Carry-on Versus Personal Item: Do You Know the Difference?

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Jessica is a respected contributor to the Sampling America writing team, eloquently sharing tales of adventures across the country and beyond.

These days, airlines are creating more and more different ticket brackets. Now there’s not just economy class, but also economy basic, economy light, and economy plus, among others.

The “light” and “basic” forms of this class usually tend to differ based on whether or not you can bring a carry-on on the flight.

But is your luggage considered a carry-on or a personal item? Let’s find out.

What’s the Difference Between a Carry-on and a Personal Item?

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For those who are not frequent fliers, the wording on airlines’ websites and tickets can be a bit confusing. Many times, they say you may bring one carry-on and one personal item, but is a carry-on not your own personal item? And do you not “carry on” your personal item too?

To clear up the confusion, you can think of it this way: a carry-on is typically a small, rolling suitcase or duffel bag that can be stored under your seat or in the overhead compartment. A personal item, on the other hand, is usually a small backpack, a purse, a diaper bag, or something else similar that you can carry on your shoulder or in your arms.

For most standard economy and higher fares, you can bring one carry-on and one personal item at no extra cost (but be sure to check the fine print about this).

How Big Can a Carry-on Be?

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According to US Travel News, most major airlines that fly within the U.S. have the same basic carry-on size limits. For domestic flights, the maximum carry-on size is 22 x 14 x 9 inches, with the international limits being slightly different at 21.5 x 15.5 x 9 inches. This measurement is height x width x depth, but some airlines will give a limit in one number, which is the result of adding those three measurements together. If all your dimensions put together add up to less than that number, you can bring your carry-on on board.

Unlike with checked bags, there is usually not a weight limit on a carry-on, although you should check on this beforehand as well. Basically, if it is too heavy for you to lift it over your head and into the overhead compartment, it is too heavy to bring.

How Big Can a Personal Item Be?

Personal item
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Most airlines don’t put a size or weight limit on personal items, but the general rule is that it should be smaller than the carry-on and able to fit under the seat.

There may be a metal box to measure both the carry-on and personal item near the gate before you board the plane, but these are typically only used if the airline staff thinks that your items are too large to fit on board.

Can I Keep Both Items in the Cabin With Me?

Putting luggage in overhead compartment
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If your ticket allows for a carry-on, you should, theoretically, be allowed to keep yours with you in the cabin. But that is in a perfect world. In the real world, carry-ons are often gate-checked to keep the overhead compartments from getting too full (or because everyone else has already filled them before you board).

Your personal item, however, will always stay with you, so keep your passport, boarding pass, wallet, and other essentials in there as opposed to the carry-on.

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