The Best Carry-On Luggage Review
Looking for the best carry-on luggage for your next adventure or business trip? We chose 10 of the top performing bags out there and flew with them on short weekend trips and also longer family vacations. From Ohio to Oahu, and many places in between, we put thousands of airmiles to use to help you find the best bag. We also tested many different types of carry-on luggage, from two-wheeled traditional bags to hard-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!
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Eagle Creek also makes this model in a four-wheeled version, the Eagle Creek Tarmac AWD 22, so if you prefer to push rather than pull your luggage they've got you covered. Finally, it's all backed by their "No Matter What" warranty, which means they'll repair or replace any damage, "no matter" the cause. (Which, after unintentionally damaging some of the bags in this review, we can definitely say is a huge bonus.) The Tarmac retails for $300, and also comes in larger sizes for a checked baggage option. For anything but dedicated business travel (see our Top Pick below) where you want to have an integrated suiter to keep your business wear in good shape, the Eagle Creek Tarmac 22 is hard to beat.
This bag retails for only $120, and unfortunately only comes with a five-year warranty against manufacturer defects. We say unfortunately because we had an "incident" with the bag (accidentally let go of it on an escalator and it fell all the way to the bottom!) that did a fair bit of damage to it. If this were an Eagle Creek or Briggs and Riley model, it would be repaired or replaced under their comprehensive warranties, but with SwissGear we're out of luck. Considering the price point ($120), we'd be surprised if there was a "no questions asked" warranty. Long story short, this is a great and inexpensive piece for the infrequent traveler, but if you are clumsy (like us), fly a lot, or hard on your gear, then consider a more expensive model that will cover any damage you or the airline are likely to cause.
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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 here at OutdoorGearLab. We'll talk about how to select the right product for you, explain the different types of carry-on luggage out there, and go through our testing results and findings. We break down the pros and cons of various types of carry-on luggage in our Buying Advice guide, and you can also check out this How to Pack Luggage Like a Pro article.
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 ones that you don't notice. Your trip should be solely about your trip, not about locked up wheels or digging through disorganized compartments. 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 carry-on luggage 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 the same bag, 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
This is the type of bag that instantly springs to mind when you think of carry-on luggage. It has two wheels and is dragged behind you using a telescoping carrying handle. This bag will have some type of internal framing that provides a rectangular structure to it, but the sides are made of somewhat pliable nylon or polyester. The traditional bags that we tested include the Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic, Travelpro Platinum Magna 2, and Travelpro Maxlite 4 22.
Four-Wheeled Spinner Bags
This type of bag is becoming more popular and common in North American airports, though for some of our testers, this review was the first time they had ever used one. Spinner bags have one or two swiveling wheels on each corner, and can be dragged behind you on two wheels like a traditional bag or pushed beside or in front of you on four. While all of the hard-sided bags (see below) that we tested had four wheels, the more traditional SwissGear Meyrin 20 also came with spinner wheels.
Hard-sided bags are made with polycarbonate or ABS plastic shells. They are not completely rigid and the material can still flex a little. While some are made with uniform colors, the plastic can accept all manner of designs and graphics. Most hard-sided bags have a "clamshell" design, unzipping into two equal sides. We tested the hard-sided Rockland Melbourne 20, Samsonite Inova 20, and Delsey Shadow 3.0 21.
These bags tend to be a cross between a duffel bag and a more traditional piece of carry-on luggage. They still have the same general shape of a traditional two-wheeled bag, but without the same framing or structured sides. The Osprey Ozone Wheeled 22, Eagle Creek Tarmac 22, and The North Face Rolling Thunder 22 fall into this category.
These are generally two-wheeled bags with telescoping carrying handles that have backpack straps stowed inside them, allowing you to carry it like a backpack when needed. Many of these types of bags also have detachable daypacks as well. We didn't include any convertible bags in our review this time (more on that in our Buying Advice article), but if you are in the market for one check out the Osprey Ozone Convertible 22.
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 suitcase 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 tab.
Ease of Transport
We think that one of the most important characteristics when choosing a suitcase is how easily you can move your stuff from point A to point B. Your carry-on luggage will likely be used in a variety of different situations and terrains, from polished floors or carpeting in airports, to parking lots, sidewalks, and public transportation, etc. 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 carry-on luggage from overhead bins or trunks of cars that much easier, not to mention having to tackle a flight of stairs.
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 Wheeled 22 and The North Face Rolling Thunder 22. These bags have 3.5 and 3 inch diameter wheels (respectively) with ridges on them that provided good traction when surfaces got rough. The other two-wheeled bags that we tested had 2.75 to 3 inch wheels with a smooth finish. That being said, the Osprey Ozone kept tipping over on us when going over a curb or making sharps turns, and overall got a lower score in this category after we took that into account.
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 Inova 20 had the best performing action of the lot, while the Rockland Melbourne 20 continually pulled to one side. 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 when pushing them 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 our Buying Advice article, but overall our testers gave the four-wheeled Samsonite Inova 20 and SwissGear Meyrin 20 high marks in this category.
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 Osprey Ozone, could hold the basics but there was no room for a nice set of clothes and shoes. Others, like the Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic, had room for all of the above and some fancy duds or business attire as well.
Our "pack for a week test" (see the photo below), helped separate the roomy bags from the standard ones. The Eagle Creek Tarmac 22, Delsey Shadow 3.0 21, and Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic, could accommodate all the items without having to expand the bag. The Travelpro Maxlite 4 22 and Travelpro Platinum Magna 2 both came close but had to be expanded to fit everything 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 using 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 one.
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 seven pieces that were expandable, providing an additional 1 to 2 inches of width and 5-10 L of space. Even though you would probably 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.
Throughout this review, we tested bags with some serious bells and 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 SwissGear Meyrin, doesn't have much in the way of extras, but what it does have is very handy, like a removable wetbag for toiletries, different zipper tabs for the main zipper and the expandable one, and lockable tabs for the main compartment.
The bags with the most liked features were, not surprisingly, our Editors' Choice and Top Pick winners. The Eagle Creek Tarmac 22 comes with a host of cool features, like a strap to secure your coat, a cargo net that can be used internally for compression or externally to hold extras like a sweater or neck pillow, and lots of slots for organization, among others. 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). There's also a built-in garment bag with a tri-folding suiter, and part of it can unzip and detach completely if you prefer to use the space for something else.
We also really liked the features on the Samsonite Inova 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.
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. We also aggregated two years' worth of test results into this review, so some of the durability issues we experienced last year (say with sticking handles or denting frames), we mention again this time.
According to a Rita Moore, a 26-year veteran flight attendant (see our Ask An Expert interview), the main areas where carry-on luggage wears out are the handles and zippers, so we paid close attention to them. 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 carry-on luggage models that we tested, two had handle issues right out of the box. Both the Delsey Shadow 3.0 21 and SwissGear Meyrin had issues with the telescoping tubes sticking in the housing. In particular, we had to really shake the Delsey hard to get the handle our completely. Those handles were also somewhat rattly, particularly when compared to the more sturdily designed handles of The North Face Rolling Thunder 22 and the Eagle Creek Tarmac 22. We also experienced denting on the Travelpro Maxlite 4 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. 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, the Delsey Shadow 3.0, and the SwissGear Meyrin. Not surprisingly, these were also the least expensive models in this review. The most durable seemed to be the Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic, The North Face Rolling Thunder 22, and the Eagle Creek Tarmac 22. Not surprisingly either, these are some of the more expensive models available. While a high price doesn't always guarantee durability, as with the Travelpro Platinum Magna 2 and its dented frame, there is often a close correlation.
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 and Eagle Creek offer great warranties, and say they'll cover 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. This is important "fine print" to consider, as we found out first hand during our testing process when we accidentally damaged the SwissGear Meyrin. It slid down an escalator (whoops!), permanently damaging the telescoping handle. (Note – it was already sticking before the accident, but now is very difficult to extend.) While we doubt that any of the bags that we tested would have fared much better in the same fall, if it had happened to a bag with a better warranty we could have gotten it repaired or replaced. On the other hand, bags with that kind of warranty come with a hefty price tag ($300 for the Tarmac and $500 for the Baseline) compared to the $120 SwissGear Meyrin, which only warranties against manufacturer defects. Long story short, if you are hard on your gear or occasionally clumsy (like us!), then a model with a no-questions-asked warranty is a sound investment.
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. It was no surprise that some manufacturers understated the weight of their bags, so the weights we mention here are all ones we've measured on our calibrated scale.
One of the lightest bags that we tested was the Osprey Ozone Wheeled 22. We were pleasantly surprised to feel how light the Ozone was (4 lbs 10 oz), particularly compared to the Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic (9 lbs 3 oz), which is twice as heavy. There is a tradeoff here though, as the Ozone is made with thin 200D material that won't hold up as well in the long term as the heavy ballistic nylon used in the Baseline. Other lightweight bags include the Samsonite Inova 20 (6 lbs 7 oz) and the Travelpro Maxlite 4 22 (6 lbs 5 oz). On the heavier end were the Travelpro Platinum Magna 2 (8 lbs 4 oz) and the Delsey Shadow 3.0 21 (8 lbs 9 oz). One thing to keep in mind is that the weight of a bag is more noticeable in models that you drag behind you vs ones that you push alongside.
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 2. 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 North Face Rolling Thunder 22 and the Osprey Ozone Wheeled 22. Those bags could easily fly one weekend and be used to go camping the next. Our Editors' Choice winner, the Eagle Creek Tarmac 22, also has a more relaxed styling but can pass for a business bag particularly if purchase in black. We really liked the sleek look of the Samsonite Inova 20, but found the Travelpro Maxlite 4 22 to be little bit nondescript. Finally, there was the Rockland Melbourne 20, which is also plain but comes in over 25 different eye-popping color choices.
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.
With a seemingly endless array of options when it comes to carry-on luggage, narrowing down the field and finding the right one for you can be a challenging task. Whether you're purchasing with a specific need or destination in mind, or want to be under a certain price point, there are many good options out there for everyone. Just be sure to take a critical eye to a bag before you purchase it, and make sure it is sturdily made with quality materials. It's better for the planet (and your wallet!) to buy one well-made expensive bag that lasts for 20 years rather than a cheap one that you end up replacing every year.
— Cam McKenzie Ring
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