How to Pick Carry-On Luggage

How to Pick Carry-on Only Luggage

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Traveling carry-on only might seem restrictive and difficult to do, but I believe NOT checking luggage provides me with more freedom. Whether you’re trying to avoid checked bag fees, you’re worried about the airlines losing your luggage, or you just want to travel lighter, packing carry-on only is something you can easily do too. I’ll show you how!

Packing less stuff is only part of what you need to do to travel carry-on only. You still have to make sure your luggage is small enough, so the first thing you should do is make sure you know the carry-on restrictions. The standard seems to be 22 inches x 14 inches x 9 inches (that’s roughly 55cm x 35.5cm x 23cm), but this can vary by airline or airplane type.

But there are so many options for carry-on sized luggage, how do you choose? Here’s a look at the major types of luggage available and their advantages and disadvantages.

Carry-on sized backpacks

Lots of outdoor companies make backpacks in a variety of sizes which work great for travel. Traveling with a backpack is convenient because it allows you to still have both hands free. I find it easier to move around with a backpack on instead of pulling a wheeled suitcase behind me.

carry-on only luggageOne of the major disadvantages of a backpack is that you’re carrying all the weight on your back. Even when you’re packing carry-on only and staying within the airline’s weight limit, having that weight on your back can get uncomfortable and feel heavier than it actually is over time. If you have back problems, this might not be the right choice for you.

When shopping for a backpack, look for one with comfortable straps and a supportive waist strap, and a rain cover is usually a great option to have.

Compare top loading bags with panel loading bags, and check out all the pockets. Look for the measurements of the bag on the tag so you can check that it fits the standard carry-on luggage size. Backpack sizes are almost always listed in liters, even in the US, which will help you estimate how much stuff you can fit in it. A good size to aim for is 40L for carry-on.

Some companies also make bags that are shaped like a suitcase but have backpack straps. This means you have a rectangular shape, giving you more space to work with, but not as much support as you would get with a traditional backpack. This type of bag is good if you aren’t going to be walking around a lot or changing locations often. Otherwise you’ll start feeling that weight on your back even faster than with the normal backpack. I tried this one from eBags and loved how much I could fit in it.

carry-on only luggage

Carry-on sized wheeled suitcases

Probably the most traditional type of luggage, the wheeled suitcase is something we’re all familiar with. The carry-on sized versions work well because the rectangular shape means you get the most out of every cubic inch allowed. It’s also easier to find what you’re looking for while you’re traveling instead of digging through a backpack.

carry-on only luggageWhile wheeled suitcases are popular for a reason, they come with their own disadvantages. One hand will always be occupied with the suitcase, making it tedious to carry things like food at an airport. Having a wheeled bag is also more difficult to carry up stairs and along cobbled streets, both of which you will encounter often.

It will probably be easier for you to find the proper size when shopping since the airline restrictions are given in height x width x depth, which is more in line with the shape of the suitcase. Keep in mind that most airlines include the wheels and handle when measuring the size of the suitcase.

Make sure you’re comfortable with the handle and that it doesn’t stick out too much when it’s stowed away. Check the wheels to be sure they don’t seem to cheap or flimsy. Last thing you need is a wheeled bag with a missing wheel.

Wheeled suitcases that double as a backpack

Usually structured like a traditional wheeled suitcase, these come with backpack straps that can be hidden away when you’re not wearing it. This gives you the option to pull it around when you don’t want to have all that weight on your back, but you can also wear it as a backpack when you’re walking on cobbled streets.

carry-on only luggageHaving a wheeled suitcase also function as a backpack comes at a price. It won’t fit you as comfortably as a traditional backpack because it needs to be more structured. You’ll have a harder, flatter surface against your back, so it will feel uncomfortable much quicker.

The bag itself will be heavier as well since it has wheels and a more sturdy frame. You’ll also end up with slightly less packing room since the wheels and handle have to be placed into the bag more than they do with a traditional wheeled bag.

Some of the combo suitcase backpacks also come with a zip-off day pack. It will still have the same advantages and disadvantages, but with the added bonus of a smaller backpack. You can wear the whole thing as a backpack, roll the whole thing as a suitcase, or separate the two. You probably won’t be able to fit the whole thing in the overhead compartment, but it means you can keep things you want with you during the flight in the day pack at your feet.

If you decide this is the type of carry-on bag you want, try on the bag as a backpack to see how it fits. Make sure you can’t feel the handle or wheels digging into your back. Check how it functions as a wheeled bag to make sure you’re comfortable with that as well. And if it has a zip-off day pack, check how the day pack fits and how easily it zips on and off of the suitcase.

Picking carry-on only luggage is a lot to think about, and there’s no right answer. Shop around, wheel suitcases around the store, try on lots of backpacks, and think about the kind of traveling you want to do. Everyone has different preferences and comfort levels. You have to decide which type of bag works best for you when traveling carry-on only. But finding the right type of luggage will make your travels much easier and much more enjoyable.

Carry-on luggage other Travel Made Simple readers have purchased:

carry-on chart luggage travelprocarry-on chart luggage briggs riley3-samsonite4-ospreyluggage scale6-gotoob

Read more about packing:

how to pick carry-on only luggage

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  1. Jennifer

    I’m a wheel bag kind of carry-on girl. I like the wheel bag because I don’t have to carry it around, which can be rough on your back and shoulders.

    1. Author
      Ali Garland

      That’s probably the number 1 reason in favor of wheeled bags. I do like them sometimes, but I’m a backpack girl.

  2. Peter Lee

    Really, it is very important to carry yourself while traveling. It is good to be a light bag packer but you cannot drop necessary things. I always hear people complaining about 2 things: I forgot my bla bla thing & Oh, I can not lift this heavy bag. So always plan your trip and pack your bag according to that. It is Selection of right bag is very important. Thanks Ali for writing this type of post.

    1. Author
      Ali Garland

      Thanks Peter! You definitely need to make sure you can carry what you pack. Having a bag that’s too heavy hinders you in too many ways, and you just don’t need that much stuff.

  3. Andrea

    I’m a horrible over-packer and have never been able to pull off just a carry on, unless it’s a weekend trip. Am going to try it for our next journey up north. Great gear tips!

    1. Author
      Ali Garland

      Thanks Andrea! I think the key is not letting yourself bring too many “just in case” items, be willing to wear the same thing more than once, and being things you can mix and match. No crazy turquoise shoes that only go with one outfit or anything like that.

  4. Pingback: Choosing the Right Carry-on Bag | Ready for Adventures

  5. Ali P

    Yes! Packing carry-on only is SO LIBERATING! Seeing people struggling with their luggage while you just breezily stroll through the airport or crowded touristy area is an amazing feeling. I had a 26L/carry-on size backpack for a 2 week trip this past fall, and while it took a lot of time to pare down what to pack, it was so worth it when we were walking several kilometres a day in tropical heat! As long as you are ready to do some sink laundry, you can get by happily with surprisingly little..

    My Tip: At the end of your trip, make a packing list for a similar (climate, activities, etc.) future trip.. It’s harder to remember what you needed/didn’t need/wish you had packed months later.

    1. Author
      Ali Garland

      Wow, I can’t believe you traveled with a 26L bag! Even if I left my laptop at home, I’m not sure I could pack *that* light! I’m very impressed. I like your idea about making a packing list after your trip. It’s always good to look back at your trip and decide what worked and what didn’t, and especially what things you didn’t even use. Thanks!

  6. Mindy and Ligeia

    It’s amazing the things we used to take on trips, only to lug them around. We haven’t checked a bag in years and it has made traveling so much simpler, especially when moving from place to place. We have the goal of one day getting on a plane with nothing more than a passport, toothbrush and a pen (don’t want to be the one to bother the flight attendants asking for a pen to fill out the immigration papers. 😉
    Except for medications, we think that if you can’t get it where your going, then you don’t need it. After all, if the locals have survived without it, must not be that important. 🙂
    Happy light traveling! 🙂

    1. Author
      Ali Garland

      Wow, that’s quite ambitious! As much as I love traveling light, I don’t think I could ever go with just my passport and toothbrush! But yes, you can get almost anything you need when you arrive. And it’s so much more relaxing knowing you’re not carrying a lot and realizing that you can find what you need when you get where you’re going.

  7. Alex

    Very interesting post on carry on bags, just wondering if you will do a follow up posts on how to clean them. It gives me stress, especially when traveling and its dirty.

    1. Author
      Ali Garland

      I think cleaning your bag varies so greatly on what your bag is made of and what you’re trying to clean off of it. Probably best to read the labels/tags that come on the bag.

  8. Chris

    I’ve got the Dakine Photo Mission backpack for all my camera kit, but when I’m travelling without all of it the dividers and customisation make it great for carry on only luggage – in fact I did a whole month in Thailand with it alone 🙂

    1. Author
      Ali Garland

      Sounds like a great bag Chris! It’s amazing how little you need to travel. So awesome you found something that works well for you!

  9. Kirsten

    Yes wheeled bags are nice, but you can injure yourself with them just as easily as you can with an overloaded backpack. The angle your shoulder rotates to for pulling the weight behind you puts strain on your rotator cuff. Those type of injuries require surgery to repair and never fully heal. Just because you have a wheeled bag doesn’t mean you can ignore the weight of your bag.

    1. Author
      Ali Garland

      Sounds pretty extreme, I hope that kind of thing doesn’t happen often! But all the more reason to pack light, overly heavy bags can be problem in many ways. Thanks Kirsten!

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