How to Navigate New Airline Carry-On Rules

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It’s the first year that United Airlines will be offering “basic economy” fares — the lowest prices on a particular flight, but with notable restrictions such as: You don’t receive a seat assignment until check-in (and sitting next to your traveling companions is not guaranteed); you’re the last to board; and you’re not allowed to bring on a full-size carry-on bag (which means no use of the overhead bins).

On the list of things travelers care about, overhead storage is second only to legroom, according to interviews conducted in December by Morning Consult, a media and technology company. Even so, 45 percent of fliers said they would buy a “basic economy” fare. And those travelers aren’t necessarily strapped for cash: Some 39 percent of fliers earning $100,000 or more told Morning Consult that they were likely to purchase a basic economy ticket.

Are there loopholes to get around those restrictive carry-on baggage and boarding rules? Will more major airlines begin restricting access to their overhead bin space? And while we’re talking about space, which carry-on size will actually make it past the gate agent and onto the plane?

Let’s begin with United’s new fares.

Simone Noronha
Simone Noronha

How to Skirt the Rules

If you buy one of United’s “basic economy” fares, you can bring along a personal item like a laptop bag or backpack that is 9 inches by 10 inches by 17 inches or less, but not carry-on luggage (hence why you’re not given access to the overhead bins). But there are ways around those rules. In fact, there are three ways to bring on carry-on luggage and use the overhead bins even if you purchase a “basic economy” fare:

  1. If you’re a Premier member of the airline’s MileagePlus loyalty program.
  2. If you’re the primary card member of a qualifying MileagePlus credit card.
  3. If you’re a Star Alliance Gold member (a frequent flier in the Star Alliance network of nearly 30 airlines).

Any of the above will also prevent you from having to board last as well.

While United is the first major airline based in the United States to essentially start charging for its overhead bin space, charging for carry-on bags is old hat on low-cost airlines. Frontier charges about $30 to $60 for a carry-on bag. Allegiant charges about $15 to $50 per carry-on bag. Spirit Airlines and Wizz Air also charge for carry-on luggage. There are ways to pay less though. Take Frontier. It charges for carry-on bags, but the airline also offers packages like “the Works” and “the Perks” that include a carry-on bag as well as extras (albeit they’re givens on many major airlines) such as seat selection and priority boarding. Remember, too, that it’s generally cheaper to pay for your carry-on bag online rather than at the airport. On Frontier, a bag costs up to 50 percent less if you pay online instead of at the ticket counter or the gate.

Whether other major United States carriers join United and introduce new rules for their overhead bin space remains to be seen, but it will not be surprising if they eventually do, given that the airlines tend to copy one another if a new practice is successful. Indeed, the latest segmentation of economy fares into no-frills seats and premium seats began with Delta Air Lines and has since been adopted by American Airlines and United. If travelers take to United’s basic economy fares, expect the practice to become more widespread.

Why You Should Measure Your Bag

There is no universal carry-on bag size. Each airline has its own rules. And baggage allowances may vary across routes and cabin classes.

In 2015, the International Air Transport Association, an industry group that represents about 260 airlines, created guidelines for optimum-size carry-on bags: 21.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 inches. But following a media hullabaloo, the guidelines were not widely adopted. Major airlines — American, Delta, United, JetBlue Airways, Cathay Pacific — have set their maximum carry-on size for economy passengers at 22 x 14 x 9 inches.

Some airlines have stricter rules or slightly different measurements (or a maximum of linear inches). For example, the maximum carry-on size for economy passengers on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines is 21.5 x 13.5 x 10 inches and Qatar Airways is 20 x 15 x 10 inches. Other airlines allow larger bags, most likely to the dismay of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which has advocated for fewer and smaller bags “to reduce risks of injury and conflict onboard the aircraft.” For instance, British Airways allows carry-on bags up to 22 x 18 x 10 inches. Southwest Airlines allows carry-on bags up to 24 x 16 x 10 inches.

If you fly multiple airlines and want to travel the world with only one carry-on bag, you’ll want to buy one that’s as small as possible. Soft bags that can squish into the overhead are easier to get on board. If you are loyal to an airline with a generous baggage policy, you can get away with a hard, larger bag. Ryanair passengers who want to be assured that their bag will make it on board can buy one of the airline’s carry-on approved bags sold on its website (wheelies are $69 or $99).

Shopping for a new bag?

There are two things to keep in mind. First, an airline can change its carry-on policy so if you’re buying a bigger bag you might not want to spend a mint. (For example, beginning April 4, the maximum dimensions of the personal item travelers on Spirit Airlines are allowed to bring on board will be 18 x 14 x 8 inches — a change from the current maximum size of 16 x 14 x 12 inches.)

Second, Consumer Reports, a nonprofit, independent organization, gives some good advice: Measure a carry-on bag before buying it. Why? Many bags sold as “carry-on compliant” are not necessarily so.

In 2015, Consumer Reports said it was made aware of this by customer reviews on Amazon and eBags.com that said that the carry-on bags they bought were larger than the manufacturers advertised.

To see just how common that was, Consumer Reports bought 11 pieces of luggage from 11 brands that were marketed as carry-on luggage and then measured them using a laser level.

The results? Nine out of the 11 bags were larger than the manufacturer claimed. So invest in a tape measure. And when you measure a bag, be sure to include the wheels and handle in your measurements. Be ruthless. After all, the airlines will be.

The Sweethome, a product recommendation website owned by The New York Times Company, has additional information on the best travel backpacks and the best full-size, carry-on luggage.

January 23, 2017 |

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