Yes, You Can Fit Your Stuff Into One Bag and Avoid Airline Luggage Fees

A woman zips up her backpack
The Penny Hoarder Staff Writer Stephanie Bolling Sasseen packed all she needed in this backpack when she traveled to San Francisco for four days. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

I had a rendezvous in San Francisco.

My bestie, Ariel, was visiting from New Zealand, so I jumped at the opportunity to see her stateside.

I scoured flights for weeks until I settled on a $298 direct, round-trip flight from Tampa to San Francisco on United Airlines.

The catch: It was a basic economy ticket on United Airlines.

That’s a step lower than standard economy, which meant I was allowed one personal item only.

No carry-ons, no checked bags, lest I pay extra — not to mention that I couldn’t check in or get a seat assignment until I arrived at the airport.

I accepted the packing challenge. It was only four days, after all.

How to Pack a Backpack

These are the items Stephanie managed to fit in her backpack. Chris Zuppa and Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

Know the Dimensions

First, I looked up the dimensions of what United deems a personal item.

The bag couldn’t be bigger than 9 inches x 10 inches x 17 inches, and it had to fit under the seat in front of me.

I dusted off my 20-year-old trusty Everest book bag and measured it. It’d be close, but this old girl hadn’t failed me yet. I was confident I could finagle it.

To complicate things, my trip was in January, so I needed to pack cold-weather wear in lieu of tank tops and shorts.

Plan Ahead

I’m usually the type of packer who includes extras of everything because I don’t know what I’ll feel like wearing on a particular day. I wasn’t afforded that luxury on this trip.

I pulled out all the items I wanted to bring and laid them out on my bed.

I had to maintain some sort of style, but I also had to keep what I packed functional. So I strategically started selecting things that I could mix and match and layer for temperature changes.

This helped me narrow down my options.

I had a few bulky items like a houndstooth peacoat and an oversize sweater and boots that I wanted to bring. I decided to wear those on the plane so they didn’t occupy precious cargo space.

Trial Run

Once I pared down my wardrobe to a reasonable amount, I started to roll up my clothes. This method makes it easier to stack and pack clothes than folding.

I filled the bottom of the backpack with thicker items like leggings and stuffed the gaps with T-shirts and long-sleeve shirts. I squeezed a pair of sandals, socks and undergarments into the edges. If I‘d packed close-toe shoes, I would’ve stuffed them with socks, underwear and chargers.  

I tried to keep toiletries and makeup to a minimum, although I was in the middle of trying out a version of the 10-Step Korean Skin-Care Routine, so I packed multiple face washes, toner, moisturizer, serum, sunscreen and daily moisturizer.

Those  — surprisingly — all fit inside the TSA-specified clear quart-sized bag. I saved it for last so it could be easily accessible during security screenings.

I tucked my chargers, a handful of snacks, a hairbrush and even a book in the remaining front pockets. This may have been the best game of Tetris I ever played.

The bag looked like it was going to burst. Now for the measuring tape.

Fully packed, it measured about half an inch over the maximum dimensions, so I took to the internet and researched other traveler experiences with United’s strict personal-item policy.

Under the policy, you cannot check in early for a flight. You’re forced to do it at the airport so staff can verify your baggage. Once cleared, you’re good to go.

Some online reviewers said airline attendants didn’t bother with their bags, while others got stopped at the gate just before boarding and were asked to place their bags in the airside bag sizer. If the personal item didn’t fit, they were forced to check it for $25, plus an additional $25 gate handling charge.

This made me anxious. I almost took my trial-run bag to the airport to see whether it would fit in the bag sizer, but I decided to take my chances.

What I Fit in My Backpack

An animation of a woman packing her backpack
Stephanie demonstrates how she packed all her items into one bag. Chris Zuppa and Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

There were no flowers in my hair, but I triumphantly hauled four days’ worth of clothes on my way to San Francisco:

  • 4 pairs of leggings
  • 2 skirts
  • 3 T-shirts
  • 3 tank tops
  • 2 long-sleeve shirts
  • 1 scarf
  • 1 cardigan
  • 4 pairs of socks
  • 1 bra
  • 1 sports bra
  • 5 pairs of underwear
  • 1 small Fujifilm Instax mini camera
  • 1 book
  • 1 iPhone charger
  • 1 Apple watch charger
  • 1 battery pack
  • 1 pair of headphones
  • 1 purse (filled with my wallet, sunglasses, chapstick, perfume stick, pen, lipstick, gum, ear plugs)
  • 1 pair of flat sandals
  • Makeup: gel eyeliner, eyeliner brush, mascara, two eye shadow pencils.
  • 2 face washes
  • 1 daily moisturizer and one night moisturizer
  • 1 toner
  • 1 bottle jojoba oil
  • 1 facial serum
  • 1 travel lotion
  • 1 travel toothpaste
  • 1 toothbrush
  • Travel box of Q-tips
  • 1 hairbrush
  • Fold-up backpack
  • 1 bag dried fruit
  • 1 bag trail mix
  • 1 granola bar

As planned, I wore my houndstooth coat, boots and bulky sweater with a tank top and bra underneath.

I anxiously arrived at the airport early since I couldn’t check in beforehand.  

There was a bag sizer right next to the check-in kiosk. I shamelessly crammed my bulging book bag into it, squishing the sides down into the metal box. I sighed with relief as it fit — albeit barely.

I left it there as I finished the kiosk check-in process, which required an attendant’s authorization.

She came over and inquired about my bag. I proudly pointed at it in the bag sizer. She called me “prepared.” Yes, ma’am, you could say that.

What I Learned By Traveling With Only a Backpack

My newfound minimalist approach to packing felt like I beat the system, but really I just made the system work for me.

Even though my bulky bag was a bit awkward and heavy, I didn’t need to shoulder it too much outside of airport travel.

Bringing along my day-to-day purse and an extra collapsible backpack gave me options to travel around the city instead of fussing with the backpack.

I unloaded all my stuff at the Airbnb and kept my personal items organized so I could easily locate whatever I needed.

My planning paid off. Having layers of clothes and options to mix and match gave me plenty to work with.

It’s much easier to keep track of one bag when traveling. Plus, I could hop on and off public transportation without cumbersome luggage

Limiting myself to one bag kept me from buying anything extra because I literally had no room to bring anything else home.

Ultimately, I got the cheapest flight price and saved at least $50 worth of baggage fees.

Stephanie Bolling is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She owns four backpacks, but the Everlast is her favorite.