There are two questions most travelers ask themselves ahead of a trip in Europe: what baggage am I allowed to carry on? And will I have to pay extra for it?
These days, the rules for what airlines consider allowable carry-ons and how much they can weigh or measure are sometimes arbitrary and unfair – particularly when flying with budget airlines.
A plan from European Union politicians might offer a solution to this problem. On Wednesday, October 4, European lawmakers supported a resolution to eliminate carry-on fees and tackle inconsistent rules for cabin-bag dimensions.
What is considered carry-on baggage vs a personal item?
All travelers want to avoid paying additional fees, so it is essential to understand the difference between personal items and cabin baggage – as well as the policies specific to your airline. Generally speaking, a personal item must fit underneath the seat in front of you; most commonly, this will be a purse, backpack or laptop bag. Generally, the size of a personal item should be no more than 45x35x20cm (18"x14"x8").
On the other hand, carry-on baggage – also known as cabin baggage or hand luggage – is usually a suitcase small enough to be stowed in the plane’s overhead compartments. The standard size for this baggage is 56x36x23cm (22"x14"x9").
Things get tricky when companies – particularly low-cost airlines – impose different policies about the size of these items, whether wheels count toward their dimensions and what passengers can carry on for free. For example, the baggage policy of Ryanair – the largest low-cost airline in Europe – allows for a small bag (40x20x25cm / 16"x8"x10") and a larger cabin bag (55x40x20cm / 22"x16"x8") for priority passengers, with non-priority customers allowed only a single small bag (of the above dimensions) that must weigh under 10kg (22lbs), paying extra for anything additional. By comparison, even a basic ticket on UK flag carrier British Airways allows, free of charge, a “hand bag” measuring up to 40x30x15cm (16"x12"x6") and one piece of cabin baggage up to 56x45x25cm (22"x18"x10"), and weighing up to 23kg (51lbs) including wheels and handles.
The inconsistency about cabin-baggage dimensions and fees – a constant source of frustration for travelers – is what European lawmakers are seeking to address. Giovanni Hashimoto, editor of travel-news site Travel Spill, says, “It’s confusing and inconvenient when different airlines have varying size and weight limits for cabin baggage, and you can’t just have one suitcase that goes for everything. It becomes especially problematic during connecting flights on different airlines and the unexpected extra fees at the boarding gate.”
The differing requirements have generated much content on social media, with #LuggageHacks and #BaggageRequirements trending on TikTok, and videos by travel vloggers such a Cheap Holiday Expert showing consumers what can and can’t be carried on board going viral. Annis Fender, a French business owner, welcomes the proposed change since, as a regular traveler, “...booking becomes fast and stress-free without worrying that you overlooked something, especially as I’m dyslexic.”
Though social media enables helpful conversations around travel, some policymakers are insisting that airlines should make their rules consistent and transparent rather than leave it to passengers to figure out what is allowed, acceptable and affordable.
Free cabin baggage: a consumer right?
European MP Jordi Cañas of Spain, who has pushed for the free-of-charge element on cabin baggage, expressed his frustrations about these inconsistent practices to Politico. “You cannot commoditize a right, nor have a business model that inflates profits by dint of trampling on consumer rights.”
Margo Gabriel, a freelance travel writer and columnist for TimeOut Lisboa, favors the new EU rules on eliminating fees for standard cabin bags. “I travel often and have experienced first-hand airline companies diming me with exorbitant prices. I appreciate the EU working in the best interests of travelers facing many added travel costs.”
Likewise, Hashimoto says that “addressing hidden costs and being up front about additional charges is crucial for transparent and fair ticket pricing, as customers feel deceived by airlines that hide fees until the end of the booking process, making it difficult to compare prices accurately.”
European lawmakers are calling for changes that would allow people to board flights with essential hand luggage without extra charges, no matter which airline they choose. Yet such calls may seem familiar: in 2014, the European Court of Justice ruled that cabin baggage is an essential part of travel as long as it is of “reasonable” size and weight, thus should not incur extra fees. The ruling, however, has not been fully enforced.
Ivy Kodjovi, a Burberry executive and mentor at the LMF Network, welcomes the prospect of no baggage fees. “This move will impact airlines charging a premium for hand luggage, but it’s also surprising that such a regulation wasn’t in place earlier. It’s a positive step toward simplifying air travel for everyone, promoting inclusive travel.”
Cabin baggage is not yet regulated – so for now, research baggage policies before you book
While this move by European lawmakers potentially starts the process of eliminating carry-on-baggage fees, it’s only a first step – which means that, for now, you have to read carefully and be prepared to pay up. The resolution still needs the support from European Union countries and the European Commission (EC), Europe’s executive arm, before new, enforceable regulations could kick in. An EC spokesperson raised the prospect of unintended consequences of enforcing standard sizes and weights for hand luggage, telling Politico that such a rule “would likely lead to increased costs for passengers.”
Similarly, Hiveonline CEO Sofie Blakstad argues that while she agrees the baggage rules are inconsistent, “they’re all clearly stated, and it’s easy to check if your bag meets the rules. As someone who travels light, if they ban hand-luggage fees, the cost will be passed on to travelers in ticket prices.”
We’ll have to wait and see what Europe decides regarding carry-ons, and whether inconsistent baggage fees will be a thing of the past. If so, who will ultimately be paying the cost of standardization – the customer or the airline?
Until then, check the requirements, grab your measuring tape and ensure you are on the right side of the guidelines. Otherwise, the fees could cost as much – or more – as the ticket itself.