18-March-2007 : Can I Get This On Board?

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18-March-2007 : Can I Get This On Board?

A big unknown to many travelers, not just photographers is “can I bring it on board?”

Many flyers seem to think there is a non-conformist rule between airlines regarding carry on policy. Overall this is not true. The published carry on allowance size of most major airlines is 45 inches (length + width + height). In general 45″ breaks out to 9″L x 14″W x 22″. Some North American carriers have their own non-conforming standards of 51 inches, US Airways (US) and Continental (CO) both are 11″L x 14″W x 26″H. The 51″ size can be deceiving though, because it is good for U.S. domestic travel, or travel outbound from the U.S. If you tried to get your carry on back on board returning from an overseas trip chances are you’d be stopped and have to go buy a new bag in the airport.

To make carry on rules more confusing there are variables. These variables include most U.S. airlines allow for “1 Carry On and 1 Personal Item.” Most U.S. carriers allow you to carry on “1 Carry On and 1 Personal Item” on your outbound international travel, however many countries now have restrictions in place that do NOT allow this policy on your return travel. Your return travel, most notably from the United Kingdom, is one carry on only. There are exceptions to the UK carry on rules, such as flying Virgin Atlantic (VS) Upper Class or flying Air New Zealand (NZ) and being Star Alliance/Star Gold (*A/*G). So if you leave with two carry on bags, make sure you can get two carry on bags home!

Airlines such as Emirates (EK) allow one carry on bag only, this means a woman’s purse is not allowed on board, it is considered a personal item and will not be allowed to board the aircraft.

Another carry on variable is many airlines simply say “Personal item,such as a lady’s purse, briefcase, small camera bag or computer case.” This is really vague. For a photographer a small camera bag can be a Domke F2 (http://domkef2.notlong.com) that holds two bodies, four – eight lenses, two flashes and eight Canon 1D/Nikon D2 batteries.

For me, my carry on is often a Pelican 1514 rolling case (9″L x 13.8″W x 22″H) , http://1514.notlong.com , and a “personal item” of a North Face backpack or brief case. Neither bag technically qualifies as a “personal item,” however the few times I have been challenged I have pulled out my laptop and explained it was my laptop bag.

Personal item sizes is a grey area that irritates even the most seasoned of travelers. This is because without a defined size you can find yourself at the mercy of the gate agent. I know a few photographers who have lost this argument at the entrance to the jet-way while boarding the plane.

One area you MUST be careful in is the weight of your carry on bag. I cannot stress this enough. While most North American carriers are fairly relaxed in their weight policy (I have only been stopped three times, every time by American Airlines, every time at in Dallas at DFW Int’l Airport). I know a number of photographers who have been stopped while traveling internationally. Not while departing North America but while seeking to return to North America.

There is a tactic I use which has worked very successfully for me while traveling. I shed my “large looking” Think Tank Airport Addicted backpack (http://ArprtAddctd.notlong.com) for a slimmer looking Lowe Pro Stealth backpack (http://stealthbackpack.notlong.com). I use this with a small waist pack which is work as a belt, that does not appear to be carry on, it appears to be a belt (mine is a Domke F5xb with two Newswear pouches).

A slimmer profile backpack gets noticed much less by airline staff , so it is less likely to be stopped to be weighed. I have had my Lowe Pro Stealth backpack weigh as much as 50lbs, but the key is to make it look like it is only 5lbs. When I go through security, enter the gate area and start the boarding process I swing the bag onto one shoulder and walk in a relaxed manner. By showing this body language no one says anything.

I have seen photographers and other travelers struggle to pick up their bag. I have seen numerous travelers that appear to be fairly young and healthy show signs of strain picking up a bag and look like they are extremely uncomfortable carrying their bag. NO MATTER WHAT you must SUCK IT UP and look calm, natural and relaxed if you know your bag is close to or over the carry on weight limit.

If you travel with a hard sided case, such as the hard Pelican 1514 case I like, you must make sure it will fit in the templates at the airport. These templates are generally made of tubular metal. There is no flex or room for squeezing a hard case into these templates. If you use a soft sided case, or a case with three soft sides, you can squeeze the case. It may sound odd, but practice effortlessly squeezing your case into something. If it looks easy no one says a word to you, if you struggle to squeeze the bag into the template you may be forced to do a “voluntary separation” at the gate. This means your bag is taken, tagged and loaded with the baggage to be delivered at the baggage carousel at your destination airport.

If you know your bag meets the “45 inch” rule (I strongly suggest measuring it and not trusting the bag manufacturer) but not the standard 9x14x22 dimensions, such as being 8x13x24 you can ask as the gate agent to measure your bag. Some will balk, some cannot find a tape measure, so it is always handy to have your own paper tape measure handy. Buy one for $1 and stuff it in the outside pocket of your bag for the odd occasion you’ll need it.

Despite the published carry on sizes the final ruling is made by the gate agent. I know a few people who have been challenged and lost at the gate when arguing, on international travel, than their 9x14x22 bag was OK. An accepted standard, although not the official one, is quickly becoming 8″L x 14″W x 21″H. I am sure this will become the published size in the next few years for Asian and Pacific carriers, but for now just be able squeeze your bag and you should be OK in most instances.

Below is a list of known current carry on baggage sizes I am aware of. Some of these sizes include carry on size restrictions for your “personal item,” as well as carry on sizes for “commuter carriers.” All of these sizes are in Inches.

United Airlines (UA) 9L x 14W x 22H
US Airways (US) 11L x14W x 26H
**US Airways Express (USX) 11L x 15W x 19H
Delta Airlines (DL) 9L x 14W x 22H
American Airlines (AA) 9L x 14W x 22H
JetBlue (B6) 10L x 16W x 24H
**JetBlue (B6) “Personal Item” 8L x 15W x 18H
Southwest Airlines (WN) 10L x 16W x 24H
Continental Airlines (CO) 11L x 14W x 26H
Air Canada (AC) 9L x 15.5W x 21.5H
**Air Canada (AC) “Personal Item” 6L x 13W x 17H
WestJet (M3) 9L x 15.5W x 21.5H

British Airways (BA) 8L x 16W x 22H
**BA Connect (TH) 10L x 18W x 22H
**BA Connect (TH) “Personal Item” 6L x 13W x 17H
Virgin Atlantic (VS) 9L x 14W x 22H
BMI (BD) 9L x17W x 22H
BMI Baby (WW) 7.5L x 15W x 21H (*WW has NO weight limit!**)
Ryanair (FR) 7.5L x 15W x 21H
EasyJet (EZ) 7.5L x 15W x 21H

Lufthansa (LH) 8L x 16W 22H
KLM (KL) 10L x 14W x 22H
Air France (AF) 9L x 15W x 22H
Alitalia (AZ) 10L x 14W x 18H
Scandinavian Airlines / SAS (SK) 9L x 18W x 22H
SWISS (LX) 7.8L x 15.7W x 21.6H

Japan Airlines / JAL (JL) 9L x 14W x 22H
JALWays (JO) 8L x 14W x 18H
All Nippon Airways / ANA (NH) 10L x 12W x 19H
Asiana (OZ) 9L x 14W x 22H
Korean Air (KE) 9L x 14W x 22H
Air New Zealand (NZ) 10L x 12W x 21H
Qantas (QF) 10L x 13W x 22H
Virgin Blue (DJ) 9L x 13W x 18H

I strongly suggest looking up your individual airline’s carry on baggage allowance. I also strongly suggest printing out your airlines carry on baggage policy. Having a policy, in print, and with you can help eliminate almost any problem you can have at the gate.

If you don’t see your airline listed above or are having trouble finding your airline’s baggage policy drop me an e-mail. I should be able to point you in the direction of the specifics of your carrier’s baggage policy.

Happy Flying!


  1. Hi Steve, interesting reading. I use the low pro bag for two canon bodies, 24-70, 70-200 and 50mm lens. Well over the weight limit, so I am force to carry one camera with lens attached over the shoulder, with he promise that I will not put it back in he bag :). You are right about walking with confidence.

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