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How to Pack in Just a Personal Item Sized Bag

You’ve found an amazing airfare but the price only includes a personal item. What does this mean? Should you pony up and pay extra for a larger carry-on or checked bag? Is it possible to take a trip with only a small backpack or handbag?

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Tips for Packing in Only a Personal Item

Woman wearing yellow backpack and holding passport walking down walkway in airport
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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 super cheap getaway for a few days. And if you’re into the minimalist lifestyle, you can even stretch this out to week-long trips or longer. More and more airlines are selling super cheap flights that only include a personal item with the hope 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 AllegiantFlair AirFrontierPorterSpiritSun CountrySwoop, 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

­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

Blank packing list in a notebook on top of partially packed suitcase
Juliaap | Adobe Stock



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

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 actually size up these bags. There are plenty of options to choose from for personal item bags. A small backpack is ideal for organization as they usually include many different compartments and also allow you to be hands-free when traveling. If you prefer wheeled bags, there are even a few small enough to fit underneath an airplane seat. Another option is to go with a large tote bag, which can usually fit the most 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 (left) and Travelpro Maxlite 5 15” Lightweight Carry-on Rolling Under Seat Bag as compared to an average height woman (right)

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 (left) and two illustrated people wearing the Swiss Gear Travel Gear 1900 Scansmart TSA Laptop Backpack (right)

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

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

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

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.

The added bonus of not lugging around extra bags will also allow you to save once you arrive at your destination. Public transportation options suddenly don’t seem too bad when you’re only carrying one small bag and you can put your extra money towards tasting the local food or enjoying the attractions during your trip.

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