Keep Calm and Carry On: answers to all of your carry-on questions

keep calm and carry on

If you have any upcoming flights planned for the holidays or beyond, you likely have questions about what you can and can't carry on-board.

Consider this post your handy-dandy carry-on pocket guide (except that you can't stick it in your pocket...right...hmmm...moving right along).

You've got questions; I've got answers.

Here goes:

Q. Which airlines charge for checking bags?

A. The easier question to answer is, "Which airlines DON'T charge for checking bags?" because almost all major airlines DO charge. JetBlue (they also offer free snacks, by the way...LOVE that) offers one free checked bag and Southwest offers two free checked bags.

The current fees for the other major US airlines are as follows:

  • AirTran, Alaska/Horizon, and Delta: $15 for 1st bag, $25 for 2nd bag
  • American Airlines: $20 for 1st bag, $30 for 2nd bag
  • Continental and United: $20 for 1st bag, $30 for 2nd bag [discount if you check baggage online]

Q. Is my car seat, stroller, and/or baby carrier considered "checked luggage" ( I have to pay a fee to check them)?

A. The overwhelming consensus across all airlines is that these items can be brought on the plane or checked without additional fees. That said, I encourage you to check with your airline of choice for specific policies.

Q. How big is too big for a carry-on?

A. All airlines have slightly different guidelines:

  • AirTran: LxWxH = 55 inches or less
  • Alaska/Horizon: 10x17x24
  • American, Delta, and United: LxWxH = 45 inches or less
  • JetBlue: 17x12.1x8
  • Southwest: 10x16x24
  • Continental and US Airways: 14x9x22

Q. Can I bring snacks on my carry-on?

A. Yes. AND I highly recommend that you do if you will be traveling with children. On past trips, we have taken dried fruit, fresh fruit, crackers, pretzels, fruit leathers, beef jerky, trail mix, lollipops, and gummy candies.

Q. What about toiletries?

A. The easiest way to remember the current TSA guidelines is to think 3-1-1. It stands for:

  • 3.4 ounce (100ml) bottle or less (by volume)
  • 1 quart-sized, clear, plastic, zip-top bag
  • 1 bag per passenger placed in screening bin.

What that essentially means is that any liquids you want to bring (shampoo, hair gel, baby wash, etc.) need to be packed in itty bitty containers. Breast milk, formula, and medications (including contact solution) are allowed in larger quantities, but be sure to declare them AND to pack them at the top of your bag for easy access.

Q. Do you have any recommendations for great carry-ons?

rick steves travel storeA. So glad you asked! Rick Steves' Travel Store recently sent me their Autobahn Rolling Backpack (currently on sale for $143.95) for review. This attractive, two-toned bag is lightweight, steady on its feet (er...wheels), and can double as a backpack if you find yourself on rocky or bumpy terrain.

Here are some shots of the bag as a backpack (please pay no mind to my crazy hair, the glasses slipping off my nose, and the oh-so-super-stylish sweatshirt that I am wearing...ahem):

rick-steves-carry-on rick-steves-travel-store

If you prefer, you can roll the bag (our 3-year-old loves volunteering for that job):


My one critique of the bag is that the zipper doesn't unzip all the way around so the flap doesn't completely open (a design flaw, in my humble opinion). Other than that, it's top-rate.

P.S. I also recommend the carry-ons by American Tourister (see my previous post about tips for flying with small children).

YOUR TURN: Do you typically try to cram everything into carry-ons or do you prefer to check your baggage?

autobahn rolling backpackWIN IT! One winner will receive an Autobahn Rolling Backpack ($143.95) from the Rick Steves' Travel Store. To enter, leave any topic-related comment on this post prior to Monday, December 14th at 11:59 p.m. (Don’t forget to follow the rules…all generic comments like “Enter me!,” “Love it,” and “Cool stuff!” will be disqualified.).

* I received a product sample for review purposes.

*UPDATE* The winner is #29 Erin T. Congratulations!

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70 comments on “Keep Calm and Carry On: answers to all of your carry-on questions”

  1. Great info! I will only check a bag if it is ABSOLUTELY unavoidable. With both kids full-fare this year that shouldn't be a problem! Ugh.

  2. I used to overpack and just bring a big check-in bag, but now that almost every airline is charging fees for bags I've become a crammer!

  3. I try to cram everything onto my carryon as that makes checking in faster plus I don't have to wait at baggage claim waiting eons for my luggage!

  4. I used to only use carry-ons but now that I have a baby, we check our luggage. There's just too much stuff we need to pack for him. Plus, I'm the type who would rather overpack than underpack!

  5. Thanks for the great reference. We're planning a move across country (and away from family) so we'll be doing air travel a lot more in the future. I always, always, always cram everything into my carryon. It just makes things easier at every step of the process.

  6. I love to fly when I get the chance, but it's been so long since I did fly, due to a funds deficit... Anyway, This backpack would be a lot better than my typical echo friendly shopping bags.. My kids get embarrassed
    Thanks for hosting and Merry Christmas!
    [email protected]

  7. I would prefer to have all carry-ons, but it's not realistic with a family of 4 traveling for a week or more at a time. Traveling by plane has become so difficult and dreadful to me! We only do so about once a year. Anything 8 hours or less is a driving distance. Any further, a plane trip is considered.

    If traveling alone, I would definitely carry on everything!

  8. My husband is a gate agent for one of the major airlines that you mentioned and I love the answers to your questions.
    I would add one thing though: Be nice to the gate agents and they will be nice to you (90% of the time). Weather and maintenance issues aren't their fault, so stay calm and go with the flow.
    Maybe that would be my biggest advice...GO WITH THE FLOW.
    We fly standby all the time, so we rarely check bags. Even we know that there's always a chance our bags won't make it to our destination. You'd be surprised how many people check money and valuables in their check bags. C'mon people...if you value it highly, CARRY IT ON.
    Hmm, this is getting long...if you'd ever like to ask some more airline questions and hear it from an employees standpoint, feel free to e-mail me.

  9. Backpacks are the way to go, how I traveled Europe and brought my diving gear to Hawaii. This one looks great, my son would love it :) Plus Rick Steves is awesome :)

  10. I try to carry on all my is just easier...I am taking my daughter on her first flight in 2 months so this would be perfect...dc baby here we come

  11. I would so love to win this for my dad! He travels a lot for work - and he will never take anything more than a carryon! LOL So, this would be perfect for him, since he currently uses a backpack - but it doesn't have wheels. And, wheels would really help since he has back problems.

  12. I have had my luggage arrive at my destination 3 days after I did, so I like to have as much as possible in my carry-on. But now that I'm traveling with a baby, I've changed that a little. I still try to anticipate what we'd need if our flight is delayed or we arrive before our luggage does, but otherwise I try to keep carry-on to a minimum, because I already have my hands full!

  13. Thanks so much for the fabulous giveaway for this amazing Autobahn Rolling Backpack - I would be SO thrilled to win! I have needed a good quality, sturdy carry-on bag like this for the longest time!

  14. I haven't traveled by plane since May so I'm no expert but I did prefer to combine both my stuff and my husband's into one large bag that we paid to check. We brought the baby with us and carried on all her stuff so it was nice to be rid of one bag for the duration of the time we were in the terminal. But when I'm by myself (which is never now that I have kids!) I'm all about a carry-on.

  15. I'll be flying for the first time with my first child in April, he'll be one then. Thanks for this post, it was very helpful as I begin to look for airline tickets!

  16. I didn't used to mind checking luggage, but now that it costs $20-30 each way to check a bag, we try to pack less and carry it on.

  17. Thank you so much for all the info on air travel: size of carry on's, 3-1-1 rule etc. I haven't flown since before I was pregnant with my daughter, and so much has changed in air travel in the last few years - I need to keep this info handy!

  18. We always try to get as much as we can in a carry on, especially for short flights. I love that you can roll that backpack!

  19. Of course that's a "Depends" question. If I'm going for a week or less I can get by with my 21" carry-on and a laptop case. If I'm going on a full-out vacation I will usually check a bag. With bag check fees I'm prone to use a larger bag and I have a luggage scale so I don't go over the 50 lb limit that most airlines have set.

    I love using my packing cubes so that I can get into my bags without everything falling out. I don't think I save any space but at least my undies aren't hanging out if the zipper loosens a little. They are also great for organizing my yarns and crochet hooks for travel.

    I try to arrange my bags so that if I have to open them during my travel times I can get to what I need. I LOVE using the Zen Class Nirvana Organizer because I can jam it full of things to amuse/distract me both in-flight and while sitting in the terminal. I can just grab it and shove it back into my bags at the end of my flight or as I'm about to board. It keeps me from being THAT person who keeps getting up to grab something from the overhead ... you know the one ... all the coats or bags come tumbling down on some unsuspecting soul's head.

  20. I've taken two of my kids on airplanes when they were little but I've never traveled with them together. That piece of luggage is awesome, what a great way to free up some space. I check every possible item, my hands are full enough.

  21. It depends on where I am going and for how long. Overseas? I always check a bag. Within the U.S. if I end up wanting to get more stuff back home it's simple to ship it and have it delivered rather than wait for possibly manhandled luggage to arrive. Sometimes, though, a girl has to have her stuff, you know?

    Virgin Atlantic is my arch-nemesis airline. I flew with them one trip and hope to never do it again. They made me check my tiny little hard-sided LLBean carry on. And they gunked it up something awful. Until/since then no other flaws have found their way to that delightful little bag.

    My favorite thing luggage-wise: Ebags packing cubes. How did I ever manage without these?

  22. we always check most of our stuff and just bring on the plane what we need for the plane ride. We have not flown since they started charging so we will probably carry a bit more on now

  23. Now that I am going to be traveling with a toddler, I need to be thinking about having a carryon for the essentials. The tips offered were very helpful and that bag is very creative in that it can roll or be carried as a backpack. Thanx for the tips...

  24. Before kids I could pack for a week in a carry-on... now it's a lot more difficult :) However... I'm willing to check a bag and just carry on what I absolutely must have to keep the little ones happy - oh and a change of clothes, I always carry a change of clothes in my carry-on a habit developed by learning the hard way!

  25. Great tips! Now, I'm not a seasoned flyer by any means, but when I few to NYC in September (my second flight ever) I flew with Midwest Airlines. Highly impressed. They charge $15.00 per bag, BUT their flights are much (much) cheaper than others. When looking into flights for BlogHer 2010, Southwest was into $450 prices...whereas Midwest is $250. Sure, add my $30 for luggage, I'm still coming out ahead.

    Midwest also offers drinks and chocolate chip cookies that are baked in flight. Unfortunately, I was unable to enjoy these items as I'm very sick while flying. The next time I plan to fly though, I'm going to ask my family doctor for something (ANYTHING!) to make it better. I really do enjoy flying...well, I think I would, if I didn't get so sick!

  26. Thanks for all the great tips. I'll definitely keep them in mind the next time we travel.

    I try to cram everything into a carry-on. I'm so afraid of having luggage misplaced and needing something important out of the bag!

  27. Greetings! I have enjoyed watching Rick Steves'
    Travel Show for quite a few years. His European
    Christmas DVD is on my wish list.
    Thanks, Cindi

  28. I learned my lesson when my bags got lost on a Caribbean cruise. They (and my contact solution, bathing suit, etc.) didn't show up until a few islands in. Major bummer! I'm trying to get smarter with my carryon now.

  29. This is exactly what I need. The standard backpack just does not fit all the stuff for the entire family. Our trips are always very long and packing smart is a priority

  30. Prior to the babe if I was going any where for 4 days or less I would only bring a carry on. These days I always check at least one bag sometimes 2. I just can't manage more while walking through the airport with a back pack, stroller and carseat, especially when traveling alone. I usually have the babe in the moby wrap and put the carseat in the stroller front. I'm too paranoid to check the carseat and stroller at the counter.

  31. What a great bag! I especially like that it is a backpack as well. As I'm sure you know, traveling with two little ones is not easy, so I really believe a backpack feature is nice.

    We have yet to travel on an airline with our two girls, but when we do, I really hope to have a bag like this.

    Thanks! :)

  32. Now with kids my carry one bag looks like this - toys, crayons, coloring books - anything at all that I think will keep them entertained, snacks, snacks and more snacks, empty sippy cups and bottles, books (kids not adult reading), change of clothes (at least one pair per kid), diapers, diaper wipes, diaper cream, extra bags for trash and what not and my lifesaver one small plastic bag with a damp towel in it.

  33. The last time we traveled on a plane it was a dissater. I did not have a backpack carry on which would of helped. I am sure with my three kids we were a sight to look at and everyone was praying that we were not on there flight!

  34. I'm all for carrying on everything that you can. As well as the cost of checking bags now, the possibility of avoiding the wait and crowd at the baggage claim is a big plus for me. And what are the stats on lost luggage these days? A million bazillion of them? Where do they all GO?

    This looks like a great bag though, I can definitely see it coming in handy for multiple occasions.

  35. I always thought that a rolling suitcase was the be all and end all for traveling with kids. I soon learned that you are often pushing a stroller and therefor don't have an extra hand to roll the suitcase. This is an awesome product because you have both options!! I really can't think of a better solution for traveling with kids. I agree with you on the zipper issue though. It would be so much more sensible for it to zip all the way open. Guess they didn't ask a mom when they designed it! Oh well! Still sounds like a great product.

  36. I love that this rolls. I feel like we always have so much random stuff that is carry-on (maybe because we have an almost one year old!) and this would be fantastic for holding it and organizing it. Does it have a good "inside"???

  37. Great tips! We are looking at possibly traveling with a 9 month old this fall. I was wondering about the stroller and carseat being considered luggage.

    Also would love a new piece of luggage - ours are getting a little worn from frequent trips!

  38. Definitely check baggage! There is no way I can fit everything in carry on for 8 days in Jamaica LOL Air Jamaica now only permits you to check 1 bag and there is a fee for anything extra PLUS the worst part is the 2nd plus bags are not even guaranteed to go on your flight and in small print say they have up to 7 days to get it to you. BAD business and we are not sure if we'll fly them after this. We'll see.

  39. What a great bag! We are off to Australia soon and this would be a great carry on for those long flights where you can get a 24 hour delay.

  40. I prefer to check my baggage, but if I was going on a quick trip by myself it would be nice to have everything in my carry-on.

  41. Oh my that looks like a life saver! I do alot of transcontinental travel alone with my tot and those wheels on the backpack would be a blessing!

  42. We don't fly, so I wasn't aware that you were still able to bring anything on the plane with you. If I did fly (and I could bring items), I definitely would. Less chance the airline would lose it!

  43. I always travel with a carry-on unless I'm going international. If I'm traveling with the kids, I still try and do just carry-on. The less time we have to wrestle with the bags in line or at a baggage claim, the better :)

  44. When traveling with kids I like to check as much as possible, except toys and stuff to keep them entertained.

    When traveling with my husband a few months ago we only had carry on's it was awesome! we didn't have to wait for our luggage, but we had more suitcases than backpacks! That backpack is awesome. It would be perfect for a child too!

  45. Wow, thank you for sharing all of your research with us! When did airlines start charging for checked luggage? I've only flown to Canada in the past couple years, and Air Canada hasn't charged us for the bags. I don't remember any of those other airlines charging though. A rolling backpack seems like a great idea.

  46. For the most part - we are road trip kinda people simply because it's typically less expensive to drive 5 people than fly. But.....when I do fly, if it's just me, I try to carry it all on. If it's the whole fam - we always check in the bags. Mama's only got 2 hands!

  47. Checking baggage is a pain but sometimes you have no choice, if it's a long trip. I've heard of people going carry-on only on trips to China. I have no idea how that's done!

  48. We flew last week and our "carry-on" is way too big for any of the regulations, so we ended up gate checking it on each of our flights. I know this is a suggestion you gave on a previous post, so it's not breaking new ground, but it saved us at least $40. Both of us packed our clothes and toiletries in the carry-on and each of us carried a briefcase with our essentials for the plane - books, food, ID, whatever. However, since we're not traveling with kids, it's a lot easier to do that, I bet!

  49. I would prefer to pay to check bags than to lug all of my things around with me in the airport. Also, because so many people try to avoid the checked bag fees, the overhead bins get filled quickly. I don't want to have to deal with getting my things up there as well.

  50. I'm always traveling with my kids these days, and there's just no way to get all their stuff and mine into carry-ons. We usually fly Southwest so we can avoid the fees, but sometimes that's just not possible. If we are paying for checked luggage we try to buy stuff at our destination when we can (diapers, formula, etc.).

  51. When traveling alone I definitely use only a carry-on. However, with my 2 kids it's impossible to only use carry-ons. I like to check as much as possible when we travel as a family so that we have less to account for and deal with in the airport. What a great backpack/carry-on!! It's perfect for those with young kids because your hands are free to hold hands or chase after your kids. :)

  52. i should have my husband write a post like this... that man can pack for a week long trip in a carry on!!!! he would love that backpack - i'll have to show it to him!

  53. I have traveled quite a bit over the last 25 years. My husband is a pilot for an airline, so we have been on several trips. We can fly for a reduced rate but it is standby, so we always try to carry on as much as possible. The two times we have gone to Hawaii, we purchased tickets so that we could check our bags.

  54. honestly... I've never flown... but those I know who do usually try to get it all in 1 carry-on... of course, they generally fail, but they try anyway...

  55. I SUCK at packing light so I can never get it all into a carry-on. That said, if I had to pay for my checked bag this summer I would have worked a LOT harder at getting it all into a carry-on for my Disney trip! Unfortunately then I would have had a hard time bringing back all my souvenirs!

  56. Typically I don't mind checking luggage, but that was before I had a baby in tow. The one time I flew with him, it seemed best check one bag and just keep the bare essentials in a carry on. It worked out fine but he was 6 months old and easy to keep track of since he was straped to me in a sling.

    Now that he is older and wanting to run around, I'm thinking avoiding any waiting for baggage or risking it getting misplaced by the airlines (happened once before) would be most ideal. And now seeing that they have a carry-on that can roll AND be worn as a backpack, cramming everything into a carry-on and trying to pack as light as possible is very appealing.

  57. Those are great tips and guidelines. We've found that carrying on essentials is a must and we've gotten pretty good at streamlining what we take on. Every airport we've traveled through has never given us a problem with carrying liquids and snacks for our little one.

    However, checked baggage is good for the extras when we arrive at our destination and for brining home all the presents we've found. It can get heavy to carry-on all items so we like to do both. I wonder if it will ever go back to the days when you luggage was part of your ticket fare? I think it's more of a wish...

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