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Follow The New Carry-on Size Limit, or You're Grounded!

Grounded at airport
Grounded at airport by cookelma/DepositPhotos

Earlier this year United Airlines, Delta Airlines, and American Airlines implemented new carry-on size limits for their passengers. They have gone so far as to install baggage "sizers" at departure gates; if your bag doesn't fit in the sizer, you can't bring it into the cabin. The new maximum size limits, including wheels and handles, are a 9-inch depth, by 14-inch width, by 22-inch length. What was once an overall limitation of 45 inches, is now so specific that it disallows many standard carry-ons that passengers have been using for years.

In addition, dimensions for your personal item, like a purse, laptop bag, or backpack cannot exceed a nine-inch depth, by 10-inch width, by 17-inch length. No amount of complaining or cajoling will get your bigger carry-on or personal item on board. Each airlines still has its own list of items that you can bring aboard the plane that don't count toward the limitations. For example, in addition to your carry-on and personal item, you can bring reading materials, cameras, child seats and diaper bags, airport food or purchases, medical assistive devices, pet carriers, a coat or umbrella, and more aboard United flights.

One explanation for the new rule change was that it was a recent requirement by the FAA, which can't be right because neither Southwest Airlines nor Jet Blue Airlines have adopted the stricter size policies. On both airlines, passengers' carry-on bags can be 24 inches long, 10 inches deep, and 16 inches wide. Yet, some airlines' employees perpetuate this story, seemingly unaware that the new changes are the result of company policy and not FAA regulations.

Another explanation is that the new size limitations help speed up the boarding process, however, bags that don't meet the new criteria now have to be gate-checked and paid for, which is time-consuming. Passengers who are blindsided by the policy and have to retrieve essentials from their bag before checking it at the gate also slow down the boarding process. Carriers without checked baggage fees load passengers much faster.

It isn't a space issue, since the new size restrictions are far less than the overhead storage capacity on the planes. So, what is the real reason for the smaller sizes and the gate-checked bag fees? Since the new policies don't serve any real purposes for passengers, it appears that their purpose is to serve the airlines via increased revenues for mandatory gate-checked bags. In fact, United expects to increase revenues by $700 million over the next four years between the new carry-on checked bag fees and upselling passengers more leg room.

If your regular carry-on bag has recently been deemed oversized by the airlines' newly enforced policies, non-compliance will cost you. Passengers can expect to pay an additional $25 to check each non-compliant bag. Those fees can add up for families blindsided by the poorly disclosed regulations. Passengers can save both money and headaches by complying with the tighter regulations.

Don't assume that because a bag is marketed as a carry-on that it will meet the strict and specific size restrictions; United itself sells a non-compliant carry-on. Bags marketed as international carry-ons will meet the size requirements. On the high end, Briggs & Riley Baseline CX Domestic Carry-On Expandable Spinner, which sells for $469, is 22 inches by 14 inches by 9 inches. Since the 9-inch dimension is often what excludes passengers' bags, this carry-on is well within the restrictions.

The more moderately priced CalPak Silverlake 20" Expandable Lightweight Carry-On sells for under $60. This bag's hard shell feature, which comes in a variety of colors, ensures that your bag always meets the size requirements, since it is not expandable and cannot be overstuffed. The dimensions are 20 inches, by 13.5 inches, by 9.2 inches. Baggage sizers add an inch to each dimension, so the hard body 9.2 depth will easily fit every time.

Carry-ons are obviously not going to be out of sight and tossed around by baggage handlers, so don't be afraid to look into less expensive options. Discount retailers like TJMaxx have compliant carry-on options. Bring your tape measure to make sure your new bag will be compliant. For example, CIAO has a hard shell carry-on that meets the size restrictions for $40. Even on Amazon, it is difficult to find size compliant carry-ons for under $60, so discount retailers are a good option.

The best advice for staying within the airlines' newly enforced size restrictions is to think like a minimalist and become an organization ninja. It takes skills and creativity to pack lighter and still fit everything you need into a smaller bag. If you have trouble making the tough decisions for what goes in the carry-on and what stays, fortunately there are travelers who have packing down to a science and they share their wisdom freely online.

John Lopinto from the Expert Flyer suggests a neutral color palette in clothing for mix-and-match outfits that cut down on the need for a new outfit each day, and limiting shoes, remembering that you're wearing a pair. Stick with travel sized liquids and keep in mind many hotels offer freebies; put them in a quart-sized bag at the top of your carry-on. If you didn't go the safe route and purchase a hard shell carry-on, don't overstuff your bag. He suggests packing from the perimeter to the center and layering, big items first, then filling in spaces with smaller items.

Louis Vuitton has a special section on their website called Art of Living. You choose a bag size and everything to be packed is laid out, surrounding the bag. Items highlight, you click on the highlighted item, and it is virtually packed in the bag right before your eyes. You see not only where to place things in the bag, but the order in which to pack them. There are also tutorials for folding particular items correctly. The whole pleasant packing experience is accompanied by ambient music in the background, elevating your creative packing to a new level of Zen.

Alex, at Travel Fashion Girl offers free packing e-books on her website; Capsule Wardrobe Essentials: How to Pack Light Using a 10 Piece Packing List and 10 Step Packing Guides. She has a link to Frugal First Class Travel that has several excellent packing lists including 'Real Life One Bag Travel: My Packing List." Alex also has a link to Ever in Transit, which features carry-on only, ready for any climate packing lists for men. Besides showing you what to pack and how to pack it, she recommends travel accessories and points you to the best places to shop. If all that isn't enough, Alex is available to create a personalized packing list for you depending on your purpose and destination. She asks that you give her four weeks to do the research for the list.

Don't get your feelings hurt at the gate by trying to push the boundaries of the newly enforced carry-on size rules. Pick a size compliant carry-on and learn to make some packing adjustments to make it work for you. It's better to be organized and regulation compliant than having to repack and pay checked bag fees at the gate.

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About the Author: For over 20 years, the U.S. Passport Service Guide team has helped hundreds of thousands of travelers with their travel document questions and shared advice about how to make traveling abroad simpler, safer, and more enjoyable.

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