Personal items are small pieces of hand baggage that you have to stow under the airplane seat in front of you. You can take them in addition to carry-on luggage (which has to be stored in the overhead compartments).
The vast majority of airlines accept small backpacks as personal items. Usually, airlines have specific rules for how large your personal item can be (most commonly, 18 x 14 x 8 inches). As long as your backpack is under the size limit, you should be able to use it as a personal item.
In fact, most people use backpacks as their personal items. That’s because they can easily be carried on your back while pulling your carry-on suitcase with your free hand. They’re also lightweight and flexible, which allows you to easily stow them under the seats.
The only exceptions are Air France/KLM, Turkish Airlines, Qatar Airways, and a few other airlines, which don’t accept backpacks as personal items. These airlines usually want you to bring something smaller and slimmer, like a lady’s handbag, a small briefcase, or a small laptop/camera bag.
Airline Size Restrictions for Personal Item Backpacks
Unfortunately, each airline has different size and weight restrictions for personal items. And there are a few airlines that don’t accept backpacks as personal items. Down below, you’ll find the rules for the most popular airlines.
- Frontier: 18 x 14 x 8 inches, no weight limit. They list small backpacks as acceptable personal items.
- Spirit Airlines: 18 x 14 x 8 inches, no weight limit. Small backpacks are listed as a good choice for a personal item.
- Delta: No size or weight restrictions, except that it has to fit under the seat. But their most popular airplane model, the Boeing 737-900ER has the following underseat dimensions: 20 x 11 x 9 inches for First Class and 20 x 14 x 7 inches for Comfort+ can Main Cabin seats. You can use small backpacks as your personal item.
- American Airlines: 18 x 14 x 8 inches, no weight limit. Although backpacks aren’t specifically mentioned, most people use them as personal items without any issues.
- JetBlue: 17 x 13 x 8 inches, no weight limit. Small backpacks are allowed.
- Southwest: 16.25 x 13.5 x 8 inches, no weight limit. They don’t list small backpacks as an example of a personal item, but they’re allowed as long as they’re within the size limits. They’ve also confirmed on Twitter many times that small backpacks can be used as personal items.
- United Airlines: 17 x 10 x 9 inches, no weight limit. Backpacks are listed as examples of personal items.
- Allegiant Air: 18 x 14 x 8 inches, no weight limit. You can use a small backpack as your personal item.
- Air Canada: 17 x 13 x 6 inches, no weight limit. They list backpacks as a good example of a personal item.
- Alaska Air: No size or weight limits, but your personal item must fit under the seats. They say that if your personal item is similar in size to your carry-on (22 x 14 x 9 inches) or smaller, it should fit under the seats. Backpacks aren’t listed as personal items but they’re usually accepted. Alaska Air has also said on Twitter that backpacks can be used as personal items.
- British Airways: 16 x 12 x 6 inches, under 51 lbs. They don’t list backpacks as personal items, but passengers who travel with backpacks as personal items usually don’t have any problems. They have confirmed that backpacks can be used as personal items on Twitter, as long as they’re within the size restrictions.
- Qatar Airways: No size or weight restrictions, but must fit under the airplane seats. Acceptable personal items are listed as handbags or small briefcases. They’ve specifically said on many occasions that small backpacks can’t be used as personal items. Instead, they count as your carry-on baggage.
- Sun Country: 17 x 13 x 9 inches, no weight limit. Small backpacks are accepted as personal items.
- Turkish Airlines: 15.7 x 11.8 x 5.9 inches, 8.8 lbs. Backpacks aren’t mentioned as examples of personal items. Unfortunately, a lot of passengers have complained on Twitter that their backpacks weren’t accepted as personal items.
- Hawaiian Airlines: No size or weight restrictions, but it has to fit under the airplane seats. Unfortunately, they don’t list the underseat dimensions on their aircraft. Backpacks are listed as good choices for personal items.
- Air France/KLM: 15.7 x 11.8 x 5.8 inches and must have a combined weight with your carry-on under 26.4 lbs. Backpacks aren’t listed as examples of personal items. Instead, they list bags, satchels, and bags for electronic devices as good examples. Some people have reported that their small backpacks weren’t accepted as personal items.
- Lufthansa: 15.7 x 11.8 x 3.9 inches, no weight limit. Acceptable personal items are classified as “another small item of baggage, like a handbag or a laptop bag”. Backpacks specifically aren’t mentioned. But on Twitter, they confirmed that backpacks can indeed be used as personal items if under the size limit.
Flexible Backpacks Can Be Oversized, but Not Too Much
Except for some hardside backpacks for laptops, all backpacks are flexible. This means that you can squeeze them into tight spaces. Airlines understand this, which is why instead of measuring your backpack with a measuring tape, they ask you to squeeze them into measuring bins.
If your backpack is 1-2 inches over the size limit, airlines will still allow you to use it as a personal item because it will fit under the seats.
Overpacked backpacks or backpacks that are way over the size limit will need to be stored in the overhead bins or checked in, depending on their size. This usually involves extra fees, unless carry-ons or checked items are included in your fare price and you aren’t bringing any.
How to Choose the Best Backpack to Use as a Personal Item
The ideal size for a personal item backpack is 18 x 14 x 8 inches because it’s the most common size restriction for personal items. In volume, all backpacks between 25-30 liters can usually be used as personal items, unless the airline has a very strict size limit.
Your personal item backpack should also be lightweight and flexible, to accommodate the underseat luggage size and weight restrictions. It should also have a good amount of padding on the shoulder straps and the back so that it’s comfortable to carry.
Instead of getting a laptop backpack, get a normal travel backpack with a large main compartment and buy a separate, slim laptop sleeve to protect your laptop. This allows for a bit more space in the main compartment.
Some features to look out for are hidden anti-theft pockets, several smaller compartments for organizing smaller items, and rain resistance. If you’re using it in combination with your carry-on suitcase, it’s also helpful if it has a back strap, that allows you to secure it on top of the carry-on around the retractable handle.
And lastly, it should be made by a reliable brand, like Fjallraven, Daking, Osprey, Eagle Creek, SwissGear, Herschel, the North Face, Patagonia, Tumi, or Eastpak.
Tips on How to Fit Everything Inside Your Personal Item Backpack
- Wash t-shirts, socks, and underwear mid-way. You can easily wash your smaller clothing items in the sink of your hotel, and they’ll dry within 24 hours or less. Doing this allows you to bring fewer pairs of T-shirts, socks, and underwear.
- Optimize your toiletries. Don’t bring shampoo, soap, and toothpaste. You can buy them at your destination if the hotel doesn’t supply them. Replace aerosol deodorants, hairspray, and aerosol dry shampoo with a small stick deodorant, hair wax, and powdered dry shampoo.
- Wear bulky items when going through security and boarding. You can also put some snacks in the pockets of your bulkier jacket.
- Wear a single pair of sports shoes. Instead of many shoe pairs, get a single pair of trail runners, which are good for hiking and city walks.
- Get Merino wool clothing. You can wear Merino wool T-shirts, socks, and underwear for longer because they’re much more resistant to bad odors.
- Learn which items don’t count towards the hand luggage allowance. Some airlines don’t count umbrellas, reading material, duty-free items, cameras, jackets, diapers, canes, and crutches towards the carry-on and personal item allowance.
- Replace headphones with earbuds.
Summing Up – Using a Backpack as Your Personal Item
You shouldn’t have any problems using a backpack as your personal item unless you’re flying with Air France/KLM, Turkish Airlines, or Qatar Airways. That’s because most airlines allow using them as personal items, as long as they’re within the size restrictions. If your backpack is 1-2 inches above the restriction, you should still be good to go. Just don’t use too oversized or overpacked backpacks.