11 Ugly Truths About Airplane Overhead Bin Space (W/ Luggage Recs)

Every day at airports across the world, airline cabin crews have to deal with the lack of overhead bin space. We flight attendants do have wings, but unfortunately we do not have magic wands that allow us to fit every passenger’s bag aboard every flight.

Airplane overhead bin space is not designed to hold large amounts of suitcases, duffel bags, or musical instruments. That’s what the cargo space in the belly of the plane is for.

Luckily, not everyone brings on two bags and, if they do, they’re not all the same size which means we flight attendants usually have something to work with.

airplane overhead bin space

You see, during boarding one of my jobs as a flight attendant is to help with luggage. This ends up being more like solving an over-sized puzzle.

It usually goes like this:

“If I move this bag here and place that suitcase there, then turn this shopping bag sideways and you put your laptop case under your seat, then you can squeeze your roller bag in the overhead bin instead of having to check it.”

Time permitting, that’s what I do on every flight, whether it’s oversold or not. But sometimes it just doesn’t work. Perhaps you’re in the last boarding group and the bins are already full, which means I’ve already helped a dozen people stow their bags. Or, maybe your bag is too thick and physically won’t fit.

But there are also some things to take into consideration when you’re traveling with carry-on luggage, as well as some actions every passenger can take to ensure the best possible outcome for your carry-on bags as well as your fellow passengers.

Keep these facts in mind for your next flight:

Not all bins are created equal. Every time I work on the Embraer 170 or 175 passengers comment on the smaller bin space and say, “It fit on the last plane.”

Mainline and international flights usually have much larger equipment than regional aircraft, which means the bins are probably bigger, too.

If you’re on a super small regional aircraft, it’s likely you will have to gate check all of your carry-on luggage. As for the larger aircraft, take an Airbus 320 for example, the 22-inch roller bag I use for work will fit perfectly if I slide the top handle inward with the wheels out. If I turn it around and have the handle facing out, the bin won’t close.

On some Boeing 737s, I have to turn it sideways for the bin door to close. It simply comes down to the shape of the overhead bin.

There isn’t space for every passenger to bring on a roller bag. Even though everyone who boards has a confirmed seat, not everyone has confirmed stowage space.

The closest you get to that is under the seat in front of you, assuming you’re not in row one. Otherwise, the overhead bin space is first-come, first-served. If your bag does have to be checked because of this you won’t have to pay – at least on the carrier I work for.

Read more: First Time Flying? 35 Best Tips for First-Time Flyers

Crowded bins have always been a problem. Despite the fact that the airlines are charging a nice chunk of change for checked bags, the truth is, passengers have always brought on too many bags.

Long before airlines started charging luggage fees, in the late ’90s, I spent many boardings standing in the back galley surrounded by piles of luggage that needed to be checked because the bin space was full.

Yes, luggage fees have exacerbated the bin space problem. When airlines announced that they would start charging for checked bags I knew what that meant. Luggage was going to be overstuffed and even more bags would be brought on. That’s exactly what happened.

Some people suffer from luggage separation anxiety. This isn’t a joke. Passengers have various reasons for wanting to keep their luggage with them.

For some it’s time, such as they don’t want to wait at baggage claim, and for others it’s a fear of their bags getting lost or damaged.

People don’t follow the rules. Even though passengers are supposed to limit their carry on bags to two per person, they don’t. Look around the next time you fly and you’ll see. You will also observe people sneak bags on or past busy employees.

One bag up and one bag down. I’ve seen one person fill up an entire bin. It’s not fair to your fellow passengers. Unless you’re sitting at a bulkhead or first row, please place only one bag in the bin and the other under the seat in front of you.

Coats and jackets on top. Filling an overhead bin with coats and jackets is a waste of space not to mention you risk someone ruining your items when they throw their roller bag on top of your stuff.

I’ve seen jackets smudged with grease from this happening. Simply wait until all of the people are on and the bins are full then place your outerwear on top of the luggage.

Please don’t break the bin. Please don’t ever force a bag in a bin. Bins can crack as well as the bin door – and guess what: if a bin is broken the plane can’t fly. And that’s a whole other debacle…

Prepare for the worst (checking your bag) and hope for the best (finding space in the overhead bins).

Flight attendants don’t have designated bin space. In response to a comment I thought this tidbit should be added. It’s true, many planes don’t have accommodation space for crew luggage anywhere but above passenger seats which means that sharing bin space with flight attendants and sometimes even pilots is likely.


SwissGear Sion Softside Expandable Roller Luggage, Black, Carry-On 21-Inch
  • Rolling Suitcase: Get through a crowded airport or down narrow airplane isles easily with this stylish carry-on luggage with 360-degree multi-directional spinner wheels and a locking retractable push/pull handle
  • Multiple Front Panel Pockets: Featuring front pockets with a built-in ID tag, this ergonomically expandable luggage measures 22.75 x 14.25 x 10.25 inches including wheels and handles; packing dimensions are 21 x 12.75 x 10.25 inches
  • Secure and Durable: Expandable travel case gives you ample parking space and made from a durable, scuff-resistant polyester fabric with fully lined interior; also features adjustable tie-down straps for securing garments in place
  • Effortless Organization: This luggage bag maximizes packing efficiency with a removable zippered wet bag, large mesh lid pocket, and packing pocket for holding small items and accessories
  • Convenient Side Handles: With reinforced padded top handle with an integrated side and bottom handle, this roller suitcase makes lifting and carrying your luggage easy

The Rockland Luggage Set comes in dozens of colors and patterns.  The bag is 21″ high to the top of the pushed in handle. It’s also about 21″ high to the top of the top carry handle. It is 13″ wide and just less than 9″ deep. That makes it compatible with most airlines. We also like the durability.

Travelpro Maxlite 5 Softside Lightweight Rolling Underseat Compact Carry-On Upright 2 Wheel Bag, Men and Women, Midnight Blue, 15-Inch
  • Compact, wheeled underseat carry-on bag is designed for organization, mobility and convenience; Polyester fabric with stain-resistant, water-repellant duraguard coating and ergonomic, high-tensile-strength zipper pulls provide lasting durability
  • Front flap, roomy interior and built-in pockets keep contents organized and accessible; Removable, hanging wet pocket is perfect for storing cosmetics or toiletries; Padded laptop/tablet sleeve offers protection for electronic essentials
  • High-performance inline skate wheels and lightweight yet sturdy PowerScope Lite handle reduces wobble and ensure a smooth, easy roll
  • Compact, wheeled underseat carry-on bag is designed for organization, mobility and convenience; Polyester fabric with stain-resistant, water-repellant duraguard coating and ergonomic, high-tensile-strength zipper pulls provide lasting durability; Unobtrusive rear strap fits around the extension handle of a Rollaboard

The Travelpro Luggage piece is a little larger, but also a recommended piece if you are flying a larger plane and need more room in your carry-on.

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