The Truth About Carry-On Bags

by Nancy Bestor

What’s the size of the largest bag you can carry-on?” It’s a question customers ask us every day. Although lots of rules have changed in the airline industry in the 18 years we’ve been in business, the one thing that has stayed constant is the maximum allowable size of a carry-on bag. When traveling in the United States, and from the United States to other countries on a U.S. based carrier, a carry-on suitcase can measure 22 x 14 x 9, or 45 linear inches (the three measurements added together). Sounds simple, right? Well….yes and no.

Bear with me here, as this is where it starts to get a bit confusing. Almost all U.S. based airline’s measurements include a little bit of “grace” for wheels and handles. So, when wheels and handles are included, a legal carry-on for them is more like 23.5 x 15 x 10 even though it says 22 x 14 x 9 on their web sites. No nonsense carriers Southwest Airlines and Virgin America are the exception here. They each list a maximum measurement of 24 x 16 x 10. Their measurements logically include handles and wheels. Got it?

Now if you’re traveling on a foreign based airline, it gets a little tricky. While for the most part these airlines have similar sized carry-on restrictions as above, there are some curve balls to be aware of. Qantas for example lists a maximum carry-on size of 45 linear inches, but limits that same carry-on to 15 pounds. There is no way a fully packed 22-inch wheeled carry-on is going to weigh anywhere near 15 pounds. So always check your airline’s web site for the complete run down of sizes, weights, and most importantly, fees.

Bob and I traveled to Barcelona last fall via United Airlines with two maximum carry-on bags. We had no trouble carrying the bags on during the flight over, but on our return flight from Barcelona to Frankfurt, we were flying Lufthansa (even though we were ticketed by United), and our carry-ons were too big. Next to all the Europeans who carried on their tiny bags, I felt like a super-sized American; in comparison our bags were huge. It wasn’t a problem though, as Lufthansa/United just checked them all the way through to Medford. On the down side, we did have to wait for them in Medford, which is always a little irritating at the end of a long trip.

A recent development in carry-on suitcases is the 20-inch wide body. Since so many travelers are carrying on luggage these days, flight attendants ask passengers when possible to stow their suitcase in the overhead “wheels out” or “head first”. This allows more bags to fit. Depending on the plane, and the shape of a 22-inch suitcase, sometimes a legal carry-on bag won’t fit “wheels out” (at least if the overhead bin door has to shut!). Thus luggage companies introduced the 20-inch wide body. Because it’s shorter, the 20-inch wide body fits more easily “wheels out”, but the two extra inches of width make the packing capacity about the same as a standard 22-inch bag.

Let me stress though that the sizes listed above are the “legal” carry-on limits. There are certainly times when bags of any size are denied carry-on. One reason is that although your suitcase may measure 22 x 14 x 9, if you’ve over-stuffed the outside pockets, its actual measurements may end up larger than the legal limit, and if you’re asked to put your suitcase into the carry-on box to see if it is legal carry-on size, it may not fit, even if you push it as hard as possible (I’m speaking from experience here). You can also be denied if you board later in the process and other passengers have already filled the overhead bins. This is an excellent reason to board your flight as soon as your section is called. While I hate sitting in a cramped airline seat longer than I have to, I’m willing to do it if it means my carry-on bag gets on the plane.

Generally speaking, the current rules of carry-ons are as follows: each passenger is allowed one maximum sized carry-on bag for overhead storage and one “personal item” to be stored under the seat in front of you. Keep in mind that there are no guidelines for the personal item, so a gate attendant can deny your personal item as being too big at any time. Most airlines loosely define a personal item as a small backpack, a purse, or briefcase.

Also be aware that at any time, an airline can change their carry-on rules. So once again, always check your airline’s web site for the most up-to-date information. Allegiant Air for example just announced they will begin charging $25 for a carry-on bag that has to go into the overhead compartment. If you can squeeze it under your seat, a carry-on bag on Allegiant is still free.

One way airline passengers are getting around the whole carry-on restriction is by wearing a multi-pocketed travel vest. Our favorite, by ScotteVest, boasts 17-24 pockets (the women’s vest has fewer pockets than the men’s) and can fit everything from a passport or phone to a water bottle or iPad. Wear your carry-on bag? Why not?

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