A Carry-on is a Carry-on is a Carry-on

by Nancy Bestor - May 2014

A lot of customers have recently expressed concern over the “new” restrictions for carry-on luggage. Well, here’s the scoop: There are NO new carry-on restrictions. THEY HAVE NOT CHANGED. We’ve been in business for 20 years, and in that time, the maximum carry-on size has always been 22 x 14 x 9 inches. But that doesn’t mean that nothing has changed. Here are the details.

First off, what has led to this confusion? United Airlines simply announced earlier this year that they would begin strictly enforcing their carry-on regulations. Customers with oversized bags would now be required to check them and pay checked baggage fees where applicable. So United has not changed the size of carry-on bags. Instead they have vowed to pay closer attention to make sure travelers bags are in fact, no larger than 22 x 14 x 9. Gate agents have been trained to “eyeball” travelers bags to make certain they are carry-on size. If there is a question, they might ask a traveler to put their bag into the bag-sizing box, located at ticket counters, and gate counters as well.

Can a traveler over-pack a legal 22 x 14 x 9 inch carry-on size suitcase and thus keep it from fitting in to the bag-sizing box? Of course they can! Outside pockets are the biggest culprit for overstuffing. Those pockets should NOT be stuffed out with jackets/clothing/books/etc., if you are worried about fitting your suitcase into the bag-sizing box.

Here’s our experience with carry-on bags on United from our trip to the Caribbean last month. Each of the four of us took a fully packed, maximum carry-on sized rolling suitcase on three separate United Airlines flights out of Medford, Oregon, and three separate flights back home from St. Martin. Three of our bags were 22 x 14 x 9, and one was a wide-body carry-on, measuring 20 x 15.5 x 7.5. On every one of our flights all of our bags fit into the on board overhead compartments. We traveled through Medford, San Francisco and Newark airports and not once were we questioned about the size of our bags nor were we asked to test them in a bag-sizing box. Even though every flight we were on was full, even oversold in one case, and we were never the first to board, we had no problems.

United has also introduced requirements for the “personal” item that all passengers are allowed to bring on board in addition to their carry-on suitcase. This personal item can measure no larger than 17 x 10 x 9. Just like with our carry-on suitcases, however, no one questioned the sizes of our personal items. Each of our daughters carried a school-sized backpack on board, I carried a large tote bag, and Bob carried a large Eagle Creek daypack.

To make sure, we recently headed to the Medford Airport to test several of our carry-on suitcases in the United, Delta and Alaska bag-sizing boxes. In every case, from the Eagle Creek Tarmac and Adventure Series 2-Wheeled and 4-Wheeled 22-inch bags, to the Briggs and Riley Transcend 22-inch and 20-inch Wide Body bags, all the suitcases fit into all of the sizing boxes. Please note that two of these bags, while fitting completely into the box, did stick out over the top of the box. In each case it was less than an inch and if an airline employee called a traveler out on one of these bags, they would really be splitting hairs.

Keep in mind that any traveler can be denied carrying on a complying bag if the airplane's overhead compartments are full. So the best way to guarantee your bag getting on the plane is to board as early as possible. And one more reminder: don't put anything in your bag that you cannot live without, just in case you do end up having to check it. So don't put your medications in it, and don't put valuables in it either.

I have no problem with United and other carriers enforcing their carry-on rules. If it really speeds up the boarding process, I'm all for it. However, I don't believe for a minute that this is the reason behind the new enforcement policy. Airlines profits are at record highs and checked baggage fees are one of the reasons. So, if you've got a carry-on sized bag (remember, 22 x14 x 9), by all means carry it on and save yourself some money. United Airlines is making enough money off everyone else, they don't need your $25 too.

Click here to view photos of more bags in airline carry-on boxes.