Understanding Airline Luggage Requirements

Luggage requirements can be complicated and confusing with differences between airlines, destination, and ticket class. I’ll attempt to sort them out here, but I caution you to always check with your airline before you fly. In this post, I use luggage and baggage interchangeably – airline requirements often use the term baggage.

A couple times, I’ve arrived at the airport to find that my luggage does not meet the requirements – usually because of weight. I can pack a lot into a carry-on sized bag, so much that it exceeds the weight limits. What would have worked for some airlines, was too heavy for the one I was flying.

Domestic or International
Southwest Tails

Flights to Europe or other international destinations usually include one included checked bag; domestic flights do not. Low-cost carriers and “basic” economy flights are the exception to the included checked bag (see below).

Only a couple of the low cost airlines do not include a free carry-on bag on either domestic or international – Frontier, Spirit, and Sun Country. These airlines charge fees for both checked and carry-on bags

Checked Baggage Limitations
An assortment of Luggage

In general, checked bags size is limited to 62 linear inches. Linear inches are found by measuring the height, width, and depth, and adding the numbers together. For example, a suitcase that is 28″ x 18″ x 10″ has a linear measurement of 56 inches and would be allowed on most airlines.

Luggage manufacturers have taken the requirements into consideration when designing luggage and no longer produce bags that do not satisfy the rules.

Weight requirements are more varied, with limits ranging from 35 to 70 pounds per bag.  Check with your airline to see the specific requirements.

Carry-On Size and Weight Limitation

Although the majority of airlines allow carry-on bags with a linear measurement of 45 inches, some are lower – as low as 22 inches – and some are higher. Most US based airlines limit the carry-on bags to 22″ x 14″ x 9″, while European carriers use 21.5″ x 15.5″ x 9″. Generous Southwest Airlines allows bags up to 24″ x 16″ x 10″.

My Favorite Carry-On Bag

My favorite carry-on bag is 21″ tall and 14 inches wide, so it fulfills the requirements of both US and European carriers. The bag has been with me on more trips than I can count and still looks like new.

Weight limitations for carry-on bags are all over the scale. On my trip to France last summer, I didn’t pay close enough attention to the weight requirements and had to check my bag. There was no charge, since it was an international flight, but if you know me, you know I prefer not to check bags when I travel to Europe.

I had booked my flight through United Airlines which does not have a weight restriction. The flight was a code-share flight, with United assigning me to Austrian Airlines. Austrian has a weight limit of 16 pounds. My bag weighs almost seven pounds, so that left just nine for all my clothes. I try to pack light and maybe could have been close, if I had realized the limit before I got to the airport. Next time I’ll know.

Hand Luggage or Personal Items
My Regular Backpack

In addition to carry-on luggage, most airlines allow a you to bring a personal item. This item can be a purse, day-pack, briefcase, or similar. A full size backpack is usually too large, although you might be able to sneak by with it. If I bring a backpack instead of a purse, I use a smaller-sized one.  For example, United Airlines allows personal items that measure 17″ x 10″ x 9″. My regular backpack measures 18.5″ x 14″, while my day-pack is 17″ x 10″.

Baggage Fees

As I’ve said, some luggage can be transported or carried on without a fee.  With domestic flights, checked baggage will almost always require a fee. Exceptions are Southwest Airlines, certain frequent flyer statuses, and some elite class tickets.

When I fly within the US, I try to fly with Southwest Airlines. Although there are some quirks, such as not being assigned a seat, I find the prices and advantages are my best option.

At the Airport

I do not have much status with any airline, nor have I ever (yet) flown in first or business class. If I were to fly domestically on an airline besides Southwest, then, I would have to pay for any checked bags that I have. It’s been several years since I’ve flown anywhere in the states for more than a weekend, so I’ve been able to fly with just a carry-on.

Fees for checked bags on domestic flights range from $25-30 for the first bag to $100 or much more for additional bags. Check the fees for your particular flight before you pack. If you are flying with someone, you might be able to share one larger suitcase, rather than each person checking their own bag.

Low-Cost Carriers and “Basic” Economy
Ryanair Home Page

Europe’s popular low-cost carriers – Ryanair, Germanwings (Eurowings), and others – have their own rules and fees for luggage. If you plan to fly one of these airlines, be sure to research carefully.  The carriers offer extremely cheap prices, but often add several fees that make the price comparable to regular airlines. You can avoid many of the fees with careful planning. For more information check this post.

“Basic” economy is American, United, and Delta’s answer to low-cost airlines. It might seem that all economy seats are basic, but the more recent designation refers to an economy seat with no perks. Checked bag fees, seat assignment fees, and more can be added to the cost of a flight.

My daughter and I flew on a basic economy ticket in the spring. With careful planning and dealing with annoyances, we flew without adding fees. We were not able to sit together, as the airline assigned our seats. The plane was full, so we could not ask to be reassigned at the gate.

Another one of the annoyances is that I had to board in the last group.  My daughter has an associated credit card and was able to board a little earlier than me. Boarding last, I was concerned that there would be no overhead bin space for my luggage. I did not have a problem, but there is no guarantee that the same will happen next time.

Would it have been worth it to pay extra to check my bag? Maybe. My daughter and I are flying to Europe on a low-cost international airline this fall. The carry-on weight restriction is tight, so I decided to pay extra to check a bag. My daughter and I can share the checked bag so we won’t have problems with the weight of our carry-on bags.

Airline Luggage Requirements
Air France

Even though I am a seasoned traveler, I’ve made mistakes by assuming one airline would be the same as another. If you book through one of the “big three” – American, Delta, or United – you might be assigned to fly on another airline through a code-share flight. The baggage requirements will be for the airline you are assigned to, rather that the airline you booked.

It is impossible to memorize all the different requirements from each airline. Airline luggage requirements may sound complicated, but there is one way to make them simpler: Check with your airline for each flight you take.



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