With airlines increasingly charging for checking a bag on your flight, it’s become common for many people to fly with only a carry-on bag. If you’re one of them, and looking to get the largest carry-on bag you can to avoid checking luggage, you need to consider what airlines you’ll be flying and whether your bag will qualify for carry-on or not.
The generally accepted maximum carry-on bag size in the U.S. is 22″ x 14″ x 9″ (55.88cm x 35.56cm x 22.86cm) or 45″ linear inches (length + width + height). While this rule holds for most domestic carriers in the United States, it doesn’t apply when you look at airlines worldwide because each airline sets their own carry-on baggage restrictions.
For instance, if you ever plan on taking your carry-on bag through Europe, you should know that the popular budget airline Ryanair has a size limit of 55cm x 40cm x 20cm (or 21.65″ x 15.75″ x 7.87″). Air China has the same bag size restrictions. That last figure, measuring the depth of your bag, is over 1.1 inches less than the standard 9″ limit for depth. Lufthansa is more lenient with a 55 cm x 40 cm x 23 cm carry-on size restriction.
Alitalia lists their maximum carry-on bag size as being short when it comes to the bag width, at 55cm x 35cm x 25cm or 21.5″ x 13.78″ x 9.8″.
Budget UK carrier FlyBe lists dimensions of 55cm x 35cm x 20cm for their carry-on size, asking their customers to use bags with both sub-standard width and depth.
When you piece all these different baggage restrictions together, the result is that if you want a carry-on bag that will “fly” with all major airlines worldwide, you want a bag with a the following measurements:
Maximum Height: 21.65″ / 55.0cm
Maximum Width: 13.78″ / 35.0cm
Maximum Depth: 7.87″ / 20.0cm
Note that even taking to account the sub-standard restrictions above, there are still more one-off exceptions:
- Etihad has a shorter maximum length then most airlines at 50cm x 40cm x 25cm or 19.68″ x 15.75″ x 9.84″.
- Virgin Australia really violates the standard with maximum dimensions of 48cm x 34cm x 23cm or 18.9″ x 13.39” x 9.05″ on domestic and even international short haul flights (they’re more lenient with long haul international flights). This is also one airline that limits your maximum carry-on weight to just 7kg or 15.4lbs (more on that below).
- If you’ll be flying any smaller, regional airlines that use smaller planes, you should check to see if they don’t have similar restrictions that might force you to check your bag.
If your carry-on bag is soft, such as backpack or duffel bag, but with slightly larger dimensions (i.e. the US-standard of 22″ x 14″ x 9″), chances are you can still squeeze it into the baggage templates you see laying around airport check-in lines if it’s not stuffed to the max. If your bag is of the hard, wheeled variety, you may be out of luck and forced to check your bag – and pay any required fee. If you’re looking for a new bag, consider a soft-sided bag close to the above dimensions when looking at the product specifications – in particular the maximum depth of 7.87″ or 20cm.
In addition to your bag’s size, you also need to be aware of its weight. Low weight restrictions are becoming increasingly common, even on non-budget airlines in certain regions. While I’ve never had an airline employee check the size of my carry-on backpack, I have just recently had an airline weigh my bag to make sure it complied with their weight limits (which it barely did, after I removed my laptop as my “personal item”). The most restrictive airline when it comes to carry-on bag weight is Air China, with a carry-on bag weight limit of just 5kg (11lbs).
Next is Air Berlin, LOT Polish Airlines and Virgin Atlantic at 6kg (13.2lbs). (As of May 2017, all 3 airlines increased their carry-on weight limit.)
A much more common but still restrictive weight limit of 7kg (15.4lbs) is imposed by:
- Air New Zealand – laptop or personal item seemingly allowed separately
- Eva Air – laptop or personal item allowed separately
- Emirates – seemingly no separate personal item
- Garuda (Indonesia) – laptop or personal item seemingly allowed separately
- Jetstar (Australia) – no separate personal item
- Malaysia Airlines – laptop or personal item allowed separately
- Qantas – laptop or personal item allowed separately
- Singapore Airlines – laptop or personal item allowed separately
- Thai Airways – laptop or personal item allowed separately
- Ukraine International Airlines – laptop or personal item allowed separately
- Virgin Australia – laptop or personal item allowed separately
If you’re traveling with a laptop or purse, many airlines will allow you to carry it on board as a separate “personal” item, which must go underneath the seat in front of you. Airlines have varying rules for this as well, and some allow only your carry-on bag and no personal item, including Alitalia, Austrian Airlines, EasyJet, El Al, Jetstar, Olympic, Ryanair, SAS, and South African Airways. With these airlines, you’ll have to stuff your laptop or purse in with your carry-on bag and hope you don’t go over the carry-on bag weight limit. Note that for the airlines that do allow a personal item, there’s sometimes a separate size and/or weight limit for that item, which can itself be restrictive. For example, while Air Berlin allows a “laptop case” as a personal item, it must weigh under 2kg (4.4 lbs), which rules out a lot of larger or heavier laptops, even without their case.
Remember, these rules are always subject to change, so always check the airline’s baggage rules before you book your ticket (usually the first result if you Google the name of the airline and “carry on weight limit”).
Restrictive weight limits are another good reason to use a soft duffel bag or backpack as opposed to rolling luggage, which tends to have a starting weight of 7 or 8 pounds. A typical carry-on backpack, however, is generally between 2 to 4 pounds, giving you a fighting chance of keeping your carry-on bag legal and avoiding surprise fees. (Check out The Best Carry-On Backpacks.)