The Best Carry-On Luggage Review
Looking for the best carry on luggage for your adventure or business trip? We chose 13 of the top performing bags out there, and flew with them from Montreal to Mexico, and many places in between. We also tested all the different types of carry-on luggage out there, from two-wheeled traditional and convertible bags to hard- and soft-sided spinners, using our unique side-by-side comparison process. Then we rated the different models based on six testing criteria: Ease of Transport, Storage, Features, Durability, Weight, and Style. We've also put together a comprehensive Buying Advice Guide to help make selecting your next bag a breeze. Keep reading to see which models were our award winners!
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall Carry-On Luggage
Samsonite Silhouette Sphere 2 21
Best Bang for the Buck
Travelpro Maxlite 3 22
Top Pick for Business Travel
Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic
Best for Specific Applications
While we couldn't give awards to every piece that we tested, we did notice that some models outshone the competition is other areas not covered by our Editors' Choice, Best Buy, or Top Pick awards.
Best Convertible Bag: Osprey Ozone Convertible 22
In our Buying Advice article we present a fairly thorough debate on the pros and cons of convertible luggage. Ultimately, we don't think that we would use the backpack feature often enough to warrant the extra expense of a convertible bag, but we aren't here to make up your mind for you. For that reason, we wanted to highlight the top-performing convertible piece: the Osprey Ozone Convertible 22. If you do want convertible luggage, the Ozone is lightweight and has backpack straps that are easy to access. This bag looks sleek and had the coolest detachable daypack of the convertible models we tested. Additionally, the daypack can clip to the front shoulder straps of the main bag for easy kangaroo-style carrying. If you are travelling over really rugged terrain then we would recommend the Osprey Meridian 22 instead as it is made with slightly heavier weight materials.
Best Hard-Sided Bag: Samsonite Winfield 2 20
Of the four hard-sided bags that we tested, the Samsonite Winfield 2 20 was a clear standout. This bag rolls flawlessly over hard polished surfaces and is easy to maneuver on concrete and thin carpet. It has a distinctive, classy look and solid construction. It also held all the items in our packing test and has useful features like a zippered divider and integrated lock system. Our biggest complaints about this bag were that it lacked a side handle and that it scratched fairly easily, but if you really love the look of a hard-sided bag then the Winfield 2 is the way to go.
Analysis and Test Results
Whether you fly twice a month for work, have five weddings to attend this summer, or are just in the market for a quality bag that will hold all your stuff and fit in the overhead bin without breaking your wallet, we've got you covered. After you read up on our three award winners below, be sure to check out our Criteria for Evaluation to see how the other bags that we tested compare to one other. For advice on how to pack your bag, check out this How to Pack Luggage Like a Pro article.
History of Carry-on Luggage
Until the beginning of the 20th century the most popular form of luggage was the trunk. Trunks were made of wood and steel, were extremely burly, and weighed a ton. They did a fantastic job of protecting the belongings stored within from the abuse of long steamship rides or trips across the plains in covered wagons, and their weight was rarely an inconvenience to their owners, who were more often than not wealthy upper-class tourists who had no problem paying attendants or porters to move these behemoths about.
In the beginning of the 20th century things began to change. In Europe, many more people could afford to travel purely for travel's sake, while in the United States common folk were more likely to make long migrations across the country. As people began roaming the world aboard cars and trains, the suitcase quickly gained in popularity simply because it was relatively easier for a person to transport by themselves without the need for hired hands.
Despite still being rather awkward and difficult to carry, the suitcase seemed to serve people fine until airline travel literally took off. While cars and trains most often deposited a person right where they needed to go, traveling by plane requires lots of walking through larger and larger terminals, making it a strenuous endeavor with heavy bags. In 1970, Bernard Sadow patented a rolling suitcase that had four wheels on the bottom and a strap attached to the side that was used to drag the bag.
Although dragging one of these rolling suitcases was as awkward as taking a cat for a walk on a leash, nothing better came along until 1987 when Bob Plath, a pilot for Northwest Airlines, addressed his luggage frustrations by inventing the original roll aboard suitcase. It was rectangular, stood upright, had only two wheels, and was pulled along by a retractable plastic handle. Additionally, Plath made these suitcases small enough that they could be considered a "carry-on," and in the process revolutionized how we travel on airplanes. Within two years he had quit flying planes and was making millions on his invention. The ensuing explosion in popularity caused the FAA to mandate carry-on size restrictions for the first time, while airline companies had to modify their overhead bins to better fit the new style of bags. With the now ubiquitous checked baggage fees imposed by almost every airline, carry-on luggage is the current choice of most travelers and small roll-able variations of Plath's original roll aboard still dominate the market.
Selecting the Right Product
Although there are many factors to consider when purchasing carry-on luggage, throughout our testing process, we began to realize that the best bags are the bags that you don't notice. Your trip should be solely about your trip, not about locked up wheels or digging through disorganized compartments or dealing with uncomfortable backpack straps. When any product under performs, we tend to notice it more, whereas high performing products allow us to focus more fully on the experience at hand, be it a visit home for Christmas, a vacation to Hawaii, or a professional conference. Considering this purchase can cost hundreds of dollars, you want to be sure to get a quality piece that will serve you well and last for years. First we'll break down the different types of bags available and then we'll describe how each model was evaluated in our testing metrics.
Types of Carry-On Luggage
Throughout this review you'll see terms like "spinner" or "hard-sided." We'll now attempt to explain the different types of carry-on luggage available on the market today. Since it wasn't possible for us to test every bag made by every manufacturer, you should know that many of them are making multiple versions of a bag available, so if you love the look and features of the Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic two-wheeled bag but have your heart set on a four-wheeled version, it's most likely (and in this case definitely is) available.
Traditional Two-Wheeled Bags
Four-Wheeled Spinner Bags
Alternatives to Carry-Ons
Many travelers are euphoric when they travel lighter and avoid the costs, lines, and hassles of checked bags at airports. This euphoria expands if you travel even lighter and leave the carry-on behind as well. To do this, you have four main options: duffel bags, travel backpacks, daypacks and laptop backpacks. We will run down the pro's and cons of each:
The North Face Base Camp Duffel is it is durable, water resistant, lightweight and highly compressible. You can get a size that expands to give you extra room when not on a plane then compresses down to meet airline requirements. Duffel bags are also less expensive. The downside is they offer little protection from getting banged around, are more difficult to lock and secure, usually don't have wheels, and are only mildly comfortable to carry as a backpack. See our full Duffel Bag Review.
Travel Backpack Review.
New 7 Wonders of The World in 13 days. In Jordan, the airport security deemed his Oben Monopod a weapon. It became checked baggage that missed the connecting flight. Hours of paperwork and calls later, the monopod has still never been recovered. More importantly, when traveling with just a small backpack, you can move more easily, you can go straight to someplace fun without needing to check into a hotel first, and just generally have a better trip. At first it may seem impossible to fit a week or two's worth of items in one backpack. Yes, it does require taking less stuff. But it's amazing just how little you actually need and how freeing it is to focus more on your travels and less on luggage management. Here is our Travel Checklist of what we deem to be the only items you really NEED and below is a video of a two week trip around the world with just a backpack. See our complete Laptop Backpack Review.
Criteria for Evaluation
After much thought and research we determined the six most important things to consider when purchasing a piece of carry-on luggage and then rated each bag according to its performance in that category. We also weighed certain categories, like Ease of Transport and Storage, as being of greater importance than a more subjective category like Style. In fact, when combined, Ease of Transport and Storage make up 50% of our rating for each bag. We also evaluated each piece on its available Features, Weight, and Durability. These metrics were designed to compare the different models across the board and highlight the places where each bag shined and where it fell short. It's certainly no secret that a good piece of carry-on luggage can make navigating airport security far more enjoyable, and our goal is to give you all the information you need to choose the product that best suits your needs.
To learn more about our testing process, check out the How We Test section later on in this review.
Ease of Transport
We think that one of the most important characteristics in carry-on luggage is how easily you can move your stuff from point A to point B. Among the rolling models, we evaluated the performance of each bag's wheels and whether they improved or hindered airport navigation. We took into consideration handle placement and comfort, as well as the sturdiness of the telescoping handle. We also paid attention to the placement (or lack) of external carrying handles, which make removing bags from overhead bins or trunks of cars that much easier, not to mention having to tackle a flight of stairs. Among the convertible bags, we assessed how easy it was to unpack and use the backpack straps and how comfortable they were.
When it came to rolling performance, we found that there was not much difference among the different two-wheeled bags that we tested. They pulled along in their predictable way, transitioning easily from polished airport floors to broken cement sidewalks and gravel parking lots. The best performing two-wheeled bags on uneven surfaces were the Osprey Ozone Convertible 22 and REI Wheely Beast 22. These bags have 3.5 inch diameter wheels with ridges on them that provided good traction when surfaces got rough. The other two-wheeled bags that we tested has 2.75 to 3 inch wheels with a smooth finish.
Comparing the performance of two- vs four-wheeled bags was an interesting experiment. Firstly, the four-wheeled bags that we tested varied greatly in rolling performance. The Samsonite Silhouette Sphere 2 21 had the best performing action of the lot, while the Traveler's Choice Cambridge 20 continually pulled to one side and would at times lock up. When the four-wheeled bags were working well, we preferred them for airport navigation over a two-wheeled bag. Instead of dragging a heavy bag behind you, you can easily push it by your side with very little effort.
Even a four-year old was able to push his own four-wheeled bag through an airport!
Four-wheeled bags are also easier to take down the aisle of a plane. Simply push it in front of you and you can avoid banging it into arms rests as you go down the aisle. These wheels do tend to be smaller than the wheels on the traditional bags, ranging in diameter from 1.75 to 2 inches. This made them harder to roll over rough surfaces, either pushing or tilting them up and dragging them like a two-wheeled bag. We delve deeper into the pros and cons of two- vs four-wheeled luggage later on in this article, but overall our testers gave the four-wheeled Sphere and Samsonite Winfield 2 20 top marks in this category.
When it came to convertible bags, we tested several different designs, including pieces with and without hip belts. Although we found the non-hip belt designs easier to use, they were significantly less comfortable to carry, specifically in the case of the heavy REI Stratocruiser - 22. We also closely compared the Osprey Meridian 22 and Osprey Ozone Convertible 22 since both these bags had hip belts. In the end, we preferred the Ozone because its shoulder straps are more packable and lightweight, making them easier to access and put to use. However, after using several convertible bags on our trips, we really don't feel that these multi-functional bags provide a substantial benefit over competing bags since many travelers will already have a better backpack than those included with convertible bags.
Equally as important as Ease of Transport, our Storage metric evaluated how much stuff each bag would actually hold. We did a variety of tests to gauge the storage capability of each bag, including a "wintertime long weekend" test and a "pack for a week" test. While every bag passed a basic three-day pack test (two pairs of pants, four shirt and sweaters, undergarments, running shoes and workout gear, toiletry bag and novel) there was a wide range in internal volumes between the different models that we tested. Some bags, like the Ozone, could hold the basics but there was no room for a nice set of clothes and shoes. Others, like the Samsonite Silhouette Sphere, had room for all of the above and some fancy duds or business attire as well.
When we did the "pack for a week test" (see the photo below), only the Delsey Helium Shadow 3.0 21 and Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic could accommodate all the items without having to expand the bag. They by far had the largest internal capacities of all the models that we tested. The Travelpro Maxlite 3 and Travelpro Platinum Magna 22 both came close but had to be expanded to fit all the shoes in.
It's important to remember here that a smaller internal capacity is not necessarily a bad thing. If you are a light packer or often travel to warm places (where bulky clothes aren't required), then a small bag might be perfect for you. Additionally, many individuals still travel with a checked bag, so a smaller bag as your carry-on can be a great option. On the other hand, if you're a heavy packer, you may find yourself sitting on top of your bag wrestling with your zipper unless you purchase a spacious bag.
Considering that most airlines now charge fees for checked bags, being able to pack for a week in a carry-on is certainly a nice option.
We also tested six pieces that were expandable, providing an additional 1 to 2 inches of width and 5-10 L of space. Even though you have to check the bags once they are expanded, it's nice to have the option to go on a vacation shopping spree and not worry about how you'll transport your items home. This is also handy when flying an airline that charges for a carry-on, but allows you to check your luggage for free (or at least for a lower fee). For shorter trips in this scenario, an expandable bag is ideal since you weren't planning on packing that much to begin with - now you can be a little less choosy about what you pack, without having to size up to your huge suitcase.
Throughout this review, we tested bags with some serious bells and whistles (literally two Osprey bags had whistles). From pocket configuration to telescoping handle height, we checked out and tested the functionality of each bag's special features. We were also careful to consider the question "How much is too much?" We were surprised to find ourselves drawn to some of the most basic bags that we reviewed. For example, our Best Buy winner, the Travelpro Maxlite 3 22, has one deep external pocket with a smaller internal mesh pocket for important items. Sometimes organizer pockets can be really helpful, but if you don't need a garment bag or backpack when you travel then sometimes less is more.
The bags with the most liked features were, not surprisingly, our Editors' Choice and Top Pick winners. The Samsonite Silhouette Sphere 2 21 comes with a gel padded carrying handle (really nice) and a plasticized interior pocket for you toiletries (genius!). The Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic's compression straps are almost the same width as the bag, so your belongings stay secured, and the handle tubes are on the outside of the bag, providing a flat interior packing surface (no funny ridges and wasted space to deal with) and the built-in garment bag can unzip and detach if you prefer to use the space for something else.
We also really like the features on the Samsonite Winfield 2 20, including the integrated TSA lock and the ability to separate the two sides of the bag with a zippered divider, which provides a nice separation for dirty and clean clothes.
The question of "when is less actually more?" also carried over into our evaluation of detachable daypacks. The Osprey Ozone, Osprey Meridian, and REI Stratocruiser are all comprised of main bags that are the maximum legal carry-on size and detachable daypacks that serve as your personal item. Some of our testers did like the detachable daypacks, but others would have preferred to travel with a purse or larger backpack. We also noted several major design flaws in the attachment and transport of the Meridian's and Stratocruiser's daypacks. Overall, the Ozone just had more attention to detail in its design. Every time we thought something like "Gee, wouldn't it be great to have a slot to slip the daypack's straps into when we zip it on to the main bag?" we'd find those slots.
Considering that a piece of carry-on luggage can cost several hundred dollars (or more) you want to be sure to buy a durable piece that will last for years, particularly if you're a frequent flyer. Although we only tested these bags for a few months, we were able to draw some important conclusions about each one's durability and construction, particularly from the bags that had defects out of the box or after only one flight.
According to a Rita Moore, a 26-year veteran flight attendant (see our Ask An Expert interview below), the main areas where bags wear out are handles and zippers, so we paid close attention to those areas. We also examined and researched the material that each bag was made of, as well as the wheels and also the corners of the bags, which is another high-wear area.
Of the bags that we tested, two had handle issues right out of the box. Both the Delsey Helium Shadow 3.0 21 and the Lipault Paris Plume 22 had issues with the telescoping tubes sticking in the housing. Those handles were also somewhat rattly, particularly when compared to the more sturdily designed handles of the Samsonite Silhouette Sphere or the REI Wheely Beast 22. We also experienced denting on the Travelpro Maxlite 3 22 and the Travelpro Platinum Magna 22 after checking them in for only one flight.
The material that a bag is made from will affect the durability as well. The Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic is made from ballistic nylon and scored high in this metric. It won't stop a bullet from going through your bag, but it will resist scratches and dirt, and it was the only bag to come through our review process without a scratch on it. The glossy finish on the Samsonite Winfield 2 20 was easily scratched and we ended up with large black marks on the bag, even though it was never even checked. One reason travelers prefer to use carry-on luggage over checked bags is that you tend to be easier on your gear than airport employees, as according to one baggage handler, they never "do anything with finesse." Carrying your bags on a plane also avoids them being carted over belts, in carts, and in and out of holds on planes, though they will get scratched and dirty eventually.
Of all the bags that we tested, the least durable ones - in our opinion - were the Rockland Melbourne 20, Traveler's Choice Cambridge 20, and the Delsey Helium Shadow 3.0 21. The most durable seemed to be the Osprey Meridian, which has beefy wheels, zippers, and handles, as well as thick nylon fabrics; as well as the Samsonite Silhouette Sphere 2 21 and Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic.
A final note on Durability is the warranty that may, or may not, come with your bag. All of the bags that we tested came with some sort of warranty, though most of them are limited to manufacturing defects and do not cover damage caused by an airline carrier or normal wear and tear. So if one of your spinning wheels pops of, it would most likely be deemed wear and tear and not covered. Briggs and Riley offers the best warranty of any of the manufacturers whose models we tested. Its warranty covers any repairs that need to be made to a bag, for life and for free, whether the damage is caused by you, the airline, or a defect. They also don't require a proof of purchase receipt, and it doesn't matter if you are the first or tenth owner of the bag. Pretty impressive, though you pay almost twice as much as most other bags to get it.
Online carry-on luggage reviews are full of (mostly) awful warranty stories. When researching a bag, look at the reviews that speak to an owner's customer service and warranty experience to see if the brand that you are considering has a good track record when it comes to repairs.
Whether you opt for convertible, wheeled, or non-wheeled models, you will have to lift your bag multiple times over the course of your travel day: into the trunk, onto the security x-ray belt, and, of course, into the overhead bin. So, obviously, the lighter your bag is to begin with, the lighter it will be once you pack it full of all your stuff. We got out our digital scale and measured the weight of each piece in this review. While it was no surprise that some manufacturers understated the weight of their bags, many of the weights we recorded ended up being lighter than the manufacturers' specifications.
One of the lightest bags that we tested was the Osprey Ozone Convertible 22. We were pleasantly surprised to feel how light the Ozone was (especially without its daypack attached - only 5 lbs). Its straps were significantly lighter than those on the Meridian or the Stratocruiser, which makes them less durable, but, considering that you probably won't use them all that often, we think it's an acceptable sacrifice.
Other lightweight bags include the Samsonite Winfield 2 20 (6 lbs 4 oz) and the Travelpro Maxlite 3 22 (6 lbs 8 oz). On the heavy end of the spectrum were the Travelpro Platinum Magna 22 (8 lbs 11 oz) and the Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic (9 lbs 4 oz).
The extra weight of the Travelpro Platinum Magna 22 (8 lbs 11 oz) and the Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic (9 lbs 4 oz) was noticeable particularly because they are two-wheeled models that you drag behind you.
As our final testing criteria we took style into consideration. Although this is not a category that everyone feels strongly about, many people fly for more formal occasions like weddings or business meetings and some want a bag that reflects the purpose of their trip. As with any accessory, a carry-on provides the user with a certain look, be it techy or sophisticated or totally nondescript. This category is certainly more subjective than the others, so keep in mind that just because our review editors were not a fan of a certain look does not mean that it's not the right bag for you.
We reviewed several bags that looked very professional, including the Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic and the Travelpro Platinum Magna 22. These bags are classic, plain and also somewhat luxurious looking. You wouldn't be embarrassed by this bag if you had to take it to a meeting with a potential client. Some bags looked more techy or outdoorsy, like the REI Wheely Beast and Osprey Ozone. Those bags could easily fly one weekend and be used to go camping the next. We really liked the sleek look of the Samsonite Winfield 2 20, but found the Travelpro Maxlite 3 22 to be little bit nondescript. Finally, there was the Lipault Paris Plume 22, which comes in eye popping monochromatic colors (if you buy the "Tangerine" bag, even the wheels are orange).
Trying to find a bag that fits all your travel needs can be frustrating, particularly if you want something more formal for business that can double up as a cute "vacation" bag. Our best advice is to pick the style that you like the most, and the one that you won't get sick of looking at after a year or two orange anyone?
In this section we'll dive more in depth into the pros and cons of the various types of carry-on luggage and how they may or may not make traveling easier. We'll also outline how and when important factors like internal capacity, durability, and style should play into your decision. Also see our Travel Checklist and How to Pack Luggage Like a Pro articles.
Maximum Legal Carry-on Size
First and foremost we need to talk about what constitutes carry-on luggage. There are typically two requirements when it comes to the size of the bag that you want to stow in a plane's overhead bin. First there are the dimensions of the bag (height, length and width) and then the overall linear dimension (what you get when you add up the height + length + width). Most airlines have a maximum limit of 22 x 14 x 9 inches, which adds up to a total of 45 linear inches.
Note that airline carriers will include the wheels and handles when measuring a bag, and most have some sort of measuring slot that you may occasionally be asked to put your bag in. If it doesn't fit in the slot, you'll have to check it, a frustrating and often expensive experience. While each of the bags that we tested fit in many different planes' overhead bins, not all fit easily into the measuring slots.
Be wary of over-packing your bag so much that it gets too wide to fit.
Check out the table below for more information on popular North American airline's carry-on luggage size requirements. Keep in mind also that international carriers have different restrictions, and typically require the bag to be only 20 or 21 inches in height, though they can be wider than the 14 inches required here. Many manufacturers will make "international" sized versions of their popular models for people who travel internationally, like the Briggs and Riley Baseline International, which has all the same features as their Baseline Domestic but in a 20" x 15.5" x 8" size.
In addition to size restrictions, airlines may have a weight limit for carry-on luggage as well, typically 20 to 40 pounds. This is generally not too much of an issue for several reasons. It's hard to fit more than 40 pounds worth of clothing in the smaller dimensions of a carry-on (unless you are packing gold bars, in which case you are probably not flying commercial) and we have yet to see a scale by the entrance to a plane with a gate agent requesting you weigh your bag.
Different Types of Bags
Once you know that a bag is within the maximum allowed size, you can begin to choose from hard- and soft-sided bags; pieces with two wheels, four wheels, and no wheels; and rolling bags that convert into backpacks. Throughout this process, you should also be thinking about how you plan to use your carry-on luggage and about your personal packing habits. Try asking yourself questions like: Am I a light packer? (If not, look into purchasing a bigger bag); Am I planning to use this bag in a professional capacity? (If so, a sophisticated hard-sided piece may suit your needs); Am I going to use this bag for adventure travel? (If so, maybe convertible backpack luggage is right for you); Am I always going to check a bag? (If so, then you can get away with a smaller bag that will only hold priority items). Read on as we discuss how different types of carry-on luggage suit different travelers and how to choose between them.
Two vs. Four Wheels
A few of our testers had never actually used rolling carry-on luggage before. They usually traveled with duffel-style bags, but they were pleasantly surprised to learn how awesome it was to travel with rolling luggage. Obviously, they are not the first ones to make this discovery, given the vast amount of fliers who use rolling luggage. Interestingly, one of our testers was recently in Japan for business and noted that virtually everyone in the Narita airport was using four-wheeled luggage.
After using both four- and two- wheeled luggage side-by-side extensively, we've developed a comprehensive pros and cons list should you be considering the switch to a four-wheeled bag:
Pros of Four-Wheeled Bags
Cons of Four-Wheeled Bags
Overall, we recommend four-wheeled luggage more for individuals who are traveling from city-to-city and will be using their bag primarily on "polished" surfaces. We'd also recommend them for any frequent flyer experiencing neck or shoulder pain in their pulling arm, or those who routinely fly with heavy bags. Finally, if you only ever carry-on your bag, the protruding wheels are less likely to get damaged, but if you do check your carry-on luggage frequently then two-wheeled bags are probably the way to go.
A final note on wheels is that occasionally you might want to use a bag that has none at all like the Osprey Porter 46, which is reviewed in our Travel Backpack review. Wheel-less pieces are often useful when you have fewer items to carry (your bag is lighter) and more obstacles to overcome (you are going to be going up and down stairs, you are taking the bus or subway once you arrive at your destination). Another benefit of wheel-less carry-on luggage is that you may be more likely to use it in your everyday life.
Hard- vs Soft-Sided
During our testing process we learned that there are several pros and cons associated with each type of bag. Hard-sided bags generally protect fragile items better than soft-sided bags (especially soft-sided bags without structured walls); however, hard-sided bags can easily be scratched and are subject to cracking or getting dents and dings. We found that bags with more square edges, like the Samsonite Winfield 2 20, were less likely to cave under pressure than those with rounder edges, like the Delsey Helium Shadow 3.0 21. While no hard-sided bags won an award in this updated review, we did quite like the Winfield 2 and would recommend this model if you have your heart set on this style.
Most of the hard-sided bags have a "clamshell" method of opening; they fold open in half, with each side being able to hold things. We did like this design feature, and you can use the two sides of your bag to separate dirty and clean clothes during your trip. However, this design does require you to have more space when packing or unpacking the bag. The updated Delsey Helium Shadow 3.0 21 has a more traditional design, with an opening flap at the front of the bag with a few accessory pockets. None of the hard-sided bags that we tested had exterior pockets though, so if this is a feature that's important to you, you'll most likely have to go with a soft-sided bag.
When it comes to storing your carry-on luggage, soft-sided bags may take up less space, specifically an unstructured bag like the REI Wheely Beast or Lipault Paris Plume. Soft-sided bags can more easily be squished into smaller spaces (be it an overhead bin, or the trunk of the car), but the fabric can be subject to rips, tears, and stains.
Finally, hard and soft-sided carry-on luggage differ quite drastically in style. While most of the hard-sided bags in our review looked professional and sophisticated, some hard-sided bags are printed with intricate designs or cartoon characters. Soft-sided bags are typically plainer and more classic looking in their design. Overall, we can't say that one type of bag is better than the other, and this is a category where personal style preference should prevail.
Convertible Carry-On Luggage
In this review we tested several pieces that convert from rolling carry-on luggage into backpacks; some of which have integrated hip belts, like the Osprey models, and some which did not, like the REI Stratocruiser 22. After testing out these bags side-by-side with traditional carry-on luggage, we're not sure how useful it really is to be able to convert a rolling bag into a backpack.
Convertible luggage is definitely cool and techy, but when you think about the space you give up for backpack straps on a rolling bag or the weight that wheels add onto a backpack, there's a part of us that just kind of thinks it's better to choose one or the other and not waffle in between.
We tried to think through a variety of different scenarios where convertible carry-on luggage would really be essential. It would be useful if you are more of an adventure traveler and want to be able to take your bag off-road and still be able to roll it once you're in the airport, but if you're an adventure traveler, you're probably more likely to have a travel pack like the Osprey Farpoint 55 or a backpacking backpack. Convertible luggage might also be useful if you are using multiple travel mediums in one day: walking from your house to the bus (rolling), bus to train (backpack), train to plane (rolling), plane to boat? (backpack). But even then, some of the convertible backpack designs are more difficult to undo and use on the fly and we think it might just be easier to have one or the other.
There are a few other times it may be useful to use a backpack design. If you have a large rolling checked bag it can certainly be awkward to try to roll two two-wheeled bags at once; however, in this case, you may want to consider a four-wheeled bag that you can roll in front of you or look into a checked bag that has a piggy-back strap for your carry-on luggage. If you travel with young children in strollers it can be awkward (if not impossible) to push a stroller and drag a suitcase at the same time. In this instance, a convertible bag is useful, but it's probably not going to be able to hold everything that you need when travelling with babies anyways.
If you are thoroughly convinced that convertible carry-on luggage is going to meet your needs, then we do recommend the Osprey Ozone Convertible 22. This bag has less bulky backpack straps than the REI Stratocruiser or the Osprey Meridian 22, which take up less space in the pack and are easier to pull out and actually use. It also comes with a hip belt, unlike the Stratocruiser. Convertible backpacks without hip belts are easier to set up, but they are also less comfortable to carry.
Detachable Daypack Pros and Cons
The convertible bags that we tested also came with detachable daypacks. As with convertible luggage, we aren't sure that the detachable daypack is necessarily a huge benefit, but we can see where it could help streamline travel.
Here's how the detachable daypack works: you can cruise through the airport with the daypack either on your back or clipped securely onto the main pack, which is the maximum allowed size without the daypack. Once you're ready to board, the daypack clips off and goes under your seat as your personal item and then you can use it as a conveniently sized backpack for trips once you arrive at your destination.
To us, the biggest detractor to this method is that many people travel with a purse, brief case, or laptop backpack as their personal item already, so it begs the question "Do you really want/need a detachable daypack to serve as your personal item?" If the answer is yes, then we strongly recommend the Osprey Ozone. The Ozone's daypack is the most comfortable and useful, but more importantly you can kangaroo clip it to the front of the shoulder straps when carrying the luggage backpack style. When using the Stratocruiser and the Meridian in backpack mode, you are left with the crummy decision of whether to uncomfortably carry the daypack in front of you (wrapping shoulder straps over shoulder straps) or leaving important items clipped onto the back of the pack where they are difficult to access and more prone to theft.
If you really like the idea of having a daypack once you arrive at your destination, but still want to carry a purse or messenger bag as your personal item, remember that you can purchase a piece like the REI Stuff Travel Daypack 22. We tested this bag during our travel pack review and liked it so much that we gave it our Top Pick Award. You can also read about hiking-style daypacks in our Best Day Backpack Review.
Choosing a Personal Item
If you've decided against convertible bags and their detachable daypacks, then in addition to your carry-on luggage you can bring one personal item aboard the plane with you. This piece must fit under the seat in front of you and is typically a purse, briefcase, camera bag, diaper bag, laptop computer bag or a boarding bag (more on those later). Choosing the right size personal item can really make or break your trip, as you can't always access the items you have in your bag in the overhead bin mid-flight. Your personal item should be large enough to carry whatever anti-boredom material you'll need on your flight: magazines, snacks, tablets, e-readers, backgammon set, etc.
Most women already carry a purse, but sometimes it's not quite large enough to fit all the things you'll want to have easy access to. In this case, consider stowing your purse in your main bag and bringing a larger personal item on your trip.
If you don't already own a laptop backpack, messenger bag or some type of daypack, this is where you might want to consider purchasing a boarding bag. These bags are usually large enough to hold anything you'll want to use during your flight, though they will take up a lot of the space available under the seat in front of you where your feet might otherwise go. A boarding bag is a cross between a large purse and a small duffel, and most manufacturers make matching ones that coordinate with their luggage collections. For example, Samsonite makes a Sphere 2 boarding bag in the same colors as the Silhouette Sphere 2 21.
Boarding bags are useful if you a) really like everything you travel with to match, and b) travel often enough that you like to leave a bag set-up with all your travel essentials so that you are not constantly wondering where your earphones ended up. Otherwise, most people typically have some other type of bag that can easily substitute for a boarding bag.
You'll also want to consider how you will carry both a personal item and your suitcase. Some models have an add-a-bag feature, which is a strap or hook system that can attach a laptop bag, briefcase or boarding bag to your main suitcase. This is a handy feature in a bag, particularly if you travel with a heavy laptop and don't want to carry it through miles of airport corridors. Both the Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic and Travelpro Platinum Magna 22 come with this feature. You can also usually improvise some type of attachment, though this is a little harder to do with the upright, four-wheeled bags. One advantage of a boarding bag here is that it will have some type of attachment engineered into the design - for example the Sphere 2 boarding bag comes with a sleeve that fits over the telescoping handles on the main bag.
Thinking about Ease of Transport, Internal Capacity, and Features
Two of the most important factors to consider when purchasing carry-on luggage are Ease of Transport (How well does it roll? Is it light enough to lift? Does it have useful handles? Does it convert into a backpack? Is the backpack easy to use?) and Storage (How much will it really fit?). When we calculated our scores, both of these metrics were weighted to 25 percent. Additionally, the category "Features" accounted for 20 percent of each bag's final score. This metric included such aspects as pocket design, integrated lock systems, handle placement, and detachable daypack design (for a full discussion of this feature, please see above). While some features can help make travel much easier, it's also important to remember that sometimes simple, basic bags are more helpful in streamlining travel.
When considering internal capacity, it is important to think about how you will use your bag and what your packing habits are. If it is going to be your only piece of carry-on luggage, then it should probably have maximum internal capacity; however, if you plan to use it as a supplement to a checked bag, a smaller internal capacity will do. On the other hand, expandable bags like the Travelpro Maxlite 3 22 or the Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic offer the ultimate versatility, as they can transform into larger checked luggage. Be sure to look into how much space the handle encasement takes up or whether the backpack frame compromises too much space in the main compartment. Also take note of the pockets: while they are certainly convenient for organization, they can negatively affect the amount of items you are able to fit into your bag.
How Materials Affect Durability
Whether the carry-on bag you're thinking about purchasing is a soft or hard-sided piece, materials make a huge difference in long-term durability. The soft-sided carry-on bags that we reviewed were made primarily of nylon or polyester and had a variety of different "D" or denier ratings. Within one fabric type, the higher the D rating, the stronger the fabric; however, generally speaking, nylon is stronger than polyester. On the other hand, polyester is more abrasion resistant than nylon. In addition to researching fabric types, be sure to examine the seams: smaller, tighter stitches are more likely to resist snagging and hold up over the long term. Finally, take a look at the corners of the bag; this is a high wear area, and bags that have corner reinforcements will last longer than those that don't.
Of the hard-sided carry-on luggage that we reviewed, two pieces (the Samsonite Winfield 2 and Delsey Helium Shadow) had 100 percent polycarbonate shells. The other two less expensive bags (the Travelers Choice Cambridge and Rockland Melbourne 20 used acrylonitrile butadiene styrene or ABS. Polycarbonate is used in everything from bulletproof glass to CDs; it is more durable than ABS, but is generally also a bit heavier. Interestingly, despite its polycarbonate shell, the Samsonite bag was still lighter than either of the ABS bags.
Ultimately, whether you choose hard- or soft-sided carry-on luggage, good quality materials are paramount to long-term durability. With poorly constructed luggage, fabrics can rip and hard shells can crack, giving the phrase "stranded in the airport" a whole new meaning.
One final decision to make when choosing your carry-on luggage is style. If you're looking for a bag that you will primarily take on business trips, then something more professional and sophisticated like the Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic would probably be most suitable. On the other hand, if you are a freelance travel writer, a techy-looking bag like the Osprey Ozone or the REI Wheely Beast 22 might be more up your alley. If you are simply looking for a versatile bag for general airline travel, then picking out a quality bag that catches your eye may be the way to go. Many of the bags that we reviewed come in an array of colors, ranging from black to bright orange.
Color can also help you identify your bag in the overhead bin or on the carousel if you opt to check it.
Ask An Expert
If there's anyone in the travel industry who knows a thing or two about carry-on luggage, it's flight attendants. They fly with their own bags daily, and part of their job is making other people's bags fit in overhead compartments. We interviewed Rita Moore, a 26-year veteran flight attendant for American Airlines, to get all her insights and recommendation and share them with you.
What is your typical set-up when traveling? How many bags and which types do you take?
I usually travel with one roll aboard suitcase and one tote bag. I have three suitcases that I use for my carry-ons, each of a different size (22" X 14" X 9", 20" X 14" X 9 and 18" X 14" X 9). I'll use a bigger or smaller size depending on how long my trip is.
What do you look for in a bag to make sure that it is durable and will last?
I look for a decent zipper, sturdy handle, and re-enforced corners. I really like and have had a lot of good luck with the Travelpro or Delsey brands.
Which strategy do you think works better for saving space - rolling up your clothes, or just stuffing them wherever they'll go?
Stuffing probably does work fairly well, but I don't stuff because I want to make sure things stay as wrinkle free as possible. I usually do a mixture of normal folding and rolling. I'll roll if I don't want creases in an article of clothing that wrinkles easily. I'll also roll and then place those pieces on the edges where there's sometimes extra room.
Do you have any tricks or suggestions for helping to pack the bare minimum?
I try to be strategic and pack clothes that can be matched or coordinated in multiple ways and are versatile in different settings. This usually means black or tan pants and jeans. Nothing too fancy or too casual when worn on their own. The same goes with shoes: black or brown sandals, shoes or boots (depending on the season), and pair of running shoes. I'll throw in a little black dress, skirt, or something fun if it's a vacation or special occasion.
Do you have any advice on what makes it easier to get through security?
Obey the 3 ounces of liquids in a clear, Ziploc quart size bag! They are relaxing some of the rules a little bit compared to a few years ago, but this one still applies. Preparing that ahead of time helps with most of the security issues. If any large bottles of cosmetics, shampoo, etc., are needed, then it's easiest to check one bag with all liquids (except medications) and include any sharp objects in the checked bag, of course. Periodically, we hear stories about a 12 year-old's math compass or Grandma's knitting needles being confiscated because of the sharp point, or wine and alcohol being confiscated (passengers get a great deal on something they cannot purchase in the United States at the airport 'Duty Free' stores and forget they may not bring the large bottles through security), baby formula poured out, complications with liquid medication, etc.
What is your favorite city to visit?
I'm from Minnesota but now live in Illinois, so I'm always excited to get back to Minneapolis and see family and friends. I also love to visit New York City - never a dull moment, or San Diego and its wonderful beaches. Before I had kids, I would do trips to Europe - Paris was my favorite lay-over city.
Do you prefer a bag that is very simple, or one with lots of gadgets and pockets?
I like the utility of multiple pockets to keep things organized and easily accessible. I store all my work related "required equipment" in the large center section of my bag for easy access. I appreciate several smaller pockets to store car keys, cell phone, make up, toothbrush and paste, hair accessories, pens, aspirin, etc. I have also purchased several of the iPad (or generic) accessory cases in different colors and I use them to separate my personal items. Then when I switch suitcases, I can quickly tell by the color of the smaller bag what I need to bring.
What is the most important thing you look for when buying a new bag?
Size is number one. If it's too big, it has to be checked and is no longer a carry-on. Carry-on luggage must fit in the overhead bin or under seat in front of you. With the additional personal electronic devices and charging units now installed on aircraft, the under seat stowage area has decreased because the wires, extra components and paraphernalia are placed below seats, which takes away storage space from an already small area.
If you were on a budget, what is the most important thing that you wouldn't compromise when buying a new bag?
I've found that the most important things are a sturdy handle and durable zippers. They have been my only carry-on luggage issues.
Do you prefer hard- or soft-sided bags?
I like the soft-sided suitcases, simply because they can be squished or expanded as needed. My bags also have a padded compartment for a computer. I like the extra padding and protection that it provides, as they are often stored in overhead bins and tossed onto hotel vans where other bags or items are sometimes placed on top. Hard-sided bags do provide more protection, however, a soft-sided bag is usually safe for carry-ons since it's not checked and you don't have to worry so much about it getting tossed around by baggage handlers and belts.
What about two- vs four-wheeled bags?
Many travelers like the newer 360-degree spinner wheels because they maneuver more easily. However, I purchased one once, and it kept rolling away from me when I let go of my bag. It happened often enough that I stopped using them.
What sort of style do you look for in a bag?
At work we are required to use black or a dark navy luggage. However, for personal use I love bags with fun colors, patterns and designs or monograms. Besides just being fun, it's easier to tell which bag is yours because so many other suitcases, especially the black ones, look so similar.
Are the any other travel accessories that you use and recommend?
I have a cute iPad case which I use as a small purse, and it slides nicely into my carry-on luggage. I also have a separate cosmetic bag for any items I might need throughout the day. Because I travel for my job, I have a separate set of travel-sized toiletries, vitamins, toothbrush, etc., that I refill when necessary and which remain in my suitcase.
How We Tested
For this review, we enlisted the help of testers from across the country. These bags flew to Montreal, Bellingham, Denver, Las Vegas, Palm Springs, Vancouver, and Puerto Vallarta, among many other destinations. We placed them in airline's tester bins, airplane's overhead bins, and even checked some of them in. Our testers rolled them a mile down the sidewalk to catch the airport bus and transported them on subways and in rental cars.
In addition to "real world" testing, we took these bags to a parking lot and tested the wheels on both cracked asphalt and gravel surfaces. We examined each bag's wheels, researched the materials they were made out of, and assessed their zippers. We raised and lowered their handles at least 25 times to compare their sturdiness, or lack of, and loaded up bags with books and let them plop down concrete stairs just to make sure the wheels wouldn't crack under pressure.
We compared the different models features head-to-head in several pack tests. Our first pack test was for a "wintertime long weekend." Could the bags hold everything we would need for three days in winter (when clothing is bulkier), including two pairs of pants, four tops/sweaters, a pair of running shoes, workout clothes, and a nice outfit (either a fancy dress with heels or business attire). We also included socks and undergarments, a toiletry bag, a large novel, and a laptop. Some bags held all these items with room to spare and others required some serious shoving (and still didn't hold everything).
We also performed a "pack for a week in a carry-on" test, which included: four pairs of pants, ten shirts, four pairs of shoes, two jackets, and two toiletry bags. The only bags to pass this test without expanding were the Delsey Helium Shadow 3.0 21 and the Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic.
We tested the four-wheeled bags by trying to make figure 8s on the hardwood floor. We wore the convertible luggage in backpack mode around the block and took the daypacks out on hikes. Finally, we researched all the materials used, counted the pockets, measured the handles, and considered each bag's style.
— Cam McKenzie Ring & Amanda Fenn
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