Carry-on questions and customs conundrums

Airline folklore is rife with tales of unlikely things that passengers have tried to bring into the cabin as carry-on luggage. Would you believe a large wedding cake?The drive shaft from a BMW?How about a corpse in a duffel bag?

Airlines, of course, have rules about the number and kinds of things you can carry on. Many are getting tougher as flight departures are delayed by late arrivals who insist on searching every overhead bin for a place to stash their oversize bags, and planes go out fuller than ever. Most airlines now have "sizer boxes" at the gate, which serve as a reminder to check bags that don't fit. British Airways recently started enforcing a rule of one carry-on per passenger in coach. At Delta, "we've really gotten serious about our carry-on policy," an official says.

On major domestic airlines, your ticket usually entitles you to take along three pieces of luggage at no extra charge, no more than two of which may be carried on board-- provided they fit in the overhead bin or under your seat. But passenger confusion about the rules is compounded by two factors: First, regulations (or their enforcement) can be inconsistent. Airlines occasionally relax the carry-on allowance to three pieces-- or tighten it to just one-- depending on how full the flight is.

Second, individual airlines have varying policies about what counts toward your carry-on allotment and what doesn't. For example, there's lots of ambiguity about laptop computers and briefcases. (Not surprisingly, one of the hottest-selling travel items these days is a bag that serves as a computer case/briefcase.) Things that generally don't count include purses, overcoats, umbrellas, fanny packs (as long as they're small and wearable), cameras (unless they're in an over-the-shoulder camera bag), reading material, and medical-related items like crutches. Another general exception is a bag for "infant necessities," as American describes it.

How big can carry-on items be?Most airlines say that the total dimensions (length plus width plus depth) cannot exceed 45 inches; and the weight of any piece, checked or carried on, cannot top 70 pounds. In addition to the overhead bins and the space under the seats, most planes have at least one storage closet-- generally in the first-class cabin-- where flight attendants will sometimes let even coach passengers stow an unwieldy item. However, travelers should never assume that this will be allowed. A large musical instrument, such as a guitar in a case, might go in the storage closet (American says instruments can come aboard as carry-ons if they don't exceed 39 inches in length). A collapsible stroller that doesn't fit in the overheads might end up there, although most airlines say their official policy for strollers is to "gate-check" them (that is, the crew will take them from you at the gate, check them in the baggage compartment, and return them to you at the arrival gate).

Some passengers may think they have a right to lug on as much as they want, but if the gate agent or flight crew tells them they must check a bag, they'd be well advised to comply without argument: another thing airlines are getting tough about these days is unruly and disruptive passengers.

Related Articles: