Etiquette for using the overhead storage bin spaces on a flight is a combination of written and unwritten rules that all have somewhat mixed enforceability.
For those reasons, it’s not always clear what is the right or wrong move when placing your carry-on and other items in the overhead storage bin.
In this article, I’m going to clear up some of the confusion so that you can feel confident the next time you choose to place something in the overhead bin.
First class overhead storage bins
The basic travel etiquette is for only first class passengers to use the overhead storage bins in first class.
Airlines are pretty good about making this clear by putting up signs that say something like “reserved for first class passengers” or “business/1st passengers only.”
I believe all non-first class passengers should follow this rule ~90% of the time.
The exception is when all of the first class passengers are already seated and there is still space in the first class overhead storage bin area.
At that point, one could assume that any of the overhead storage bin space truly needed by first class passengers has already been used.
So if you were among the last to board and you knew that the flight was full, you could place your bag in the overhead storage bin space in first class without violating “the spirit” of the rule.
If a flight attendant stopped you, you could just tell them that you noticed all of the first class passengers were already seated and you assumed that there was extra storage space in this part of the cabin.
If the storage space is virtually filled throughout the aircraft this shouldn’t be a problem.
However, in some cases it’s possible that a flight attendant could tell you to take your bag down in which case you should listen to avoid any confrontation but in my experience they will often let this fly.
The key to doing this is to make sure that the first class cabin is full.
Don’t assume that if there is one missing seat near the end of boarding that there will be no passenger sitting there.
Although first class passengers usually can board first, quite a few first class passengers wait until the last minute to board. That gives them more time to soak in a lounge and
down more cocktails get more work done.
If you put your bag in the first class overhead bin space before the first class passengers are finished boarding, there’s a chance that a first class passenger could report your bag.
A flight attendant could then request for the owner of the bag to come get it which means you’ll have to get up out of your seat and go all the way to the front of the plane and then try to find a spot for your bag.
In that scenario, there’s a good chance that you may have to check your bag.
If you do not claim the bag that you put in the first class cabin, it’s possible that the airline could leave your bag at the airport because an unclaimed bag could be considered a security risk.
This is why you want to play it safe when using the first class storage bins.
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Bulkhead overhead storage bins
I believe that the storage bin space above the bulkhead seats should be off-limits as much as any other reserved overhead bin space.
The reason is that bulkhead passengers do not always have a seat in front of them where they can slide a personal item under and so they have to stow their personal item along with their carry-on.
Also, sometimes the overhead storage space above the bulkhead is a smaller compartment so one passenger can easily fill it up.
Some airlines offer upgraded economy sections like economy plus or main cabin extra. These are just regular economy seats with usually about 3 to 4 inches of extra legroom.
Lots of times, you’ll also see overhead storage bins dedicated to these passengers and so you should try to respect those labels as well.
That’s because in addition to the extra legroom, these passengers are paying for additional benefits which could include reserved overhead storage bin space.
The crew probably will not enforce these reserved spaces as much as they will in first class but I would still recommend trying to avoid using these bins unless you have paid for that privilege.
Use the bin around your seat
Once you get past the economy plus section, it’s usually just a free-for-all at that point when it comes to overhead storage bin space.
You should definitely still try to use the space directly above your seat because that will allow for the most efficient on-loading and off-loading of passengers.
But that’s not always possible and sometimes you just have to take what you can get.
Generally, it would be better to find a spot between your seat and whatever exit door you’ll be using because it will be easier for you to deplane.
You may not always know what door you will be deplaning from so a lot of times you’ll just assume that the front door will be the exit.
If you only find space available many rows back then whenever it comes time to exit the plane, you may just need to sit in your seat and wait for things to clear out because otherwise it could be a major struggle to get your bag out.
Tip: If you can secure priority boarding via elite status, credit cards, or by purchasing it, you can alleviate a lot of the stress with finding overhead storage bin space.
Personal items (such as your backpack) usually belong under the seat in front of you or on your person during your flight.
When boarding, you should not initially place your personal item in the overhead storage bin space because you are unnecessarily limiting the space for other people to store their carry-ons.
If you notice that the flight is not full and that there’s extra overhead storage bin space then at that point you can put your personal item up there but the default rule of etiquette is to not put it in the overhead bin.
Take out what you need from your carry-on bag for the flight
The best practice is to keep anything you will need during the flight on your person. This way, you can avoid getting up multiple times to access your carry-on bag.
There’s nothing wrong with doing that on occasion but if you are constantly getting up and down that can be very annoying to your fellow passengers.
This is especially true if you are having to climb over them or are slamming the bin shut every time.
Place your carry-on bag in the right orientation
When you go to put your bag up in the overhead storage bin, make sure that you are placing it in a way that utilizes the space in the best way possible.
Sometimes you can find little stickers in the bin showing you which direction to place your bag but other times you can just look around and see what others are doing.
If you see a flight attendant readjusting bags then make sure you follow his or her lead.
Finding a place for your coat
If you have a coat, you can ask if you can use the wardrobe closet assuming that the aircraft has one and that it is available to you.
If not, then consider waiting until all the other passengers have boarded and stored their belongings in the overhead storage bins.
If there is room up there for your coat, feel free to use it. (This type of policy is often announced by the crew during boarding.)
When it comes to coats and other similar items, some people utilize a different philosophy.
Basically, they feel that they are entitled to use their share of the overhead storage bin however they like.
For example, if there are three seats in the row then they can occupy 1/3 of the overhead storage bin above their seat with whatever object they would like, including something like a coat.
It’s a reasonable and defendable position but I tend to err on the side of trying to minimize the chances of someone having to check their bag while boarding.
So personally, I would not put my coat in the overhead storage bin space unless there is space left over.
And definitely don’t drape your coat over the back of your seat!
Help out other passengers
Helping out other passengers will do more than help prevent the plane from crashing (video).
It could also help the boarding process go smoother and prevent people from getting injured.
If you ever see someone struggling and you can easily help, try to “be a doll” and offer an extra hand.
Utilize pre-boarding if needed
People who need extra time to board can utilize pre-boarding.
For some people, that extra time is needed because they have physical difficulties with lifting heavy items which could be a carry-on bag.
If you doubt your ability to stow your bag without issues or think that dealing with it in a crowded setting could cause you to potentially injure yourself, I think it’s a really good idea to take advantage of pre-boarding.
Knowing how to utilize the overhead storage bin space is not quite as straightforward as you might think.
Generally, you should avoid using any bin not reserved for the fare or seat type on your boarding pass, but whenever there is limited space, exceptions can be made.
Also, always try to find overhead storage bin space that will not require you to backtrack when exiting the plane and avoid putting items in the bin that could be stored elsewhere.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time credit card rewards/travel expert and has earned and redeemed millions of miles to travel the globe. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.