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Packing Tips for Airline Carry On Rules

Airline Carryon
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After airlines began charging fees for checked baggage in 20081, frugal travelers started cramming everything into their carry-on bags. While overhead compartments got a lot more crowded, this tactic worked well. But recently, travelers have seen stricter enforcement of airline carry on rules. Here are some packing tips to make sure your bag fits.

Are There New Airline Carry on Rules?

Travel writer George Hobica of wrote in USA Todaythat before a recent flight on American Airlines, airport staff insisted he place his suitcase in a bag sizer. Despite having "taken this same 21-inch four-wheeled suitcase all around the world," he wrote, it was rejected as being too big. One side was one inch too long.

Other airlines responded by saying they had not changed their carry on size limits, but Hobica contends that they have. Before March 2014, he says, United's carry on bag limit was 45 inches (height + width + depth), including wheels and handles, with no side being longer than 22 inches. The new language says carry on luggage can't exceed 9 inches by 14 inches by 22 inches.3 It might seem like a small difference, he says, but this can mean that some bags that previously met the requirements will now have to be checked at additional cost. Hobica says a Delta passenger told him that a bag identical in size to his was also rejected as a carry on for a recent flight.

The upshot is that while most airlines' carry on limits remain the same, it seems that some are getting stricter about enforcement. Here are some packing tips to ensure your bags meet airline carry on rules.

Research Your Airline's Specific Policies

Airlines each have their own policies about carry on bag size, fees and definitions. Here are some major airlines' carry on rules and maximum dimensions, as of July 2014. Remember that wheels and handles are included in the dimensions.

  • Alaska Airlines: 24" by 17" by 10". Exceptions made for human organs, art portfolios, paintings, delicate scientific equipment and fishing poles.4
  • American Airlines: 22" by 14" by 9". 45” combined dimensions. Beginning in June 2014, one diaper bag or duty-free item may be brought on board as a second personal item.5
  • Delta: 22" x 14" x 9". 45" combined dimensions.6
  • Frontier Airlines: 24" by 16" by 10". A fee is charged for carry-on bags, ranging from $25 to $50.7
  • JetBlue: 24" by 16" by 10" 8
  • Southwest: 24" by 16" by 10"9
  • United: 22" x 14" x 9"10

Know Which Items You're Allowed to Carry On Separately

If your bag is bulging at the seams, you can take out certain items and bring them on board in your hands to make sure you're meeting airline carry-on rules. Airlines typically allow passengers to carry on books and magazines, coats and outerwear, food, umbrellas and walking aids.11

Maximize Your "Personal Item"

Most airlines permit travelers to bring one personal item in addition to their carry on bag. This can mean a purse, backpack, briefcase or computer bag, but not more than one of these. (Some airlines permit diaper bags to be carried as a second personal item.) While your personal item must fit under the airplane seat, many airlines do not have specific dimensions it must meet. So pack as much as you can in your personal item to reduce the size of your carry on bag.

Try a Carry On Bag That Compresses Your Clothes

Forget those flimsy elastic bands in your old suitcase. Briggs-Riley sells a line of compression luggage that expands by a third and then shrinks back to regulation carry-on size when you zip it up.

Pack Your Bag Thoughtfully

To maximize space in your carry on bag, tightly roll your clothes and place the larger items in the bag first. Tuck socks, underwear and other small items in the leftover space, including inside your shoes. Make sure all liquids and gels meet TSA size limits and are easily accessible for inspection.

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