New carry-on size limits causing problems for some air travelers this summer

Copyright © 2011 Kathryn Greenhill

Last week, a friend of mine found out about United’s new carry-on size limits the hard way: he was asked to put the carry-on bag he had used for the last five years in United’s “sizer.” Then, because it was about an inch too wide, he had to run back to the ticket counter to check it in. He barely satisfied the requirement to check in luggage at least 45 minutes before departure.

A few weeks ago, after a decade of airline baggage handling abuse, my wife and I decided it was time to get the latest tough, lightweight, four-wheel luggage for our travel. I checked the carry-on regulations of several airlines to be sure our luggage would meet the airlines’ size limits. I was caught by surprise when I learned that my primary airline, American, had quietly changed its carry-on luggage rules.

At the American Airlines website, it first appeared as though the carry-on size limit was unchanged, as it said carry-on bags can’t, “…exceed overall dimensions of 45 inches (length + width + height).”

When I read on, the surprising major change in American’s carry-on size limitation stood out like a sore thumb.

“The maximum dimensions cannot exceed any of the following measurements: 22″ long x 14″ wide x 9″ tall or 115 cm (56 x 36 x 23 cm).”

Each dimension now has an individual limit and, unfortunately for many travelers, a significant number of roller carry-ons today are 15″ (38 cm) wide or slightly wider. Those carry-on bags no longer meet American’s size limit, or United’s, which has adopted the same limits.

Besides the new size limits, from what I’ve seen in the last couple of months, American and United, plus some other US domestic airlines, are increasing their carry-on rule enforcement at some airports. American and United have begun to use their carry-on “sizer” again.

If you’re flying American or United, that means your 15”-wide carry-on might be required to be checked luggage. If an airline decides to subject your carry-on to their “sizer,” remember, they require your bag get through it without being forced. They won’t let you take it into the plane’s cabin if you can barely “inch” it through the “sizer.”

Travelers on US domestic flights are permitted to take both a carry-on bag and a personal item into the plane’s cabin. The carry-on bag is well defined by the airlines, but not the personal item. Airlines merely describe it as a purse, briefcase, laptop bag or tote. The airlines do say it must fit under the seat in front of each passenger. That description can characterize bags of substantial size, and gives gate agents and flight crew too much discretion about what they can allow or disallow.

I’d like to give kudos to United Airlines for now making it clear on their website what their limits are for personal items, by setting dimensional limits everyone can understand.

United states, “The maximum dimensions for your personal item, such as a shoulder bag, backpack, laptop bag or other small item, are 9 inches x 10 inches x 17 inches (22 cm x 25 cm x 43 cm).”

It appears that the rules and enforcement of carry-on luggage limits for US domestic airlines are in a state of flux. Therefore, I strongly suggest you check your airlines’ baggage rules to make sure your luggage conforms to them. That way you won’t be caught like my friend and others. With the largest and third largest US domestic airlines adopting new, more restrictive carry-on rules, it stands to reason other airlines may follow their lead.

Before purchasing new luggage, check any airline you think you might fly during the life of your new bags to determine what their maximum size can be. That way you’ll eliminate the problems and expenses of oversize luggage. Don’t take the word of luggage manufacturers that their bags meet all domestic and/or international standards. Make the determination yourself.

Don’t expect the airlines to notify you about their luggage rule changes. The onus, as usual, is on the passenger. American, United and the other airlines generally spell out their luggage rules and regulations for both checked and carry-on luggage in detail. It is definitely worth reading the airlines’ luggage rules. Knowing them can eliminate hassles, problems and expensive fees at the airport.

Does your carry-on bag meet American and United's new size limit?

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  • pauletteb

    I’ve always used a carry-on that fits under the seat . . . just in case. I’m glad the airlines are finally cracking down!

  • AirlineEmployee

    One problem is that these “carryons” I see every day are overstuffed to the gills. If bag manufacturers would stop creating their own “adjustable”, zippered expansions outside of the flush dimensions, this problem would stop. If you need to take more than the bag can carry, then resolve to check a bag or repack accordingly. I’m sick of passengers who insist their overstuffed, oversized bag is a carryon when clearly it is not because they keep shoving it in until it’s bulging and barely able to be zippered back up. Americans need to lose some weight – they pack like they eat.

  • Ryan James

    In April, I flew from Budapest to Amsterdam on KLM. My carry on met their size requirements exactly counting the wheels and the soft handle. I measured twice and then my spouse confirmed my results. At check-in, they insisted I put it in the sizer. It fit depth wise, but the soft handle had difficulty getting past the bar. I argued with them until they forced me to take out the tape measure I had packed. Then they let me take it on. I don’t always think those sizers are honest. Just as I have read that the scales are not always calibrated regularly. If you are over limit, have it weighed on another scale.

    It is pointless to try to buy new luggage to fit today’s requirements when they could change again tomorrow or next month.

    I think the luggage companies and the airlines are in cooperation with each other to scam the traveling public.

  • cmb

    The carryon weight limits are also crucial for foreign carriers. I’ve been hunting for the lightest bag that meets the requirements – ITLuggage and Hammacher S. seem to be the best so far. I fully agree with the writer complaining about the expandable carryons. All that expandable section does is add weight and make the bag exceed the size limits. A reminder – the new size limits are actually the old ones, pre 45″ days.

  • MeanMeosh

    Ned, FYI, AA says they haven’t changed their permissible bag dimensions since 2008. It appears they’ve just decided to start enforcing them.

    Granted, I haven’t spent much time getting to know the fine print on airline websites, but Terry Maxon is pretty knowledgeable, so I’d consider the source trustworthy.

    Just be glad that no domestic carrier has started putting weight limits on carry-ons, as cmb alludes to. BA in particular is studious about not only making you put your carry-ons through the sizer, but also making you weigh them at the check-in desk, and forcing people to check them if they are too heavy. Inevitably, they would end up trapping a fair number unsuspecting passengers in India heading back to the states, since U.S. travelers often aren’t familiar with carry-on weight limits. They’d show up with 2 check-in bags per passenger, both packed exactly to the weight limit, plus a carry-on, then get whacked with an excess bag fee when informed that no, their carry-on isn’t a carry-on because it’s too heavy.

  • TonyA_says

    Absolutely agree.

  • TonyA_says


    I use a Tarmac 20″ Eagle Creek Travel Gear.
    14 x 20 x 8 in | 36 x 51 x 20 cm
    42 lin in. | 107 lin cm.

    So far so good :-)

  • TonyA_says

    For the AA codeshare on BA metal:

    BAG 1 – NO FEE UPTO40LI/101LCM
    BAG 2 – NO FEE UPTO45LI/115LCM

    Yikes even my 20″ carry on won’t work on the BA flight.

    You will need an 18″.

  • Laura616

    My husband flies on United all the time and he hasn’t seen any evidence of the clamp down. People still get away with hauling on a regular size bag with another bag attached. That needs to stop.

  • VELS14

    Thanks for that information. I’ve looked at their old literature and found nothing indicating the 45 linear inches weren’t flexible in the past, meaning you could steal from length, to put it to width. Now you can’t.

    Regardless, I’ve seen the sizers being used myself recently, and hadn’t seen that done in the US in years. To me, it’s a welcome change.

    My current carry-ons meet AA and UA standards. From our poll, and others I’ve seen, it seems clear that likely more than half of today’s fliers have carry-ons which don’t meet these standards.
    I just want air travelers to be aware they could start running into trouble, at least on American (largest airline in the world by passengers) and United (third largest airline in the world by passengers).

    I think more carry-on enforcement is likely coming. Flight crews are complaining that oversized bags and too many bags generally are taking a lot of time to stow, making an on-time departure from the gate difficult. Passengers are complaining about other passengers with oversized bags taking up all the room in the overhead bins that they can’t stow their bag there. And of course, the airlines don’t want to lose checked bag fee revenue.

    Yes, I’m very thankful the US airlines aren’t weighing carry-on bags. Mine are sized right, but with my photo equipment, are overweight.

  • VELS14

    Yes British Air has a carry-on size limit of 22″ x 18″ x 10″ (56cm x 45cm x 25cm), but compared to AA and UA at 22″ x 14″ x 9″ (56cm x 36cm x 23 cm), they are more generous. I know of no airline which permits carry-on bags which are 20″ (51cm) wide.

  • TonyA_says

    it’s 20″ in one dimension. The measurement is Length + Height + Width, so it does not matter how you place the bag.
    You see it your example the 22″ is more than my 20″.
    I can always put my bag sideways in the sizer.
    that said my 20″ is too big for BA because it is more than 40 Linear Inches :(

  • Cat Lady

    Because I am now flying some of the smaller planes of various European airlines, I bought a smaller carry-on and have not had any problems. They also have carry-on weight limits and they do enforce them

  • Skeptic

    We’ve all seen carry-on abuse — 3+ large shopping bags hanging from both arms, huge duffle bags, passengers who put everything in the overheads and nothing under their seat, passengers seated in row 36 who stash their bags over row 10, etc. But given the new rules, how am I supposed to carry the huge (17″) laptop my employer has assigned me? It is too big to fit inside the compliant personal item bag described in this story, even though it fits well inside the Osprey backpack I bought last year, which goes under the seat in front of me. While the laptop would fit in a compliant roller bag, there’s no way I’d ever pack electronics (or other valuable, or medicine, etc.) in a bag that could have to be gate-checked at the last minute due to overstuffed bins, or when I fly on a RJ etc. Plus it would be incredibly awkward to get to the laptop if I needed it in flight.

    Common sense dictates that if your personal item does not fit under the seat in front of you, it’s actually a carry-on. For bags that do fit, why should the airlines care about their exact dimensions? As long as they don’t stick out into aisles or exit row floor areas, they only affect their owner’s ability to wiggle their toes.

  • VELS14

    Here in the US, my friends work out at the gym and keep in good shape, but many do pack their carry-ons to the gills, as some would put it. Of course, the airlines can blame themselves for much of that. With fees for even the first bag of checked luggage, and with a decade of far too many lost or damaged checked bags, the airlines clearly begged their passengers to purchase the largest carry-ons they could get away with taking on board, and stuff them to their utmost limit, to avoid the fees and eliminate worries over lost luggage.

    Plus here in the US, it’s been a long time since there was any but a passing interest, at most, in enforcing carry-on rules.

    I was on a flight that was only 2/3 filled, a couple of year ago, when the flight crew told the gate agent no more carry-ons as the overhead bins were already filled. They were filled, with many duffel bags larger than my checked suitcase. It was a sin.

    Sure the passengers are ultimately responsible, but lots of blame goes to the airlines.

  • VELS14

    They can change, but when you need new luggage, you need new luggage, and you make the best choice you can. We’re getting the lightest bags possible which we believe will stand up to the abuse for about 10 years to get our money’s worth. Their size will be such that they can go on most any airline that we might use. Our current bags meet today’s standards even though they were purchased in the mid ’90s. I think we can do that again.

  • VELS14

    CMB, you are exactly right about expandability. It adds weight. We are careful about that. Thanks for bringing that up to remind everyone here.

  • VELS14

    Any way you can fit it in the sizer is okay, but it has to fit overall. If you have a second dimension of 20″ it won’t fit.

  • VELS14

    UA, like the other airlines still isn’t enforcing the rules uniformly, but all it takes is one time and it creates problems. So far, anecdotal evidence from people who have emailed me leads me to believe that UA enforcement seems heaviest on full or nearly full flights, and at the smaller airports they are servicing.

  • AirlineEmployee

    I work for a US carrier here in the United States and I am just making an observation about American travelers (though I won’t separate them entirely from the masses). The airlines have never encouraged people to buy the largest carry-ons they could “get away” with. The measurements have been clear for years and yet travelers insist the airlines are “wrong”; they keep insisting their bag is still a carry-on even while they are CRAMMING it, SHOVING it into the sizer and it clearly does not fit ! Give it up already and pay for a bag if you have to take so much cr@p with you !

  • AirlineEmployee

    But many people don’t use/have common sense. I can just hear it now —

    “but it’s ONLY one inch over” or
    “it just sticks out an inch”. How about this one —
    “I’ve done it a hundred times”
    “it does fit under the seat !!” (as it blocks 5 inches of foot space)

    etc, etc, etc. People just have too much stuff with them and it has to be controlled. Kudos to United for starting this ball rolling. DL is starting to enforce more at the gates.

  • Airport Employee

    Where is an airport that does not have the ability to check a bag at the gate?? Also every airline has sizers at the check in counters. I believe the problem is utter lack of personal responsibility to check the sizer at check in, as rules do not apply to most people (or so they think).

  • jim6555

    Most people, especially those who do not fly for business, do not know what the required dimensions are. When they are at the store, they see a tag on the bags that says something like “will fit in overhead bin” or something like that. The passenger then assumes that the bag is okay. Perhaps we need a little bit of truth in advertising here.

  • jim6555

    The answer is to avoid flying on UA or AA if you can. I often fly on Southwest (WN) and have yet to see a sizer at any WN ticket counter or gate. Also, the fact that you can check two bags for free on WN eliminates the anxiety about whether all of the stuff that you bring on the trip will expand your bag and you will be forced to pay to check it.

  • kwidprokuo

    I’m surprised nobody has mentioned another big reason for overpacking stuff in a carry-on bag: what about those passengers who are concerned of theft or damage (of objects from checked luggage)? Since the recommended route is to put it in checked baggage, and maybe it had to go in with all the other “must carry with you” stuff like money and medicines, if we had better guarantee the checked bag wasn’t going to be thrown around and its contents ransacked by an airline worker maybe the checked bag fee would not be worth it.

    I’d hate to check something and feel like I paid for it to get stolen.

  • kwidprokuo

    *edit: “…the checked bag fee would* be worth it.”

  • Peter

    If 90% or more of roller bags don’t meet the 14″ standard, maybe a more sensible standard is 15″. Unless the airlines want more checked luggage fee revenue. It’s completely absurd.

    Last week I flew to HNL on a United flight and then a few days later to Japan on Delta. Because of concerns about these restrictions, I left my roller bag(s) at home and suffered from inconvenience that really made no sense.

    As a Two Million Miler + I would like to think the airlines are not my enemy. But reality, as always, intrudes.

  • Marcin Jeske

    Having indeed done it a hundred times… (quick mental math… that’s probably about right)… I think it is the approach which you describe that lacks common sense.

    It is reasonable that people need stuff with them, and while I admire (and even envy) those moon-eyed innocents who wander onto the airplane holding just a light jacket and a soft-cover book for the road, most people who travel for work or for leisure are unable to live up to that ascetic ideal.

    – the airlines strongly encourage, and in many cases require, that all electronics be carried on, which means computers and their attendant cabling and accessories, cameras (thank god we no longer have to pack film) and batteries, phones and tablets, all get crammed into your carry-on. Unless you have optimized with netbooks and multi-function devices, that can easily be 10+ pounds and your entire “personal item”.

    – Although in recent years the lost bag situation seems to have gotten remarkably better, there are certain items you can’t afford to get lost or delayed. Getting your bag a day or two late is fine if you are coming home, or staying in your arrival city for several days. But if you are traveling on by car or train or boat, that lost bag will never catch up with you… and could potentially disrupt your trip.

    I hope you will admit that there is a need for some to get maximum use out of the carry-on space allotted them.

    I board the plane and quickly and efficiently store my roll-a-board wheels first into the overhead bin, where it perfectly nestles, into the same overhead bins Boeing and Airbus have been installing for years. Am I being more or less responsible than those who toss up small, personal items, loosely lay out their jacket or other fragile objects, or place a smaller bag in such an inefficient way that it takes up just as much room as mine?

    While I have seen hundreds of sizers, and they may even use the correct dimensions… but none of them actually functions the same way as an overhead bin. They snag on handles, rip up fabric, and boggle on wheels. They do not do an adequate job of sizing luggage. And when it comes to personal items, I will admit my laptop backpack pushes the limit, but “it does fit under the seat” and the only person losing out on already meager legroom is me.

    While I certainly aspire to slim down my luggage, I do not accept your judgement that we “have too much stuff with them and it has to be controlled”. Your giddy insistence that the airlines enforce poorly constructed rules with poorly constructed sizers misses the point of rules… they are there to allow an efficient, predictable travel experience. When those rules don’t reflect the needs of passengers and the reality of an airlines planes, they are less than worthless… they actively disrupt.

    Airlines created this problem by the combination of a history of poor baggage handling and charging for even the first checked bag. Over the past few years, good airlines have figured out a lot of ways of making it better, including relaxing fees on checked baggage, creating other incentives to check baggage (some offer early boarding if you have just a personal item and Alaska compensates you if you wait more than 20 minutes), and even improving the overhead bins to provide more overall space (again, Alaska’s new planes got new bin designs). The overhead bin chaos is now mostly relegated to those airlines still don’t understand their customers.

  • Marcin Jeske

    I once flew a European budget airline that allowed one carry-on with such a low weight limit that my laptop alone was enough. They said I should check (40 euro fee, I believe) either the laptop or the backpack it was in, I couldn’t take both.

    Luckily I had a coat with a very large pocket (“coats” were considered a separate category of item, along with “newspaper or book”). I managed to stuff the laptop into my coat pocket… it was now part of my “coat”. Nothing actually was accomplished except inconvenience and delay, but at least the rules-lawyers at the checkpoint were happy… my bag was under the limit, and “coats” had no weight limit, so all was fine with the world.

    (I have seen advertised jackets specifically designed to act as an additional carry-on to carry all the gear you have to remove from your carry-on to meet the weight limit.)

  • Marcin Jeske

    It does remind me of those urban roads where heavy traffic is all traveling above the unusually low speed limit. Roads tend to have a natural speed based on the geometry and other conditions… but sometimes local authorities like to set substantially lower limits either to placate nearby residents or drive speeding ticket revenue.

    Same here… the airlines are perfectly aware of the range and types of bags and what they can comfortably accommodate in their bins, but choose to create anxiety for their customers by inconsistent enforcement of rules which don’t reflect reality. (And if they “catch you” with an extra centimeter in the wrong place… boom… speeding ticket/bag fee.)

  • AirlineEmployee

    My assessment of your opinion boils down to just another passenger who selfishly WANTS IT THEIR WAY and then blames the airlines for trying to get a grip on it (pun not intended). The sizers are not “poorly constructed”; they are templates of what is allowable.

    I’ve seen enraged people try to jam, cram their overstuffed “carryon” (clearly too large and bulging) into the sizers (of course they don’t fit). The airlines are causing “disruption” (in your words) by doing this ? The “disruption” I see every day are by passengers going ballistic on jet bridges and in front of the ticket counter as they empty their bags and repack their underwear and the kitchen sink while everyone else has to climb around them. Talk about selfish and rude.

    And then we have the “elite” who by virtue of being a mileage member think they’re entitled to carry their whole office with them or any size bag that suits them. Further disruption – by the passenger. These are the same clowns who dump their bags at row 3 (bins) while they sit ten rows behind that. How they even get through some security checkpoints with them baffles me.
    The blame is on the passengers, not the airlines. Stop carrying on everything – check your bag and then you’ll have room for your gargantuan laptop and ten pounds of electronics. Ridiculous.

    The title of this article should be — You can’t have everything – Where would you put it ? —

  • Marcin Jeske

    Well, at least we have found one point of agreement… people stowing luggage in overhead bins rows ahead of their actual seat are annoying. I usually try to let them know they left their bag behind. No question that they complicate boarding and exacerbate limited storage space.

    Now on to our differences:

    “gargantuan laptop”: most normal laptops weigh between 5 and 7 pounds, depending on screen size. Some newer ones (netbooks and ultrabooks) come down to 3 pounds. Those weights do not include the power brick, often another pound. Any camera above a light point-and-shoot will weigh at least a pound with batteries and charger. For a vacation, some might still have a video camera, easily 2 pounds. These are common items someone would take on a trip with them. Your calling them ridiculous seems to ignore a dramatic change in technology use over the past decade. In the year 2000, few people travelled with a laptop… in 2014, many do.

    People repacking their bags in front of ticket counters has nothing to do with carry-on dimensions… that’s almost always a result of a *checked* bag being a few pounds over the 50 pound limit. Rather than pay a massive fee for being a few pounds over, passengers choose to move items to another bag or a carry-on. If you have books or anything dense packed, it is really easy to exceed 50 pounds, even with a carry-on sized bag.

    I don’t think it is ever constructive to “go ballistic”, but I can understand passengers who do. Either they misjudged the amount of stuff they had, picked up a few souvenirs, or the bathroom scale was a few pounds off. Now, they are given an ultimatum between high fees or looking ridiculous repacking their bags in front of a line of impatient people. This all occurs in an rushed context because there are long lines everywhere and ticket counters are understaffed.

    You seem to have some anger towards mileage elites, but in my observation, they are usually the ones who have their routine worked out, know all the rules, and board the plane quickly and efficiently. Since you are such a stickler for rules, I would point out that many airlines have rules specifically for elites giving them larger weight limits and more lenient carry-on restrictions. I would suggest you try out Spirit – their luggage restrictions should be much more to your liking and you could easily avoid “elites”.

    When I say the templates are poorly constructed, I mean that they don’t reflect reality and don’t even accurately portray the rules. (Apparently American has now changed theirs, but most airlines use a version of the dimensional rule “not to exceed overall dimensions”, which allows some dimensions to be more as long as other dimensions are smaller.) They are like Cinderella’s slipper, where normal people can’t quite fit their feet because they are not meant to.

    I regret if your impression is that I “want it my way” because I feel my approach has more to do with everyone being in the same boat (well, plane) and working together for a pleasant travel experience. Personal item always under seat. A carry-on that can slide easily into the bin in the correct orientation to take up the least amount of space. Get out of the aisle quickly to let other people pass. I am not taking up any more space than I am allowed.

    And while I am not taking personal offense (I am fairly thin), I am disappointed hearing your opinions on overweight passengers in this and earlier threads. They deserve basic human respect, and given the health problems that come with excess weight, often actually pack lighter because they are unable to carry as much.

  • AirlineEmployee

    While I respect your opinion and civility (correct size of your carry-on, correct stowage), as well as your desire to add to a pleasant travel experience for others around you, I speak from an airline employee perspective. Which means I stand by my employer getting control of an increasingly out of control situation.
    Before anyone goes off on me about not standing the heat, get out of the kitchen lecture, I can assure you I can stand “the heat”; I’ve been burned, cut, scalded (figuratively speaking) and have still maintained my fairness and civility towards passengers over three decades. On a daily basis there are many, many passengers who object to the vagaries of airline travel (checked bags, sizers, seating preferences or lack thereof, paying for amenities, etc.) based virtually on THEIR opinion of what should be allowed or not. However, what has been cast upon us is pretty much here to stay and is not anything “new”. These sizer issues have been around for a long time, bag charges have been around for at least 3-4 years. Nothing new (or hidden on airline websites). Nobody reads it.
    If templates are not used, where does it stop ? One inch more, two inches more ? Just one more tote bag, one more shopping bag ? Believe me I have let a lot of things slide but we see ridiculous amounts of carry-on. We can’t even stop 1/2 these people as they enter the system at small airports who do not enforce or turn a blind eye to it….and the passengers know it and thus game it. This brings us to the connecting points or hubs. I don’t care that you started with 5 items through security at Kalispell but now you’re connecting onto a full aircraft and your overstuffed carry-on – as in expansions on the outside, duffle bag, two shopping bags, purse and tote bag just aren’t going to cut it. So, we will enforce and gate check that expanded rollerboard – and be glad we’re not charging at the gates — YET–. Honestly if rollerboards were made “flush” and not expandable, this would alleviate the inability of passengers to fit it in the sizer or the overhead bins and even under their seats.
    You’re entitled to your objections, it’s a free country (freedom of speech) etc., but I stand by my observations; one being that generally overweight people pack like they eat – they keep stuffing it in. I had a woman the other day objecting to removing 12 lbs from her overweight bag — “but it’s just clothing”. She couldn’t get the concept of OVERWEIGHT; only the concept of clothing that she needed to wear so that should make it okay.
    In closing I’ll cut you some slack on elite passengers getting more allowance – they are the “road warriors” and generally pay higher fares, etc. but some of them are also guilty of carrying too many items.
    One carry-on and one personal item. Simple.