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Personal Item vs. Carry-On: What’s the Difference?

The definition of a personal item has always been unclear. We’ve all seen passengers rolling their large carry-ons and carrying equally large bags and backpacks on as their “personal item.” The general rule is that your personal item must fit under the seat in front of you, but in my experience, I’ve never seen anyone questioned about their personal item.

Personal Item vs Carry-On: What You Need to Know

For years, personal items have flown mostly under the radar, but in this new bare fares world—in which airlines are offering cheaper base fares but charging for carry-ons—more and more people will be traveling with nothing but a personal item.

When you’re traveling on the cheap and trying to pack as much as possible in a very limited amount of space, knowing the rules is vital. Here’s a look at the personal item and free carry-on limitations for 10 major U.S. airlines.

(The dimensions below reflect height, length, width.)

American Airlines

American specifies that the dimensions of your personal item should not exceed 18×14 x 8 inches and must be able to fit under the seat in front of you. Potentially larger items that don’t count as personal items include diaper bags, child-safety seats, and medical and mobility devices.

In comparison, carry-ons should not exceed 22x14x9 inches. Note that musical instruments and pets will count as a carry-on item.

Delta

Delta does not give dimensions for personal items, but requires that they fit under the seat in front of you. Things that are not personal items include: jackets, umbrellas, food and drinks purchased in the terminal, strollers, child seats, and medical and mobility devices.

On Delta, the maximum carry-on size is 22x14x9 inches.

Southwest

Southwest is vague, defining personal items as “one smaller, personal-type item,” and only specifies that carry-ons do not exceed 24x16x10 inches. It does, however, mention that pets will count as either a carry-on or a personal item.

United

On United flights, personal items must fit under the seat and cannot be larger than 17x10x9 inches for passengers traveling on basic economy tickets. Things that do not count as your personal item are: jackets, umbrellas, reading material, food or airport merchandise, medical assistive devices, child safety seats, diaper bags, breast pumps, and pet carriers.

On United, carry-ons should not exceed 22x14x9 inches.

Alaska Airlines

On Alaska flights, personal items are only defined as a “purse, briefcase, or laptop computer.” Jackets, hats, umbrellas, personal pillows, food, child safety seats, service animals, medications, assistive devices, and “a reasonable amount of” reading material do not count as personal items.

Carry-ons must not exceed 24x17x10 inches.

JetBlue

On JetBlue, personal items should not exceed 17x13x8 inches and must fit under the seat. The carrier doesn’t specify anything that doesn’t count as a personal item.

Carry-ons must be 22x14x9 inches.

Spirit

Personal items on Spirit can be as large as 18x14x8 inches, large enough to include a larger purse or smaller backpack. It is the only airline that specifies that a backpack counts as a personal item.

By comparison, carry-ons should not be larger than 22x18x10 inches.

Frontier

On Frontier, the maximum dimensions for personal items are 18x14x8 inches; items must fit under the seat in front of you. Diaper bags, canes, coats, canes, assistive devices, and “foot rungs used during prayer” do not count as personal items.

Carry-ons may be as large as 24x16x10 inches.

Hawaiian Airlines

On Hawaiian Airlines’ website, no dimensions for personal items are given, but the airline specifies that personal items may include a purse, briefcase, laptop bag, backpack, or “similar item.” Car seats and strollers do not count as personal items.

Carry-ons must be 22x14x9 inches.

Allegiant

On Allegiant, the dimensions for personal items are 16x15x7 inches. Examples of personal items include purses, briefcases, small backpacks, camera cases, and portable electronics. Jackets, “small” umbrellas, food, and diaper bags do not count as personal items.

Carry-ons must not exceed 22x14x9 inches.

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 Jamie Ditaranto is a writer and photographer who is always looking for her next adventure. Follow her on Twitter @jamieditaranto.

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