a row of seats in an airplane

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!

a man and woman standing next to luggage

Personal Item: Simplest Definition

The simplest definition of a small personal item under most guidelines, is anything fitting under the seat in front of you. Yep, that’s the gist.

A shoulder bag, small handbag, laptop bag, small backpack, camera bag, or standard briefcase is most commonly accepted. 17” x 10” x 9” fits virtually every airlines specific measurement guidance. There’s just a little catch…

Weight And Balance

Airlines are now in the habit of weighing carry on bags. The more “five star” — or old school of an airline you fly on, the less likely this is, but on budget airlines, it’s not at all uncommon now.

A great trick is to remove items from your carry on, shedding some weight from the bag most, or more often measured than the personal item. So long as your personal item comfortably fits under your seat – you should be good to go.

Wearing layers can help lighten your bags too.

a row of seats on an airplane

And Finally, On That Note…

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, worse case.

The Do Not’s Of Carry On’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”. Stick with the forgiveness rather than permission saying.

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.

And finally, if you have a smart case, be sure you can eject any batteries or toys on the case in a flash, if needed. And never, ever check a carry on with a battery into the hold under the plane. It’s essential to remove any batteries if you check a bag in.

What are your carry on tips?

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. Silly thing to add, but make it look light. Keep it casually on one shoulder, and whatever you do, don’t squabble with your partner about who’s going to “carry all your sh*t”.

    I’ve seen that, the squabble turned into an expensive gate to hold luggage load.

  2. The “Weight Balance” didn’t work for me at all in Singapore. I was flying Scoot or Jetstar (I can’t remember which airline) from Singpore to KL I think and I know LCC are very strict with the baggage policy but this just shocked me. This friendly looking older lady with a big smile intercepted me at the area before you pass security and asked to weigh my bags. I said ok so I followed her to the counter. To my shock she weighed both roller bag and my “personal item” which was a tote bag that easily fit under the seat and it contained my tablet and some personal items. Of course the 2 bags exceeded the limit. I said “but this is my personal item that fits under the seat.” All she said was they have to weight them together. I ended up paying $60 to check my bag in otherwise I would have to pay $160 if I insisted on taken them inside the plane as my carry on and my personal item. She literally did the calculations on a piece of paper as to how much my bags weigh individually and came up with $160 from some internal company formula.

  3. Barbour coats with a poacher pocket are great for decamping heavy items from your luggage when being weighed. Also heavy enough for most weather or at least allow you to layer underneath

  4. Great reminder about removing the batteries if you need to Gilbert. Can make the difference of your flight arriving safely.

  5. Food bag also allowed (I always take a cloth one with wraps and snacks). Also “medical equipment”, like my CPAP in it’s case.

  6. Most women carry a purse. This should be allowed as long as it’s not a big purse. An over the shoulder bag should be acceptable as well as a carry on and a small per bag for essentials. Like medication, sanitary items. Cash and credit cards, I usually place my purse in my carryon in until I get on the plane , but this is so inconvenient. A small purse wont make any difference to the plane’s “ load”

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