They’re Not the Same Thing


Tell me if this sounds familiar…

“Ladies and gentlemen, your flight is now ready for boarding. We remind you that you are allowed one carry-on bag and one personal item on this flight.”

Seems simple, right?

But then you ask yourself, “What the heck is a personal item?”

Turns out there’s a huge difference between a carryon and a personal item, as I found out.

carry on vs personal item

Difference #1: size
Most carry-on bags are designed to fit into the overhead bin, 
whereas the personal item is supposed to fit under the seat in front of you. That means the personal item is far smaller. If it’s a soft-shell material, that’ll also mean you can compress it more easily when it’s time to check the size.

Difference #2: accessibility
Your personal item should be easier to access than something you stick in the overhead and forget about. Of course you can open the overhead bin any time – almost. Just not when there’s turbulence and the fasten seat belts sign is on, and not easily when you’re in a window or middle seat and have to crawl over a (sleeping) passenger or two to get to it.

Difference #3: security
You can put a tote into the overhead bin and leave it standing up, and there’s a chance things might not fall out. You can’t stick it under the seat and hope for the same. So you need zippers, snaps and other fasteners that will keep everything from falling out.

questions to ask before you buy

Before you jump up and give in to an impulse buy (it is a purse, after all) please think  through what you’ll need – and use that to guide your purchase:

  • How long is your flight? You won’t bring the same things on board for a hop from London to Barcelona as you will from Los Angeles to Seoul.
  • Is it a day or a night flight? You’ll need more to occupy yourself on a day flight. Your night, on the other hand, will partly be spent asleep (we hope!)
  • How busy must you keep? If you’re happy to watch online entertainment throughout your flight, you may need very little with you.
  • How are you feeling? Health is a major factor because you may have to bring along medicines, tissues, drops or creams.
  • What’s your body temperature like? If you’re the kind of person who goes from hot to cold and back, you may need a wrap or a light fleece on the plane.
  • What are your airline’s rules? If you’re flying on European discount airlines, for example, you’ll often have severe weight limits and that will influence what you buy.

what should i pack in my personal item?

Based on your answers to the questions above, here are some suggestions for your personal item:

  • Items for work: your laptop, phone, chargers, files, pens, papers – all this easily fits in a personal item
  • Items for relaxation: a meditation app, eye mask, ear plugs, a travel blanket, essential oils, a neck pillow
  • Items for fun: solitaire or deck of cards
  • Items for education: kindle or book, travel journal, …
  • Items for comfort: a pair of slippers, a pashmina

One more thing: make sure the items you’ll need the most are nearer the top of your personal item or in an accessible pocket for easy reach.

choosing the best personal item bag: comparison chart

You can use pretty much any bag as your personal item – as long as it fits. But if you’re conscious about quality and like to look your best when you travel, here are some recommended personal items that fit most airline requirements.

16.2 x 14.5 x 8in / 41.1 x 36.8 x 20cm

2.2lb / 0.9kg

The height is half an inch taller than the usual personal item but it’s canvas – so squish it. The lovely leather trim and solid finishings make this far more luxurious than its price indicates.

15.5 x 13.5 x 6in / 39.4 x 34.3 x 15.2cm

4.45lb / 3kg

Much smaller than it looks, with the convenience of wheels. It does fit under the seat but if you also have a carryon, you may have to argue the toss. The staff may be surprised to see it’s regulation size.

18 x 11 x 8in / 45.7 x 27.9 x 20.3cm

1.4lb / 0.5kg

Fits nicely over your carryon suitcase handle and has a zipper for quick access to your papers. A padded shoulder strap makes it easy to carry and it’s roomy and scrunches to fit under any seat. An excellent personal item (don’t overstuff it though).

11 x 9¾ x 5½ / 27.9 x 24.8 x 14cm

This is a classic luxury tote, and most Frenchwomen I know have one (often handed down from their mother). It’s one large space inside, but with an organizer, your stuff will stay in place. You’ll look dressed up, it has a zipper and it folds into your luggage easily.

13 x 12 x 5in / 33 x 30.5 x 12.7cm

1.75lb / 2.5kg

The only reason this item is on this list is aspirational – I want one! The price tag is steep, but it’s a Tumi. As a personal item it’ll also double as daypack and day purse, it’s that elegant. This is a high-end item that will last a lifetime.

personal item faq

Any unanswered questions about your underseat bags? Find them below.

what can i carry on a plane?

This will always depend on the airline but most scheduled (as in non-discount) airlines will allow you to take two items on board: your carry-on bag, and a personal item.

what is considered a personal item?

Your personal item is something small. It can be a travel handbag, a tote, a messenger bag, a small daypack, a laptop bag, a camera bag or anything else that fits under the seat in front of you.

does a backpack count as a personal item?

Usually, but not always. If the airline has specific size or weight rules for personal items, you’re in luck because it’ll be clear. Many airlines don’t, and reserve the right to decide whether your item is acceptable once they see it. And that might mean your backpack won’t make it. Err on the side of caution and go small if you can.

is a weekender bag a personal item?

Like the backpack, it will depend on the airline’s attitude and the size of your bag. The trick is to be as discreet as you can be if no size is specified. You don’t want to call attention to yourself and be singled out by the airline at the last minute.

does a pillow count as a personal item?

SOMETIMES it does. You might find an understanding attendant who lets you bring it on the plane in addition to your personal item but best not to count on it. Either stuff it into your existing bag, or get an inflatable pillow you can carry in your bag or, in a pinch, even in your pocket.

what else am i allowed to bring on board?

As I said above, a pillow is a maybe. So is a blanket. What is more certain is an umbrella – I’ve never seen anyone lose theirs at the boarding gate – along with duty free that you’ve just purchased, your coat or sweater (worn or carried over your arm), and a book or a magazine. I’ve boarded most major airlines in the cheapest budget class with these items and haven’t yet had to relinquish them.

what size bag can fit under an airplane seat? airline under seat dimensions

Here are a few sample sizes but remember – airlines change their rules all the time so don’t even think of just taking my word for it – check directly with the airline’s website to confirm!

  • Delta personal item size: they don’t give dimensions but specify a single item – a purse, briefcase, camera bag or laptop computer. You can also bring an umbrella and jacket, duty free, or medical equipment.
  • United personal item size: an item that fits under the seat in front of you with maximum measurements of 9″ x 10″ x 17″ (22cm x 25cm x 43cm). No carry-on allowed in basic economy – just the personal item (the rules are more flexible on transatlantic flights, where you can take a carry-on as well). Special items such as umbrellas and jackets, duty free bags or medical equipment like crutches are allowed.
  • Frontier personal item size: only one personal item is allowed and must fit under the seat; dimensions are 18″ x 14″ x 8″  (45cm  x 35cm x 20cm).
  • AA personal item size: the standard 18″ x 14″ x 8″  (45cm  x 35cm x 20cm) personal item with additional medical equipment and duty free bags.
  • Spirit personal item size: the same rules apply – a single personal item 18″ x 14″ x 8″  (45cm  x 35cm x 20cm) plus medical equipment.
  • Southwest personal item size: these are slightly different than the standard at 18.5″ x 13.5 ” x 8.5″ (47cm x 34cm x 20cm). Free extras include jackets and umbrellas, medical equipment and duty free purchases.
  • Jetblue personal item size: must not exceed 17″ x 13″ x 8″ (43cm x 33cm x 20cm) and free extras are allowed (jackets and umbrellas, medical equipment and duty free bags).
  • Lufthansa personal item: none is allowed, only one carry-on bag weighing a maximum of 8kg (17.6lb) so if you have a personal item, it’ll have to fit into your carry-on.
  • Air France personal item size is 16″ x 12″ x 6″ (40cm x 30cm x 15cm) plus the usual free extras.
  • Qatar Airways personal item: none in economy, only a carry-on of up to 7kg (15lb) plus the usual extras.
  • Easyjet personal item: this is a relatively liberal policy because although it allows no personal item, it does let you bring aboard a carry-on 22″ x 17.5″ x 9.8″ (56cm x 45cm x 25cm) but there is no weight restriction.

So yes, that personal item can make all the difference, because there’s plenty you can fit into it and it might save you from having to check your luggage.

the perfect alternatives to a personal item

Still can’t fit it all into the personal item and the carryon?

I do my best to stick by the rules but once in a while, I need more things than I’m allowed to carry on board. It may be that I have several connections and don’t dare check any luggage, or perhaps I have valuables – computer and cables, plus documents and the like – that have to stay with me no matter what.

Here are two things I use:

SCOTTeVEST Women’s Featherweight Vest

This little marvel is light, comfortable and has half a dozen pockets (officially it has 16 but I don’t count the pen-holders and other little nooks and crannies). Still, plenty enough pockets to keep pretty much everything you’d put into a personal item: an ipad, book, all your money, cards and identification papers, keys, pens, a journal, glasses, flight documents… Just beware that it’s snug so I’d advise you order a size above your usual, especially if you plan to stuff it full.  

sholdit infinity scarf

I have a wonderful grey version of this scarf and it’s the perfect accessory for those times I don’t want to carry anything or want to keep my hands free. You won’t fit everything in here but the hidden pocket will take your passport, papers, keys, iphone and a few other goodies. So if you’re traveling light…

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