Carry-On Luggage Rules Every Traveler Needs to Know

The ultimate primer to carrying on luggage—plus, a few helpful hints for packing and keeping track of your items en route. 

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Photo by Tetra Images/Getty Images

To check your luggage or not to check your luggage? Now that many airlines charge an extra fee to check a bag, many travelers are opting to tote their bags along with them on the aircraft. Keeping your bags close not only helps to avoid potential fees, but it also means you don’t need to wait to collect them at the end of your journey—or cross your fingers they make it to your final destination.

But before you pack and go, there are some important details to consider:

Size

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) defines carry-on baggage as “a small piece of luggage you keep with you in the cabin of the aircraft while flying.” Each passenger is allowed one carry-on in addition to one personal item, like a personal computer, purse, backpack, briefcase, or camera case. That doesn’t mean you can pack any old bag: the TSA says it will screen any bag that fits in the small x-ray machine, though the exact size of the bag permitted is up to each airline. 

Prohibited Items

When carrying on, certain items are prohibited, including scissors, many forms of sports equipment, tools, gel candles, and large-size liquids. According to the TSA website, passengers are each allowed one quart-sized, clear plastic bag of liquids, aerosols, gels, creams and pastes (note: personal care items, like makeup and food, generally fall into these categories). Each liquid item must not exceed 3.4 ounces. If you have liquid medications that exceed that volume or have breast milk or formula, be sure to let a TSA agent know, as those items may require additional screening.

Helpful Hints

- If you’re traveling with kids, “don’t forget that kids make great sherpas,” says Sarah Gavin, Expedia travel expert. “Even at a young age they really love being in that travel spirit and playing a role in helping the family travel.” Giving your kid her own little roller bag or backpack for things like stuffed animals and snacks not only helps the family, but also teaches accountability and involves the child in building travel memories, says Gavin. 

- Wear your bulkier items on the plane, says Gavin. And make detailed packing lists complete with a few versatile items that can be styled in different combinations, so you feel like you have more outfit options, she adds.

- Remember: Hotel laundry service really isn’t that expensive—especially compared to the potential cost of an entire family checking bags, says Gavin. If you’re traveling for work or have just a few items you know you can wash and wear again, think about doing a load of laundry midweek.

- Check your destination to see if there is a baby equipment rental service, like Baby’s Away, suggests Gavin. Increasingly (especially in resort communities) there are companies that offer bouncy chairs, high chairs, and other baby items that may have otherwise prevented you from carrying on.

- To prevent your carry-on items from getting lost, label everything and use the space under the seat in front of you or your child, says Gavin: “Kids have little legs, so you can be a good citizen on the plane by making sure they learn about putting their stuff underneath the seat.”