We all want to avoid checked baggage fees, breezing directly off the plane without stopping for hefty luggage. And if you become an expert packer, it’s actually easier than you’d think. But part of becoming an expert packer involves maximizing the “small personal item” – that super vague thing you’re allowed to bring, in addition to a full sized carry on bag. Here’s everything you need to know about this mysterious “small personal” carry on item, which may be the difference in paying baggage fees – or not!

Simplest Definition

The simplest definition of a small personal item under most guidelines, is anything fitting under the seat in front of you. A shoulder bag, small handbag, laptop bag, small backpack, camera bag, or briefcase is most commonly accepted. 17” x 10” x 9” fits virtually every airlines specific measurement guidance.

Weight Balance

Airlines are now in the habit of weighing carry on bags. A great trick is to remove items from your carry on, shedding some weight from the bag most often measured. So long as your personal item comfortably fits under your seat – you should be good to go.


In addition to your carry on and personal item, travelers are allowed to bring coat, jacket, hat, newspaper, book, pillow or blanket. This is a great “out” if you’re slightly overweight, allowing you to carry something like a heavy laptop or coat, removing it from the strictly weighed carry on allowance. You can always re pack it.

The Do Not’s…

Even when airlines announce plans to strictly weigh all bags at the gate, it doesn’t always come true. A surefire way to draw extra scrutiny is to “ask”. Don’t ask if your weight is ok, don’t ask if your personal item is acceptable. By doing so, all you’re doing is creating unwanted attention for yourself and others. If anything, wear the backpack and put it on the shoulder furthest from the gate agent.

What are your carry on tips?