If there’s one thing I love, it’s a deal. Whether it’s Black Friday or a gift card I forgot I had, I am obsessed with feeling like I got away with some sort of steal.
There is no bigger steal than successfully being a carry-on queen. Flights, hotels, great restaurants– I am willing to spend some money on vacation. That extra $45 to check luggage each way, however? That’s where I draw the line.
And that is why when I can, I try to limit my luggage to what can be stored in an overhead bin.
The most common thing my critics say is, but Margaret! How do you fit everything you need in just a carry-on? That aspect of the carry-on lifestyle– the ability to fit ten days of clothing into a carry-on– definitely is a different article more focused on capsule containers and packing cubes.
Rather than a how, this is more of a what post. What makes a suitcase the best to carry-on? There are a couple of key factors, but you really can’t go wrong with any of the options on this list.
Why carry-on? Why not just check my luggage?
Beyond the aforementioned cost cutting ($90 at LEAST), there are a couple more reasons why I prefer to carry-on rather than check.
As soon as I touch down in whichever city I’m lucky enough to be vacationing in, I want to get going. Not quite at the level of the people who stand up the second the plane lands, but pretty close to it.
I hate waiting for my luggage at the carousel. I know it may seem like a small thing, but it brings me such joy to grab my suitcase out of the bin and skip my way over to the passenger pickup area.
Some airports are super unpredictable– my girlfriend’s first experience at Newark airport, she was absolutely appalled when it took almost two hours for her luggage to get out. I don’t leave anything up to chance anymore. Vacation time is too precious!
I am also very paranoid about losing my luggage. This happened to my dad a couple of years ago, and it was so traumatizing that it completely ruled out checked luggage for me. He lost so many amazing pieces of clothing, many of them sentimental.
What Makes a Good Carry On?
There’s a couple of things to keep in mind here. One of the most frequently asked questions is how to decide between a rolling carry-on and a duffel bag.
I personally lean more towards a rolling suitcase because I just find them easier to carry around the airport, but my sister swears by duffle bags only. She claims they’re easier to shove into tight overhead bin space, and that they are much simpler to bring on public transportation at the destination.
Other things to think about are whether or not you want a lock on your bag. TSA approved locks are great for more public stays like hostels or if you have multiple transfers along the way.
One important thing to keep in mind is soft or hard shell suitcases. Again, I edge towards hard sided luggage, but not by a massive margin. They’re definitely harder to squeeze into tight spots and have a higher chance of being flagged to be checked, but I like the sturdiness of it.
Keep these either/ors in mind as you peel through the list!
What do the experts have to say?
When it comes to the best carry on bags for airplanes, we asked the experts– flight attendants, of course!
“The best carry-on bags tend to be soft cases,” says flight attendant George Panayides. “While hard cases may offer a more rigid frame for protection, they lack the flexibility of soft cases, which can easily conform to the limited space in overhead bins.”
Panayides’s personal favorite is the Travelpro Maxlite Softside, a 20 inch rolling softside suitcase that has a ton of five star reviews on Amazon. The Travelpro Platinum Elite Spinner is another good option!
And if you’re looking to make a big investment, the Briggs & Riley Baseline Carry-On Expandable Spinner has amazing reviews with ballistic nylon, an impressive compression system and super sturdy telescopic handle, but a bit out of my own price range.
More than anything, Panayides emphasizes checking your bag size before you carry-on. The worst thing in the world would be to go to all that trouble to fit your stuff into a carry-on only to discover it’s too big and has to be checked.
Carry-on luggage, comfy airplane clothing, good snacks, an in-flight skincare routine, it’s all about traveling smarter.
10 Best Carry-On Bags That Will Make Airplane Travel A Breeze
Here are ten of the best tried and tested carry-on luggage to make your next trip that much easier!
1. Away Carry On Flex
Star Rating: 5 Stars
Size: 21.7″ x 13.7″ x 9″
Why This Bag:
I am a diehard Away suitcase stan. In my opinion, they are the undisputed hard shell champion of all luggage, but of carry on luggage in particular.
For starters, I love how Away suitcases look. They are sleek and sturdy, with unassuming color options that allow you to show your personality without sticking out too much on stressful travel days.
In terms of the usability of the suitcase, the interior keeps either side separated with a mesh zippered lining. I find this incredibly helpful in terms of storage– zippering in larger items such as shoes or chunky sweaters can save a lot of room.
Expansion zippers are kind of the key to any successful carry-on attempt. No matter how much I stuff inside my Away bag, it manages to completely compress with the help of the zipper. It’s like a Mary Poppins bag.
The four wheels are designed to spin 360º, which is incredibly helpful while scurrying through the airport.
There is a USB charging port near the handle of the suitcase. As a chronically online person, this has saved my life more than a couple of times.
Just be sure to remove the battery if you decide to (or are forced to) gate-check your bag. Most airlines do not allow batteries with the checked luggage.
Away has a limited lifetime warranty that applies to most product failures including anything with the zippers, weels, or telescoping handle.
The TSA-approved lock and expandable zipper make this one of the best carry-on luggage for international travel.
2. Tortuga 40L Backpack
Star Rating: 5 stars
Size: 21.7” x 13.8” x 7.9”
Why this bag:
The number of pockets on this backpack, while overwhelming at first, is the perfect fix for all the carry-on crazies of the world, and one of the best travel backpacks.
One bag includes two water bottle pockets, a spacious main compartment with mesh lining, a front zippered section for small items such as passports or wallets, a flat front pocket, and a top key pocket with a key ring attached.
The straps are designed to evenly distribute the weight of the bag on both your hips and shoulders. If you’ve ever gone backpacking, it’s quite similar to the feeling of those types of backpacks. Thick, padded straps add to a very high level of comfort of the Tortuga Travel Backpack.
Plus, of the best carry-on luggage with laptop compartment capabilities, this might take the cake. You don’t want to stick a laptop into a rolling suitcase (they get so banged around), and the Tortuga backpack has a special fleece lined sleeve specially designed for laptop safety.
This bag is excellent for trips a week or longer. One of the best parts of opting for a backpack is that it will be much easier to shove into tight spaces. If you’re taking a trip that involves a lot of walking, and lots of public transportation, this is a good bet. Definitely one of the best carry on bags for Europe, especially if you plan on using the amazing European train system.
If you’re having sticker shock, the Peak Design Travel Backpack is slightly larger carry backpack at 45L and slightly lower price tag. Or the Osprey Farpoint 40L is a great alternative! Both are some of our favorite travel backpacks.
3. Cotopaxi Allpa 38L
Star Rating: 4 stars
Size: 22” x 14” x 12”
Why this bag:
I’m the type of shopper who would buy this bag for the color schemes alone. They’re so unbelievably cute. The fact it’s one of the best carry-on pieces with a ton of awesome features feels like a bonus.
One thing I love about the Cotopaxi Allpa 38L (or Allpa 35L!) is that it is made for the outdoorsy by the outdoorsy. The bag is completely waterproof, which is not always the case for soft-sided bags.
There is a front top accessory pocket that makes it easy to store your phone or keys while walking from place to place.
Rather than interior compression straps, both sides of this luggage are compartmentalized with zippered mesh. This is great if you like to separate dirty vs. clean clothes, or if you’re a utilizer of packing cubes.
If you’re in need of a bigger carry-on for a larger trip, this is a great place to start. It’s one of the largest sizes in terms of dimensions, and should definitely last at least a week. Plus a hip belt to balance you out if you’re really overpacking! The Topo Designs Global Travel Bag has a similar look, and TONS of compartments to organize your things!
4. Beis Weekender Bag
Star Rating: 5 stars
Size: 19” x 9.8” x 15.7”
Why this bag:
Okay, full transparency here. I was dubious of this bag at first. My mom got me it for my birthday, and my first question was why doesn’t this carry-on have wheels? There is nothing more annoying than a wheelless carry-on. Why the Beis Weekender Bag and not the rolling kind of the same brand?
I quickly learned why. This duffle bag is the end all be all of weekend trip bags.
Despite its smaller size, the capacity always feels insane to me. It is an expandable carry-on bag, as it opens and closes like an old-timey medicine bag to compress all of your clothing.
The zipper is extremely sturdy, and there are a couple exterior zipper pockets that are lined and include a key ring. Also, the interior has a laptop sleeve if that’s something you look for.
And despite all my whining, the shoulder straps are extremely padded and comfortable. I’ve schlepped this bag from Harlem to Penn Station all the way through JFK (in New York City). And was happy to do so, as my bag EASILY fit in the overhead bins on a packed flight.
The hardshell bottom layer offers a bit of extra space and opens with a separate zipper. On shorter trips, I use this section for dirty clothes and my shoes. For longer trips, it’s just a great way to compartmentalize your clothing.
I also love the color options with this bag. I have navy blue, and my sister has olive. Both are very cute and go with most outfits, as they’re neutrals. Perfect to pair with a garmet bag for a black tie wedding weekend!
The Beis Backpack is also a good option with padded shoulder straps and internal compression straps if you’re more of a backpack traveler. One thing to note, only select luggage from Beis is covered by the limited warranty!
5. Lo and Sons Weekender Bag OG 2.0
Star Rating: 3 star
Size: 14.25″ x 16.5″ x 6.75″ (large size)
Why this bag:
The Lo & Son Weekender was made for the world traveller. This bag is perhaps the absolute best carry on luggage that doesn’t have wheels. It’s tried and tested, and whether you’re travelling for business or leisure, this should be on your list.
For starters, the company itself is amazing. Lo and Sons pride themselves on being sustainable. They source all leather ethically, and are intentional in terms of low energy and fuel efficiency based products.
So in addition to creating an amazing product, they’re doing it in a way you can feel good about. They are a small, AAPI owned business that is family owned and operated. There’s a lot to love here.
Okay. Back to the bag itself. There are two sizes to choose from. As we’re talking about longer vacations, I’ll stick to the large size here. This bag is best for all the extra stuff you can’t fit in the overhead compartment. This bag should be used in addition to a rolling bag.
Laptops, cosmetic cases, an extra pair of shoes, wallets, camera equipment, all of that should be squeezed under your seat in this weekender bag. It will free up space for your overhead bin bag, and isn’t too big to go under the seat. This system is really great for trips that are longer than a week. Things like cosmetic bags take up a shocking amount of space.
It is best for a long weekend trip, if you plan on storing clothes.One con of the bag is that if you store large amounts of clothes for long periods of time, the bag could lose its shape.
6. Dagne Dover Landon Neoprene Carryall Bag
Star Rating: 4 star
Size: 20.5” x 10” x 10.5”
Why this bag:
I am a total Dagne Dover freak. I love this company for everything travel related– backpacks, cosmetic cases, duffle bags, you name it and I probably have it.
What keeps me obsessively checking the Dagne Dover sales page is a couple of key things. First of all, it’s the material– it’s so soft and yet so sturdy. None of my pieces have so much as a teensy tear. My Dagne Dover backpack has survived 4 years of undergrad and 2 years of grad school.
Also, everything is made of recycled materials. I like knowing that my purchases have lived past lives. Especially when I know they’re items that will last me a lifetime.
I also love the packing design. There are a bunch of compartments in every piece, but especially this duffle bag. There is one main compartment, and then four built into the wall of the duffle. I love this because I can line the outdies to protect my more fragile pieces in the middle.
There’s also a padded 16” laptop sleeve included on the interior!
As is the case with all other Dagne Dover products, a free shoe case is included in this purchase. I can’t tell you the number of times these shoe bags have SAVED my life over the years. Because I’m an obsessed customer, I have a couple at this point– they’re great as laundry bags for travel too.
My one complaint with this bag is the strap. It’s not as padded as I thought it would be. The backpack straps are so comfy, and I wish the duffle had the same material.
7. Travelers Club Chicago Hardside Spinner Luggage
Star Rating: 3 star
Size: 13 x 11 x 20 “
Why this bag:
One thing about me is that I love a deal. This rolling luggage is a complete steal. I’ve seen it go during different Amazon promotions for as little as $35, which is insane considering how good the ratings are.
Like I said early on, when it comes to a wheeled carry, I far prefer a hardside piece of luggage. That is the case with the Travelers Club Chicago Spinner Luggage. It has a durable, hard protective shell to keep the lined interior safe from damage. This is especially important to me in case I’m a few pounds over or ever forced to gate check my stuff. The last thing I need is a softside suitcase rolling around in the bottom of the plane.
360º spinner wheels make this lightweight bag super user friendly as you wheel your way around the airport and whatever city you end up in.
The interior features a zippered section and then a section with straps to hold your clothes in place. I am definitely in favor of an expandable zipper so you can stuff it as full as you can and then compress all the clothing down.
As far as those positive reviews go, people are raving about the space and the sturdiness of the luggage. The only complaint is that when stuffed super full, the zipper gets stuck easily. So be careful with the overpacking here.
It comes in a wide range of colors, and there are other size options as well so you can really customize this purchase.
8. Amazon Basics Hardside Spinner
Star Rating: 4 star
Size: 13.58 x 9.45 x 19.09
Why this bag:
Amazon Basics really gets the job down when it comes to travel products. While the price is higher for this Amazon product then the one above it, it’s rated a bit higher for a couple of key reasons.
To start, this looks just as sleek and professional as the pricier, name brand luggage brands on this list. The Amazon Basics Hard Spinner is an international carry-on size, which makes it perfect for any trip you plan on taking.
Anytime I can find luggage with lots of zippers and pockets, I lunge at it. Traveling can lead to the type of disorganization that stresses me out. When I can compartmentalize my travel products and clothing, I feel a lot more certain that I haven’t left anything behind.
To that end, this bag has many interior pockets, some along the mesh lining and others in the more interior side of the luggage for maximum protection.
It’s a hard-shelled bag with 360 degree spinner wheels. It’s pretty typical, and the reviews speak to the suitcases’ durability. The only negative reviews I could find mentioned that the top handle broke while lifting when the interior is too heavy.
With any “bargain bag,” I usually try to think about how much use I’ll get out of it before the cracks inevitably begin to show. Most times, I do find that you get what you pay for. However, this bag seems to be of a very high level of quality, and longlasting despite the reasonable price tag.
So while it’s not exactly a designer brand, it gets the job done at a fraction of the cost. But if like the ridged appearance and you’re looking for designer, check out the Rimowa Essential Cabin.
9. Outline Pro Spinner
Star Rating: 5 star
Size: 23 x 15x 10”
Why this bag:
This is giving sleek, bladerunner vibes to me, and very similar look to the Samsonite Freeform Carry-On Spinner. It’s the kind of luggage bag I would expect to be paired with a Tesla and a pair of those absurd looking sunglasses that are built for nothing but speed.
Besides being fun to look at, the Outline Pro Spinner has a lot to like. It’s made of 100% recycled water bottles, which fills me with complete joy. Buying anything with plastic feels crappy because I have the sinking feeling it’ll be around forever. With this suitcase, you’re doing no harm!
Samonsite has a really cool system they call “KompressPak” that works to shove your clothes down, once again,so you can fill it to the brim. It’s very similar to the system in an Away bag, which I can confidently confirm is excellent at filling my bag as much as possible.
The bag comes with an internal battery pack you can recharge and a USB port for electronics. Again, super key for those long layaway flights.
One thing about this suitcase that is super uniquely amazing is the anti-microbial material the handle is made out of. The technology is a bunch of words I do not understand, but basically they have put an additive on the handle that prevents the growth of bacteria. An added bonus is that it prevents metal degradation of the handle as well!
In addition, the suitcase has a TSA lock on the top. If you view security as the key component to luggage, having a lock is a must.
10. Carry-on Closet Original
Star Rating: 5 Star
Size: 20.8 x 13.4 x 9”
Why this bag:
One of my biggest, most unsolvable pet peeves is how messy my luggage gets on trips. There is no good way to comb through luggage for outfits without making a complete mess out of it. Sometimes I unpack completely, but that kind of sucks too. There’s no way to tell how clean hotel dressers are for sure.
Enter the Carry-On Closet.
This carry-on suitcase contains a packing system of zippered compartments on the interior. This is great on its own– it’s a great way to stay organized for long periods of time. But it has an amazing added feature.
The compartments open up into a stacked closet style shelf system! By extending the handle and clipping the top compartment to it, you’ve just created your own personal closet. It’s a genius idea, and I feel like the rest of us are living in the stone age.
This suitcase has a ton of other great travel hacks, including a charger for your phone, a TSA lock, a laundry bag, and a close-to-indestructible hardshell.
It’s a lot more than just a basics hardside spinner.
This luggage is perfect if you travel in groups or with a partner. Every trip my girlfriend and I take, we find ourselves fighting over the flimsy luggage shelf rack from the closet. Never again with this particular suitcase.
If you buy multiple Sologard bags, they’re super easy to store. The bags are perfectly designed to have a Russian nesting doll quality to them. You can store smaller bags inside of the bigger ones. Huge win if you, like me, live in a 500 square foot apartment. Or just prioritize storing things more important than tons of different luggage pieces.
This bag comes in two different sizes. I’ve provided the dimensions for the medium sized bag, as this is the option that is both international and US carry-on friendly. The larger size can be used as carry-on for US domestic travel only. Too big for international travel!
I am so excited for all the travel I have planned this winter. Ski trips, vacations with family, a trip back to California to visit our old stomping grounds, I can’t wait for 2024.
I used to be really bad about traveling. I was in a super negative mindset, convincing myself that travel wasn’t worth the effort it took to get a dog sitter, pack, get to the airport, sit on a stuffy plane, etc.
The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized that travel is so important to so many things I care about. Peace of mind, expanding my world views, seeing loved ones, getting perspective. All that good stuff.
The easier I can make the travel process itself, the more likely I am to push the boundaries and make sure I make it out my door and into a plane seat.
Using carry-on luggage as opposed to checking my baggage has been a total game changer for me. I almost never check luggage anymore— the $90 I save is the kind of girl math I need in order to encourage myself to keep planning trips. And the 30 minutes saved without waiting at the luggage carousel.
Having a good, sturdy piece of luggage is all part of the process. Whether you decide to shoulder-strap it or roll your way down the terminal, happy travels!