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How to Choose Carry-on Luggage

Our Buying Advice guide will help you decide what the best type of bag is for you  whether you're in the market for a more traditional one  a rolling duffel  or a hard-sided spinner.
By Cam McKenzie Ring ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Wednesday November 30, 2016
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A sturdy piece of carry-on luggage is an essential purchase for many of us. Whether we're traveling twice a month or twice a year, you always need something to carry your clothes in! And with more airlines charging for checked bags than ever before, bringing your bag on the plane with you is often a good way to save a few extra dollars. In this article, we'll dive into the pros and cons of the various carry-on types 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. To see which bags are our award winners and how we tested them, head on over to our Full Review. Also, see our Travel Checklist and How to Pack Luggage Like a Pro articles for more tips.

Maximum Legal Carry-on Size

First and foremost, what constitutes a carry-on? There are typically two requirements when it comes to the size of the bag that you can stow in an 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.

Most North American airlines use these measurements for their carry-on restrictions (22 x 14 x 9)  and have sizers around the airport so that you can double check if it fits before getting on the plane.
Most North American airlines use these measurements for their carry-on restrictions (22 x 14 x 9), and have sizers around the airport so that you can double check if it fits before getting on the plane.

Note that airline carriers will include the wheels and handles when measuring a bag, and most have some sort of measuring slot. If you're asked to test your bag, and it doesn't fit in the slot, you'll have to check it. It's 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.

Keep in mind 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 bag and about your 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 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

There are a number of wheel configurations available. Whereas a decade ago you would have been hard-pressed to find a quality four-wheeled spinner bag, today some manufacturers, like SwissGear, don't make anything but.

After using both four- and two-wheeled luggage side-by-side extensively, we've developed a comprehensive pros and cons list of four-wheeled bags:

Pros of Four-Wheeled Bags
  • Easier on your arms and shoulders — bag pushes along next to you
  • Heavy and large bags can even be pushed by children
  • Easier to use when traveling with multiple pieces of luggage (two bags can be pushed with one hand at the same time) or when traveling with children and a stroller
  • More maneuverable in airports and planes

Cons of Four-Wheeled Bags
  • Protruding wheels more likely to break or get damaged
  • The bag can roll away on its own on the uneven ground, such as trains, buses, or sidewalks, if not laid down on its side or secured
  • Less internal packing space
  • Wheels are typically smaller and not suited to uneven terrain.

Overall, we recommend four-wheeled bags 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 bring your bag on the plane with you, 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.

Some four-wheeled bags have split-wheels  like the Delsey Shadow 3.0 (left)  but we didn't notice a significant increase in rolling ability compared to the single spinner wheel.
Some four-wheeled bags have split-wheels, like the Delsey Shadow 3.0 (left), but we didn't notice a significant increase in rolling ability compared to the single spinner wheel.

A final note on wheels is that occasionally you might want to use a bag that has none at all like a backpack. We test a selection in our Travel Backpack review. Wheel-less pieces are often used when you have fewer items to carry (your bag is lighter) and more obstacles to overcome (you are going up and down stairs a lot, 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, dents and dings. We found that bags with more square edges were less likely to cave under pressure than those with rounded edges. While no hard-sided bags won an award in this review, we did quite like the Inova and would recommend this model if you have your heart set on a hard-sided bag.

Most of the hard-sided bags have a "clamshell" method of opening. We 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. 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.

Hard-sided bags take up more space when you open them  but do offer a convenient way to separate dirty clothes from clean ones.
Hard-sided bags take up more space when you open them, but do offer a convenient way to separate dirty clothes from clean ones.

When it comes to storing your carry-on luggage, soft-sided bags may take up less space, specifically an unstructured bag like The North Face Rolling Thunder. Soft-sided bags can be squished into smaller spaces (be it an overhead bin, or the trunk of the car). But if it is made with thin nylon fabric, it might rip and tear more easily.

If this soft-sided  unstructured bag is not full  it takes up less space than a hard-sided bag  either in storage or in the overhead bin.
If this soft-sided, unstructured bag is not full, it takes up less space than a hard-sided bag, either in storage or in the overhead bin.

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 previous versions of this review, we tested several pieces that converted from rolling carry-on luggage into backpacks. After testing out these bags side-by-side with traditional carry-on luggage, we're not sure how useful it is to be able to convert a rolling bag into a backpack. Convertible luggage is 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 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 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 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's just easier to have one or the other.

A convertible bag has backpack straps that tuck away into the interior of the bag which can be taken out and snapped in place at the top and bottom. The conversion takes less than a minute  but the whole mechanism takes up valuable interior space that could otherwise be used for your clothing.
A convertible bag has backpack straps that tuck away into the interior of the bag which can be taken out and snapped in place at the top and bottom. The conversion takes less than a minute, but the whole mechanism takes up valuable interior space that could otherwise be used for your clothing.

Choosing a Personal Item

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 boarding bag. 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 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 access. 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.

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 noise-canceling headphones ended up. Otherwise, most people typically have some other type of bag that can easily substitute for a boarding bag.

While you can carry any type of purse or laptop bag on top of a structured piece of luggage  a boarding bag or travel tote will have an extra strap or sleeve at the back to help secure it to the telescoping handle.
While you can carry any type of purse or laptop bag on top of a structured piece of luggage, a boarding bag or travel tote will have an extra strap or sleeve at the back to help secure it to the telescoping handle.

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. The Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic and Eagle Creek Tarmac AWD Carry-On both 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 an attachment engineered into the design, such as a sleeve that fits over the telescoping handles on the main bag.

An add-a-bag strap is a useful feature for people who travel with heavy briefcases or laptop bags.
An add-a-bag strap is a useful feature for people who travel with heavy briefcases or laptop bags.

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?) and Storage (How much will it 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 any extra bells and whistles. 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.

A few bags we tested have add-on attachment straps that can hold your personal item bag or a bulky coat to keep your hands free in the terminal.
A few bags we tested have add-on attachment straps that can hold your personal item bag or a bulky coat to keep your hands free in the terminal.

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 luggage, then it should probably be able to hold a lot of stuff. 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, offer more versatility, as they can transform into larger checked luggage. Be sure to look into how much space the handle encasement takes up, and also take note of the pockets. While they are certainly convenient for organization, they can negatively affect the number of items you can fit into your bag.

Smart Luggage

One of the latest "fads" to hit the luggage market is a "smart" model that has some integrated technology. This can include a battery charger, location tracker, or a scale built into the handle. We've done some cursory tests of these new models, but so far have not been blown away by the features nor the quality of construction. Considering that these bags cost $300 and up, we think it's best to wait another year or two to see if the price comes down, and the quality goes up. Right now you can buy all of these extra features for around $60 and put them on your carry-on, budget or otherwise, and voila! You have a smart bag.

How Materials Affect Durability

Whether the 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 models 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.

Corner bumpers  seen here on the Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic  are a key feature when purchasing with durability in mind. This helps to protect high-wear areas and they'll keep your bag looking nicer for longer.
Corner bumpers, seen here on the Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic, are a key feature when purchasing with durability in mind. This helps to protect high-wear areas and they'll keep your bag looking nicer for longer.

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.

Luggage Style

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 or Travelpro Platinum Elite would probably be most suitable. On the other hand, if you are a freelance travel writer, a techy-looking bag like the Eagle Creek Tarmac AWD or The North Face Rolling Thunder 22 might be more up your alley.

Many of the bags that we reviewed come in an array of colors, ranging from black to bright orange. While many people choose a black bag simply because it hides dirt and wear better, they can be difficult to distinguish from one another. A brightly colored bag or one that has a distinct design can help you quickly identify your bag in a carousel full of black ones.

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 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 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 for shoes: black or brown sandals, shoes or boots (depending on the season), and a 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.

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 layover 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, makeup, toothbrush and paste, hair accessories, pens, aspirin, etc. I have also purchased several 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 the 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, but 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 there 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.

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 pros and cons of each:

Base Camp Duffel
Duffel Bags - The advantage of a duffel bag like 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 than many options. 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.

Opsrey Porter 46
Travel Backpacks - These are much more comfortable to hike with, but they rarely come with wheels. They also are not nearly as easy to organize your things and pack. For example, they rarely come with systems that will keep dress clothes unwrinkled. They are also more difficult to securely lock and rarely waterproof. See our complete Travel Backpack Review.

Deuter Speed Lite 20
Daypacks - A daypack is extremely comfortable to hike with, and its smaller size can give you the ability to slide it under the seat in front of you if overhead space is gone. The downside to a daypack is they typically are not that stylish in an urban setting. Yes, we at OutdoorGearLab are not afraid to camp in the dirt on the side of the road before a big climb or hike. But when traveling, we appreciate NOT looking like the typical tourist trekker. Daypacks are also more difficult to pack. See our Daypack Review.

Patagonia Arbor
Laptop Backpacks - This is our favorite alternative. A good model will offer style, protection for your laptop, and fit under the seat in front of you. This is important. Now that most airlines charge for checked bags, overhead space is often limited. When overhead space is gone, you have to check your bag which may miss a tight connection, or it may go missing entirely. With this in mind, OutdoorGearLab founder Chris McNamara choose to travel with just a laptop backpack when seeing The 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 need and how freeing it is to focus more on your travels and less on luggage management. See our complete Laptop Backpack Review.

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