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How to Choose the Best Carry-On Luggage for Your Travel Style

Whether you’re going on a short hop over the state line for a meeting or you’re about to spend a few days in paradise, this should be obvious: carry-on luggage is absolutely essential. And having the right carry-on luggage is essential for an optimal airport experience. Sure, tossing some stuff in a duffel bag and checking it in might seem like a good idea at the time, but once you have that bag strap hung on your shoulder for an hour or two, you’ll realize you made a grave luggage mistake.

Travel gear has changed more in the last 10 years than in the previous 100 years. Suitcases, in particular, are getting lighter, better, stronger, even smarter (what we’re saying is they’ve clearly been listening to Daft Punk). You can get a bag that is zippered, rolling, soft-sided, or hard-shelled — the decision to pick just one has never been more difficult.

The kind of traveling you do will obviously affect the type of bag you choose. Think about how often you’ll be moving around, what kind of terrain you’ll be traversing and what you’ll be packing. When you’re traveling carry-on, having the right bag that can fit everything you need (plus a few eventual souvenirs) is crucial.

Price, too, is an important factor, and one that should never be taken lightly. If you travel often, you don’t want a cheap bag falling apart on you when you only have 15 minutes to get from Terminal A to Terminal E. Here, we narrow down the list to only the best carry-on luggage options, broken down by style, advantages, and disadvantages. Whatever you decide to stuff in that compartment when you travel, you should be confident with your TSA-approved overhead choice.

man airport plane luggage suitcase
Yousef Alfuhigi

How to Choose Carry-on Luggage

Advantages: Choosing a piece of carry-on luggage versus a carry-on backpack comes with several perks. First, the standard and structured shape mean you’ll never have to worry about it fitting into overhead bins. A rectangular carry-on is always relatively easy to keep organized and is designed so that you can make use of every bit of space inside of it. No pockets are going empty here. Perhaps the most significant advantage is comfort, however. These bags can be wheeled around, meaning you won’t get fatigued having to lug a heavy bag around during your trip.

Disadvantages: For travelers moving largely from airports to hotels and back again, the carry-on luggage is perfect. However, if you find yourself often carrying your bag upstairs or dragging it over uneven cobblestones, you’re going to have trouble. The bag’s wheels can get stuck in loose terrain, you’ll soon be over the idea of huffing a heavy bag up several flights using only the top handle for purchase. Plus, this isn’t a hands-free option: You’ll always need to dedicate one hand to pulling it, leaving your other hand to manage maps, doors, apps and so forth.

How to choose: If the carry-on luggage life is the life for you, keep the following considerations in mind when choosing your bag. First, ensure the handle is comfortable and easy to grip, and that the bag can be easily picked up and carried for short distances. Second, consider the size of the bag. You’ll want to make sure it fits in most airlines’ overhead compartments. United’s maximum dimensions for a carry-on are 9 inches x 14 inches x 22 inches, including handles and wheels, which is standard for most other companies, too. And finally, consider the quality of the wheels. These should be built to last, so look for metal fixtures over plastic. Nothing is worse than adventuring through Europe with a squeaky wheel at your back.

Best Hard Shell Luggage

Away The Bigger Carry On – $245
away the bigger carry on

Every Away suitcase offer multiple features that, in addition to the sleek design and appearance, has made Away a favorite of most of The Manual’s staff. Some of the features we love are the unbreakable polycarbonate shell (because we know baggage handlers aren’t the most gentle of airline professionals), the ejectable battery pack that has saved us more times than we can count, a TSA-approved combination lock that makes us feel a little more secure, 360-degree Hinomoto wheels for super streamlined and smooth airport maneuvering, an interior compression system (to fit those last few souvenirs in), and a hidden laundry bag to keep the foul-scented away from the fresh.

The Carry-On by Arlo Skye – $550

Arlo Skye’s The Carry-On is still our go-to for travelers seeking the perfect balance of design, features, and price. The sleek, metallic exterior is sexy as hell — it’d feel right at home in the hands of a Bond villain smuggling nuclear launch codes. It features a removable backup battery (so you don’t run afoul of some airlines’ new hatred for such things), ultra-quiet wheels, and a zipper-less design. It’s all wrapped in a sleek, anodized aluminum-magnesium shell that feels almost bulletproof. Whether you’re looking to add a hard suitcase to your luggage set, or just need something to put toiletry items in, this is the ultimate wheel suitcase for you.

Best Soft-Sided Luggage

Baseline Domestic Carry-On Expandable Upright by Briggs and Riley – $569

We’ve previously lauded Briggs and Riley for having not just some of the most durable luggage on the market, but for boasting a phenomenal lifetime warranty to boot. Their Baseline Domestic Carry-On Expandable Upright is a classic carry-on bag with traditional looks and a tank-like design. It’s pricey and heavy, but it also packs a ton of essential features for road warriors and frequent travelers. The “Outsider” handle is designed into the exterior of the bag, ensuring a flat interior for easier packing. The clever CX Compression-Expansion system also balloons by 25 percent should you wind up with more souvenirs than you planned on bringing home. Plus, the integrated garment bag is a must for business travelers looking to maintain a wrinkle-free look fresh off the plane.

Gear Warrior Wheeled Duffel Carry On by Eagle Creek – $249

Eagle Creek has long been known for crafting ultra-durable, go-anywhere gear designed for serious adventure-seekers. Packing days worth of outdoor gear into a carry-on can seem like an impossible task. The brand’s aptly named Gear Warrior Carry-On is built to do just that. Its dimensions (13.75 inches by 21.75 inches by 7.75 inches) are maxed out for both domestic and most international travel, and it boasts a 37-liter capacity that expands to 40L with a single zipper. It weighs less than five pounds, but the rip-stop nylon and laminated exoskeleton are far more durable than its weight should allow. Thoughtful touches — an impact-resistant handle system, lockable zippers with a Central Lock Point and Secure-Zip toggles, and multiple handles for easy get-up-and-go — are all welcome additions.

Best Spinner Luggage

Salsa Air Cabin Multiwheel by Rimowa – $625

If your goal is lightweight and hard as nails, that’s Rimowa’s entire product catalog of well-built carry-ons and accessories. They make some of the lightest, sexiest, most durable hard-sided luggage on the market. With a 38-liter capacity main compartment, their Salsa Air Ultralight Cabin Multiwheel is generously sized with just enough built-in interior pockets to keep you reasonably organized. But, the real win for those seriously concerned with protecting their gear is the polycarbonate shell, which is far stronger for a compartment than aluminum. This fancy looking ball-bearing spinner is also sleek as hell and weighs just 4 pounds, 6 ounces.

When it comes to wheel luggage, you want something you can rely on. Whether you’re rolling onto the plane or sprinting to a gate, you need carry-on luggage that can keep up with you.

Meyrin Expandable Spinner Suitcase by SwissGear – $130

If you’re looking for bang-for-your-buck factor, look no further than SwissGear luggage. The brand has quietly made a name for itself as a go-to among travelers for affordable, reasonably reliable luggage without a lot of pretenses. Case in point: their Meyrin 20-inch Expandable Spinner. Sure, it lacks the fancier craftsmanship, pretty color options, or any swanky features at all. However, if you’re looking for an inexpensive, dependable carry-on spinner, this will do the trick.

With spinner wheels for advanced rolling and a bag strap, this carry-on luggage has everything you need to travel like a pro without having to pay the pro price.

AmazonBasics Hardside Spinner Luggage – $50

This particular carry-on suitcase may not have a fancy compression system or an easy-access front pouch, but it’s actually a pretty high-quality travel bag for its price point. With a four-wheeled rolling system, hard outer shell, and scratch-resistant finish, this AmazonBasics hardshell suitcase is our top pick if you’re looking to spend as little money as possible on travel luggage. Oh, and this lightweight suitcase is, of course, eligible for free shipping from Amazon if you’re a Prime Member.

A decent carry-on bag or suitcase should be wheeled, lightweight, and have a built-in compartment or two for all of your accessories. Well, this luggage from Amazon manages to check all of those boxes while still keeping the price at a minimum. Whether you’re looking to add to your luggage set, or just need an extra carry-on in a pinch, this Spinner is an excellent option to consider.

How to Choose the Best Carry-on Backpack

Advantages: Perhaps obviously, the benefits of a carry-on backpack are in complete opposition to the carry-on luggage. While carry-on luggage is often hard, backpacks are soft, making them easy to store away in tight spots. They also expand to allow more space for new treasures (or just a rushed packing day). Most importantly, carry-on backpacks keep your hands free and your bag off the ground — perfect for big hikes or extended backpacking trips.

Disadvantages: The real disadvantage of carry-on backpacks is that they can become uncomfortable over time. Especially if your backpack doesn’t fit you or provide proper support, you can tire quickly, turning your dream vacation into a nightmarish slog. Backpacks also tend to be smaller than carry-on luggage, so how much gear you want to bring could influence which type of luggage you invest in.

How to choose: The most important thing to consider when investing in a carry-on backpack is the fit. You can ask in-store experts to size you for a bag, then go online to shop for the best deals in that category. The right size bag will fit comfortably on your hips, taking the weight off your shoulders and back and distributing it across your body. Look for a bag with comfortable shoulder straps, a waist strap, and some kind of ventilation system (be it an internal, external frame or a padded strap that allows for airflow). Usual sizes include 40-liter, 50-liter and, 60-liter capacity backpacks, though you’re probably safest with a 40L bag if you want to make sure it fits in the overhead compartment.

Best Carry-on Backpack

Farpoint 40 Travel Backpack by Osprey Packs – $99-$160

The Farpoint 40L Travel Backpack’s biggest selling point is its even weight distribution — something Osprey is known for. The LightWire frame suspension keeps the majority of the weight on your hips, not your shoulders, letting you travel for extended periods of time without fatigue. Mesh material on the back panel and straps also improves ventilation and reduces chafing, which is something travelers will be grateful for in hour 12, 13, 14 of their trek.

This bag is designed to meet most airline carry-on requirements, so you can confidently add it to your travel luggage collection. It comes in three chic colors that fit in just as well on the Himalayan Alps as they do in a busy downtown core. If you’re looking for a minimalist aesthetic with plenty of storage options, Osprey has you covered. The bag is also currently on sale at Amazon, so act fast.

Ambor USB Charging Travel Backpack – $25

Not all carry-on bags need to be luggage, nor does it need to feel like baggage. While a good majority of traveling requires an extra little suitcase to cram everything into, sometimes it’s okay to just travel light with just a bag or duffel you can easily carry. This travel backpack comes with USB ports for charging, a headphone interface, a laptop sleeve, and an anti-theft lock to ensure nothing gets stolen. If you’re looking for an affordable carry-on bag that doesn’t skimp on features and can easily fit in that overhead bin, this backpack is exactly what you need.

Though there are a lot of bags that can cost upwards of $100, especially when it comes to travel, this particular bag will only cost you about three trips to the Cinnabon. Though it isn’t wheeled, expandable, or even really luggage for that matter, this lightweight bag is easy to carry and has a compartment for just about everything you need. If you want to avoid paying suitcase prices, strap up with a carry-on you can actually carry on.

Best Carry-on Backpack With Wheels

Expanse International Carry-on Luggage by Eagle Creek – $141

This is the second bag on our list from Eagle Creek, a company dedicated to making exceptional bags for travelers and commuters. What we like about the Expanse International Carry-on is that it’s lightweight and small, making it perfect for overnight trips and weekend getaways. However, the bag’s expansion zipper and external lash points let you increase the carrying capacity at the pull of a cord for longer sojourns and adventures.

The appeal of a carry-on backpack is that it can do double duty, but often you find these bags compromising on quality to provide additional functionality. Not so with the Expanse. The bag has treaded wheels, perfect for maneuvering over cobblestones, as well as durable scuff resistant fabric to keep the bag looking its best for years to come.

AT7 Carry-on Wheeled Backpack by High Sierra – $134-$225

Last but certainly not least, we have the AT7 Carry-on Wheeled Backpack by High Sierra. This pack is actually two bags in one: it comes with a minimalist, removable daypack that clips onto the front of the wheeled backpack for ultimate flexibility. Multiple grab handles also mean that no matter how you want to grab, toss or tow your bag, you have plenty of options. And while the capacity is relatively large at 50L, interior hold-down straps will help you keep your luggage tight and compressed so you won’t feel like you’re lugging around a huge bag of stuff.

The reflective piping lining the bag helps ensure that you’re visible late at night, which is good news for cyclists or hikers traveling in dimly lit areas. All in all, for the traveler who isn’t sure what they’ll need or where they’ll end up, the AT7 is a versatile and affordable choice.

Article originally published by Mike Richard on April 18, 2018. Last updated by Leah Bjornson in February 2019 to include more deals info. The Manual may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site.

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