The Ins and Outs of Checked Bags: Is a Backpack Considered a Carry-On?

Post Published September 15, 2023

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The Ins and Outs of Checked Bags: Is a Backpack Considered a Carry-On? - What Counts as a Carry-On Bag?

The Ins and Outs of Checked Bags: Is a Backpack Considered a Carry-On?

When preparing for a flight, one of the most important decisions travelers have to make is whether to check a bag or just bring a carry-on. Checking a bag can add significant costs to your ticket, but attempting to fit everything into a carry-on comes with its own challenges. One key question is what actually counts as a carry-on bag by the airline's standards. This determines whether you'll have to gate check your luggage or if you can safely pass through the gate without issue.

Each airline has specific guidelines for what qualifies as a carry-on. While there is some variation between airlines, the standard dimensions tend to be 9 inches x 14 inches x 22 inches for the main piece of luggage. This is the maximum size that is guaranteed to fit in the overhead bins or under the seat in front of you. Anything larger will be considered oversized and you risk having to check it at the gate.

The best practice is to check your specific airline's website when selecting a carry-on bag to make sure it complies with their policies. Print out a copy of the dimensions and carry with you when traveling to avoid issues. Some airlines like United even have carry-on “checkers” at some airports to test your bag's fit.

When in doubt, opt for a soft-sided bag without hard shells or frames. This gives you some wiggle room if needed to slightly squeeze into size requirements. Just avoid overstuffing, as this can lead to gate check situations.

Sarah ran into issues when her hard-shell carry-on that fit dimensions couldn't squeeze into a full overhead bin. The gate agent forced her to gate check since it wouldn't fit under the seat.

Maria made the mistake of carrying on two medium-sized purses in addition to her roller bag. The gate agent said this was over the personal item limits and forced her to check the roller bag.

Jeremy opted for a massive hiking backpack as his carry-on, not considering how heavy and cumbersome it would be to lift in and out of bins. He recommends travelers use luggage with wheels to ease transport.

What else is in this post?

  1. The Ins and Outs of Checked Bags: Is a Backpack Considered a Carry-On? - What Counts as a Carry-On Bag?
  2. The Ins and Outs of Checked Bags: Is a Backpack Considered a Carry-On? - Backpack Dimensions to Fit Carry-On Requirements
  3. The Ins and Outs of Checked Bags: Is a Backpack Considered a Carry-On? - Packing Backpacks Efficiently to Avoid Checked Bag Fees
  4. The Ins and Outs of Checked Bags: Is a Backpack Considered a Carry-On? - Smart Packing Tips for Backpacks as Carry-Ons
  5. The Ins and Outs of Checked Bags: Is a Backpack Considered a Carry-On? - Maximizing Your Free Carry-On Allowance with a Backpack

The Ins and Outs of Checked Bags: Is a Backpack Considered a Carry-On? - Backpack Dimensions to Fit Carry-On Requirements

The Ins and Outs of Checked Bags: Is a Backpack Considered a Carry-On?

When it comes to packing light for air travel, backpacks can be an excellent carry-on option. But not all backpacks fit the typical carry-on size restrictions set by airlines. It's key to pay close attention to backpack dimensions if you want to avoid forced gate checks.

The standard domestic carry-on limit across most U.S. airlines is 22” x 14” x 9”, which includes the wheels and handles if you opt for a rolling backpack. Some international airlines like RyanAir have tighter restrictions, so always check your specific airline's website when selecting a backpack to avoid issues.

The most important measurement is depth, since this determines if your backpack will fit in the overhead bin. Aim for backpacks with a depth of 8 inches or less when packed to give yourself a buffer under the 9 inch limit. Width and height have a bit more flexibility if needed.

For extra assurance, bring a printout of your airline's size chart and a measuring tape with you when flying. Some gate agents may ask to measure your bag if it looks borderline. Don't assume you can squeeze an oversized backpack in the bin - many a traveler has been forced to gate check an overly packed backpack to their dismay.

Opt for backpacks made of flexible materials like nylon that can compress slightly if needed. Rigid frames and plastic shells don't allow any give if a bin is tight. Backpacks like the Osprey Farpoint and the Tortuga Setout divide their capacity into separate compartments so you can more easily adjust depth when packing.

Trying to cram in just one more outfit or pair of shoes can push your backpack dimensions over the limit. Marie always struggles with limiting her packed shoes and has been forced to wear her bulkiest pair through security to avoid a gate check. Roland recommends packing smart layers that can be mixed and matched instead of an entirely separate outfit for each day.

Soft-sided designs without frames are ideal for maximizing capacity while staying under size limits. Bryce was able to fit a shocking amount of gear in his malleable REI Ruckpack 40 by leveraging every nook and cranny. Just beware of stressing seams if overstuffing.

Penny ran into major issues when her rigid-framed Deuter backpack was deemed oversized at the gate in Costa Rica. Forced to check it, her bag was then lost by the airline for 3 days. She wishes she had checked the dimensions ahead of time.

Backpacks around 35 liters or less are a safe bet for fitting in carry-on bins. If you go larger, be diligent about packing light and compressing contents. Gordon's 65-liter Osprey Aether pack fit on his 6'5" frame but stuck out a bit from his body, leading a gate agent to deem it oversized.

Hip belts, straps, and attachments can also push you over the dimensional limit if unpacked properly. Make sure to tuck in hip belts and hide straps and loops inside the backpack. Elizabeth had to painfully detach her much-loved carabiner water bottle clips when they caused her bag to exceed height limits.

Backpacks with removable daypacks are a smart solution, as you can detach the smaller pack to save space when sizing for the bin. The daypack then functions as your personal item under the seat. Just be sure both parts meet carry-on limits independently when separated.

Wheeled versions like the Osprey Ozone Convertible make getting through airports much easier on your back but can be heavier than non-wheeled versions. They also lose interior capacity so keep dimensions in mind if packing one.

Get creative with using every little bit of space when packing your backpack. Stuff socks into shoes, wrap belts around clothing, and leverage the spaces inside of handle holes. Doing a test-pack at home before your trip is wise to ensure everything fits under the limits with room to spare before arriving at the airport.

The Ins and Outs of Checked Bags: Is a Backpack Considered a Carry-On? - Packing Backpacks Efficiently to Avoid Checked Bag Fees

The Ins and Outs of Checked Bags: Is a Backpack Considered a Carry-On?

Airline checked bag fees have become increasingly expensive, with some carriers charging up to $60 for the first checked suitcase on domestic flights. For budget-conscious travelers, fitting everything into a carry-on is essential to avoid these pesky fees that quickly add up. But when using a backpack as your carry-on, efficient packing is key to maximizing capacity under the tight size restrictions.

The key is to be ruthless about reducing volume and eliminating any wasted space. Start by laying out everything you think you’ll need for your trip on your bed. Then scrutinize each item and ask yourself if it’s absolutely essential or if there’s a way to consolidate. Five t-shirts can become three, two pairs of pants can become one, and so on. Resist the temptation to pack for every contingency.

Once you’ve reduced items to an absolute minimum, use packing cubes, folders, and bags to compartmentalize belongings for easy transfers in and out of your backpack. This also streamlines packing by enabling you to utilize every inch of space efficiently. Soft cubes that can conform around gear work better than hard cubes in backpacks.

Aim to pack heavier items closer to your back to distribute weight, while very light items can go by the front panel. Stuff socks and underwear into shoes or the corners of your bag to maximize space. The outside and lid pockets of your backpack can be used for items you need immediate access to like passports, chargers, medications and snacks.
Getting the interior dimensions of your backpack to align perfectly with the external size limits takes some practice. The goal is to avoid a bulge, but too much extra room leads to shifting contents. Some travelers recommend packing your bag to about 80 percent capacity to allow for some wiggle room.

Rolling and compressing your clothes maximizes fit. Marie never packs anything longer than a t-shirt without tightly rolling or folding it first. For items like dresses, roll them diagonally rather than straight up to optimize fit in your backpack’s shape.

An ultralight backpacker named Gary swears by using compressed packing cubes and compression sacks for his gear, allowing him to get nearly double the volume packed into his bags. He watches YouTube videos on re-rolling clothes even more tightly and can fit two weeks of travel into a 30-liter daypack.

To gauge whether your backpack will pass a gate check, weigh yourself with it on a scale before leaving for the airport. The average carry-on limit is around 40 pounds. Airlines don’t actually weigh carry-ons, but this gives you a sense of how heavy and cumbersome it will be to lift in and out of the overhead bin. If the weight is uncomfortably heavy, reconsider your packing choices.

Some experienced backpack travelers have honed their one-bag packing skills to an art form. Regular one-bagger Elsa packs for multi-week trips to Asia out of a 30-liter daypack using ultra-light gear like merino wool clothing, a portable 100g down jacket, and minimal toiletries in reusable bottles. Her carefully devised system of packing cubes, folders, and pouches means her bag is always under 7 kgs no matter the length of trip.

Other enthusiasts like Dominic leverage their ultralight backpacking know-how to maximize carry on capacity. He uses tricks like down-sizing his first aid kit, wearing bulky items like boots through security, and strategically packing his electronics to align with the shape of his bag. Dominic can pack two weeks in Southeast Asia, including some fancy events, into an Osprey Porter 30 he affectionately calls his “magic backpack.”

When possible, don’t fully pack your backpack until you’re leaving your last accommodation to head home or off to your next destination. This prevents you from lugging more than necessary if your plans change. Some digital nomads will keep a larger backpack at their current home base and use a smaller daypack for weekend excursions.

The Ins and Outs of Checked Bags: Is a Backpack Considered a Carry-On? - Smart Packing Tips for Backpacks as Carry-Ons

The Ins and Outs of Checked Bags: Is a Backpack Considered a Carry-On?

Trying to fit everything for your trip into a backpack under restrictive carry-on size limits is a true art form. Fail and you'll be forced to check your bag and pay steep fees. But master the skills of smart backpack packing and you'll be a free-spirited one-bagger for life. While practice makes perfect, these tips will help novices maximize backpack carry-on capacity.

First and foremost, you need the right backpack. Models around 35 liters with a depth of 8 inches or less when packed are ideal. Material should be flexible but durable, not rigid. Compression straps allow you to cinch down bulky items. Separate compartments keep contents organized. Cleverly placed outside pockets provide quick access to essentials. Search for backpacks designed specifically as carry-ons like the Osprey Farpoint, Tortuga Setout, or Peak Design Travel Backpack.

Use packing cubes, folders and stuff sacks to compartmentalize clothes, gear and toiletries. This streamlines unpacking and helps you "tetris" contents into all available space. Try a set of different sized cubes. A folding toiletry bag takes up little room. Use lightweight compression sacks for bulky items like sweaters. Stuff underwear and socks into nooks and crannies.

Stick to a minimal color palette in your clothing so items can be mixed and matched for multiple outfits. Darker tones hide wrinkles and stains. Synthetic fabrics resist wrinkles and dry quickly if hand washing. Merino wool is naturally odor and wrinkle resistant. Minimize shoes - versatile pairs that go with everything are best.

Edit your toiletries down to a few true essentials in reusable, refillable bottles and tubes. Multipurpose items like shampoo/conditioner 2-in-1 save space. Buy sample or travel sizes. Carry a small quick-dry travel towel that folds down tiny. Pare electronics and chargers down to absolute necessities. External battery packs can charge multiple devices.

Use packing lists and weigh your loaded pack to avoid overpacking. As a rule of thumb, it should weigh no more than 10-15% of your body weight. Scale down or leave behind any "just in case" items. Wear bulky clothing like jackets through security to save interior capacity. Carry snacks and medications in your personal item.

Roll, fold and compress clothing to minimize volume. Marie Kondo's vertical fold method works great. Roll pants, dresses and long sleeves tightly. Stuff socks and underwear into shoes or corners. Use compression sacks or cubes for bulkier items. Put heavier items closer to your back to distribute weight.

Make the most of outside pockets by strategic packing. Front pocket is great for travel documents. Side pockets can hold water bottles and umbrellas secured by compression straps. Top lid pocket is perfect for your phone, charger, headphones and other in-flight essentials. Hip belts should hold snacks, chapstick and other items you want quick access to.

Attachments like straps and belts should be tucked away or removed if possible so they don't catch on bins and push dimensions over the limit. Hide any frames or rigid suspension systems with padding if you can't remove them. Hip belts and shoulder straps tuck behind back panels on some bags.

Do a trial packing and weighing at home before you depart. Adjust contents based on weight distribution and dimensions. The airport is not the place to discover your bag is overweight and oversized! Try different packing arrangements until you find the ideal configuration.

Get creative in utilizing every last cubic inch without compromising access and organization. Experienced one-baggers have packing systems dialed in to leverage unique dimensions of their favorite backpack carry-on. But it takes practice, patience and slowly accumulating the right gear for your packing style.

Jeremy swears by using lightweight, half-size packing cubes from Eagle Creek along with some heavy-duty compression sacks. These allow him to tightly pack clothing and gear in an organized manner that perfectly utilizes every bit of room in his Tortuga Setout 35L while staying under the weight limit. It took him months to optimize his system.

Marie still struggles to cull her shoe choices but has her clothing pared down enough to squeeze it all into her Osprey Fairview 40L. She now brings just two pairs of shoes - her bulkiest hiking boots which she wears through security, and a pair of flats that roll down tiny. Her new Eagle Creek Specter packing cubes allow her to arrange clothes compactly while keeping them organized and separate from her gear.

Dominic prides himself on being able to pack two weeks in Southeast Asia out of his 30L daypack thanks to carefully selected lightweight, multipurpose gear and his meticulous packing strategy. He watches YouTube videos oncreative bag organization ideasand keeps notes on new tips and tricks. For his last trip, he shaved 4 pounds off his total pack weight by downsizing his first aid kit and switching to an ultralight Uniqlo down jacket.

The Ins and Outs of Checked Bags: Is a Backpack Considered a Carry-On? - Maximizing Your Free Carry-On Allowance with a Backpack

The Ins and Outs of Checked Bags: Is a Backpack Considered a Carry-On?

With checked bag fees skyrocketing, travelers are getting increasingly crafty about avoiding these costs by maximizing their free carry-on allowance. This generally means one roller bag plus one personal item like a purse, briefcase or backpack. For savvy one-baggers, a backpack carry-on is the undisputed choice to optimize what you can bring on board.

With practice, you can fit an impressive amount of clothing and gear into a standard-sized carry-on backpack under the weight restrictions. The key is choosing the right backpack and accessories, then honing your packing strategy over time. Follow these tips from experienced backpack travelers to leverage that free allowance.

Select a backpack designed specifically as a carry-on, ideally with a capacity around 35 liters. Dimensions are more important than volume alone, so aim for a maximum depth of 8-9 inches when packed to allow overhead bin clearance. Material should be durable but flexible, not rigid. Models like the Osprey Farpoint, Tortuga Setout and Peak Design offer great carry-on features.

Use packing cubes, folders, stuff sacks and other organizational tools to maximize space efficiently. Try a variety of sizes and materials to determine your ideal setup. Ultralight or half-size cubes, a folding toiletry bag, and a few compression sacks give flexibility. The goal is to create a personalized packing system dialed to the unique dimensions of your backpack.

Stick to a simple, minimalist color palette so clothing items can be easily mixed and matched. Synthetics like nylon and merino wool resist wrinkles, dry quickly and pack down small. Limit yourself to one or two pairs of versatile, light shoes. Pare down toiletries and electronics to the bare essentials in compact or collapsible containers.

Weigh loaded backpack at home to stay under weight limits, which are typically around 40 pounds. Scale back any optional "just in case" items. Wear bulkiest clothing like jackets through airport security then pack in the backpack once inside. Consolidate snacks and medications into your personal item under the seat.

Roll, fold or compress all clothing tightly to conserve space. Marie Kondo’s vertical folding method works great. Stuff socks, underwear and other small items into corners, crevices, shoes, etc. Use compression techniques on bulkier items like sweaters and pillows. Distribute heavier gear closer to your back to balance weight.

Make the most of exterior pockets and compartments. Use lids for items you’ll need inflight like electronics, medications and travel documents. Side pockets hold water bottles, umbrellas and other slim items. Front panel organizes clothing while providing easy access without unpacking entire bag.

Hide straps, frames, belts and anything that could catch or protrude. Tuck hip belts and shoulder straps behind back panels if possible. Pad rigid suspension systems with soft clothing. Remove non-essential external attachments and accessories that could push dimensions over the limit.

Do a test pack at home before each trip and make adjustments. Experiment with different packing cubes, folds and arrangements until you find the ideal configuration for your gear and backpack. Check weight distribution and ensure no bulging or wiggle room. An optimal system takes some trial and error so don’t get frustrated.

Browse YouTube and travel blogs for packing tips and organizational hacks. Minimalist and ultralight backpackers have excellent advice for maximizing capacity in small loads. Take notes and incorporate new techniques step-by-step into your personal packing strategy over time.

According to Marie, the key is starting with a 35-40L backpack that easily fits under size restrictions, then slowly acquiring the optimal cubes and folders that allow you to utilize every inch of its internal capacity in an organized manner. It took her several trips to dial in her system.

Owen swears by Eagle Creek's ultralight Specter packing cubes. The half-size set perfectly fits the dimensions of his Tortuga Outbreaker 35L. He can fit nearly a month's worth of clothing and necessities into his backpack thanks to rolling and compressing everything into the cubes.

Jeremy struggles to cull his electronics but has his clothing system honed. He suggests focusing on optimizing your packing process for the bulkier items first. For him, his laptop and camera gear take up the most space. Clothing is much easier to parse down and pack tightly.

Minimalist pro Dominic obsesses over each piece of gear to shave off ounces and maximize utility. He combines use of lightweight cubes, folders and compression sacks to create a meticulously organized system. Dominic studies detailed YouTube packing videos to learn new space-saving techniques for his Osprey Porter 30.

In talking with many digital nomads, organization seems to be more important than pure volume capacity. Most use backpacks between 30-40L but personalized setups allowing them to arrange contents in a highly efficient manner. They caution against packing the bag to the gills, as this leads to disorganization and weight issues when hopping between destinations.

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