Regardless of whether you’re flying an hour away or hopping on a twenty-hour flight to vacation across the world, air travel can be downright exhausting!
From checking in to clearing security to picking up your bags at baggage claim, the time you spend in the airport is sure to be the low point of any trip. And having to wait for your luggage to be dropped on the baggage carousel only prolongs the experience.
Enter our favorite travel companion: the carry-on bag.
Carry-on luggage can certainly make your trip a bit easier, but there are some things you’ll need to know before you pack a bag and head to the airport. If you’re getting ready to buy a new piece of luggage or embark on your next trip, here’s our complete carry-on luggage size guide.
What is Carry-On Luggage?
Carry-on luggage is exactly what it sounds like: luggage you carry on the plane with you rather than check, tag, and store in the cargo area below.
In general, a standard domestic carry-on bag measures no bigger than 22” high, 14” wide, and 9” in depth.
Carry-on luggage comes in many forms. They can be roller bags, spinner bags, or garment bags. They can be duffel bags, backpacks, or rolling totes. They can be soft-sided or hard-sided, leather or fabric, or be carried by hand, over the shoulder, or on wheels.
Whatever type of luggage you prefer, finding a carry-on that suits your personal style (and your budget) is easy to do.
But the way the bag looks and functions isn’t what’s most important.
What matters most is that your airline deems it to be within the size and weight limits to be carried into the cabin of the plane with you.
Carry-on luggage must fit in the overhead compartment or under the seat in front of you.
No exceptions. Ever.
So before you buy a new carry-on, make sure that it meets the size limits for your preferred airline. If you try to board with a bag that’s too large, you’ll have to stow it in cargo. And that defeats the entire point of packing a carry-on in the first place.
What Should You Pack in a Carry-On Bag?
The TSA, as well as every individual airline, has strict rules and regulations regarding what you can and can’t pack in a carry-on. Before you zip up your bag, make sure you check with your individual airline to ensure that the contents of your bag abide by all of their rules.
If you’re taking a quick trip and don’t plan to check any luggage, you can use your carry-on to pack everything from clothing to shoes to toiletries. But even if you are checking a bag, bringing an additional carry-on is recommended.
Why? Because airlines lose luggage.
If you’ve ever arrived at your destination to learn that your bag didn’t make it on the plane, you probably don’t ever want to have to check a bag again. And we don’t blame you! (We’re in that camp too).
A carry-on alone is usually all most people need for a two to three-day trip. But packing for an entire week’s vacation in a small roller bag can be nearly impossible.
If you do have to check a large bag, it’s still best to pack a few must-haves items into a small carry-on. Always pack a change of clothes, overnight essentials, and your must-have toiletries, just in case your bag doesn’t arrive at the airport when you do.
What You Should NOT Pack in a Carry-on Bag
Before you pack, check the TSA guidelines so you know the most current rules for what you can’t bring on board with you. Currently, the TSA limits the carrying of liquids, pastes, creams, gels and aerosols to one quart-sized bag.
Within that clear quart bag, your individual products must be in containers no larger than 3.4 ounces each. The only exceptions are medications and “infant and child nourishments.”
Medications in liquid, gel and aerosol form are allowed in your carry-on, in addition to your quart-sized toiletries bag. You may also bring ice packs, freezer packs or gel packs that are required to keep those medications cool.
Traveling with children?
TSA also makes exceptions for carrying breast milk, juice and formula, as well as any ice packs or freezer packs needed to keep those liquids cool.
But TSA cares about a lot more than just liquids …
Most people know that you cannot pack guns, ammunition, or weapons of any type in a carry-on bag.
But there are a whole host of other items that you can’t bring that you might not be aware of. Here is a list of just some of the items the TSA won’t allow you to bring in a carry-on bag.
- Electronic lighters
- Butane lighters
- Cordless curling irons
- Gel candles
- Gel heating pads
- Razor blades
- Swiss army knife
Check the TSA website for a complete list of items that you cannot bring in your carry-on luggage.
How Big Can a Carry-On Be?
Every airline has its own set of size and weight restrictions for carry-on luggage.
Most domestic carriers, including United, Delta, Jet Blue, and American Airlines, have the same limitations: 22” x 14” x 9” size with no weight limit.
Southwest, on the other hand, permits carry-ons up to 24” x 16” x 10”.
But if you ever plan to hop on an Air Tahiti flight, your carry-on must top out at 17” x 13” x 7”.
If you travel often and fly different airlines, we recommend buying the lightest, smallest carry-on possible. That way, you’ll be able to use it on a wide variety of airlines, even those that have specific weight limits.
Hard-sided bags, while they make look heavier, are often some of the lightest bags you can buy. When shopping for your next carry-on, pay special attention to the size as well as the weight of the empty bag. If you plan to jam as much as possible into your luggage, you’ll want it to be as light as possible to allow for more weight from your belongings.
Here are a few of our favorite lightweight carry-on bags that are perfect for use on almost any airline:
The eBags TLS Mother Lode Weekender Convertible Junior is loaded with pockets and compartments to hold clothing, shoes, personal items, electronics, and toiletries. Empty, it measures just 3.5 pounds.
The Rimowa Essential Lite Cabin S boasts a sleek look with a glossy exterior, zippered interior dividers, and a built-in TSA lock. At just 4.2 pounds, it’s one of the lightest hard side cases you can buy.
The Travelpro Maxlite 5 Carry-On Rolling Tote is perfect for carrying your must-haves for an overnight trip. With interior and exterior pockets, this compact tote measures only 5.4 pounds unpacked.
How Do You Measure a Carry-On Bag?
So what should you do if you already have a carry-on bag and aren’t sure if your airline will let you bring it onboard? Measure it – but measure it right.
The size dimensions of each airline refer to the ENTIRE bag. So make sure you measure the entire height, including the wheels and any protruding handles. If you have a roller bag, retract the handle and measure to the edge of where the handle sticks out on top.
Lots of bags also have expandable features, so keep in mind that if you expand it, you may be over the size limit. If you need to expand the pack to fit all of your gear, don’t be surprised if you’re forced to check it rather than carry it on board.
Be careful with soft-sided bags too. The bag may meet the size restrictions when empty, but if you overstuff it, you might be over the limit. Whenever you plan to carry a bag onboard a plane, try to pack as light as you possibly can.
If you really want to play it safe, look for carry-on luggage that’s small enough to fit underneath the seat in front of you. That way, if you overstuff it, you can always put it in the overhead compartment if need be.
Underseat luggage offers another benefit as well: you’ll be able to keep your bag within your line of sight throughout your entire trip.
Here are a few of our favorite under seat carry-on bags, perfect if you want to keep your valuables within arm’s reach throughout your flight!
The Samsonite Spinner Underseater with USB Port features easy-rolling spinner wheels and multiple pockets inside and out. It's detailed with a convenient USB port so you can charge your phone or tablet if you get delayed or stranded in the airport.
The Delsey Quilted Rolling Underseat Tote boasts a versatile design with a diamond quilt texture and plenty of organizer pockets. It also includes top handles in case you want to carry it, rather than wheel it, to your seat.
The Tumi Voyageur Osana Compact Carry-On offers first-class luxury in a sleek, compact design. It offers storage for a change of clothes and personal items, as well as padded pockets to hold your laptop and iPad.
Carry-On Luggage by Airline
Every airline has their own size limitations for carry-on bags. In addition to a carry-on bag, most airlines also allow you to bring one personal item, such as a handbag, briefcase, or laptop bag.
Some airlines also specify a weight limit for each carry one, though many do not. If your airline doesn’t have a carry-on weight limit, there’s one general rule of thumb to follow:
Make sure it’s light enough that you can lift it!
You’ll need to be able to hoist your carry-on into the overhead bin. If you can't manage it, you may be asked to check it underneath in cargo storage. And you know what that means … the dreaded wait at baggage claim!
Here is a glimpse at the weight and size limits as set forth by the most popular and most used airlines. Please note, all sizes are in inches and all weights are listed in pounds.
Before you head to the airport, make sure you check the website of your airline, as weight and size restrictions are always subject to change.
Does Every Airline Have Carry-On Luggage Size Requirements?
When it comes to size and weight restrictions, every airline sets their own standards for carry-on luggage. So before you take your next trip, make sure you check the airline’s website to make sure that your bag falls within the limits.
The last thing you want to do is have to check that bag and wait to retrieve your bag at baggage claim. Take the necessary steps beforehand.
That way, when your flight lands, you can grab your bag from the overhead compartment and get your trip started without any delay!