Travel Like a Pro: Expert Tips for Choosing and Packing TSA-Approved Carry-On Luggage

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A carry-on bag is one of the most vital pieces of luggage you can have while traveling. It cushions your valuables, gives you access to entertainment during a long flight and means you’ll still have a change of clothes if your checked baggage gets lost. But that’s only if you pack it the right way. 

Traveling can be stressful enough, but with the right carry-on bag and the right essential items packed in it, you can ease some of your flight anxiety. Below, you’ll find tips on how to pick the perfect carry-on bag, and pack it right, while following Transportation Security Administration guidelines for each major US airline. (For more travel tips, explore the 12 travel essentials you need for every vacation and take a look at this travel checklist.)

The best carry-on travel bags

Before you start packing, you’ll have to find the right carry-on bag. Here are a few important things to keep in mind.

Size

The first and most important aspect to think about is size. Federal Aviation Administration regulations say carry-on items can’t exceed dimensions of 22 by 14 by 9 inches, though you might find an inch or two of difference depending on the airline. The general rule is that it must fit under your seat or in the overhead enclosed storage compartment on the plane. 

Here’s a quick reference for size limits for the most popular US airlines.

Carry-on items by airline

Airline Cabin Maximum size
Air Canada All 55 x 40 x 23 cm; 21.5 x 15.5 x 9 in
Alaska Airlines All 55.88 x 35.56 x 22.86 cm; 22 x 14 x 9 in
American Airlines All 56 x 36 x 23 cm; 22 x 14 x 9 in
British Airways All 56 x 45 x 25 cm; 22 x 18 x 10 in
Delta Air Lines All 56 x 35 x 23 cm; 22 x 14 x 9 in
Frontier Airlines All 60.96 x 40.64 x 25.4 cm; 24 x 16 x 10 in
Hawaiian Airlines All 55.9 x 35.5 x 22.9 cm; 22 x 14 x 9 in
JetBlue Airways All 55.88 x 35.56 x 22.86 cm; 22 x 14 x 9 in
Southwest Airlines All 60.9 x 40.6 x 25.4 cm; 24 x 16 x 10 in
Spirit Airlines All 56 x 46 x 25 cm; 22 x 18 x 10 in
United Airlines All 56 x 35 x 22 cm; 22 x 14 x 9 in

Carry-on items by airline

Airline Cabin Maximum Size
Air Canada All 55 x 40 x 23 cm; 21.5 x 15.5 x 9 in
Alaska Airlines All 55.88 x 35.56 x 22.86 cm; 22 x 14 x 9 in
American Airlines All 56 x 36 x 23 cm; 22 x 14 x 9 in
British Airways All 56 x 45 x 25 cm; 22 x 18 x 10 in
Delta Air Lines All 56 x 35 x 23 cm; 22 x 14 x 9 in
Frontier Airlines All 60.96 x 40.64 x 25.4 cm; 24 x 16 x 10 in
Hawaiian Airlines All 55.9 x 35.5 x 22.9 cm; 22 x 14 x 9 in
JetBlue Airways All 55.88 x 35.56 x 22.86 cm; 22 x 14 x 9 in
Southwest Airlines All 60.9 x 40.6 x 25.4 cm; 24 x 16 x 10 in
Spirit Airlines All 56 x 46 x 25 cm; 22 x 18 x 10 in
United Airlines All 56 x 35 x 22 cm; 22 x 14 x 9 in

Safety

If you decide to bring electronics like a laptop, iPad, Kindle or other tablet on board, your carry-on should ideally have a separate, padded compartment for secure packing. Be sure these compartments are easily accessible, since at security checkpoints, the TSA will require you to remove your electronic devices and place them in the plastic X-ray tray.

Comfort

Remember, you’ll need to lug your carry-on bag or suitcase across the airport and down long corridors, and you might even need to run with it so you don’t miss your connection. Consider whether you need padded handles or cushioned straps or a backpack or a rolling suitcase for ease.

Airplane passenger stowing his carry-on luggage under the seat in front of him.

The general rule is that all carry-ons must fit under your seat or in the overhead enclosed storage compartment on the plane. 

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How to pack your carry-on the right way

Though what to pack in your carry-on ultimately depends on your preferences, there are a few guidelines for the best way to pack your luggage:

  • Pack items in layers (shoes one layer, clothes one layer, electronics one layer, etc.).
  • Pack the things you’ll use the least at the bottom of the bag.
  • Keep most of your valuables in your carry-on luggage, and store them in side compartments or safely padded around other items.
  • Place valuables at the bottom of your bag, away from the opening.
  • Keep your wallet, credit cards and cash in an inner pocket so they’ll be harder to steal.
  • Pack a small, separate bag for toiletries. (Liquids, gels and aerosols packed in carry-on must follow the 3-1-1 liquids rule: 3.4 ounces or less per container; all liquids must fit in one quart size, clear, plastic, zip-top bag; one bag per passenger.)
  • Roll your clothes tightly to save space in your luggage. 

Sometimes you lose your luggage. It happens. Though it’s frustrating, it’s important to pack a spare set of clothes (including socks and underwear!) in your carry-on to hold you over until your bags are found and returned. Pack clothing that can easily be rolled up and put in the bottom of your bag.

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Rolled clothing can save space in your tight bag or suitcase. 

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Essential items for your carry-on bag

There’s some items that are just better in your carry-on luggage. If you do decide to check a bag, be sure to keep these items with you on the flight. Most of these carry-on essentials are items that would be hard to replace or purchase when you get to your destination. 

  • Prescriptions and medications
  • Contact lenses or glasses
  • Valuables like jewelry, wallets, passports, IDs and boarding passes
  • Cameras and smartphones
  • Entertainment like tablets, books and laptops
  • Headphones to watch TV or movies if a longer flight
  • Chargers for electronics
  • Printed itinerary, or hotel and flight confirmations

Explore this complete guide for essential travel items you may forget to pack. 

young woman taking laptop out of bag for TSA

Place your larger electronics in secure yet easily accessible compartments, since you’ll need to pull them out at TSA security checkpoints. 

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Forbidden items for your carry-on bag

The TSA has specific guidelines covering which items are banned from flights, and the agency takes those rules very seriously. In 2022 alone, the TSA screened nearly 761 million passengers and crew members nationwide, and it confiscated a record number of firearms (6,301) and many other items. TSA policy says that individuals carrying weapons, especially loaded firearms, can face fines or criminal penalties. 

These are some of the most commonly confiscated items:

  • Firearms
  • Fireworks
  • Box cutters, utility knives and razors
  • Bats, clubs and blades
  • Swiss Army knives

If in doubt, always refer to the TSA’s guidelines on packing for flights, to ensure you have safe and easy travels. 

If you’re planning a vacation soon and are stressed about packing or preparing, CNET has plenty of resources to help. Get ready for your next trip with these hacks and tips:

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