What Size Carry-on Do You Need?

In a recent column for ABC News, I wrote about “The Big Bag Theory” (apologies to Sheldon and colleagues) because everyone was getting very excited about new guidelines issued by a trade organization called International Air Transport Association.

No need to get excited but there are excellent reasons to travel with the smallest carry-on.

LISTEN: Travel expert Rick Seaney always uses a carry-on.

Carry-on Bag Sizes are Not Changing

In a hasty update to its website, the IATA notes that its guidelines on carry-on sizes – which are smaller than the maximum size decreed by many airlines – are guidelines or recommendations only and not binding whatsoever.

Now that we’ve dispensed with that, some suggestions.

Why Use a Carry-on

There are three good reasons to use a carry-on.

1. Avoid bag fees: Most airlines charge for all checked-bags, typically $25 one-way, but most carry-on bags are free. [See the exceptions below]

2. Your stuff stays with you: This is especially important if are carrying any medications or important papers you want to keep your eye on (alternative: keep these items on your person). Beyond that, if you have to make a tight connection, a carry-on will travel with you but there are no guarantees a checked-bag will make the flight.

3. Quick exits: With a carry-on, no frustrating wait at the baggage carousel, just a quick exit out of the airport.

What Carry-on Size is Best

Unfortunately, carry-on requirements are all over the map. Here are a few maximum sizes from different airline websites.

  • Alaska: 24 x 17 x 10 inches
  • British Airways: 22 x 18 x 10 inches
  • Qantas: 22 x 14 x 9 inches
  • Spirit: 22 x 18 x 10 inches
  • United: 22 x 14 x 9 inches

See what size your airline allows and don’t go over. Tip: when measuring, you must include handles and wheels.

When Carry-ons aren’t Free

One more problem. Three airlines charge a fee for all bags including carry-ons: Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit. However, these carriers do allow a free carry-on if is within their ‘personal item’ size guidelines which must be stowed under the seat in front of you.

If you’re thinking this can’t be done, I beg to differ. I used a carry-on during a ten day trip to Europe. So did my wife.

See Rick Seaney’s latest column for ABC News and see all his ABC columns here.


Updated: November 17, 2015