Here’s How to Pack a Backpack and Skip the Baggage Fees

A woman wears a book bag on her back as she sees her plane landing.
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Twenty years ago, no traveler would have ever had to consider how to pack a backpack and skip the baggage fees. Packing for a flight was a lot simpler. After all, just by purchasing an airline ticket, you’d have the right to a checked bag and a couple carry-ons.

Things have long since changed, though.

First came the checked bag fees — airlines began adding them in the mid-to-late 2000s as a way to offset rising fuel prices.

So, many passengers started strategically packing everything in carry-on bags.

But over the last decade, budget airlines like Spirit Airlines, Frontier and others have disrupted the market by undercutting the larger carriers, selling cheap base-fare tickets, but charging fees for virtually every other facet of flying, including access to the overhead bin.

Yes, that goes even for those who buy Frontier’s all-you-can-fly summer pass.

The biggest airlines like American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United then responded by adding “basic economy” tickets that similarly cheapen the fare, but strip down the services, or, what they now deem “extras,” you get as part of the flight.

The result? Many airline tickets today only allow passengers one free “personal item” that fits under the seat in front of them.

For that reason, a backpack may be your path to the best of both worlds — booking the low fares and avoiding the fees — while in the sky.

But if you’re planning for a vacation and thinking of carrying all of your belongings in a backpack, there are some things you should know.

Why Pack Just a Backpack for a Trip?

Now, why would any sane traveler want to stuff their belongings into just a backpack for a trip to a far-away destination?

It’s pretty simple: It can save a lot of money.

Bag Fees Add Up

While every U.S. airline today guarantees you a complimentary personal item that fits under the seat in front of you, there are a variety of tickets that do not allow a free “full-sized” carry-on bag destined for the overhead bin.

When flying with one of these tickets, if you want to bring a duffel bag, or even a small, rolling suitcase, you’ll have to pay a fee.

These fees can be $20, $30, even $50 or $70, depending on the length of your flight … often rivaling (and in some cases, eclipsing) checked bag fees. Oh — and that’s ‘times two’ — if you’re flying a round trip, you’ll get hit with the fees on the outbound and return flights.

That’s where the backpack comes in. Most packs can fit under the seat, making it a “personal item.”

So, if everything you need can fit inside that small bag (while following all the TSA’s rules)… you’ve got an avenue to save a chunk of cash.

How to Pack a Backpack for a Flight

There’s no doubt whittling down your luggage can protect your precious vacation savings — not to mention your energy while walking through airport concourses.

But whether it’s right for your trip depends on a few factors.

Check to See What Airlines Charge for Carry-ons

First, before you spend too much time strategizing for ultra-efficiency while packing, double check to make sure you will, in fact, have to pay for a full-sized bag. Why go to the trouble if you don’t have to?

You’ll generally find these fees for carry-on bags on just about any ultra low-cost airline based in the U.S. Along with Spirit and Frontier, Allegiant and Avelo are other such domestic airlines.

There are also low-cost airlines that fly between the U.S. and Europe or Latin America that have similar policies.

Among the larger airlines, United Airlines and JetBlue are the two most notable to place full-sized carry-on restrictions on their basic economy passengers. JetBlue calls these tickets “Blue Basic”.

It’s worth noting, American and Delta now allow their basic economy passengers access to the overhead bin at no charge — so no need to pack bare bones if you’re flying with one of those carriers.

Make Sure Yours Is a Backpack-Friendly Trip

Fitting all your belongings into a bag small enough to meet the airline’s definition of “personal item” is not always a realistic option, so you’ll have to consider your needs for your entire trip.

United, for instance, defines such luggage as nine inches by 10 inches by 17 inches. Universally, though, we’re talking backpacks, purses and shoulder or laptop-type bags.

Short, weekend getaways and overnight trips are the most obviously backpack-friendly; the fewer days on the trip, the less you’ll need to pack and the smaller the bag you’ll need.

Additionally, though, consider the weather and your activities at your destination. While a flight to Colorado for a ski trip might lend itself to bulky gear — not ultra-light packing — you may need little more than a bathing suit, a couple of t-shirts, a pair of shorts, a toiletry bag, a rain jacket and undergarments for a weekend at the beach in Florida.

Save Space as You Pack

From the shoulder straps to the weight distribution, choosing the right backpack is critical. You’ll want to go with a standard size backpack that can fit under just about any airline seat — your hiking backpack that can fit a whole sleeping bag isn’t what we’re going for, here.

Rather, it’s about efficiency and easy access.

Pack T-Shirts and Lightweight Clothes

Obviously, you won’t be able to load up on heavy gear and, overall, too much weight in your bag. Pack volume is key, here: You’ll want medium-weight items and other travel essentials to get you through your brief trip.

Lighter items and versatile clothing will help you make use of what limited space you’ll have. If you can get two days of use out of the one pair of shorts, that’s more space for other belongings.

Use Packing Cubes

Being deliberate about how you pack is key. A packing cube set can help you pack your bag, and keep some semblance of organization throughout your trip.

You might use one cube for your clean t-shirts, and another for your dirty clothes, for instance.

Make Sure your Belongings are Easily Accessible

You’ll want easy access to some of your belongings during the flight. If you have headphones, an iPad, a book or other gear you’ll want to retrieve after the plane takes off, stow them somewhere for easy removal inflight — say, the front pockets, or somewhere else that won’t disturb your clothes or other travel backpack contents.

Consider the Weight Distribution

Like with any bag, even weight distribution throughout your bag will make it easier to carry — easier on your back, in this case.

The biggest weight-related rule you’ll need to follow is a tough one to violate, though: 50 pounds is the maximum weight to avoid hefty extra fees — though you’d be hard-pressed to violate this rule with just a backpack.

Follow the TSA’s 3-1-1 Liquids Rules

The TSA checkpoints are one of the biggest hurdles to successfully skirting bag fees by flying with only a backpack. This is where your toiletries come into play.

You’ll have to comply with the 3-1-1 rules: That means your liquids, gels, creams and pastes — like your shampoos, conditioners, toothpastes, hair products and lotions — must not be in bottles of more than 3.4 ounces, and must fit in one quart-sized, resealable bag.

Don’t want to buy an expensive bottle of water after security? Bring an empty, disposable one and stow it in a pocket on your backpack, or use a carabiner clip to attach it to a strap for easy access.

If you can’t meet these requirements, you’ll want to plan, and budget, for a checked bag.

Pro Tip

Buying personal hygiene items at your destination or purchasing travel-sized products can come in handy here, but, keep in mind, any of these purchases will eat into your cost savings.

When You Can’t Just Pack a Backpack

We know it won’t be feasible to only pack a backpack for every trip you take, especially if you’re traveling as a family or in a group. Here are a few tips to make the one-backpack trick work for you, even if you have to pay for a bag or two.

Families: Check One Bag and Bring a Few Different Packs

This may be a more approachable option for longer trips or larger traveling parties: Have one but not every member of your traveling party bring, and pay for, a checked or full-sized carry-on bag. Everyone else goes the backpack route.

This can be a particularly efficient option for an entire family to capitalize on cheap fares, while avoiding add-on fees multiplied by two, three or four travelers, then again multiplied by two for the outbound and return flights.

Need to Sit Together? A Full-Fare Flight May Be Worth It

Keep in mind, in most cases, if you know you’ll be restricted from bringing a complimentary full-sized carry-on bag on board, chances are you’re also not allowed to select seats for free, the way most basic economy and low-cost airline fare rules are structured.

That might mean you don’t get a seat next to your family members, or others in your traveling party.

To that end, if you fly basic economy on a large airline, and later, in hindsight, realize you wound up paying for seat selection or baggage the day of the flight, you likely would have been better off buying a full-fare ticket in the first place — something worth considering the next time you book a trip.

There Are Other Ways to Save on Airline Fees

Skirting baggage fees isn’t the only way to save on air travel. In addition to elite status for frequent flyers, some airline credit cards exempt you from some of the baggage fees and seat selection restriction, along with other travel perks. Some travel credit cards even reimburse certain such expenses.

Keep in mind, some of these types of credit cards carry steeper fees than other cards, but may be a good investment if you fly regularly, and with a “go-to” airline at that.

Just Pack a Backpack: A Trick to Save Money on Your Next Flight

We know stuffing all of your belongings into just a backpack or other small personal item for a flight isn’t the most convenient method of packing for a trip. But, it’s a great way to save: It allows you to capitalize on some of the lowest airfare out there, without the caveat of cumbersome add-on fees.

It’s not right for every trip, destination or traveler, but under the right circumstances, it could lessen your vacation expenses by tens, or even hundreds of dollars.

Sean Cudahy is a reporter specializing in personal finance, travel and breaking news. Most recently, he focused on airlines, credit cards and loyalty programs while on the staff at The Points Guy. He previously spent eight years as a local television news reporter. Sean lives in North Carolina’s Research Triangle.