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How to Choose Carry-on Luggage

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.
Credit: Cam McKenzie Ring
Wednesday February 12, 2020

A sturdy carry-on bag is an essential purchase for many of us looking for the best carry on luggage. 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.

Upgrade Your Travel Game
Whether you're new to traveling or looking to become a more efficient traveler, we've got decades worth of travel experience we're happy to share with you. Check out our How to Pack Luggage Like a Pro and Travel Checklist articles for more tips.

Maximum Allowable Bag 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.

carry-on luggage - most north american airlines use these measurements for their...
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.
Credit: Cam McKenzie Ring

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 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.

Some bags are easy to accidentally overpack beyond airline regulations. Others are easy to stuff full and still be within the limits. Our favorite over-packer-friendly luggage is the Briggs & Riley Baseline Domestic.

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 that have all the same features but are a slightly different 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. It's more about being able to lift the thing over your head and into/out of a bin in cramped quarters. If you can do that, you're good to go.

Types of Carry-Ons

Many of us are euphoric when we travel lighter and avoid the costs, lines, and hassles of checked bags at airports. There are many choices of carry-on bags and personal items (or one or the other) that can help you skip the lines and head straight through security. Choosing which one is the right choice for you will help make your travel experience that much more enjoyable.

carry-on luggage - base camp duffel
Base Camp Duffel
Credit: The North Face
Duffel Bags: The advantage of using a duffel bag is that they tend to be 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. But if the variety of packable sizes that sounds like what you're after, check out our review of the best duffel bags.

carry-on luggage - opsrey porter 46
Opsrey Porter 46
Credit: Osprey
Travel Backpacks: These are much more comfortable to hike with and much easier to navigate stairs, bumpy roads, and small spaces, but they rarely come with wheels. They can also be more difficult to keep yourself organized as you travel from place to place and may need to be emptied and repacked every time. They also rarely come with systems that will keep dress clothes unwrinkled. They are also more difficult to securely lock and rarely waterproof. Some newer options offer a little bit better organization than backpacks of old but are still on the messier side of available choices. However, if this kind of mobility sounds like what you want, check out our complete review of the best travel backpacks.

carry-on luggage - deuter speed lite 20
Deuter Speed Lite 20
Credit: Deuter
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 and they're quite small compared to most carry-ons. 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 and stay organized. But if you're okay with packing light and want the most comfortable and fairly technical option, head on over to our daypack review.

carry-on luggage - patagonia arbor
Patagonia Arbor
Credit: Patagonia
Laptop Backpacks: This is a great choice for middle-grounders who value mobility but still need to keep their laptop handy and safe. A good model will offer style, protection for your laptop, and fit under the seat in front of you. Additionally, 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 smoother trip. At first, it may seem impossible to fit a week or two's worth of items in one backpack. Yes, it definitely requires 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. If you prize mobility and keeping everything together and with you no matter where you go, read our complete laptop backpack review.

carry-on luggage
Roller Bags: These are awesome for staying organized while you travel. They work best when you have plenty of space and reasonably smooth ground where you're going. From business trips to family vacations where the first stop is a hotel, rolling bags are a stress-free, nearly effortless way to get your belongings from A to B. However, if you're planning on jumping buses, sharing a dorm in a different hostel every night, or need protection from a downpour, these bulky wheeled bags aren't ideal. They do make it much easier to stay organized during your trip with handy pockets and more rigid sides that help keep everything where you put it. They even work great on road trips and offer some protection against squishing with their harder structure. If that sounds like what you're after, you're in the right place - read on!

Convertible Carry-Ons

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.

Wheeled Carry-Ons

Now that you know you're in the right place and a wheeled bag is the best fit for your travel style, you can examine the many options available. As we work our way through this process, keep in mind your personal travel style, including your packing habits (and amounts), conditions at your intended destination(s), and your personal style preference (professional? globe trotter?).

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 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 less 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.

Clamshell vs. Top Flip

Rollaboard bags typically open in one of two ways. Either the front flips open to reveal one large main compartment, or the whole thing splits in half like a clamshell. Both types have their advantages and disadvantages. Top flip systems are typically easier to stay organized since you don't have to flip one half of the luggage upside down onto the other before closing it. They are also more versatile in terms of what sizes and shapes of things they can hold. If you're traveling with bulky sweaters, winter gear, or even just wear large shoes, it can be challenging to easily fit those into a half shell design.

On the other hand, if you like to keep things very separate, the clamshell style might work best for you. There's typically a barrier between the two sides that can be useful if you want to dedicate one side to dirty clothes, for example. It can also be easier to locate what you need without having to rifle through the whole thing, as each half contains less stuff to look through. In general, a top flip design gives more freedom and flexibility to a wider range of packing styles, while the half shell style requires more thought and better "Tetrising" skills.

carry-on luggage - the clamshell design offers less versatile packing options, as the...
The clamshell design offers less versatile packing options, as the interior is split in half, automatically limiting the size and shape of items you can place within.
Credit: Maggie Brandenburg

Hard-Sided 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 are less likely to cave under pressure than those with rounded edges.

carry-on luggage - not all hard-sided (or soft-sided) bags are created equal. though...
Not all hard-sided (or soft-sided) bags are created equal. Though you might think hard-sided would be more protective, many of the ones we tested are quite flimsy and less protective than many of the soft-sided models.
Credit: Maggie Brandenburg

When it comes to storing your carry-on luggage, soft-sided bags may take up less space, specifically an unstructured bag like a rolling duffel or backpack. Soft-sided bags can really be compressed and squished into smaller spaces (be it an overhead bin, or the trunk of the car). However, if they are made with thin fabric, they might rip or puncture more easily and are far less protective of your belongings.

carry-on luggage - if this soft-sided, unstructured bag is not full, it takes up less...
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.
Credit: Cam McKenzie Ring

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.

Choosing a Personal Item
In addition to your carry-on luggage, you're allowed a personal item that can fit under the seat in front of you. No matter what style of personal bag you choose (purse, briefcase, camera bag, laptop bag, diaper bag, etc.), it's a great way to add accessibility to your luggage suite. Some carry-ons even have special attachments so you can wheel everything together through the airport with ease. If that's an important feature for you, consider the Briggs & Riley Baseline Domestic or Eagle Creek Tarmac.

carry-on luggage - while you can carry any type of purse or laptop bag on top of a...
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.
Credit: Cam McKenzie Ring

Organizational Features

It's helpful to consider what your best organizational strategy is when you're purchasing a carry-on bag. Perhaps you're someone who likes packing cubes and perfectly placed pockets to keep everything in its place. Or you may get annoyed with pockets and instead prefer one large compartment that you can organize however you want. And sometimes the pockets included in a bag just aren't quite suited to your desires. We not only counted the number of interior and exterior pockets, but we also examine the actual usefulness and versatility of each pocket. For fans of useful pockets that can hold a variety of things or be ignored without wasting space when you don't want them, the Travelpro Platinum Elite is an excellent and highly customizable option. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Briggs & Riley Baseline Domestic has very few internal pockets and lets you do all the organizing your own way.

carry-on luggage - a few bags we tested have add-on attachment straps that can hold...
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.
Credit: Sue McKenzie

Several options also have interesting additional features like toiletry bags, electronics chargers, and suit/dress organizers. Whether these nifty add-ons will help you accessorize your life or just be in the way, is completely up to you.


While having luggage with the right functions to fit your travel personality is the most important part of choosing your bag, there's no denying that style comes into play. If you're just looking for a personal travel companion, this probably matters a lot less. However, if you need to travel for business trips, it's generally not recommended to show up with a rolling duffel bag or backpack. Of course, style is extremely subjective and difficult for anyone other than you to choose your favorite. We considered all the models we tested on the basis of style versatility - that is, the ability to fit in at a professional conference as easily as a beach bungalow. In this vein, you may also consider the color of your new luggage - do you want to blend in with the masses of black bags that hide dirt and scuffs? Or stand out from the crowd with an easily recognizable shade of red or blue? The choice is yours.

carry-on luggage - some bags have classic style that works well for professional travel...
Some bags have classic style that works well for professional travel and business purposes.
Credit: Cassandra Marin

Checking for 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. Soft-sided models are typically made of nylon or polyester with a "D" or denier rating. In general, the higher the number, the thicker the fabric. Nylon also tends to be stronger than polyester, while polyester is more abrasion-resistant. The corners of a bag are also something to take note of, especially if you anticipate occasionally checking your carry-on. Many models have corner reinforcement pieces covering some or all of the corners.

According to many airline employees, the parts of rollaboard bags that tend to wear out first are the handles and zippers. Paying special attention to those with solid, non-wobbly telescoping handles and securely attached, reinforced side and top handles, as well as smooth, sturdy zippers, will go a long way toward finding a bag that will last you for years. And finally, if you're looking to minimize the look of the inevitable scuff and scrape, softer, medium colored fabrics tend to blend better with the inexorable build-up of grime and bumps than more harsh patterns and textures.

carry-on luggage - corner bumpers, seen here on the briggs and riley baseline domestic...
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.
Credit: Cam McKenzie Ring

We realize that there are literally thousands of options of carry-on bags you could choose to take with you on your next adventure. Hopefully this guide, and thinking through the specifics of your travel style, organizational desires, and possible destinations helps you narrow down the right bag to get you there and back again.

carry-on luggage - no matter what you need out of a carry-on, we'll help you identify...
No matter what you need out of a carry-on, we'll help you identify the right choice for your travels.
Credit: Cassandra Marin

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