Skip to main content

Originally published Sunday, July 6, 2014 at 6:31 AM

  • Share:
  • Comments
  • Print

Beware of smaller size limits for carry-ons

Airlines such as American, Delta and United have more precise carry-on b size limits that may be enforced, forcing passengers to check their bags.

Reader Comments
Hide / Show comments
This is just one more reason (of many) to avoid air travel if you can. I drive if the drive is less than 10 hours. If... MORE
Duffels are the best if you want to carry the most. Pack straps, belts and pockets take up room. Pack your rigid items... MORE
Carry-on bags are largely responsible for the miserable experience that we call air travel, second only to the airlines... MORE


Recently I had a very unpleasant surprise in the TSA line at New York’s JFK airport. No, the security staff didn’t do a touchy-feely pat down or confiscate something.

Just before actually getting to the TSA agent’s podium, a red-jacketed person (who I believe was hired by American Airlines as a subcontractor but not an actual employee) insisted that I put my beloved Rimowa four-wheeled suitcase in a carry-on bag sizer. Keep in mind that I was flying in business class, and that I’ve taken this same 21-inch suitcase all around the world on almost every major airline and quite a few not-so-major ones.

To make a long story short, it was rejected as “too big.” What I didn’t realize, because it has never become an issue, is that American (as well as Delta and United) have fairly new carry-on bag limits, including a 14-inch maximum width, and my Rimowa is 15 inches wide, as are many carry-ons. Even though it’s an inch shorter than the 22-inch length limit, and an inch shorter than the official 9-inch depth limit, back to the check-in counter I went. And the line was so long, I almost missed my flight. I was then told that this is a new “FAA regulation” but I doubt that’s true, since some airlines still have more generous allowances.

One of my colleagues insists that this is a revenue ploy by the airlines: Enforce the limits to the letter, and they’ll get more checked-bag fees (since I was flying in business class I didn’t pay a fee, but others might not be so lucky).

And these size limits are fairly recent policies. In fact, United made the change on March 2 this year. Their previous policy was that no dimension could be over 22 inches and the total overall dimensions no more than 45 inches. So these new very specific measurements really change the game, and will be causing a lot of headaches — and heartaches when people learn they will have to leave their very expensive (in some cases) favorite bags in the closet or sell them on eBay.

Or change airlines. It’s interesting that not all airlines have the same size limits. Southwest and JetBlue have a more generous 24-by-16-by-10-inch carry-on limit (Alaska Airlines’ size limit is 24-17-10 inches), which makes that “FAA” claim that I was told about suspect.

The right bag

If you’re looking for the “perfect” carry-on bag, here’s some advice.

First, obviously, make sure it’s small enough to comply with even these more stringent size limits.

Second, four-wheeled suitcases (so-called “spinners”), I’ve found, are easier to handle than two-wheeled models (and should you ever have to check your bag for whatever reason, spinners are treated more gently by baggage handlers, since they roll the bag down the belly of the plane rather than throwing it).

But surprisingly, there aren’t that many rolling carry-ons that meet the new Delta/American/United guidelines. The issue isn’t with the 22-inch length because there are plenty of those available; where they fall “short” is exactly where I got nabbed: in the 14-inch width. In fact, I couldn’t find a single suitcase from my beloved Rimowa brand that qualified, nor could I find a current model from Samsonite.

And third, consider getting a suitcase with a good warranty.

Some of the four-wheeled carry-ons that do fit all airlines’ limits are the Briggs and Riley U122CX Baseline at 21 by 14 by 7.7 inches and 8.9 pounds (approximately $469) and the Travelpro Platinum Magna at 21 by 14 by 9 inches and 7.6 pounds (approximately $239). Although the Briggs and Riley is more expensive, it does come with an unconditional warranty: No matter who’s at fault (you, the airline, or any other party) they’ll fix it for free for as long as you own it.

A great budget choice is the hard-sided CalPak Valley 20-inch Carry-On Spinner at 20 by 13.5 by 9.2 inches and 7 pounds (approximately $60).

With a little research, you’ll find that several other carry-on bags meet the new size requirements, but many current models are too big by just an inch or even a half-inch. And don’t assume that you’ll be able to sneak by just because your bag is an inch too big. As I discovered, that may not happen.

Four weeks for 99 cents of unlimited digital access to The Seattle Times. Try it now!

Also in Travel & Outdoors

News where, when and how you want it

Email Icon

 Subscribe today!

Subscribe today!

99¢ for four weeks of unlimited digital access.


About Travel Wise

Travel Wise is aimed at helping people travel smart, especially independent travelers seeking good value. The column covers everything from the best resources to how to tap into the local culture. It runs each Sunday in the Travel section.

Partner Video


The Seattle Times

The door is closed, but it's not locked.

Take a minute to subscribe and continue to enjoy The Seattle Times for as little as 99 cents a week.

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited content access is included with most subscriptions.

Subscriber login ►
The Seattle Times

To keep reading, you need a subscription upgrade.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. For unlimited access, please upgrade your digital subscription.

Call customer service at 1.800.542.0820 for assistance with your upgrade or questions about your subscriber status.

The Seattle Times

To keep reading, you need a subscription.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. Subscribe now for unlimited access!

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited content access is included with most subscriptions.

Activate Subscriber Account ►