Is A Backpack A Personal Item?

Last Updated on April 15, 2020

Most airlines allow you to take a personal item as well as carry on luggage.

But they don’t specify all the bags they consider to be personal items.

The following example personal items are often given:

  • a purse
  • a handbag
  • a laptop bag
  • a briefcase

You’ll notice that “a backpack” isn’t on the list but this doesn’t mean you can’t use one.

If your backpack is small enough it will be considered a personal item. So yes, a backpack can be a personal item depending on how big the backpack is and which airline that you are flying with.

The main defining characteristic of a personal item is that it should be able to fit under the seat in front.

Some backpacks can fit under the seat, so smaller backpacks can often be considered a personal item.

You can also use a backpack as your principle carryon bag. So if you are not taking a carry on suitcase and just want to take a backpack you can do that too and the size isn’t as important.

If your ticket doesn’t include a free carry on allowance they only allow you to take a personal item. For some short trips, you can fly using only a backpack as your personal item and pack all your clothes inside it.

To try to get you an answer I’ve taken a close look at the personal item backpack rules for the most popular airlines in the US.

You can quickly check the table below to find out if your backpack counts as a personal item with your airline or read on for more detailed analysis.

American Airlines Backpacks under 18 x 14 x 8 inches are considered personal items.
Delta No official backpack as a personal item size limit. Needs to fit under the seat.
SouthwestBackpacks under 18.5 x 13.5 x 8.5 inches are considered personal items.
United AirlinesBE CAREFUL WITH UNITED AIRLINES. Backpacks under 17 x 10 x 9 inches are considered personal items. Unfortunately, this rules out many regular sized backpacks which are wider than 10 inches.
AlaskaNot specified PI size limit. Needs to fit under the seat.
JetblueBackpacks under 17 x 13 x 8 are considered to be personal items on JetBlue.
SpiritBackpacks under 18 x 14 x 8 are considered to be personal items on Spirit. Check my packing light tips to fit all your things in a Spirit PI bag.

Is A Backpack Considered A Personal Item With American Airlines?

With American Airlines backpacks should not exceed 18 x 14 x 8 inches to qualify as your personal item.

Here is Jae getting the thumbs up from AA on Twitter:

Jae was able to bring a small backpack and a carry on when she flew with American Airlines.

Delta Backpack Personal Item Rules

Delta doesn’t mention any size limits for a personal item on their website.

They mention that you can bring a purse, briefcase, camera bag, or diaper bag. And they further mention that you can bring other bags that are a similar size to those mentioned above.

So you can bring a backpack that is a similar size to a purse or a diaper bag and use it as your personal item with Delta.

On Twitter they were also cagey about the size limit, they don’t have an official size limit. Here was an answer that I found:

So a personal item backpack for Delta needs to go under the seat.

A regular size backpack should fit under the seat in front no problem.

Southwest Backpack As A Personal Item

Southwest follow the same practice of mentioning purses and briefcases as examples of what a personal item is.

They don’t mention backpacks but they do then show this photo:

So it seems that Southwest do allow backpacks as personal items so long as they are under 18.5 x 13.5 x 8.5 inches.

The great thing about a backpack is that it gets smaller if you pack less things inside it. So you can use a backpack with Southwest as your personal item.

United Airlines Using A Backpack As Your Personal Item

United helpfully publish size guidelines to be clear about what they consider a personal item.

So if your backpack is smaller than 17 x 10 x 9 inches then you’re good to go…

But wait that’s a pretty small backpack.

Wakkodan couldn’t find a laptop backpack that met the United dimensions.

And he wasn’t the only one having this problem with United:

The problem is the United width limit for a personal item is only 10 inches. That’s a childs backpack and not a laptop back size.

So if you are flying with United and plan on using your backpack as your personal item make sure you measure it.

Alaska Airlines Backpack As Personal Item

Alaska is another airline that doesn’t specify size dimensions for their personal item.

They also don’t mention backpacks on their website so I checked Twitter so see how they were responding to customer inquiries:

Again it’s all about if it fits under the seat. Small backpacks should be okay.

Does A Backpack Meet The JetBlue Personal Items Size Limit?

JetBlue actually mention backpacks in their examples of personal items!

Each customer is allowed one personal item (purse, small backpack, briefcase, laptop, etc.) plus one carry-on bag (space permitting).

And they let us know what size they mean by that.

So to use a backpack as a PI on Jetblue it will need to be smaller than 17 x 13 x 8. That should work for most regular size backpacks.

Spirit Airlines Backpack Personal Item Rules

You may be aware that Spirit doesn’t include a carry on in their cheapest ticket price.

They do let you bring a small backpack as your PI.

Your backpack needs to be under 18 x 14 x 8 inches.

Don’t try to sneak a larger backpack on with Spirit. This is their business model and if your backpack is oversize they will charge you the fee for a carry on.

The Verdict

You can use a backpack as your personal item, but they need to fit under the seat. Also where airlines publish size limits your backpack should be under those size limits. This is especially important with budget airlines whose business model is to stick you with additional charges wherever they can.

Do you use a backpack when you fly? Any interesting stories to share with our readers?

Don’t hesitate to let us know in the comments.