Does A Backpack Count As A Carry On / Personal Item?

Unless you’re an expert traveler, packing for a flight can be a struggle.

One of the most challenging bags to get right is the one (or two) you’ll bring as hand luggage.

Every airline has different carry-on baggage allowances – some allow two pieces, some restrict the size and weight, and some only permit certain fare classes to bring certain items.

A backpack can be either a carry-on bag or a personal item, depending on its size and the baggage rules for the airline. Personal items usually fit under the seat in front of you, whereas carry-on luggage must be placed in the overhead bin. Confirm your airline’s baggage allowance before choosing a backpack for your flight.

This article breaks down the difference between carry-on and personal items and provides the current baggage allowance for major US airlines.

Are Backpacks Carry-On Bags or Personal Items?

A woman wearing a gray backpack.

Anyone who’s flown with multiple airlines knows that the same backpack they’ve had for years is considered a personal item on one carrier but a carry-on bag on another.

The difference between carry-on bags and personal items really comes down to the size of the plane.

For a backpack to be a personal item, it must fit under the seat in front of you. 

If your pack is too big for under-seat storage, congratulations, it’s a carry-on.

The dimensions for personal items vs. carry-on luggage depend on the airline, and what fits on one plane may not fit on another.

Additionally, many airlines restrict the amount of hand luggage passengers can bring on board.

Often, the lowest flight fare ‌only comes with one personal item, whereas business class tickets have more generous perks.

Before you decide which backpack to travel with, confirm the baggage allowance for your flight class.

Read Also >> Does a Fanny Pack Count as a Personal Item?

Carry-On Allowances for Major US Airlines

A brown leather duffel bag is on the floor.

The following lists the carry-on allowances for all major US airlines. 

When limits are specified, oversized or overweight baggage will likely need to be checked, often at an additional cost.

This information can change without notice, so always check with your airline before packing your bags.

Alaska Airlines

Passengers traveling on Alaska Airlines flights are allowed two pieces of hand luggage at no extra charge.

Personal items include purses, briefcases, small backpacks, laptop bags, and medically necessary items, and they must fit under the seats. 

Carry-on bags fit in the overhead bins and must be 22 x 14 x 9 inches (56 x 36 x 23 cm) or less, including wheels and handles.

Alaska also specifies that the length + height + width of any carry-on bag may not be more than 45 in (114.3 cm).

There is no weight limit for carry-on bags.

Horizon and SkyWest 

Horizon Air and SkyWest have the same baggage allowance as Alaska; however, their aircraft are smaller, limiting overhead storage and under-seat space.

As such, larger carry-on items are placed in the luggage hold during the flight.

Before boarding, passengers deposit their larger bags on a planeside cart, where they are tagged. 

Five minutes after guests deplane, they can grab their bags at a designated ramp area or jet bridge near a red and white stop sign.

American Airlines

American Airlines also allows passengers to bring one personal and one carry-on item for free.

Personal items cannot be larger than 18 x 14 x 8 inches (45 x 35 x 20 cm), and carry-ons cannot exceed 22 x 14 x 9 inches (56 x 36 x 23 cm), including wheels and handles.

Passengers can bring soft-sided garment bags up to 51 inches/130 cm (length + width + height), musical instruments, or pets as carry-on items (pet fees apply).

There is no weight limit for carry-on bags.

Delta Airlines

Delta Airlines includes one personal item and one carry-on item on all flights.

Personal items are anything that fits under the seat in front, including musical instruments.

Carry-on bags must be within 22 x 14 x 9 inches (56 x 36 x 23 cm), and the length + width + height combined must be less than 45 linear inches (114 cm).

There are no weight restrictions for carry-on bags, except at the following international airports:

  • Changi International Airport (SIN), Singapore: maximum 15 lbs (7 kg)
  • Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK), Beijing, China: 22 lbs (10 kg)
  • Pudong International Airport (PVG), Shanghai, China: 22 lbs (10 kg).

Frontier Airlines

Frontier Airlines is a low-cost carrier, only allowing passengers one complimentary personal item on their flights. 

Personal items are restricted to 14 x 18 x 8 inches (35 x 45 x 20 cm), including handles, wheels, and straps, and airline staff are strict about measuring these bags before boarding.

Passengers can purchase an additional carry-on bag that is 24 x 16 x 10 inches (60 x 40 x 24 cm), but it must weigh less than 35 lbs (15.8 kg).

Hawaiian Airlines

Every guest of Hawaiian Airlines is permitted one personal item and one carry-on bag.

Like other airlines, personal items must fit under the seat, and carry-on bags must be 22 x 14 x 9 inches (56 x 36 x 23 cm) or less.

Hawaiian does limit the weight of carry-on items to 25 lbs (11 kg).


JetBlue is a low-cost international carrier that has five fare classes to choose from.

All fare classes include a free personal item, including purses, backpacks, laptop bags, and airline-approved pet carriers smaller than 17 x 13 x 8 inches (43 x 33 x 20 cm).

If guests bring personal items that exceed the size allocated, they must gate-check their bags for a fee.

Blue Basic passengers are restricted to one personal item only unless they qualify for an exception

All other fare classes are allowed one personal item and one carry-on bag measuring 22 x 14 x 9 inches (56 x 36 x 23 cm) with handles and wheels. 

Carry-on bags have no weight limit; however, pet carriers are restricted to 20 lbs (9 kg), including the animal.

Spirit Airlines

Spirit Airlines is a low-cost regional carrier that only allows passengers to bring one personal item on board for free.

Personal items cannot exceed 18 x 14 x 8 inches (45 x 35 x 20 cm) and must fit in the sizers at the airport.

Passengers can buy an additional carry-on bag that is 22 x 18 x 10 inches (56 x 46 x 25 cm) or less.

There may be a weight limit for paid carry-on baggage, so confirm with the airline for up-to-date information.

Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines passengers are also allowed one carry-on bag and one personal item. 

Carry-on bags are limited to 24 x 16 x 10 inches (60 x 40 x 24 cm), and personal items must be 16.25 x 13.5 x 8 inches (41 x 34 x 20 cm) or less. 

There is no posted weight limit for Southwest Airlines hand luggage.

United Airlines

Most flights on United Airlines come with one personal item and one carry-on bag, but you’ll have to check your reservation to confirm your baggage allowance.

Personal items must be 17 x 10 x 9 inches (43 x 25 x 22 cm), and carry-ons must be within 22 x 14 x 9 inches (56 x 36 x 23 cm).

There is no weight limit for carry-on bags or personal items.

Read Also >> Do Garment Bags Count as Carry-on?


When deciding if your backpack is a personal or carry-on item, the first thing you should do is check the baggage allowance for your airline and flight class.

After you know your limits, measure your backpack, including any handles or wheels.

If the bag is bigger than about 17 x 13 x 8 inches (43 x 33 x 20 cm), it’s likely carry-on sized and will need to be stowed in the overhead bin.