How to Pick the Best Carry-on Luggage

Please note that some posts contain links that earn me a small commission to help keep the site running.

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 and carry-on allowances. The most popular carry-on size is 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. Here’s what to look for to choose the best carry-on luggage.

How to Pick Carry-On Luggage - what to look for to choose the best carry-on size luggage before you buy a bag

How to pick the best carry-on luggage

But there are so many options for carry-on sized luggage, how do you choose? It can vary a lot based on your travel style, what kinds of destinations you’ll be traveling to, and your physical condition and comfort preferences. 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.

how to pick carry-on luggage - Osprey Farpoint carry-on backpackOne 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. I love my REI Trail 40, pictured below. It also comes in a men’s version. And my husband has an Osprey Farpoint 40L that he loves.

best carry-on luggage - REI Trail 40L carry-on backpack

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 are not 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, especially since it doesn’t have a good waist strap. I tried this one from eBags and loved how much I could fit in it.

Search for carry-on backpacks on Amazon.

carry-on only luggage - best carry-on size backpacks

Carry-on sized 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.

TravelPro suitcase - best carry-on size suitcasesWhile 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.

Search for carry-on suitcases on Amazon.

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.

Osprey hybrid backpack with suitcase wheels - best carry-on 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.

Search for carry-on wheeled backpacks on Amazon.

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.

Looking for more packing tips? Check out this book about how to travel carry-on only. It’s written by another travel blogger, and I highly recommend the book.

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 best carry-on size luggage will make your travels much easier and much more enjoyable.

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

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!
Read more about packing:

Picking carry-on only luggage can be overwhelming with so many choices. Here's what to look for in a bag and how to choose the best carry-on size luggage, whether it's a suitcase, a backpack or a hybrid. packing tips | carry-on travel | flying carry-on only | carry-on luggage