The anxiety sets in upon packing for a trip: Bringing enough clothes and essential items for a week or two seems difficult, if not impossible, without multiple bags.
At the same time, you worry about having to check a bag. Maybe it’s the cost of checking luggage — baggage fees vary by airline and can be expensive, especially for family trips. Or maybe it’s the fear of your checked bags getting lost in transit.
As the spring break travel season approaches, consider flying with just a carry-on bag this time. It may mean selecting your items judiciously and leaving a few things behind, but you’ll save money on fees as well as time because you won’t have to stand in line to check your bag or crowd around the luggage carousel to retrieve it.
Here’s what to know about traveling with just a carry-on bag.
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How many carry-ons can you have?
Most airlines allow you to board a plane with two items: a carry-on bag that is placed in the overhead compartment and a smaller bag that fits under your seat, which airlines classify as a personal item.
Check your airline’s website for information on how many and what size items you can carry on your flight so you can avoid last-minute surprises — including additional charges — at the airport.
What is considered a carry-on bag?
The Transportation Security Administration has no set standard for how big carry-on bags and personal items can be, and what’s allowed varies by the airline.
Most airlines, including American, Delta, United, Alaska and JetBlue, limit carry-on bag sizes to 22 inches long, 14 inches wide and 9 inches high.
Southwest Airlines has a slightly more permissive limit. Carry-ons can be up to 24 inches long, 16 inches wide and 10 inches high.
What is a carry-on bag vs. a personal item?
Airlines consider purses, briefcases, laptop bags and small backpacks as examples of personal items. Some airlines, including American and Southwest, don’t have stated measurement limits for personal items, which can fly as long as they can fit under the seat.
Ultra-low-cost carriers Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines allow one personal item, which cannot exceed 14 inches high, 18 inches wide and 8 inches in diameter, including handles, wheels and straps.
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What is not allowed in a carry-on bag?
Full-size liquids and gels are not allowed in carry-on luggage. Shampoo, toothpaste, sunscreen and similar products must be in 3.4-ounce (or smaller) containers that all fit in a quart-size plastic bag.
TSA spokeswoman Patricia Mancha said bottled water is the most common prohibited item travelers try to bring through security checkpoints. (You can carry an empty bottle through and fill it later.)
Federal law prohibits people from boarding a plane with firearms or ammunition in their possession, though these items can fly in checked luggage under TSA guidelines. Some flammable items, like torch lighters, are not allowed in carry-ons or checked luggage.
If you’re in doubt about whether your item can fly in a carry-on bag, check the TSA’s What Can I Bring? page for guidance.
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How strict are airlines with carry-on luggage?
It depends on the airline. But anecdotal evidence suggests some airlines may be aggressive than others.
For example, Frontier Airlines allows flyers one free personal item. It charges a fee to bring a carry-on bag. The cost varies based on the itinerary and whether the bag fee is paid when the ticket is booked or at a later date. The fee to bring a carry-on when booking a Phoenix to Orlando itinerary in March started at $60.
Travel influencer Deja the Explorer recently flew on Frontier with a personal item, sharing on TikTok that a gate agent said the bag was too big to be a personal item and Deja would need to pay $99 for it to fly as a carry-on bag. But Deja fit the bag in the airline’s own bag sizer for personal items.
Commenters on Deja’s TikTok reported similar experiences.
Is it better to roll or fold clothes when packing a bag?
Keeping your bags organized is important because it’s harder for TSA screeners to assess luggage with cluttered contents.
Travel writers, packing experts and influencers have differing opinions on whether rolling or folding clothes is the best approach. Try both and see what works for you.
Rolling and folding both start with laying clothes flat and smoothing them out, then folding them inward until they form neat rectangular shapes, according to the luggage manufacturer Eagle Creek.
Folded items can simply be placed in the luggage. For rolled clothes, tightly roll the item from the crease where it was folded in half until it forms a sausage shape. Wrap a small band around it to keep it rolled if desired, or place it snugly inside the luggage.
But not all clothes are ideal for rolling. Cotton and linen fabrics wrinkle easily when rolled, and wool is bulkier and can actually take up more space inside luggage when rolled, according to Eagle Creek.
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Reach the reporter at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @salerno_phx.
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