Luggage rules in flights are getting stricter. Most people are confused about how many bags they can carry with them in the cabin. While most backpacks are considered carry-on luggage if they are within certain size limits, there are of course limitations on how many backpacks you can carry along with you.
In general, you can bring two backpacks on a plane with you if one of them is considered as carry-on luggage and the other one is small enough to be considered as a carry-on personal item. Carry-on luggage should fulfill the size restrictions as specified by the airlines and should fit in the overhead bin. A carry-on personal item should also fulfill the criterion to be considered as a carry-on item and should fit under the seat in front of you.
As you can see, it ultimately boils down to whether a backpack is perceived as a carry-on item or not, which will determine whether you can carry it inside the cabin. And the size of the backpack plays an important role here.
What is considered as a carry-on luggage?
Carry-on luggage is any type of luggage that can be carried inside the cabin of a plane. Since there is limited space inside the cabin, there are restrictions on the size and number of luggage you can carry with you.
Different airlines impose different restrictions on the size, weight, and dimensions of the luggage. But most of the rules are there to make sure that the luggage fits in the limited space that is available inside the cabin.
And the only place where you can keep your luggage is the overhead bin, or in the empty space under the seat in front of you.
The overhead bin can accommodate much larger luggage compared to the area under the seats in any plane. If your backpack is too big to fit in the overhead bin, it is not considered a carry-on anymore and you will have to check-in your backpack.
Carry-on Personal Item
Airlines’ rules on what can be considered as a personal item are very confusing. Some airlines do have guidelines in terms of dimensions, and sometimes even weight, but these rules also keep on changing very frequently. Some even do not publish the rules anywhere. Those that do differ a lot in the rules for personal items. The best way to be sure is to call them beforehand and ask them what is allowed and what is not as a personal item.
Most airlines seem to consider briefcase, laptop bag, purse, camera bag, diaper bag, small duffel bag, ladies handbag, tote bag, and other similar things as personal items. These are considered personal items as they can be conveniently kept under the seat in front of you. You can carry one such item with you in addition to your carry-on luggage inside the cabin. However, even though such an item is in the list, in the rare case that it is too big to fit under the seat, it will be considered as carry-on luggage and not a carry-on personal item.
Note that just because you are allowed to carry an additional bag as a personal item, that does not mean you should take advantage of it and try to sneak in with a second backpack and pass it off as a personal item. There is limited space in the overhead bin and you are supposed to use only one spot.
Also ‘able to fit under the seat’ is not always an accurate guideline. Planes of different sizes have different types of seats, and hence you cannot be sure beforehand how much empty space is there under the seat.
A big man with long legs may not have any space left under the front seat to fit even a small bag there.
Do not try to force an oversized backpack under the seat in front of you. The cabin staff won’t allow you to do so. The idea is that even with the bag under the seat you should be able to move your legs freely. This is just not possible if the bag is a tight fit under the seat without leaving any space for your legs. It may also be inconvenient for your fellow passenger sitting beside you.
Carrying two backpacks on a Flight
Carrying two backpacks inside the flight cabin is possible if at least one of them is small enough to be a personal item. Most regular size laptop backpacks are considered personal items by all airlines and also fit under the seat.
If you do plan to travel in such a way, make sure that the smaller backpack is thin and small enough to fit even the most constricted spaces. Keep the smaller backpack under the seat in front of you, or on the top of your carry-on backpack in the overhead bin. This way, you can avoid using another spot in the overhead bin. Also, make sure that the backpack has a very plain look so that it does not raise any suspicion in the minds of the TSA personnel or the cabin crew.
Even if the size of your smaller backpack does fulfill the guidelines of the airline for personal items, even then you may be challenged by the TSA or the cabin crew for traveling with two carry-on luggage. So a better plan is not only for the smaller backpack to conform to these guidelines, but also ‘look’ small enough so as not to raise any suspicions. The more discreet your smaller backpack is, the less likely it is to draw any attention.
It is not a good idea to argue with the airport staff as they will almost always have the last say on this. In such cases, be prepared to check-in one of your backpacks.
Note that in the business class or in any upgraded class, airlines sometimes allow additional carry-on luggage. So you may even be allowed to carry two backpacks without any issues. On the other hand, some budget airlines allow only one carry-on bag. Some allow only one small personal item as a carry-on. As the rules can vary drastically, it is better to check with the airlines first rather than depending on your luck.
There are certain items that you can take with you into the cabin that are considered carry-on exceptions. Exceptions means, these will not be counted as part of your carry-on allowance of one luggage and one personal item.
Carry on exceptions include items like clothes, hats, umbrellas, a pillow for personal use, food for consumption, child safety seats, breast pump, strollers and walkers, etc. Most airlines usually have a list of items that are considered as carry-on exceptions. A waist pouch is also considered as a carry-on exception. Items (including bags) that you can buy from the duty-free shops in airports are also sometimes considered as carry-on exceptions.
Prescription medications and medical devices needed to administer them are sometimes considered as a carry-on exception. So a small backpack consisting of medications and such devices may also fall in this category.
However, like everything else, the rules for carry-on exceptions also vary a lot among different airlines. Some airlines may not allow any exceptions at all. Don’t stretch your luck too far with this carry-on exception rule. When in doubt, it is always better to confirm the rules directly with the airline first if you plan to take anything that should be considered as a carry-on exception.
Personal experience of carrying Backpacks as carry-on luggage
I have traveled by air with two backpacks with me multiple times. The smaller one had only a laptop and other electronic items. I never faced any issue with the security staff or with the cabin crew.
I think the only thing the airport staff is concerned about is whether all those bags will fit in the cabin or not. Even if the security stuff clears all your carry-on items, a lack of space inside the cabin may force you to check-in your backpack.
This has happened to me once when I was traveling with only one carry-on size backpack. I was one of the last to board the flight and by then all the space in the overhead bins has already been occupied.
My carry-on backpack was also not allowed to be kept under the seat in front of me as it was too big to be considered a personal item. I had no option but to allow the cabin staff to take away my backpack to be put in the cargo with other check-in luggage.
However, the real issue is the difference in what the airline declares regarding its carry on rules, and how the rules are applied in the real world. Remember that since carry-on items are a security issue in flights, the security staff in the airports will always have the final say.
Hence, it also depends a lot on the mood of the security staff on duty that day. So a backpack that was acceptable yesterday may become unacceptable today. Just remember that what the rules say and what actually happens may not always be the same.
The scarcity of luggage space in the cabin is a very common issue in flights nowadays. You will see that the overhead bins get filled up pretty quickly.
If you are late in boarding the flight, you will have to be lucky to find space in any of the overhead bins near you. You may have to put your carry-on backpack in a bin far away from your seat.
Why do you think this happens?
It happens because many passengers break the rules and bring more carry-on luggage with them inside the cabin then they are entitled to. Many also put their carry-on personal item in the overhead bin rather than under the seat in front of them. This takes up valuable space in the overhead bins and those who board later do not find any space left and are forced to check-in their carry-on luggage.
Carrying more than one backpack inside the cabin in a plane may be possible sometimes, but there is no guarantee you will be able or allowed to do so always. It depends a lot on the size of your backpacks, the cabin luggage guidelines of the airline, the security staff, the cabin staff, and of course, luck.
Luggage rules are going to be tougher in the near future. Even now, some low-cost airlines are allowing only one carry-on item. Some are offering cheaper base fares but charging hefty fees for carry-on items.
The best you can do is verify with the airlines before starting your travel and stick to the rules as much as possible. Consider the smallest backpack you can find as your carry-on personal item so that the airport staff is never uncomfortable with the size of your carry-on item. And lastly, be one for the first to board the flight.