As checked-baggage fees rise and the race for overhead bin space gets more intense, packing for a flight might have you breaking out into a cold sweat. A backpack can be the ideal piece of luggage to bring onto a plane, because it's easy to carry through a crowded airport, but the irregular size and shape of a stuffed backpack can also make it a challenge. You're allowed to check your backpack or use it as carry-on luggage, but pack it carefully to ensure you can get onto the plane with as little stress as possible.

Step 1.

Check your airline's size limits for carry-on luggage. Most airlines allow you to bring on one personal item such as a purse or briefcase, as well as one larger item such as a backpack. For many airlines, the maximum size of a carry-on item is 22 by 14 by 9 inches. If your filled backpack is larger, you'll need to check it.

Step 2.

Pack your items into the bag. If you're using it as a carry-on, be sure any liquids, gels or aerosols follow the Transportation Security Administration's 3-1-1 policy. Each item must be no larger than 3.4 ounces and all the containers have to fit into a single 1-quart plastic bag. Remove this bag when you go through security so it can be screened separately.

Step 3.

Close and zipper all flaps and compartments on the bag. Secure each compartment with a TSA-approved lock. This is wise even if you're not planning to check your bag, because it keeps thieves from getting into your backpack while you're wearing it and walking through the airport.

Step 4.

Place the bag inside a zippered plastic bag or cheap duffel bag if you're planning to check it and have any concerns about the bag getting damaged or caught on something. A protective bag is also a smart idea if you have items like a sleeping bag or hiking gear attached to the backpack, because it guarantees all items stay together.

Step 5.

Bring the backpack onto the plane if you're opting to use it as carry-on. Place it in an overhead bin with the straps facing down and the top of the bag facing out. This position makes it easy to grab your backpack once you've arrived at your destination.

Things You Will Need
  • Backpack

  • Locks

  • Plastic or duffel bag


If the gate agent feels your backpack is too large or bulky, or if there's not enough space in the overhead bins for all the passengers, you might be asked to gate-check your backpack. You'll be given a tag to place on your backpack and will leave it just outside the plane's door so it can be placed in the belly of the plane. You'll pick your backpack up again just outside the plane once you arrive at your destination.