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Don't run the risk of being forced to 'gate-check' a fragile and valuable item you hoped to carry onto a plane.

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Know what you can and can't carry on to your flight in advance.

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Airline Carry On Luggage Allowances

These days we want to carry more onto the plane than ever before.

Small carry on bags - like this 1970s Pan Am bag - have been replaced by monster wheeled bags and suit carriers.



In 1989 TravelPro released the first ever small wheeled suitcase designed to be carried on to a flight.

Originally adopted by flight crew, this wheeled suitcase style has now come to dominate the type of carry-on luggage most people use.  The good news is that they can hold more than earlier bags.

The bad news is that, although airlines have massively increased their overhead bin storage space, there's no way every passenger could stow a maximum sized carry-on suitcase in any plane's cabin.

General Luggage Policies

Note that when maximum size measurements are shown as a total number of inches (eg 45") this is the total of the length, width and height of the piece.  There are standard sets of dimensions that go to make up these totals (for example, 22 x 14 x 9 is the standard for 45") and if you have a bag that is an unusual shape but still within the total number of inches, you may find it being rejected.

Is Your Carry-On Bag Legal?

Many luggage stores sell suitcases described as 'carry-on', but these suitcases are sometimes larger than the size most airlines will accept.

The safe maximum size is 45", in the form of a 22" x 14" x 9" bag.  Some airlines allow up to as much as 55", but most do not.

Not only do luggage stores and manufacturers seldom tell you if their bag is legally sized or not, but they also frequently mis-measure their bag.  Their measurements generally are for the inside of the main compartment, and assume that any external pockets are of zero thickness, rather than stuffed full of things (which can easily add another inch or more) and ignore any external framing such as wheels and carry handle (which can also add another couple of inches).

If you should be very unlucky and find yourself forced to try and squeeze your carry-on into an unforgiving luggage template by the gate, even one extra inch - if your bag is already at the maximum - will be enough to mean it doesn't fit and you have to check the bag.

More Size Problems

So you get on board with your large but legal sized carry on item.  However, what happens if there is no space remaining in any of the overhead bins, and you're forced to place it under the seat in front of you?

Guess what?

Although your carry on item might be within the size guidelines issued by the airline, that does not guarantee it will fit under the seat in front of you!  It seems that the space under the seat in front of you is getting smaller and smaller, particularly with some airlines (most notably on international flights) adding bulky electronic boxes under each seat to control the at-seat video entertainment systems, and with more closely spaced seats that are, themselves, thinner than before.

Even if there isn't a blocking box of electronics, due to the design of the seat frame and supports, you'll find there might be the least amount of space under the aisle seat, a bit more space under the wing seat, and most space underneath the center seat.  At last - something good to say about getting stuck in a middle seat!

Even if, in theory, your bag could fit under the seat in front, you might find the geometry of the space and angles is such that you can't manage to fit the bag into the space (unless you add a hinge to the middle of the bag - a feature not yet offered!).

For many reasons - your own convenience, and courtesy to fellow passengers, we recommend you focus more on bringing the smallest carry-on you truly need rather than the largest carry-on with you!

Carry On Luggage Allowance

All airlines place limits on the number, the size, and the weight of what you can carry on to a flight with you.

Generally US domestic airlines are fairly liberal with these limits, and rarely choose to enforce them.  In a June 04 survey of Travel Insider Newsletter readers, 80% of readers who admitted exceeding the official carry-on allowances said they did so with no problems.

Of course, 'no problems' is a relative term, and if you're honestly abiding by the airline requirements and unable to fit your own smaller carry-on into an overhead bin due to the presence of massive outsized bags filling up all the space, you might have a different perspective on this!

94.5% of Travel Insider readers say they do not exceed carry-on limits.

Update mid 2008

With the airlines starting to charge for checked bags, more passengers are trying to beat these charges by carrying more items on planes - larger and heavier bags.  The airlines, in turn, now have a financial incentive to enforce their carry on bag limits, and we anticipate increasing attention and enforcement of carry-on weight limits in the future.

Update March 2009

Some more tweaks and changes to airline policies.  While some airlines have predictably tightened up on their carry-on policies, others have become more liberal.  The table below has been updated accordingly.

Personal Items

The standard allowance typically provides for a bag of up to a certain size plus one 'personal item'.

What is a personal item?  Some airlines give examples, and suggest that a personal item may be :

  • Briefcase

  • Camera

  • Handbag/Purse

  • Laptop (in carry bag)

  • Other items not exceeding 36" in total dimension

  • Reading Matter

  • Small book-bag style backpack

  • Umbrella

Still More Exemptions

In addition to generally allowing you to carry on one bag plus one personal item, many airlines may also allow you to carry on other items such as coats, hats and other 'outer clothing' items, 'assistive devices' such as crutches/canes and wheelchairs, diaper bags and approved child safety seats.

Unlike checked luggage, where you can pay extra to carry heavier or bigger or more items, with carry on, there are no extra charges.  If the airline enforces its carry-on rules, then your only option is to have the disallowed items checked.

Domestic and International Carryon Luggage Policy variations

International flights often have much stricter carry-on policies, particularly with regard to the weight of carry-on bags.

Although most domestic airlines have no limit on carry-on bag weight, internationally, you will find that some airlines set such ridiculously low carry-on weight limits (sometimes as little as 11 lbs) that the weight of an empty carry-on bag is more than the total weight you're allowed to take with you!

You need to be aware of these rules, or else the next time you see someone desperately unpacking and repacking their luggage on the floor by the checkin counter, that person might be you!

International airlines may have different size limits on your carry on bags, too - sometimes smaller in one dimension, even if perhaps larger in a different dimension.  If you want a bag that is always accepted on both domestic and international flights, you'll need to choose a size or two smaller than the maximum allowable domestic sizes.

If your flight is on a really small plane, you might find that your luggage allowances for both checked and carry-on items are substantially reduced.  For example, some light aircraft operators limit passengers to 20lbs of luggage (both carry on and checked).

General Notes about the Luggage Information Below

This information has been taken from the various airline websites.

Policies do change.  The information in the table below is shown as of 3/25/09.

Baggage rules can be complicated, and what is shown is a simplification and may not apply to your particular flight.  For the absolutely most accurate information, you should visit the airline's website or phone the airline and get exact confirmation of your luggage entitlements before your flight.

The airlines are also moderately free to vary their carry-on rules as it suits them, and they sometimes do this, particularly on full flights.  One reader told a story of being on an American Airlines flight where the gate agent announced that absolutely no wheeled items of any kind would be allowed on the flight!

The appropriate page of each airline website is linked to the airline name in the tables below to make it easy for you to conveniently check the current accuracy of the information shown here.  If you should find something out of date, please let us know so we can correct and update this information.

Domestic Airline/Flight Policies - Carry On Luggage



Max wt per piece

Max size per piece


1 plus 1 personal item



Alaska and also Horizon

1 plus 1 personal item


10"H x 17"W x 24"L


now ceased operation

America West

now merged with US Airways - see below


1 plus 1 personal item


45" for bag
36" for personal item


now ceased operation


1 plus 1 personal item




1 plus 1 personal item


All items must each fit in a 'Size wise' template, approx 22" x 14" x 9"


1 plus 1 personal item




1 plus 1 personal item


45" or 22" x 14" x 9"


1 plus 1 personal item


Carry on = 26" x 18" x 12" on A320
24" x 16" x 10" on E190

Personal item = 18" x 15" x 8"


1 plus 1 personal item

50 lbs

Carry on = 21" x 15" x 9"

Personal item = 18" x 15" x 6"


1 plus 1 personal item


Carry on = 22" x 14" x 9"

Personal item = 15" x 11" x 6"


1 plus 1 personal item


24" x 16" x 10"


1 plus 1 personal item


24" x 16" x 12"


1 plus 1 personal item


22" x 14" x 9"

US Airways

1 plus 1 personal item

40 lbs

22" x 14" x 9"

Virgin America

1 plus 1 personal item

16 lbs

24" x 16" x 10" for overhead


The Relevant Law and its Implications

The relevant law controlling passenger carry-on baggage is found in Title 14 of the US Code of Federal Regulations,  (Aeronautics and Space PART 121—OPERATING REQUIREMENTS: DOMESTIC, FLAG, AND SUPPLEMENTAL OPERATIONS
Subpart T—Flight Operations
121.589 Carry-on baggage.

(a) No certificate holder may allow the boarding of carry-on baggage on an airplane unless each passenger's baggage has been scanned to control the size and amount carried on board in accordance with an approved carry-on baggage program in its operations specifications. In addition, no passenger may board an airplane if his/her carry-on baggage exceeds the baggage allowance prescribed in the carry-on baggage program in the certificate holder's operations specifications.

(b) No certificate holder may allow all passenger entry doors of an airplane to be closed in preparation for taxi or pushback unless at least one required crewmember has verified that each article of baggage is stowed in accordance with this section and 121.285 (c) and (d).

(c) No certificate holder may allow an airplane to take off or land unless each article of baggage is stowed:

(1) In a suitable closet or baggage or cargo stowage compartment placarded for its maximum weight and providing proper restraint for all baggage or cargo stowed within, and in a manner that does not hinder the possible use of any emergency equipment; or

(2) As provided in 121.285 (c) and (d); or

(3) Under a passenger seat.

(d) Baggage, other than articles of loose clothing, may not be placed in an overhead rack unless that rack is equipped with approved restraining devices or doors.

(e) Each passenger must comply with instructions given by crewmembers regarding compliance with paragraphs (a), (b), (c), (d), and (g) of this section.

(f) Each passenger seat under which baggage is allowed to be stowed shall be fitted with a means to prevent articles of baggage stowed under it from sliding forward. In addition, each aisle seat shall be fitted with a means to prevent articles of baggage stowed under it from sliding sideward into the aisle under crash impacts severe enough to induce the ultimate inertia forces specified in the emergency landing condition regulations under which the airplane was type certificated.


You'll note that these regulations do not specify sizes or weights.  But they do say the airline must enforce its own policies.

This would suggest that every time an airline allows someone on board who has more than the airline's specified allowance of carry-on, then the airline (not the individual) has just broken an FAA regulation.

If you're a militant traveler keen to control the amount of passenger baggage carried on to flights, you might want to keep this in mind, and point out to the gate staff and airplane crew that you have just observed a passenger going on board with more luggage than the airline's policy allows, meaning that the airline is no longer in compliance with the FAA regulation promulgated in CFR Title 14 Chapter I Subchapter G Part 121 Subpart T section 121.589(a).  If that doesn't impress them, ask for their names and advise you'll be sending in a written complaint to the FAA about them operating a flight that is not in compliance with FAA directives.

If you choose to do this, write to the FAA and tell them the airline, flight number, the cities it was operating from and to, the date and time of the flight, and the names of all involved airline personnel, and give specific details of the people and their luggage that you saw them carrying on.

You can contact the FAA at this email address - [email protected] - but to have your complaint viewed more seriously, it is better to write to them :

Aviation Consumer Protection Division
U.S. Department of Transportation
400 7th Street, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20590

You might like to print this part of this article out to keep with you when traveling.  Good luck!

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Originally published 25 June 2004, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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