It’s a common scenario while boarding a crowded flight: Flight attendants start Tetris-ing suitcases, backpacks, briefcases, jackets, and other items into overhead bins, trying to make sure there’s room for everyone’s luggage. A key piece of the what-fits-where puzzle is the personal item, which generally refers to the small purse, backpack, or tote bag that airlines allow passengers to carry on board for free—and which must be able to fit under the seat in front of you.
But with packed flights on the horizon as the holiday season approaches, and more travelers trying to avoid paying checked-bag fees (along with the risk of the airline losing said checked bag), it’s essential for fliers to understand airline rules around personal items—and remember common courtesy when it comes to flight attendants, fellow passengers, and shared spaces on the aircraft. Here’s what you need to know about personal items for your next flight.
Almost universally, carriers allow passengers to bring onboard a personal item like a purse, backpack, or briefcase, at no additional charge. This item is in addition to the free carry-on piece, such as a small wheeled suitcase, allowed by most major airlines (except, generally, on the cheapest fare class such as basic economy).
Except for mobility devices (such as crutches, canes, and wheelchairs) and items like car seats, personal items must be able to fit under the seat in front of you—a specification airlines clearly state on their websites. “A well understood, and accepted by the majority of airlines, definition of a personal item is a bag that can be stored under the seat in front of you,” explains Anton Radchenko, CEO of AirAdvisor, a Boston-based passenger claims management company. Radchenko also says that the exact dimensions can differ between airlines.
There are some notable exceptions to the personal item rule as well. Most major US carriers don’t count kid-specific items such as diaper bags, strollers, and car seats (the latter to be used onboard) as a personal item. In addition, most airlines allow passengers to bring extras—duty free purchases, food and drink bought after clearing the security line, and jackets, coats, or umbrellas, for example—that don’t count toward their personal item. And that’s where things can get complicated, especially on full flights.
“Often passengers will arrive with a suitcase, personal items, coats, and sometimes even shopping bags,” says Josephine Remo, a Copenhagen-based former flight attendant with Scandinavian Airlines. “Obviously, all of that does not fit under the seat.”
Cue a scenario sure to happen more often as the holiday travel season ramps up: flight attendants removing personal items like small backpacks, jackets, or
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