The terminal can be stressful. To keep calm, it helps to have the right carry-on. To help you find the smooth-rolling, multifunctional bag of your dreams, we researched over 100 before buying 11 of the most intriguing options available. From planes to buses, Ubers to parking lots, we put some mileage on these little wheels. We packed them with a week's worth of gear, rolled them through terminals, lobbed them into overhead bins, and even took them down a dirt path or two. They took on panicked stair-smashing dashes to the gate, navigated crowded commutes and bumped over curbs to the car. Some of them let you pack to the max, and others offer dexterous maneuverability. Check out the review to find the bag of your dreams that fits your clothes and your budget.
The Best Carry-On Luggage and Roller Bags
We just tested the stylish Herschel Campaign and budget-friendly SwissGear 7208. Both bags impressed with their solid performance and (with the Campaign on sale) excellent value. We also make note of our favorite travel backpack below — The North Face Overhaul. If you don't leave yourself a lot of time before take-off, a backpack makes for easier sprinting than a roller bag, just sayin'.
Best Overall Carry-On Luggage
Eagle Creek Tarmac AWD Carry-On
Our Editors' Choice Award winner for 2017 is the Eagle Creek Tarmac AWD Carry-On. This is the second year in a row that we've given our top award to this bag. It received some updates this year which made us like it even more! There are now internal compression straps for streamlined packing and new fabric on the outer pockets. With Eagle Creek's signature outdoorsy styling, this bag works for adventure tourism, family vacations, and everything in between. It is easy to maneuver and not too heavy, and can carry all that you'll need for a long weekend and beyond. What impressed us about this bag was all of the features. There's an add-a-bag strap, a "Coat-Keeper" strap that holds your jacket to the top of the bag, an expandable zipper, easy pulling zipper tabs, and so on. The bag is backed by Eagle Creek's No Matter What warranty, which means they'll repair or replace your bag "no matter" the cause.
Its rugged styling makes it a little clunky if you're trying to impress the business crowd. Otherwise, the Eagle Creek Tarmac AWD is tough to beat. Eagle Creek also makes a slightly less expensive Tarmac Carry-On, which is a two-wheeled version of this bag that has slightly more interior volume.
Read review: Eagle Creek Tarmac AWD Carry-On
Best Bang for the Buck
SwissGear 7208 Expandable Liteweight Spinner
The SwissGear 7208 Expandable Liteweight Spinner offers a simple yet highly functional design at an affordable price. At 6.11 pounds it is one of the lightest traditional style carry-on suitcases we reviewed, making it easy to lift into overhead bins and carry over stairs. It has an expandable zipper for extra space if you end up flying home with souvenirs. It also comes with a removable plastic toiletry bag for easy access during TSA checks at the airport. The SwissGear 7208's retractable handle operated smoothly throughout testing.
Due to its lightweight, we were initially concerned about the bag's durability. The wheels, in particular, are so small and light that we worried about them lasting through our rigorous testing. They didn't perform well over uneven surfaces, but we were surprised to find that they made it through our one-mile test, over gravel, stairs, and pavement, with minimal signs of wear and tear.
Read review: SwissGear 7208 Expandable Liteweight Spinner
Top Pick for Business Travel
Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic
The $569 Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic is our Top Pick for the business traveler or anyone who needs to maximize packing space. It's a traditional two-wheeled bag, but the handle tubes are on the outside of the bag, creating a flat interior packing surface that maximizes storage capacity. The Baseline Domestic is long-lasting and easy-to-use. Ballistic nylon resists scratching and dirt. If features self-repairing, lockable zippers, and other well-crafted features. The built-in, tri-folding suiter keeps clothes wrinkle-free, and the internal expansion system is a unique way to add 25% more capacity to the bag.
This expensive piece is the Cadillac of carry-on luggage models, and it comes with a no-questions-asked guarantee; Briggs and Riley will repair, for free, any damage done to this bag for life. With a warranty like that, it might be worth paying more up front to get a piece that will last a lifetime.
Read review: Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic
Best Travel Backpack
The North Face Overhaul 40
The Overhaul was the top scoring bag in our Travel Backpack Review. We list it here to show the pros and cons of this bag vs. our top traditional carry-ons. The Overhaul is about half the weight of a roller bag, allowing you to bring more stuff, especially on international travel where you are usually limited to 22 pounds or less. As long as they are not overstuffed, the Overhaul fits under an airplane seat, which will reduce your stress levels when overhead space is scarce. It also makes it easier to travel by bus and trail. When you arrive at your destination with a rolling carry-on, you usually want to get to your lodging to free yourself right away. With the Overhaul, you're more likely to explore a little on your way to your destination and move around more freely. It also doubles as a laptop backpack. It's a "one quiver bag" that can serve as a carry-on, hiking pack and laptop backpack in one.
The downside to the Overhaul (and most travel backpacks) is that they don't have wheels. A lot of people don't want to put that much weight on their backs, especially if you have a lot of walking to do. Travel backpacks can be ok at everything but not great at any one thing. Many people may prefer to have a solution that excels at each task, packing a bag for hiking, travel, and work. For most people, a traditional rolling carry-on is the best choice. But if you like to travel light and want one bag to do it all, we highly recommend the Overhaul.
Read review: The North Face Overhaul
Analysis and Test Results
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.
We examined how each bag's overall score compares to its price. The SwissGear offers the best value as it scores well but is tied for the least expensive bag in the test. Another great value is the Samsonite Inova. It the third highest scoring bag but costs hundreds of dollars less than the two models that scored higher. The Eagle Creek Tarmac AWD Carry-On - our Editor's Choice winner - strikes a nice balance with a mid-range price tag and a top-of-the-line score.
Ease of Transport
One of the most important characteristics when choosing a suitcase is how quickly you can get your stuff from point A to point B. Your luggage needs to carry you through crowded tube rides, over carpets, slick tile, and rough asphalt, and into the overhead bin. As a result, we paid a lot of attention to how well their wheels work, how comfortable the handle placement is, and how sturdy the bag is overall. We looked for carrying handles on the tops and sides of bags, which help with wrenching them out of tightly packed trunks or lofting them up and over a set 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 well 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 larger diameter wheels (3-inches or above) with ridges on them that provided traction when surfaces got rough. (However, 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.) The other two-wheeled bags that we tested have smaller wheels with a smooth finish and don't fare as well.
Comparing the performance of two- vs. four-wheeled bags was enlightening. The four-wheeled bags that we tested varied considerably in rolling performance. The Eagle Creek Tarmac AWD and 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 models were working well, we preferred them for airport navigation over a two-wheeled option. Instead of dragging a heavy bag behind you, you can push it by your side with minimal effort.
Four-wheeled bags are also easier to take down the aisle of a plane. Push it in front of you and 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 carry-on luggage in our Buying Advice article.
Equally as important as Ease of Transport, our Storage metric evaluated how much stuff each bag would 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 shirts and sweaters, undergarments, running shoes and workout gear, toiletry bag, and novel), there was a broad range in internal volumes between the different models. 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, 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 5 22 and Travelpro Platinum Magna 2 both came close but had to be extended to fit everything.
A smaller internal capacity is not necessarily a bad thing. If you're a light packer or go 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.
We also tested several expandable bags, 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 SwissGea 7208 Spinner, doesn't have much in the way of extras, but what it does have is very handy, like a removable wet bag for toiletries 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 AWD comes with a host of cool features, like a strap to secure your coat 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 secure, 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 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 useful separation for dirty and clean clothes.
Smart Luggage Update
This designation "smart" luggage applies to any bag that has some integrated technology, including such things as a battery charger, a scale built-in to the handle, a tracking device, etc. We're in the process of testing some of these new products, but thought we'd share our initial impressions with you right away.
First, it's interesting to note that none of the significant luggage manufacturers have jumped on the "smart" carry-on luggage train yet. They're likely waiting to see if this is a viable market or just the latest trend that won't last long. In a way, that's a shame, because the biggest complaints that we've seen online and in our field testing so far is that the quality of the bags themselves is poor. If Samsonite were putting this technology in their tried and true Inova or Winfield line, we'd probably be more excited, but instead, we're more disappointed than anything that the models we tried were so poorly made.
As for the technology itself, we're a little mixed on whether or not it's even useful. A battery charger is nice, but you won't be able to access it in-flight while your bag is in the overhead bin. Also, so many airports have been updated with readily available charging outlets at the gates that it seems like an unnecessary feature, or one that is more easily replaced with a portable external battery, such as the Anker PowerCore 10000, which will only set you back $25 and can be used in flight. Also, a battery pack that is built-in to a suitcase has a bunch of wires coming out of it, which can look suspiciously like a bomb in an x-ray machine.
While we didn't have any issues flying from several airports domestically with a smart-bag, the reviews of people that flew with the "smart" Raden A22 to China are hilarious to read, but not so funny to experience. They include intense questioning and missed flights. Furthermore, as of December 2017, many major carriers, including American, Alaska, and Delta, have restricted lithium-ion batteries in checked luggage. So, if you occasionally check your smart carry-on bag, make sure that the battery is removable and can be carried onboard with you.
A built-in scale is a great feature as well, but one that is more useful in a larger checked bag that is going to get weighed at check-in. It's hard to pack more than the allotted weight in a smaller carry-on to begin with, so that even if you do end up checking it at some point in your travels, you're unlikely to be over the 40-50 pound maximum.
Finally, the ability to track your bag is also a handy feature if you check it, but the precision is not quite there with every model. Some of them will only tell you a general location, such as the city, and not precisely what part of an airport you might find it in. And again, because you are carrying this bag with you, there is less need for a tracker on a carry-on than with checked luggage. All in all, we have to say that we're less than impressed with these "smart" bags. But we're still hoping to find one that we can heartily recommend, and we'll let you know when we do.
After throwing down a few hundred dollars for a piece of luggage, you want it to last a while, on the order of years, not months. This is particularly important if you're a frequent flyer. Although we only tested these bags for a few months, we weren't gentle, and we drew some important conclusions about each one's durability and construction.
Material greatly affects durability. 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.
The sturdily designed handles of The North Face Rolling Thunder 22 and the Eagle Creek Tarmac encouraged confidence in the bags' durability. In contrast, the Travelpro Maxlite 4 22 and the Travelpro Platinum Magna 22 were dented after checking them in for only one flight.
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 7208. 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 AWD. 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 Maxlite 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 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 off, it would most likely be deemed wear and tear and not covered. Briggs and Riley and Eagle Creek offer excellent 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.
On the other hand, bags with that kind of warranty come with a hefty price tag ($339 for the Tarmac and $500 for the Baseline). 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.
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. 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 trade-off here though, as the Ozone is made with thin 200D material that won't hold up as well in the long term as the thick 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 more massive end are 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 criterion, we considered style. 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 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 look 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, also has a more relaxed styling but can pass for a business bag particularly if purchase in black. We liked the sleek look of the Samsonite Inova 20 but found the Travelpro Maxlite 4 22 to be a 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 that can bridge the gap between serious business and a stylish getaway. 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.
Any cursory glance around the web reveals that carry-on options go on for days. Narrowing down the field and finding the bag for you is a challenging task. Whether you're purchasing new luggage or a once-in-a-lifetime trip, daily travel, or just want to be under a certain price point, there great options for you. No matter what you're looking for, we recommend a sturdy bag 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 and Miranda Oakley