When it comes to comfort and versatility nothing beats a well-designed backpack. So it should come as no surprise that a backpack is our airline personal item bag of choice.
If you are looking to use a backpack as a personal item on your next trip then you may be disappointed to discover that most backpacks may be too large or just lacking the features needed to used as an on-flight travel bag.
This is why we decided to do the research and list the best backpacks that can be used as personal items on flights. Our top picks fit a number of important personal item requirements such as size, pocket placement and travel-friendly design features.
Difference Between a Personal Item and a Carry-On
Let’s start with explaining the difference between a personal item and carry-on bag.
The difference is simple: a carry-on bag must fit in the overhead compartment while a personal item must fit underneath the seat in front of you.
If a bag is too large to fit in underseat storage then it will be treated as a carry-on bag. If a carry-on bag is too large to fit in overhead storage then it will be treated as a check-in bag and you will not able to bring it on the airplane cabin with you.
Examples of carry-on bags include carry-on luggage, weekender backpacks and large travel bags and duffels. Personal item bags include a purse, briefcase or small backpack.
Each airline has their own specific measurements for what can be considered a carry-on and a personal item so it’s important that you check with your airline to make sure your bags fit the measurement requirements.
When it comes to personal items it’s also important to understand that underseat dimensions can vary by airplane, boarding class and seat location. For example, there is no underseat stowage in the front rows behind the bulkhead and smaller planes tend to have smaller underseat storage dimensions.
Is a backpack a personal item?
Can a backpack be a personal item? The simple answer is yes, a backpack can be a personal item.
The important thing to note about airline personal items is that just about any bag can be used as long as it fits under the airline’s personal item dimensions. This includes backpacks, diaper bags, purses and briefcases.
The key to making a backpack count as a personal item is to make sure it’s small enough to meet the size requirements. Many backpacks may be too bulky to fit underneath an airline seat or can be considered too large by the airline.
Below is a chart of the most popular airlines in the United States with their stated personal item bag size. This chart was last updated on 09/24/2019. Make sure to check your airline’s official website for the latest carry-on and personal item size requirements.
|Airline||Personal Item Size|
|American Airlines||18" x 14" x 8"|
|Alaska Airlines||No specific size|
|Air Canada||17" x 13" x 6"|
|Delta||No specific size (see our Delta size guide)|
|Frontier||18" x 14" x 8"|
|JetBlue||17" x 13" x 8"|
|Southwest||18.5" x 13.5" x 8.5"|
|Spirit||18" x 14" x 8"|
|United Airlines||17" x 10" x 9"|
Best Personal Item Backpacks
Patagonia Atom Backpack
The Patagonia Atom is our top pick for the best personal item backpack thanks to it’s airline-friendly size, top-notch quality and ability to be used as a reliable daypack when you arrive to your destination.
At 18 liters, the Atom Pack is roomy enough for airline travel essentials such as headphones, water bottles and snacks. A padded laptop sleeve also allows you to carry a tablet and smaller laptop. It’s dimensions of 17" x 9.5" x 5.5” fit just about every airline personal item requirement so you can be sure to use the Patagonia Atom Backpack as your go-to travel backpack for years to come.
Bag Dimensions: 17" x 9.5" x 5.5”
eBags Professional Slim JR
Pockets, organizers and more pockets. If you are serious about organization then the eBags Professional Slim JR is the personal item backpack you have been looking for. One of its best features is the massive organizer panel located right in the front of the backpack that has spots for everything from snacks to charging cables. The backpack also features separate laptop and tablet compartments that can be accessed from the top of the bag. This means you can grab your tech without having to pull the bag out from underneath the airline seat.
The eBags Professional comes in two sizes: the smaller eBags Professional Slim JR featured here and the larger original eBags Professional Slim that still fits many airline personal item bag size requirements. Both are worth their weight in gold for busy travelers.
Bag Dimensions: 16.5” x 12.75" x 6.5”
Everlane ReNew Transit Backpack
Everlane’s newest addition to their bag line is also incredibly airline friendly. The Everlane ReNew Transit backpack offers a roomy design that also fits most airline personal item size requirements. The backpack has travel-friendly features such as a side water bottle pocket, outer zip pockets for small items and a generous main compartment for clothes, toiletries and more. When used as an airline personal item we like that you have access to a zip pocket located on the top of the backpack lid for easy access to essentials like headphones or a phone while the bag is stored underneath the airplane seat. The laptop sleeve also has side zip access so you don’t have to open up the main compartment to access your tech.
The Everlane ReNew Transit backpack is designed to be unisex and can be worn by just about anyone. And thanks to Everlane’s multiple color options you can choose the right one to fit your style and taste.
Bag Dimensions: 17.5” x 12” x 7.25”
Pacsafe Venturesafe Anti-Theft Day Pack
The Pacsafe Ventursafe is an anti-theft travel backpack made for lugging around essentials during busy travel days. It’s safety features include RFID blocking pockets, slashproof materials, and an anti-pickpocket design. As for carry, the Venturesafe includes a handy organization panel pocket in the front for easy access to small items during a flight in addition to a roomy main compartment with a 13-inch laptop sleeve. Once you arrive to your destination, the Pacsafe Venturesafe makes the ideal travel daypack thanks to it’s anti-theft design and moderate size.
Bag Dimensions: 18.1” x 10.2” x 6.3”
Tucano Tugo Medium Travel backpack
The Tucano Tugo Medium is the backpack for those who want to pack as much as possible while still staying under most airline personal item bag size requirements. This is thanks to the Tugo’s roomy 20 liter main compartment that opens like a suitcase for easy packing of clothes, toiletries and more. For accessibility and convenience, the Tucano Tugo Medium also includes a separate laptop pocket and various outside pockets for quick access to essentials.
Tucano also made sure to add a bunch of must-have travel features such as lockable zippers, trolley sleeve for easy attachment to luggage handles, and a security pocket on the back of the backpack for safe storage of a passport or wallet. At under 16-inches in height, the Tucano Tugo Medium is a great choice for anyone who wants a reliable backpack that they can take with them on just about any airline.
Bag Dimensions: 15.75” x 11.81” x 5.91”
Forbes & Lewis Suffolk Backpack
The Forbes & Lewis Suffolk adds a touch of sophistication for those who prefer to use a backpack as a personal item on flights. For the busy traveler the Suffolk has all of the markers of a tried and true travel bag; a front organizer pocket for smaller items, a padded 15” laptop sleeve and a hidden document pocket for passports and airline tickets. Made of water resistant coated canvas with leather trim, the Suffolk is a perfect match for business travelers or for anyone who wants to travel in style.
For those who prefer a similar backpack with a female fit, Forbes & Lewis also offers the Littlehampton Backpack in a personal item friendly size.
Bag Dimensions: 15.74” x 10.23” x 5.51”
Swissgear Getaway Weekend Backpack
It’s not often that you can find a quality weekender backpack small enough to fit underneath an airline seat but Swissgear pulls it off with their 24 liter Getaway backpack. This backpack has a main compartment that opens up like a suitcase so that you can master the art of one-bag travel on short trips. Swissgear also adds a separate access pocket for your 15” laptop so you don’t have to rummage through the bag to access your tech. Thoughtfully placed pockets also allow you to safely store your travel tickets, passport and even sunglasses.
Bag Dimensions: 18.5” x 12” x 8”
Lifeproof Squamish 20L
The Lifeproof Squamish is a compact 20 liter backpack with lots to offer in terms of storage and carry style. Our favorite feature is the front stash pocket that allows you to store a light jacket or small travel pillow to save room inside the main compartment. Side access to a laptop and tablet compartment plus separate passport and tech pockets give you the versatility you need for easy access of the important stuff on flights. Plus the backpack’s weather resistant materials and hydration pocket allows you to use the Squamish as a daypack at your destination.
Available in a few different colors, the Lifeproof Squamish offers enough versatility to be more than just a travel backpack.
Bag Dimensions: 17.70" x 10.60" x 6.70"
Fjallraven Kanken 15-inch
The Fjallraven Kanken is one of the most popular backpacks on the planet right now and it’s easy to see why. Beloved by school children and traveling adults alike, the Fjallraven offers a large and roomy main compartment with full panel zipper access. This design makes the Kanken perfect for storing clothing, toiletry bags and other travel items. Its compact size and square shape makes it ideal for underseat airline storage and the top handle makes the bag easy to grab when you are seated.
We chose to go with the slightly larger 15-inch laptop version of the Kanken for this list. Not only does it include a padded laptop sleeve (the original Kanken design does not) but despite its larger size, the Kanken 15-inch still measures under the personal item bag requirements for most airlines.
Bag Dimensions: 15.7” x 11” x 6.3”
Targus CityLite Pro Compact Backpack
If you are on the hunt for a tech backpack to store your laptop, headphones, chargers and more then the Targus CityLite Pro Compact is worth a closer look. This small backpack fits most airline personal item requirements while still packing enough punch as a functional travel bag.
Designed as a work and travel backpack the Targus CityLite Pro Compact offers clever features such as a side water bottle pocket that can be hidden when not in use, a trolley sleeve so it can be attach to luggage, and a separate laptop compartment that can be accessed from the top.
Bag Dimensions: 17.31" x 12.60" x 4.32"
REI Co-op Rucksack 18 Pack
The REI Rucksack 18 is a small-medium backpack that can be used for everything from air travel to sightseeing and outdoor hikes. This is thanks to REI’s thoughtful travel features and handy pocket placement that makes accessing your essentials a breeze while on the move. Unlike other backpacks features on our list, the REI Rucksack has top-loading access to the main compartment. Top-loading access makes it easier to grab things from inside of the main compartment while the backpack is underneath an airline seat since the zipper is located on the top of the bag.
The REI Rucksack 18 also includes lockable zippers, compression straps and side water bottle pockets for worry-free carry on busy travels. And it’s softside fabric design makes the backpack easy to compress to fit tight spots while traveling.
Bag Dimensions: 17” x 10” x 7.5”
How to Choose the Best Personal Item Backpack
If you have read this far and didn’t love our any of the backpack choices then that’s ok.
Each backpack on this list was chosen because it fit our own personal item bag requirements and you can use these same guidelines to find the right personal item backpack for you.
These requirements include:
1. Backpack Size
It’s no secret that airlines will crack down on the size of your personal items and carry-ons, this is especially true on smaller planes and crowded flights. We made sure that each backpack on our list fits the maximum personal item bag size for most airlines.
Southwest Airlines has one of the largest personal item size limits at 18.5”x 13.5” x 8.5” while United Airlines has one of the smallest personal item bag limits at 17” x 10” x 9”. Since each airline bag requirement is different we can’t guarantee that every backpack on this list will be the right size for you next trip, but we have found that 18-inches is the average maximum height for most airline personal item bags.
When it comes to carrying capacity, backpacks under 20 liters are usually small enough to be considered a personal item with the most common size being around 18 liters. While you can’t expect to pack for an entire 2-week vacation at this capacity, it’s the perfect size to carry the essentials you will need for a comfortable flight. Travel pillows, water bottles, books and a laptop can all comfortably fit inside an 18-20 liter backpack.
2. Pocket Accessibility
Another must-have in a personal item backpack is good pocket placement that can be easily accessed while you are seated on the flight. A personal item is meant to be stored underneath the seat in front of you and the most important items in your bag should be easily accessible.
Ideal pocket placement will be on the top and front of the bag. This allows you to grab small essentials like headphones, charging cables and snacks without having to remove the entire backpack from underneath the seat.
Laptop accessibility is also important as you will want to be able to quickly grab or store your laptop without having to rummage through the backpack’s main compartment. Backpacks with side or top laptop access are the best options when choosing a personal item bag. It also makes going through security checks at the airport much smoother as you’ll have quicker access to your tech.
3. Travel-friendly Features
Travel-friendly features include things like trolley sleeves so that you can attach the backpack to rolling luggage, passport or ticket stash pockets and lockable zippers. Find out which travel features you can’t live without and go with a backpack that includes as much of them as possible. This may sound like a no-brainer but it’s still worth mentioning. Getting to the airport and not having a quick pocket to stash your airline tickets is a sorry fate.
4. Backpack Quality
The final requirement we have for choosing the best personal item backpack is quality. When choosing any travel bag you want to make sure the quality is good enough to withstand the rough handling usually encountered on busy trips.
Brands with a reputation of good quality like Patagonia, eBags and Fjallraven were sure to make our list. But we also made sure to not mention backpacks that were too cheap. We’re talking about those $20 backpacks that may get the job done but fall apart with repeated use.
You want to make sure the bag you purchase can be your go-to travel bag for years to come. This means spending a little more on brands that offer quality materials, good construction, and smart designs.
If you are looking for a versatile backpack that can also be used as a daypack once at your destination make sure to look out for high quality materials that are water resistant. If protecting expensive tech on your travels is important, then going with bags with extra padding in the laptop sleeve and separate fleece-lined pockets for small electronics will be your best bet.