Three best carry-on luggage - Feb. 2019 - BestReviews

Samantha Bookman

Corners matter in carry-on luggage. Curved corners reduce the amount of available interior space, while square corners give you a few more nooks for clothing.

Carry-on luggage can make traveling a breeze or be the biggest annoyance of an airplane journey. The difference lies in the type of luggage you choose. Whether it's struggling to open exterior pockets during the security screening, navigating smoothly without being tripped up by sticky wheels, or cramming a bag into ever-smaller overhead bins, finding a carry-on bag that takes some of the stress out of flying is essential.

What are the key features to look for in carry-on luggage that will make flying easier? From price to ease of handling, BestReviews has the information you need to choose the carry-on bag that's perfect for you.

Considerations when choosing carry-on luggage

Dimensions: Even though airlines clearly publish guidelines for carry-ons, some luggage manufacturers seem to blithely ignore them and produce luggage that's too big for the overhead bin. Choose a carry-on bag with dimensions -- height, depth, and width -- that are the same or slightly smaller than those recommended by the three largest U.S. airlines. In 2014, American Airlines, Delta, and United agreed on uniform dimensions of 22 inches high, 9 inches deep, and 14 inches wide for carry-on bags.

If you're traveling internationally on an airline based outside the U.S., the dimensions will likely be smaller (21 inches high for some), and there might be a weight restriction, too.

Most importantly, don't trust the measurements listed on the bag's label or online specifications. Bring a tape measure to the store or measure the bag when you receive it -- including wheels and handles!

Weight: Choose the lightest bag possible that is still durable; less than eight pounds is ideal. Heavier bags are more difficult to maneuver and lift into overhead bins. The bag's weight also counts toward the total weight of the packed bag, so you could get charged for an overweight bag on international flights.

Ease of handling: You need to be able to carry and lift your bag through security, down the jetway, and through the narrow aircraft aisle. Look for a carry-on bag with a sturdy handle and an extra handle on the side if possible.

Durability: A carry-on bag is an investment, so it needs to hold up to the knocks of routine airline travel. The zippers should work smoothly with repeated use, the wheels shouldn't snap off if accidentally caught on a corner, and the retractable handle should retract and extend smoothly.

Added features: Features that are nice to have on your bag include an add-a-bag strap, quick-access pockets in the front or rear, recessed wheels, and a built-in TSA-approved combination lock.

Types of carry-on luggage

There are two main types of carry-on luggage: those with wheels and those without.


Rolling duffel: This bag combines the sporty look, shoulder strap, and flexibility of a traditional duffel bag with wheels and a reinforced, retractable pull handle. Prices range from $24 to $140.

Wheeled daypack: Another bag designed to maximize comfort and versatility, this daypack has two wheels and a pull handle, as well as shoulder straps for carrying a balanced load. Prices range from $40 to $125.

Soft-sided upright: The most popular carry-on luggage is the traditional upright bag with either two or four wheels and a retractable handle. Prices range from $24 to $184.

Polycarbonate upright: Fast gaining in popularity, these lightweight carry-on bags have very rigid walls. Prices range from $24 to $250.

No wheels

Duffel: This soft-sided shoulder bag comes in many sizes, shapes, and colors. Its biggest asset is that it can be squashed into a crowded overhead bin. But that's also its biggest failing because fragile items in a duffel can easily be damaged. Prices range from $16 to $76.

Overnight bag: Evolved from the compact, square suitcases of your grandfather's day, the overnight bag is around the same size as a shoulder tote or classic gym bag and sturdier than a duffel. Prices range from $29 to $84.

Weekender: A stylish and often sturdier take on the overnight bag or duffel, a weekender is sometimes compact enough to fit underneath the airplane seat in front of you. Prices range from $25 to $148.

Garment bag: Popular with business travelers, this soft-sided bag folds in half or thirds to keep suits from wrinkling in transit. It usually has exterior pockets and a shoulder strap. Prices range from $32 to $249.


Q. Are two wheels or four wheels better for carry-on luggage?

A. A four-wheeled spinner might seem like the ultimate in carry-on luxury because it's easier to guide through a busy airport, but many passengers still prefer two-wheeled models. The reason is that spinner wheels tend to be larger and stick out farther than wheels on two-wheeled bags, sometimes increasing the bag's measurements beyond what an airline will allow. The wheels are prone to breaking off, too.

Travelers can forgo the two- or four-wheel dilemma by choosing a bag with no wheels, such as a daypack or small duffel with a shoulder strap. These are easier to handle, but the tradeoff may be sore shoulders.

Q. Are there standard carry-on luggage dimensions for all airlines?

A. Nope! And it's one of the biggest frustrations for airline travelers today. For example, one airline might allow bags 24 inches high into the overhead bins, while another limits the height to 21 inches. If you have to change planes, you might be fine on the first leg of your journey but have to check your bag on the second leg.

The best way to avoid problems is to verify carry-on luggage sizes with the airlines you'll be flying. If you travel frequently, consider which airlines you travel with most often and purchase luggage based on those maximum allowable sizes.

Carry-on luggage we recommend

Best of the best: Samsonite Winfield 2

Our take: Compact, durable, and stylish, this hard-sided carry-on packs in extras like a side-mounted TSA lock and smooth-rolling spinner wheels.

What we like: Standout styling in a hard-sided carry-on, this bag shrugs off dents and dings. Extra touches like a TSA-approved lock, a full-zip divider, and interior zippered pockets make travel that much easier and more secure.

What we dislike: The brushed-steel exterior attracts dust, and the exterior zipper's fabric backing is not water resistant.

Best bang for your buck: Olympia 22-inch Rolling Duffel

Our take: It strikes a good compromise between carrying/rolling comfort, size, and convenience, with plenty of exterior pockets and an attractive, structured build.

What we like: Recessed wheels help keep this bag's profile small, and its retractable pull handle works smoothly. It has multiple exterior pockets for quick access to various items.

What we dislike: Overpacking the bag and pockets could put it outside of most airlines' allowed dimensions for carry-ons. Maneuverability is compromised due to a short pulling handle and static wheels.

Choice 3: Jansport Driver 8 Core Series Wheeled Backpack

Our take: While it works better as a rolling carry-on, the tucked-away shoulder straps offer a good option when travelers need to take the stairs or move quickly.

What we like: The smooth, retractable handle isn't too short. The bag has enough capacity for short business trips yet fits easily into overhead bins, even on smaller commuter jets.

What we dislike: The squeaky wheels announce your approach to the security line quite clearly. The shoulder straps could be more robust.

Samantha is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.

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