Ah, the thrill of modern air travel! Just imagine: you’re at the airport, bags packed, and a boarding pass in hand, ready to embark on your first girls’ weekend in years. You head through security, doffing your jacket, hat, and shoes like a pro, while your luggage zips along the conveyor belt and disappears into the maw of the x-ray machine.
But the next thing you know, a steely-eyed TSA agent is escorting you out of line while another dismantles your luggage, carefully displaying your clothes, shoes, lotions, manicure kit, and celebratory girls’ weekend party poppers for your fellow curious travelers to see. What’s wrong? What carry-on bag rules have you broken? Nobody will say, but everybody looks grim.
Ah, the agony of modern air travel.
If you’re wondering how to breeze through check-in and avoid the inconvenience of a TSA show-and-tell (and learn what item caused the alarm in our example above), read on for our top four checked- and carry-on bag rules you should know about. With our help, you can ensure your travel adventures begin when you reach your destination—not when you get to the airport.
#1. The Size Rule
The first rule of Packing Club is you don’t talk about Packing Club. No…wait a second. That’s a different club. The first rule of Packing Club is Size Matters.
Whether you’re carrying on or checking in luggage, your airline has specific rules regarding what size luggage is permissible. Although you should always double-check with your carrier (especially if you're traveling internationally), here are a few general guidelines that apply to domestic luggage size:
- Carry-On Luggage – Give or take an inch, the maximum standard domestic carry-on luggage size is 24” x 14” x 9” including the (untelescoped) handle and wheels.1 Keeping your bag at or below this size ensures that your carry-on will fit into the overhead bin while leaving sufficient room for your row-mates’ luggage, as well.
- Checked Luggage – Unlike carry-on bags, checked bags are measured in linear inches. This means you’ll need to do a little math. Your equation should go like this: add the length of one side of the bag, plus the width of one side of the bag, plus the height of one side of the bag. Most airlines allow check-in luggage up to 62 linear inches (length + width + height). So for most carriers, if the length + width + height of your bag is less than 62 inches, your luggage is permissible without additional checked bag fees.2
- Personal Item – In addition to your carry-on luggage and checked luggage, you’re allowed to bring one personal item aboard the aircraft. While what exactly a personal item might be is open to broad interpretation, it must fit under the seat in front of you (an area with the approximate dimensions of 18” x 14” x 8”). Some personal items that the airlines explicitly allow are:
- Purse or shoulder bag
- Laptop and case
- Camera bag
Note that the following are neither considered personal items nor carry-ons and are permitted regardless of size:
- Diaper bags (1 per child) and soft-sided coolers containing breast milk
- Child safety seats and strollers
- Wheelchairs, walkers, and mobility devices
#2. The Weight Rule
Not only must your checked baggage conform to dimensional requirements, but it also must meet your airline’s weight restrictions. Again, check with your carrier for specifics but, in general, the following guidelines apply domestically:
- Checked Luggage – Normally, the maximum weight limit per checked bag is 50 pounds. But remember, your bag will be weighed again for your flight home, so leave yourself a little leeway if you plan to add to your luggage while traveling (for instance, in the form of souvenirs, books, or clothing). Whether you’re allowed one or two checked bags before incurring a fee is airline-specific, so confirm with your carrier before packing.
- Carry-On Luggage and Personal Item – Although airlines don’t restrict carry-ons or personal items by weight, you must be able to lift your item onto the security conveyor belt, as well as into the overhead bin on the aircraft, without assistance. Be sure to take this into consideration when packing a carry-on. So while it might be tempting to toss your Dr. Martens and leather bomber jacket into your already-bulging carry-on, be aware that you’ll have to overhead press your bag in and out of the bin—and the beginning of a trip is a bad time to strain your shoulder.
To Fee or Not To Fee, That is the Question
Now that you understand the rules for size and weight of carry-on and checked bags, we have to introduce you to a work-around: fees, fees, and more fees! If you’re willing to pay a fee (anywhere from $30 to $150), your airline is likely willing to take your checked baggage.
While no domestic airline charges a fee for carry-on bags, all airlines (with the exception of Southwest) charge a fee for one or more checked bags on a coach or economy ticket. Similarly, if you want to check more than one bag, or an oversized bag, you should expect to pay an additional fee.
#3. The Prohibited Items Rule
The rules regarding the size and weight of your luggage are set by individual air carriers, but the rules regarding what contents you may pack within your luggage are established by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a government agency tasked with protecting the nation’s transportation system.3
Although the TSA rules for air travel can become downright Byzantine, the luggage rules can be distilled into two pertinent parts: the 3-1-1 Liquid Rule and the Prohibited Item List.
The 3-1-1 Rule
The Liquids Rule, also known as the 3-1-1 Rule, governs any liquid, paste, gel, oil, aerosol, or cream in your carry-on luggage. The rule itself is simple:
- A liquid container measuring less than 3 ounces (100 ml) may go in your carry-on bag
- All your liquid containers must fit together within 1 quart-size resealable bag
- Each traveler may carry-only 1 bag of liquids
If your liquid container is larger than 3 ounces, it must be placed in your checked luggage or left behind. You won’t pass through security with a bottle of liquid (even water!) measuring more than 3 ounces.
However, there are two exceptions to this rule:
- Infant and child nourishment
The Prohibited Items List
As part of the TSA’s duty to protect, they have disallowed certain items from air travel for safety reasons. The TSA Prohibited Items List is comprehensive and distinguishes between checked and carry-on items.4 By understanding what items you can and cannot pack, you can ensure your travel isn’t delayed and that none of your belongings are seized whether you are looking to check luggage or carry-on.
Some items that are prohibited in both your carry-on and checked luggage are:
- Bear bangers and bear spray
- Bang snaps
- Cooking spray
- English Christmas Crackers
- Flare guns
- Hand grenades
- Liquid bleach
- Party poppers (yep, that’s the reason our example traveler was stopped)
- Spray paint
- Tear gas
Some items that are prohibited in your carry-on bag but may be included in your checked luggage are:
- Weapons, including:
- Black jacks
- Bows and arrows
- Brass knuckles
- Axes and hatchets
- Baseball bats
- Bowling pins (although a bowling ball may be carried on)
If you have a question about whether an item on your domestic travel or international travel packing list is allowed as a carry-on or checked item, the full list is available on the TSA website. Plus, the TSA also maintains a hotline, so you can ask specific questions by phone or email.5
#4. The Lock Rule
For security and peace of mind, many travelers prefer to lock their luggage while they travel. This can be a good practice, especially for international travel. However, if TSA needs to inspect your luggage, a locked case may present a problem.
The rule is: if TSA wants to peek inside, TSA gets to peek inside.
If your luggage is locked and checked, TSA will cut the lock to inspect. Luckily, you can purchase TSA-approved locks that are opened by a master key. Using a TSA-approved lock not only gives you peace of mind, but also ensures that your luggage will arrive unscathed.
Breeze Through Check-in and Security with BÉIS
Whether you’re checking in luggage or carrying your bags on the plane with you, knowing the rules of air travel can help make your trip as effortless and stress-free as possible. But from the 3-1-1 rule to various luggage dimensions and weights, there’s a lot to juggle.
At BÉIS, our mission is to help you find the perfect bag to negotiate airline rules and restrictions. Our entire line of travel luggage is built to breeze you through check-in and security, with thoughtful details like durable hard-sided construction, retractable bag straps, side handles with weight indicators, and TSA-approved locks. Plus, all of our options come in both a carry-on and a checkable size.
Modern air travel can be a thrill, but only if you can get to where you’re going without any extra hassle. Let our luggage set you up for success in all your travels.
- Tigar, L. and Diamond, M. “Airline Carry-on Luggage Restrictions: What You Need to Know.” Travel + Leisure. 01 May 2021. https://www.travelandleisure.com/style/travel-bags/airline-carry-on-luggage-size-guide
- Maloney, L. “How to Assess Luggage Lineal Dimensions”. USA Today. 15 March 2018. https://traveltips.usatoday.com/assess-luggage-linear-dimensions-63207.html
- "Mission". Transportation Security Administration. https://www.tsa.gov/about/tsa-mission
- "What Can I Bring: All List". Transportation Security Administration. https://www.tsa.gov/travel/security-screening/whatcanibring/all-list
- "Passenger Support". Transportation Security Administration. https://www.tsa.gov/travel/passenger-support