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How to Pack in Just a Personal Item-Sized Bag

You’ve found an amazing fare, but the price only includes a personal item. What does this mean? Should you pay extra for a larger carry-on or checked bag? Can you take a trip with only a small backpack or handbag?

Tips for Packing in Only a Personal Item

Woman with backpack facing away from the camera, looking at the arrivals board at an airport
simona | Adobe Stock

I’m here to tell you that, yes, it is possible. Although not ideal, traveling with only a personal item can be a great way to take a cheap getaway for a few days. And if you’re into the minimalist lifestyle, you can stretch this out to week-long trips or longer. More and more airlines are selling super cheap flights that only include a personal item, hoping that most passengers will pay extra for bags and/or other ancillary fees. If you don’t want to pay any more than that low fare you were attracted to, use these tips to travel with only a personal item-sized bag.

What is a Personal Item?

­First of all, let’s be clear on what exactly a personal item is. The exact dimensions vary by airline, but are usually a maximum of around 18x14x8 inches and up to 22 lbs. Each airline and individual employees will vary on how strictly these limitations are adhered to. In general, think small backpacks, large purses, or small wheeled bags that will fit underneath the seat in front of you on an airplane.

The growing number of airlines that only include a small personal item in the lowest class base price include Allegiant, Flair Air, Frontier, Porter, Spirit, Sun Country, Swoop, and United. Read on to learn how to take advantage of these airlines’ cheap fares.

What to Bring When Packing in a Personal Item Only

Person checking backpack in luggage size checker at airport terminal
Михаил Решетников | Adobe Stock

­You’ll have to be extremely picky about what goes in your bag if you’re going to travel with only a personal item. There is no room to bring any items on a “just in case” basis. A general rule of thumb is to bring along a total of about three outfits, including what you decide to wear while traveling. Of course, this varies depending on how long your trip is and what other items might be more important to you.

It’s usually best to leave your laptop behind on such trips as the added weight may tip you over the scale and many of your computing needs can be done with a smartphone these days. A tablet or an e-reader can be a good alternative if you prefer to have a larger screen. That being said, it’s not very common for airlines to actually weigh your personal item, though some will insist.

Below, I’ve included a list of what I usually bring with me when packing just a personal item. The number of clothing items really depends on how lightweight your clothes are and how long you plan to travel. Remember to wear your bulkier items and a few layers on the plane.

What to Pack in Your Personal Item Bag

Clothing:

Technology:

Toiletries / Personal items:

Make sure your liquids are TSA compliant.

Travel Documents & Money:

Miscellaneous Items:

The key to traveling with only a personal item is that you should only bring one pair of shoes. For this reason, you’ll have to choose wisely on which pair to bring and make sure it is a versatile and comfortable shoe that can be used for daily touring and also look nice enough to wear for a night out on the town.

Of course, if you’re traveling for more than just a few days, you’ll have to find somewhere to do laundry. This is usually pretty cheap and the pocket laundry wash works well if you need to wash something quickly. If you need to travel for a formal event, wear your formal attire on the flight to save space in your bag and also so it does not wrinkle. You may even get noticed for an upgraded seat if you’re looking spiffy and the airline needs to upgrade any passengers in order to open up oversold Economy seats.

How to Pack Your Personal Item

Woman siting on bed and packing travel gear into a yellow backpack
lithiumphoto | Adobe Stock

After setting aside a few layers of your bulkier items to wear on the plane, it’s time to cram all other items in your small personal item bag. To save as much space as possible, roll your clothing and you can keep things more organized by placing your clothes in a drawstring bag or a reusable shopping bag before placing in your personal item sized bag. Do the same for your pair of sandals or flip flops so other items don’t get dirty or if space is of the essence, you can easily attach a pair of sandals to the outside of your bag with carabiners. A bungee cord can also be useful to strap bulkier items to your bag that you don’t want to wear if it’s too hot while traveling.

Some items such as heavy coats won’t fit in a personal item sized bag, so if you’re going to a colder climate, you’ll need to wear or carry these items on the plane outside of your bag. I also like to bring a small plastic shopping bag with snacks or purchase a to-go meal at the airport to bring onboard. If space in your personal item is tight, you can always place a few items in your snack bag and you’ll likely never have any issue boarding a plane this way.

Personal Item Bags to Fit Everything You Need

Choosing the right personal item bag is paramount to fit what you need for your trip. It’s a good idea to check the airline’s size requirements for specific limitations, though unless the bag looks overly large, I don’t think many gate agents size up these bags. There are plenty of options to choose from for personal item bags. A small backpack is ideal for organization as it usually includes many different compartments and also allows you to be hands-free when traveling. If you prefer wheeled bags, some are small enough to fit underneath an airplane seat. Another option is to go with a large tote bag, which can usually fit the most amount of items. Here are a few bags I recommend.

Travelpro Maxlite 5 15” Lightweight Carry-on Rolling Under Seat Bag

Travelpro Maxlite 5 15” Lightweight Carry-on Rolling Under Seat Bag
Amazon

This bag fits underneath most airline seats and features several zippered organizational pockets. a retractable handle, inline wheels, and padded laptop sleeve.

Swiss Gear Travel Gear 1900 Scansmart TSA Laptop Backpack

Swiss Gear Travel Gear 1900 Scansmart TSA Laptop Backpack
Amazon

For travelers who prefer a backpack, this hyper-organized option from Swiss Gear contains a file folder, a laptop sleeve and tablet pocket, and RFID-protected organizer compartment.

Samsonite Large Wheeled Underseater

Samsonite Large Wheeled Underseater
Amazon

This lightweight suitcase from Samsonite weighs only 5.5 lbs, can be rolled via retractable handle and inline wheels or carried by the bag handles, and has plenty of exterior pockets to keep your essentials handy.

Leather Carry On Bag – Airplane Underseat Travel Duffel By RusticTown

Leather Carry On Bag – Airplane Underseat Travel Duffel By RusticTown
Amazon

Leather gives your luggage a timeless look. Arrive for your flight in style with this handmade weekender bag, which features break-resistant zippers.

Travelon Anti-Theft Heritage Backpack

Travelon Anti-Theft Heritage Backpack
Amazon

Another great option for backpack lovers, this bag has all the great organizational options you expect in a travel backpack with additional anti-theft features.

Bag Wizard Laptop Tote Bag

Bag Wizard Laptop Tote Bag
Amazon

This tote bag from Bag Wizard has a padded interior pocket for your laptop, plus loads of other pockets for ultimate organization. And it is super affordable, costing just over $30. 

Calpak Luka Duffel

Calpak Luka Duffel
Calpak

This duffel fits the personal-sized dimensions and is super cute, making it a great choice for your personal item-only packing trip. It has a shoe compartment at the bottom, is lightweight, water resistant, and has loads of pockets. 

Béis Mini Weekender

Béis Mini Weekender
Béis

The wide opening of this weekender makes packing a breeze. It features a laptop compartment, shoulder strap, pockets, and key ring. 

Nomad Carry-On Duffel

Nomad Carry-On Duffel
Amazon

This duffel opens down the middle like a suitcase, making packing (and unpacking) insanely easy, allowing you to get to every corner to make the most of your space. 

Calpak Hue Mini Carry-On

Calpak Hue Mini Carry-On
Calpak

Believe it or not, there is a hard-back personal-item-sized suitcase out there! If you are worried about your items getting squashed, this mini carry-on from Calpack will give you peace of mind, all while not having to pay extra for a regular-sized carry-on bag. 

All of the products featured in this story were hand-selected by our travel editors. Some of the links featured in this story are affiliate links, and SmarterTravel may collect a commission (at no cost to you) if you shop through them. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases. This story was originally posted on Airfarewatchdog.com.

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