don’t think it will qualify as a personal item. I might as well bring the Tristar at 40 inches.

    How strict is strict? Measuring tape? Or “that looks pretty big and heavy, you’ll need to wait.”?

  5. Alan B says:

    Perhaps Frank can clarify if the American Airlines rule requires a “personal” item, or if a “full-size” carry-on would be allowed. A Tom Bihn Western Flyer is marginally over the 36-inch rule at 18 x 12 x 7 inches, while an Osprey Ozone Messenger Bag at 16 x 13 x 7 hits that limit on the mark (and, by the way, through Labor Day is on sale at REI for about $66.)

    • Frank@OBOW says:

      AA doesn’t mention any exact sizes in their press release about the new boarding procedure except to say “personal item” and “fit under the seat.” Their personal size limit is 36 linear inches. Does that meant they’ll freak out over 37? I doubt it. I think what it means is: if you’re traveling without wheels and your bag isn’t too big–it looks like it can fit under the seat–you can board early. However, as usual, it’s still always up to the gate agent.

      Here’s a link to the press release. You decide:

      AA’s New Boarding Policy

  6. Alan B says:

    Thank you Frank! Reading the fine print…and it is SMALL print, one finds that:


    So, if one packs the primary carry-on absent any item you might need en route, or anything that is an attractive value, one can GATE-CHECK the bag at NO CHARGE, then also bring a personal item that clearly will fit under the seat to meet in-flight needs. This does mean a short delay on deplaning to pick up the larger bag, but likely not as long as a checked bag would have taken.

    From American Airlines’ perspective, this would help shorten the boarding delays caused by passengers trying to find bin space, or cram somewhat oversized bags there, not to mention preventing the occasional injury this struggle sometimes causes.

    The matter does highlight the importance of a well-chosen and carefully packed PERSONAL ITEM. I think I’d plan to continue using my Tom Bihn Co-Pilot, which works very well for this role, and even leaves some leg and foot space for the flight.

  7. Alan B says:

    “American’s baggage policy allows each customer to take onboard at no charge one personal item that will fit under the seat in front of them and one bag that meets the FAA-mandated carry-on size requirements to fit into the overhead storage compartment. With the new boarding process, customers who wish to board early before Group 2 can gate-check their carry-on bag at no charge.”

    Sorry…one needs to use the real quotation marks to retain the text.

  8. MWebb says:

    “Carryon luggage” on most American flights (and also on my Asian flights) is 45″ as the sum of the three linear dimensions of the bag (LxWxH). Most airlines also have a crate or other size-tester situated both at the ticket counter and the boarding gate but I have never, ever seen one used or been asked to use one – but they won’t take a typical 22″ wheelie, with the wheels and hand strap on the top, most are just too long.

    The problem I run into on my Asia flights is the 15.5 or so pound limit for carryon luggage.

    With most lightweight wheelies running an average of 7-8 pounds empty, that doesn’t leave much room for actual contents.

    The lightest wheelie I found is the 5.5 pound LLBean Medium Adventure Rolling Duffle. (It came in under its listed weight according to my scale.) Usually the counter agent will cut you some slack if you are a pound or two over – but they often re-weigh them at the gate, so be careful of filling up water bottles, or sneaking stuff back in post-ticket counter.

    I try to use a bag small and comfortable enough to carry on my lap, or at my feet, as my personal item.

    I think the best rule of thumb for a “personal item” is: will it fit under the seat in front of me? Most of my airlines have moved away from specifying weight or linear dimensions, using vague terms like woman’s purse, briefcase, small pack to describe the personal item. Based on some of my experiences at the ticket counter, some airlines are really starting to crack down on personal items, as they seem to be growing to the size of what we used to consider actual carryon luggage. Bulky day packs are a particularly sore point for some of the ticket counter agents I have encountered. I have even had my personal item weighed, but this is rare. I think the best argument we can make back – since in some cases the counter agents aren’t even following their airlines published rules – is that I will only be putting one item overhead, the other item is for my seat. That seems to mollify them the most.

    The largest personal item I have gotten away with is the RedOxx Kat Pack, the smallest I have used is the Gator. The Patagonia MiniMass in its new edition is about 150 c.i. larger than the Gator, but still looks inoffensive.

    I think the best advice I would give anyone in this horribly murky area is as follows:

    1. Make sure your luggage and personal item look different in size – it’s actually ok for the luggage to look bigger than it really needs to be, if that makes your personal item look smaller. If they are both roughly the same size, the ticket counter agent is likely to weigh both, and may try to treat them both as luggage, especially if they have a 15.5 pound limit and both bags are pushing that (due to heavy computer in your personal item, for example). Leave the personal item on your luggage cart, it will look smaller there, and only bring forward your carryon luggage for weighing, unless asked.

    2. Luggage can be up to 45 linear inches total (length plus width plus height) but keep an eye on the length, don’t exceed 22″. Watch the weight, and certainly don’t go over 17 pounds for the average friendly airline with a weight limit, or stick to the weight limit for the unfriendly ones.

    3. Soft-sided luggage (Rick Steves Back Door Convertible Back Pack or any of the higher end comparables from RedOxx, Tom Bihn, or luggage companies) will save a couple of pounds, if you can deal with the weight on your shoulder or back. Stowing the backpack straps for the ticket counter makes the bag look smaller. Stowing any accessory shoulder strap into your personal item instead of into your luggage transfers a little weight.

    4. Empty any water bottles before the ticket counter, not before security. Saves weight. A disposable (but reusable) plastic bottle is lighter than an aluminum or steel bottle.

    5. If you can stow your personal item into your carryon luggage – and still make weight and size – it is more convenient transiting the ticket counter and security and even boarding. I call my personal item a “seat side pull-out bag” in that scenario. But I can’t generally make weight, so I keep my bags separate. That means I have to wrangle up to 3 bags on arrival (and 3 bags to the departure airport) – checked, carryon, personal item. If I check a large enough, but underfilled, bag, I can generally stow my carryon luggage in my checked luggage which helps if I am taking a subway or train at my destination.

    6. My seat-side bag – my personal item – goes to the bathroom with me on the flight, for security, and is looped cross-body, on my lap, under my blanket, while sleeping on the flight. Through TSA security I use plastic zip ties to secure all contents; you can also use twist ties, which don’t require snipping off (with nail clippers) if you just want to slow down, and not completely stymie, TSA and fellow-passenger pilferers. In the overhead bin I either used zipties or at a minimum position my overhead bag with zippers towards the bulkhead to discourage pilferers.

  9. Fun Travel says:

    People who travel with lightweight luggage don’t want to check them, at the gate or otherwise.

    Wheeled luggages with an heavy frame are an hazard on overhead bins, if the bins open during heavy turbulences, they can cause serious injuries, they should all be checked.

    People with mobility and health impairements should be allowed to use a lightweight removable wheel cart to move their luggage up to their seats. there the flight attendants can help the person stow the carry on into the overhead bin and fold the cart to fit under the seat.

    • MWebb says:

      @ Fun Travel,

      I hope overhead bins don’t open due to air turbulence! Does anyone know whether bins opened on the Asiana Airlines crash at SFO?

      But I can certainly see your point. Those bins only have a single latch, and I have seen some “false latch” – partially close then pop open during a normal flight. There’s also the issue of proper maintenance, and on one flight my seat was only “half” locked in upright – the other side wasn’t engaging. If that can happen to a chair, I wonder how often overhead latches get worn, out of alignment, or maybe stuck with lint or dirt.

      Asian air carriers (and some Europeans) limit carryon luggage to 7kg – is that for safety? I asked a friend in the industry and she told me cynically of course it wasn’t, it was because the elderly people on many of the Pacific flights can’t lift their bags into the overheads and bog down the boarding process while they seek help. And if any attendant is going to end up having to help (under the published rules they are not required to, but they often do), they certainly don’t want to have to wrangle more than 15 lbs. She also said at the end of a long flight, a lot of passengers are fatigued and sometimes their luggage slips – heavier luggage slips more easily, and the consequences of heavier luggage landing on someone are greater than the consequences of lighter luggage. So for all concerned, and for minor savings in fuel, they try to limit the weight of carryon bags.

      More interesting to me, is, “who the heck designed overhead compartments so a spill would land on a passenger and not in the aisle”? Maybe it’s a function of deliberately limiting the depth of an overhead compartment, but that aisle seat is a real head-bonking area. Simply for head-bonk safety, I’d even rather be in the middle than in the aisle. If someone is trying to load a particularly dangerous wheelie over my head, I stand up and move out of the way.

      So in short I think our fellow passengers are more of a risk to us than air turbulence.

      Good idea about the old-fashioned external luggage cart.

      • Fun Travel says:

        The overhead compartments are badly designed, it would help if they were wider and higher so that one doesn’t have to fear bumping one’s head when standing up.

        I used to travel with bags I couldn’t lift. It changed when I had to stick to carry on weight regulations. With the help of Frank and other lightweight travellers, I was able to make a list of essentials clothing pieces and other other musts haves thus lower the weight of my carry-on from 25 to 15 pounds.

        It is easier on my back, I travel with Tom Bihn’s Dyneema luggages with backpack straps convertible, or not, and a small purse.

        I indeed believe that roll aboards, especially big ones, should not be allowed in the cabin.

        Airports would also benefit from better layouts, trains or electric shuttles between terminals and those golf carts offered to people with limited mobility, families with small children to go from security to the gates.

        I also think that duty free shops could be confined to the upper floor of airports along with restaurants, airline lounges and hotels.
        That arrangement would allow people with extended layovers to relax, enjoy a nice local meal, some luxury shopping as well as some rest, if delayed.

        The rest of us could happily ignore that upper area and get on with security, gate finding, freshen up and snack buy until it is time to board.

        It would also be nice to have seatings with charging ability at all gates, in all international airports.

        I understand that the reply is a bit outside of the subject of personal item but if the airlines expect us to travel light, they need to give us tools to be able to do it and still enjoy the journey and these days, it means being connected.

  10. Kbaker says:

    We are taking our kids on a vacation to Hawaii for one week. We are traveling with Allegiant Air which charges for EVERYTHING including carry on bags each way. What I am considering is having each of our six kids pack for the week using a 13″ “personal bag” which is free. Then checking a couple suitcases to share. Do you think the airline will give any hassles about that? What are your thoughts, what do you recommend?

    • MWebb says:

      Provided they are not a “lap child” (i.e., the child has his or her own seat) they are governed by the same luggage rules applicable to adults. So they cannot forbid a child from carrying on a personal bag (7x15x16, no weight specified).

      Since there are two reasons for limiting cabin luggage (well maybe three – available space, allowing quicker boarding, and safety), the counter and gate agents might be more concerned about smaller children wrangling 6 bags than by six adults with personal bags. Technically the airlines have to follow their own rules, but if it looks like there will be a carryon circus during boarding, they are more likely to enforce the rules strictly when kids are involved, so please make sure you stay within the size limits, and consider taking along a tailor’s tape measure to prove the bags are within size even if they look like they are overpacked or bulging. Also it pays to be polite and to remind the agents that you are aware that each bag must fit under the seat, not in the overhead, and that your children understand and agree that their bags will go underseat.

      One final tip might be to zip tie each bag closed, except perhaps a small ziploc of play items in an outside pocket, so the agents know the kids won’t disassemble their personal item at their seats and cause delays in disembarking. The more reassurances you can make to the agents, if they raise eyebrows, the better. Agents know we resent these fees, and know we try to avoid them, but I haven’t seen an agent yet who gleefully tries to impose them. They will cut us some slack if we recognize boarding and disembarking are stressful times when the cabin crew wants things to go smoothly to keep tempers and frustration levels down.

      BTW I think your idea is GREAT. It not only avoids “junk fees” while satisfying the airlines legitimate concern about having to “gate check” if the bins fill up, it teaches the little kids to be responsible for their things.

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