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Updated July 2022
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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and all opinions about the products are our own. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.Read more 
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We recommend these products based on an intensive research process that's designed to cut through the noise and find the top products in this space. Guided by experts, we spend hours looking into the factors that matter, to bring you these selections.

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Buying guide for best carry-on luggage

Whether you fly twice a year or twice a week, you undoubtedly want a carry-on bag with desirable features—a bag that offers durability, functionality, and compliance with all airline requirements and restrictions. Plenty of travel bags on today’s market fall into the category of “carry-on,” including travel backpacks, suitcases, and duffle bags—though the definition of the word “carry-on” is highly dependent upon the carry-on size restrictions of your preferred airline. The question is, which type of carry-on luggage would best fulfill your needs?

Perhaps the largest dilemma is whether you should purchase a softside carry-on or a hardside carry-on. Softside luggage expands to accommodate belongings, though it cannot offer the same level of protection as hard case models. That said, hardside suitcases are prone to scratches and other cosmetic damage, and they tend to weigh more.

In addition to deciding between softsided and hardsided luggage, you’ll need to think about pocket storage you desire, as the number of compartments varies from one carry-on to the next. This, in turn, impacts how convenient it is to sort and separate your belongings.

Finding the right carry-on luggage depends on how often you travel, what style bag you prefer, and how you carry your luggage.

carry-on luggage
Before you purchase a piece of carry-on luggage, consider how much space your travels require, and allow this to inform your sizing choice.

Answer these questions to find the best carry-on luggage for your traveling needs

How many days do you usually spend away from home?

Short trips require less packing space in a suitcase than long journeys, and if you’re a frequent traveler, you probably know how much space you need to pack an adequate amount of clothing. To get a rough idea of which carry-on size is right for you, gather the clothes you plan to bring, and arrange them in a rectangle. Measure the volume of this space to gain an idea of how well they would fit inside a suitcase—bearing in mind that you can compress your articles of clothing in your suitcase by packing them tightly.

Domestic carry-on items are limited to 22 inches in length, 14 inches in width, and 9 inches in height for most airlines, though there are some variations. International carry-on items are sometimes limited to 21 inches in length, but again, this varies from one airline to the next. In both cases, wheels are included in the total length measurement. Keeping this in mind, look for luggage pieces that adhere to these parameters, and also take note of the personal item allowance of your airline.

Another factor to keep in mind is the weight of the luggage you’re considering when it’s empty, as the combined weight of your suitcase and its contents is the figure that counts when you place your bag on the baggage scale. A heavy bag is likely to be more durable and may keep your items safe, but it will naturally have a lower maximum clothing capacity since its overall weight is higher. In addition, heavy bags are awkward to hoist overhead, into and out of the overhead compartment on a plane—and lugging a heavy bag across a busy airport is not an activity relished by most travelers.

What style of luggage do you prefer?

Suitcases

The traditional “suitcase” is generally the easiest to carry because, in most cases, it comes complete with wheels and a telescoping handle, taking most of the weight off of you. This classic luggage style is boxy, resulting in a higher storage volume, but these pieces may push the limit of the carry-on size and weight permitted by an airline. If you tend to travel light, you may want something smaller and more compressible than a traditional boxy suitcase.

Duffel bags

A duffel bag is a stylish tote for a ride on a plane, and it works just as well for air and train travel as it does for weekend getaways. Duffel bags are soft by design and sometimes lack a frame, though many models have a shaping frame on the bottom, and a few high-end duffel bags have wheels and extendable handles, making them airport friendly.

Backpacks

In air travel situations, a backpack may be considered a personal item or a carry-on, depending on the policy of the airline. Regardless, a backpack is a small, compact option that could probably even fit under the seat in front of you—though in order to fit, the bag should measure 18 inches in length, 14 inches in width, and 8 inches in height. As long as they’re not packed too heavily, a backpack is one of the easiest types of bags to transport through an airport. It lacks the packing space of a larger carry-on bag, but if you plan to check a bag anyway, a backpack is a suitable solution for your plane ride.

carry-on luggage
Did you know?
While a duffel bag easily slides into an overhead compartment or underneath the seat in front of you, it does not provide the same ease of use and mobility as a rolling suitcase.
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Would you prefer a hardside carry-on or a softside carry-on?

If you opt for a suitcase-style carry-on, you’ll have to choose between a hardside or softside suitcase. Softside suitcases are usually made mostly of polyester or nylon fabric over an aluminum frame for a combination of durability and flexibility. Their stretchy nature means you can cram them into an overloaded overhead compartment, if need be. However, if you opt for a softsided suitcase, you also have to pack your belongings carefully so that nothing breakable is near the walls of the suitcase.

Hardside suitcases are constructed of ABS plastic and protect your belongings from being crushed. They often incorporate clasps instead of zippers, making them more impermeable to thieves. Business travelers tend to favor hardside suitcases for their convenient and ample packing space. However, the plastic shell is prone to scratching and other cosmetic damage over time, and these suitcases tend to be quite heavy, which may limit the number of belongings you can pack. Additionally, the outer shell’s lack of flexibility prohibits “overstuffing” unless the suitcase is also expandable by design.

Two wheels vs. four wheels

Carry-ons with two wheels

You may be wondering whether a carry-on with four wheels is preferable to a carry-on with two wheels. The answer depends on your preference. Two-wheel carry-ons cannot be pushed; instead, they must be pulled. Furthermore, they have a tendency to tip over when left unattended in an upright position. This is particularly true of unevenly loaded suitcases, so travelers should be mindful of where inside the bag they pack their heaviest items, such as a pair of shoes or a laptop. Two-wheel carry-ons are also known to wobble when you turn corners, which can pose a challenge when navigating a large, crowded airport. An advantage to a two-wheel carry-on is that it’s unlikely to roll away from you as you cross a ramp or ascend or descend an incline. What’s more, the wheels on these suitcases often have sockets, which reduces the overall length of the bag.

Carry-ons with four wheels

Four-wheel carry-on suitcases are often called “spinner suitcases.” A spinner suitcase allows increased maneuverability because the wheels rotate freely. Over-packing is unlikely to cause the bag to tip, and you needn’t to worry about keeping the suitcase balanced quite while packing. Notably, most spinner suitcases are hardside models, but softside models are also available.

Four-wheel bags offer plenty of advantages, but bear in mind that spinner wheels may be more vulnerable to damage than the inset wheels found on many two-wheel cases.

carry-on luggage
Did you know?
Many users prefer four-wheeled carry-ons because it offers better weight distribution when left standing upright.
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Exploring key carry-on luggage features

Additional pockets

As with most travel accessories, carry-on luggage ranges from the ultra-minimalist to the comprehensive and flashy. Most carry-on suitcases have at least one outer pocket and an inner mesh pocket, but it doesn’t have to end there. Here are some of the types of pockets you can expect to see on your various choices.

  • Wet/dry pockets supply a place for you to store your toiletries and electronics without the two interfering with each other. This can offer you peace of mind while you travel.
  • Exterior pockets, at their simplest, are zippered compartments on the outside of the suitcase meant for storing odds and ends. A suitcase may have just one large zippered exterior pocket, or it may have multiple exterior pockets. Some models may have pockets with USB ports so you can connect a power bank to the inside of your bag for charging devices on the go. (Note, however, that this is not the same as a built-in charger, which is a fairly rare feature.) In general, more pockets are more advantageous because you can easily find items in a pinch.
  • A garment bag or compartment is the best place to store a suit or dress and can help prevent wrinkles in your garment.
  • A laundry bag, while not technically a pocket, is a convenient way to separate dirty clothing from your clean clothing in your travels.

Handle design

The part of your carry-on bag with which you will interact with the most is its handles. Most bags have two handles: a side handle for hoisting your bag into and out of the overhead compartment, and an extending handle for rolling the bag behind you or by your side. Look for handles with padded or rubber designs rather than plastic to avoid discomfort when you’re trekking from one terminal to another.

Smart suitcases

When you’re on the go, your carry-on bag may act as your home base. Smart suitcases take this state of travel to the next level with features like device charging and luggage tracking—both of which can be very helpful in case your bag goes missing. These features may seem unnecessary, but if you’ve ever tried to find an available outlet in an airport or have lost a bag in the midst of your travels, you know how useful these features can be.

Unsurprisingly, smart suitcases come at an extra cost, and you of course have to remember to charge the bag before you leave home. If you go this route, we recommend opting for a model with a removable battery, as most airlines do not allow smart suitcases with built-in batteries on board.

If you are intrigued by the idea of a carry-on duffel bag but prefer something a little less bulky for your travels, consider investing in a travel tote.

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How much does the best carry-on luggage cost?

Under $100

Carry-on bags vary in price significantly depending on their materials, design, and extra features. Some softside suitcases can be found for $40 to $100, and a few hardside spinners fall in this range as well. While these bags may offer many of the features of more expensive options, they tend to be less durable in the long run.

Over $100

Between $100 and $300 are many well-designed suitcases, often with additional features such as one or more USB ports and built-in TSA-compliant locks. These might be considered “midrange carry-on choices of an “average” price. High-end carry-ons, on the other hand, hail from luxury luggage brands and cost anywhere from $300 to $800. Typically, these suitcases are made of high-quality materials and sport sleek designs. Note that while these bags may look great, in some cases, the high price tag reflects the desirability of the brand name more than the quality of the luggage itself.

carry-on luggage
DID YOU KNOW?
A good suitcase can last you many years, so it's worth putting in the time and research to make sure you're getting the best.
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Tips

  • Not all suitcases are water resistant. That said, hardshell suitcases provide protection against wet elements such as rain and snow. If you frequently travel in poor weather, you might consider a hardshell carry-on to protect your investment from the ravages of the climate.
  • Store the items you might need in a pinch in the outer pockets of your carry-on. If you need to grab something mid-flight, it can be next to impossible to take your bag out of the overhead bin and unzip the main compartment. A front pocket is a good place to keep your phone charger or headphones.
  • Save travel space by choosing a luggage piece with compression straps. Also known as luggage straps, compression straps squeeze your luggage down so it can easily fit into the overhead compartment.
  • Organize your items before you set out on your travels. With the assistance of interior pockets or packing cubes, organizing your belongings can help you quickly put outfits together or find the item you’re looking for. If you are sharing the suitcase with someone else, packing cubes are a great way to keep your items separate from theirs.
  • Hardshell carry-ons rarely have outside pockets. This could prove to be a hassle as you pass through security at the airport. Also, the ribbing on a hardshell case may make it more difficult to pack efficiently.
  • A softer carry-on is less likely to be checked in the event of a full flight. However, airline staff may decide to check your hardshell carry-on to save space. Keep this in mind when deciding between hardshell and softside luggage.
  • Before you travel, check the weight limit as well as the size limit of carry-ons with your airline. Many airlines have a 50-pound limit. If you’re unsure how much your travel gear weighs, you can weigh your packed luggage with a luggage scale.
  • Nest your luggage pieces within one another when storing them at home. By tucking one suitcase into another, you can greatly reduce the overall storage space required for your travel pieces. Sets of luggage are often purposely designed this way to conserve space.
carry-on luggage
If you prefer your carry-on to have exterior pockets, note that many hardside carry-on suitcases avoid this feature. Of course, there are exceptions to this design rule, but exterior pockets are more common on soft-sided luggage.

FAQ

Q. In terms of luggage theft, is it safer to travel with a carry-on or a checked bag?

A. If you’re packing for a long trip, you may have to check one of your bags. However, a carry-on is less susceptible to theft, and because you have it with you, it cannot become lost in baggage handling. If preventing theft is your primary goal, carry-on luggage is generally the safer way to go.

Q. Is it better to buy luggage in sets or as individual pieces?

A. Most of the time, luggage sets offer better prices by the piece. However, it may be difficult to find a set of bags with all of the features you need. Buying a carry-on by itself allows you to get picky about style, features, and quality.

Q. What happens if my carry-on is too large or heavy?

A. If you make the unfortunate discovery at check-in that your bag exceeds the size or weight limit of your airline, you will have to check it — which usually results in you being assessed an additional fee. To avoid this, measure the size and weight of your bag after it has been packed. If its weight is over the limit, consider shifting some of your items to other bags or even leaving some of your items at home.

 

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