What Is a Personal Item and How Is it Different From a Carry-on Bag?

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There are two types of luggage you can bring with you on the plane: a carry-on bag and a personal item. But what exactly is a personal item? And how is it different from a carry-on bag?

Let's find out.

What Counts as Personal Items on a Flight?

Generally speaking, a personal item is any compact bag, purse, or briefcase that can fit underneath the seat in front of you.

Below-seat storage varies by airline, but the industry standard is roughly 17 x 13 x 8 inches.

Some airlines will offer more or less under-seat storage than others. However, these differences are marginal.

For example, the personal item for Spirit Airlines is slightly more generous at 18 x 14 x 8 inches in size. On the other hand, Air France's below-seat storage may limit you to 16 x 12 x 6 inches.

How Do I Know If My Personal Item Will Fit?

Any standard backpack, tote, or duffel bag should fit in the 17 x 13 x 8 inches of personal item space available on most flights. If you're unsure whether your bag will fit, the best way to find out is to measure it. Then, you can double-check the personal item size allowed for your airline.

The following mnemonic can help you remember the order in which to measure a backpack or similar bag: "Larry Was Here." That is, length first, width second, and height last.

Get a tape measure and lay your bag flat on a surface. The first two specs to measure—the length and the width—correspond to the horizontal dimensions of the bag. In other words, these sides are flush against the surface. "L" runs the length of the bag from top to bottom while "W" stretches across the bag from side to side.

After you've measured the length and width of the bag, it's time to measure its height, which corresponds to the bag's vertical dimension. This is an important measurement to grab; if the bag is too tall, it won't fit underneath the seat in front of you.

What Can I Pack in My Personal Item?

While personal items are smaller than rolling, carry-on luggage, you can still pack a lot in them. Many travelers choose to store items they might need to access easily during the flight such as:

  • A passport and boarding pass
  • Sweaters or scarves
  • A travel blanket
  • Noise-canceling headphones
  • Books or magazines
  • Snacks
  • A toiletry bag
  • Laptops, tablets, and other electronics
  • A wallet, purse, or travel pouch

Other travel accessories, such as lip balm, a stain remover pen, or a travel utensil set, are also great for packing in your personal item bag.

Just remember: when packing liquids, gels, and aerosols in your travel backpack, stick to the TSA's 3-1-1 rule. That is, all liquids, gels, and aerosols must be in containers that are 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) or less per item. These containers must then be stored in a single, clear, quart-sized bag for easy inspection.

Can I Bring a Carry-on Bag, Personal Item, and a Purse or Shopping Bag on the Plane?

Some airlines allow you to bring a carry-on bag, personal item, and a purse or shopping bag all at once. However, other airlines will only allow a carry-on bag plus one other item that can fit under the seat in front of you.

Some exceptions can be made for duty-free bags on international flights or diaper bags for families traveling with an infant, but these policies vary by airline.

It's always best to check with your airline in advance or inquire at the gate to find out what their specific rules are.

What if My Personal Item is Too Big?

If your personal item is too large to fit underneath the seat in front of you, some airlines may require you to check it or to place it in the overhead bin instead.

A pro tip? Traveling with a packable sling belt can help you store in-flight essentials in case you need to gate-check your personal item at the last minute. These belts have a variety of pockets that can hold important items like your passport and phone. They also leave you with extra legroom since you won't have a bag taking up space at your feet.

What are your favorite personal items to travel with? Let us know in the comments section below. And for more travel tips and packing hacks, be sure to check out the rest of the Gravel Travels blog.

Happy travels!

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