How to Pick the Best Carry-on Luggage

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Packing less stuff is only part of what you need to travel carry-on only. It’s also important to have the best carry-on luggage. Your carry-on luggage has to fit within the airline’s restrictions and work well for you. Make sure you know the carry-on restrictions and carry-on allowances for the airline you’re flying. Also make sure the luggage you choose is comfortable and fits with your travel style. Here’s what to look for to choose the best carry-on luggage.

How to Pick Carry-On Size Luggage - what to look for to choose the best carry-on 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.

There are many factors to consider when searching for the best cabin luggage: quality of the materials, how heavy is the cabin bag, hardside carry on luggage vs softside, 4 wheel carry on vs 2 wheels, and even how the luggage looks.

Do you have a favorite airline? The most popular carry-on luggage 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. There is no standard carry-on size. Review the airlines you fly most often, and pick a size that works best with all of them.

Do you have any physical limitations? If you have back problems, you’re probably better off getting a good carry on suitcase. Rolling carry on luggage is easier on your back because you won’t have the full weight of your bag on your body.

Where are you traveling? If you’re traveling in more remote areas that might not have paved roads, you’ll probably be happier traveling with a carry on backpack. You’ll have more control over your luggage, and you won’t have to worry about it getting stuck in dirt roads or cobbles.

Here’s a look at the major types of carry-on luggage available and their advantages and disadvantages.

Best Carry on Backpacks

Advantages of carry on 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.

Disadvantages of carry on backpacks

One 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.

What to look for in a carry on backpack

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 of the airlines you normally fly. 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 a 40L carry-on backpack. 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 best carry on backpacks

Some companies also make bags that are shaped like a suitcase but have backpack straps. The rectangular shape gives 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 if it doesn’t have a good waist strap. I tried this one from eBags and loved how much I could fit in it, but I wouldn’t use it on a trip where I expect to wear the backpack for long periods of time.

Suggested carry on backpacks

REI Trail 40
This is the backpack I use, and I really love it. I like that it has lots of pockets, and it’s comfortable to carry. Comes in male and female versions. 40 liters is enough for us to pack for pretty much any trip. Even without a laptop compartment, I can get mine to fit fine.

  • 40L
  • S: 20.25 x 13.125 x 10.5 inches
  • M: 21.6 x 13 x 10.5 inches
  • 2 lbs. 13 oz.
  • Adjustable hip belt.
  • Rain cover.
Osprey Farpoint Travel Backpack
This is the backpack my husband Andy uses. He likes that it has a separate laptop compartment, and the fit of the bag is comfortable. It doesn’t have a rain cover, but we put an rain cover from a old different bag in the bottom pocket. Again 40L is enough space to pack for any of our trips.

  • 40L
  • 22 x 14 x 9 inches
  • 3 lbs
  • Adjustable hip belt.
  • Laptop compartment.
Kelty Womens Redwing Backpack
I used to have a bigger version of this bag and really liked it. It has lots of good pockets, and this version is small enough to be carry-on for many airlines. There isn’t a men’s version, but Kelty does make 32L and 44L unisex options.

  • 40L
  • 23 x 14 x 12 inches
  • 2 lbs 10 oz
  • Adjustable hip belt.
  • Hydration sleeve can be used as a laptop sleeve.

Best Carry on Suitcases

Advantages of carry on suitcases

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

Disadvantages of carry on suitcases

While wheeled carry on 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 luggage is also more difficult to carry up stairs and along cobbled streets, both of which you will encounter often in Europe.

What to look for in a carry on suitcase

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 carry on roller bag with a missing wheel.

Suggested softside carry-on suitcases

Travelpro Luggage Maxlite3 22 Inch Expandable Rollaboard
This bag fits within the most common size and is on the lighter end of weight for a rolling suitcase. It only has two wheels, so is more of a tilting roller than a spinner style.

  • 22 x 14 x 9 inches
  • 6.3 lbs
  • Soft sided.
  • 2 wheels.
Briggs & Riley Baseline Domestic Carry-On Upright Garment Bag
This bag integrates a garment bag into a carry on bag shape, which might be interesting if you commonly travel with suits. Again a tilt roller with only two wheels.

  • 22 x 14 x 9 inches
  • 9 lbs
  • Soft sided.
  • 2 wheels.
  • Built-in garment bag.
Samsonite Silhouette Sphere 2 Softside 21 Inch Spinner
The spinner style wheels means very little weight is on your arm when you are rolling through the airport.

  • 21 x 15 x 8 inches
  • 8 lbs 8 oz
  • Soft sided.
  • Spinner wheels.

Best Hard Shell Carry on Luggage

Hard shell carry on luggage can protect your belongings a little better than a soft sided suitcase. If having a hardside carry on luggage is important to you, make sure you look for lightweight suitcases and pick the lightest carry-on luggage possible. You don’t want a suitcase that takes up too much of your carry on weight allowance.

Suggested hard shell carry on luggage

AmazonBasics Hardside Spinner Luggage, 20-inch Carry-on/Cabin Size
This hard shell suitcase also has spinner wheels. It’s made of extra thick ABS material and comes in black.

  • 22 x 14 x 9.4 inches
  • 10 lbs
  • Spinner wheels.
  • Scratch resistant.
Kenneth Cole Reaction Out of Bounds 20″ 4 Wheel Upright
This is quite light for a hard sided spinner suitcase and comes in a variety of colors. Zippered dividers help organize your packing.

  • 21.75 x 14.5 x 8.5 inches
  • 6.25 lbs.
  • Spinner wheels.
  • Inner pockets.
Samsonite Omni PC Hardside 20-Inch Spinner
This hardsided suitcase is made of lightweight polycarbonate material and is on the lighter end of the rolling suitcases. It comes in a variety of colors and has the ability to expand if you need it.

  • 22 x 15 x 9.5 inches
  • 6.8 lbs
  • Spinner wheels.
  • Scratch resistant.
Delsey Luggage Helium Aero International Carry On Expandable Spinner Trolley
This hard shell suitcase has spinner wheels and up to two inches of expansion. It has an easy to access front compartment with a laptop sleeve, and it comes in several different colors.

  • 21.25 x 14.5 x 11.25 inches
  • 8 lbs
  • Laptop compartment with locking zippers.
  • Spinner wheels.

Best Spinner Carry on Luggage

Carry on suitcases used to come with just 2 wheels, but now you’ll find lots of 4 wheel carry on luggage. Spinner luggage allow for more mobility since the 4 wheels will spin and turn in any direction. Since the luggage is supported on all four wheels, there is no weight on your arm as you are walking. They come in both soft and hard shell options.

Suggested spinner carry on luggage

Samsonite Aspire Xlite 20-Inch Expandable Spinner
This expandable spinner suitcase has several different inner and outer pockets for organization. Comes in multiple color options.

  • 23.0 x 13.5 x 9.5 inches
  • 7.5 lbs
  • Soft sided.
  • Durable polyester.
Rockland Melbourne 20-Inch Expandable ABS Carry On Luggage
This spinner suitcase is hardsided and made of lightweight ABS material. It comes in a wide variety of colors.

  • 23.2 x 15.3 x 10.09 inches
  • 7.3 lbs
  • Hard sided.
  • Expandable.
Travelpro Maxlite 4 International Carry-On Spinner Suitcase
This spinner suitcase is soft sided and has several inner and outer pockets for organization. The fabric has water and stain resistant coating.

  • 21.25 x 14.25 x 8 inches
  • 6 lbs
  • Soft sided.
  • Polyester.
Travelers Club Luggage Chicago 20″ Hardside Expandable Carry-on Spinner
This spinner suitcase is hardsided and comes in several colors. It’s made with lightweight ABS material.

  • 20 x 13.4 x 8.6 inches
  • 7 lbs
  • Hard sided.
  • Expandable.

Best Cute Carry on Luggage

With so many black and dark blue suitcases out there, you might want to consider a different color to make your carry on bag stand out. Add a little personality to your luggage! Choose pink luggage or purple luggage or even a cute design. Some of these come in different animal prints, like zebra stripes or leopard or cute little owls or cats. Others have colored patterns or camo. There’s even Star Wars themed luggage.

Suggested cute luggage

Rockland 20 Inch Polycarbonate Carry On
This suitcase comes in a variety of colors and patterns. Choose from pink, purple, or multi-colored designs. Or pick hearts, crocodile prints, owls, or floral designs.

  • 22.1 x 15.3 x 9.8 inches
  • 6 lbs
  • Hard sided.
  • Spinner wheels.
Rockland Luggage 20 Inch Carry On Skin
If bright colors aren’t enough and you want patterns, this suitcase comes in several different varieties of leopard or zebra pattern, as well as a chevron pattern and camo.

  • 23.5 x 14.5 x 10.5 inches
  • 6 lbs
  • Hard sided.
  • Spinner wheels.
Lily Bloom Hardside Luggage 20″ Carry On Design Pattern Spinner Suitcase For Woman
This suitcase comes in several different patterns. You can choose between owls, turtles, flowers, a beach theme, and an animal print theme.

  • 21.8 X 13.5 X 9 inches
  • 7.1 lbs
  • Hard sided.
  • Spinner wheels.
American Tourister Star Wars 21 Inch Hard Side Spinner
This Star Wars luggage is available with your favorite characters. Choose from R2D2, BB8, Storm Trooper, Darth Vader, or Kylo Ren. American Tourister also sells C3po and Chewbacca versions in different listings.

  • 21 x 14.75 x 9.5 inches
  • 6.88 lbs.
  • Hard sided.
  • Spinner wheels.

Best Carry On Backpack With Wheels

Advantages of carry on backpacks with wheels

Usually structured like rolling carry on luggage, these come with backpack straps that can be hidden away when you’re not wearing it. This gives you the option to roll it around like a suitcase 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.

Disadvantages of carry on backpacks with wheels

Having a wheeled carry on that also functions as a backpack comes at a price. It won’t fit you as comfortably as a traditional carry on 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 traditional rolling carry on luggage.

What to look for in a carry on backpack with wheels

Some of the carry-on backpacks with wheels 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 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 luggage 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.

Suggested carry-on backpack with wheels

Osprey Ozone Convertible 22″/50L Wheeled Luggage
Detachable daypack has a laptop sleeve and several pockets, but you will need to separate it to get the main bag to be carry on compliant.

  • 22 x 14 x 9 inches – Main Bag
  • 6.3 lbs
  • 18 x 11 x 7 – Detachable daypack.
  • Adjustable hip belt.
High Sierra AT7 22 inch Spinner Luggage
This is primarily a spinner bag as it is no hip belt or detachable paypack. It does have straps you can deploy and wear it like a backpack if you need to carry it on your back.

  • 22 x 14 x 9 inches
  • 7.9 lbs
  • Spinner wheels.
  • Backpack straps and duffle bag straps.
S-ZONE Wheeled Backpack Rolling Carry-on Luggage Travel Duffel Bag
No hip belt and no detachable backpack, but the wheels are covered when in backpack configuration if you are worried about your clothing.

  • 21.7 x 13.8 x 7.8 inches
  • 6 lbs
  • Hideaway wheels.
  • Laptop sleeve.
High Sierra AT3 Carry-On Wheeled Backpack
No hip belt means this convertible is probably not for long treks, but being able to carry the detachable daypack on the handle as well as zipped to the front, gives it more versatility.

  • Main Bag: 22 x 13.5 x 9 inches
  • Day Pack: 16.5 x 12 x 5.75 inches
  • 10.47 lbs
  • Detachable daypack.

Other things to consider to choose the best carry-on luggage

Measuring your carry on luggage

An important thing to keep in mind when choosing carry-on luggage is that airlines include the wheels when measuring suitcases. Before you buy, make sure the description of the suitcase indicates if the measurements include the wheels. Often they’ll list one measurement for the body of the suitcase and another to include the wheels. This means sometimes it’s advertised as 22 inch carry-on luggage but if the wheels are not included in that measurement, it’ll be too big for an airline that allows 22 x 14 x 9 inch bags.

Weighing your carry on luggage

Another factor to consider is the weight of the suitcase or backpack when it’s empty. Many airlines have weight restrictions, so choosing lightweight cabin luggage is important. The heavier your carry-on suitcase is, the less weight allowance you’ll have leftover for your belongings. Choose the lightest carry-on luggage that fits your needs.

International travel

If you’re looking for the best luggage for international travel, your needs probably aren’t much different from domestic travel. For international carry-on luggage, you need to check the acceptable sizes for the airlines you’ll be flying. There is no standard international carry-on size, and each airline comes up with their own size and weight restrictions. Check our chart with carry-on luggage sizes for more than 170 airlines worldwide.

Laptop compartments

Do you often travel for work? To find the best carry on luggage for business travel, look for well-made carry on luggage with a laptop compartment. It should be easy to take out your laptop at security checks but secure enough to protect the laptop if your suitcase gets knocked around a bit while in transit.

Best carry-on luggage accessories

Once you’ve picked the best carry-on luggage for you, there are other items I always travel with that help me pack better.

Stuff bags

Stuff bags are great to use a daypack. They fold or roll up into themselves and take up almost no space, making it easy to pack one in your carry-on luggage. Aside from using mine as a daypack or a beach bag, on longer trips I’ve also used it for groceries and as a laundry bag.

Suggested stuff bags

REI Co-op Stuff Travel Daypack
We own several of these bags in two different colors. They pack small into their pouch, but also lay flat if you just want to stuff them into your suitcase last minute.

  • 22L
  • 18.5 x 10 x 6.5 inches
  • 10 ounces
Osprey Ultralight Stuff Pack
This is the bag that Andy uses when we travel. It is super light and packs small, but big enough for a shirt, kindle, waterbottle, and map without even being overloaded. Very lightweight and packs super small. As a stuff-able pack, it won’t have the structure of a normal backpack, but great for taking food on a daytrip or on a long busride.

  • 18L
  • 17 x 9 x 7 inches
  • 3 ounces
Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Day Pack
One big compartment is what you get with these kind of stuff packs. It does pack super small and has wide straps to distribute the weight of what you put into it.

  • 20L
  • 19.29 x 10.63 x 5.91 inches
  • 2.4 ounces

Packing cubes

Since I’m traveling with only carry-on luggage, it helps to use packing cubes to stay organized. Packing cubes also compress your clothing (some brands more than others) which means you can fit more in your carry-on bag.

Suggested packing cubes
eBags Packing Cubes – Assorted 4PC Set
Other sizes and combo packs available. The slim cubes are what we have and use. I can fit 5-6 tightly rolled shirts into the middle size slim one.

  • Medium: 13.75 x 9.75 x 3 inches
  • Small: 11 x 6.75 x 3″ inches
  • Medium Slim: 10 x 5 x 2.75 inches
  • Small Slim: 6.5 x 5 x 2.75 inches
  • 12 ounces (all 3 combined)
Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter Compression Cube Set – 2pc Set
Other sizes and combo packs available : 3L half cube and 7.5L full cube compression zippers. I use the half cube again for 5-6 tightly rolled shirts.

  • 10 x 7 x 1 in (half cube)
  • 14 x 10 x 1 in (cube)
  • 1.5 ounce (half cube)
  • 2 ounce (cube)
AmazonBasics 4-Piece Packing Cube Set – Medium
Other sizes and combo packs available

  • 13.75 x 9.75 x 3 inches
  • 1.2 lbs (all 4 combined)

Toiletries

Liquids can be a pain when flying carry-on only. But with a little extra effort, they won’t stop you from traveling with only cabin luggage. Do some test runs ahead of time so you know how long your toiletries last. You might be surprised at how far your shampoo can go. Use refillable bottles for shampoo, conditioner, and other important liquid toiletries.

I also like replacing liquid toiletries with solids whenever possible. Solid shampoo, solid sunscreen, and solid bug repellent have made my life a lot easier, and I definitely recommend giving them a try.

Suggested toiletry items

humangear GoToob 1.25 oz – 3 Pack Assorted Colors
Also available in 2 oz and 3 oz capacities. Silicon.


Solid Shampoo
Solid shampoo can be a great way to reduce the amount of liquids you pack, making it even easier to travel carry-on only. These take some getting used to so you know how much lather you need to fully wash your hair, but then it’s a great way to reduce your liquids. Bonus: Less plastic waste!

Neutrogena Beach Defense Sunscreen Stick Broad Spectrum SPF 50+
This solid sunscreen works just as well as the liquid kind you’re used to. You have to be a little more careful to make sure you’ve covered everything since it goes on clear instead of white, but I have found the protection to be very effective.

Repel Sportsman Insect Repellent Stick
I’m one of those people mosquitoes find from miles away, and this solid bug repellent works just as well as the traditional liquid spray kind. Even better, you don’t have to worry about accidentally inhaling it. Aside from the benefits of eliminating another liquid item from my packing, I like this solid version better than the liquid version.

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.

There’s a lot to consider when picking the best carry-on luggage. Think about the kind of traveling you want to do and what your preferences and comfort levels are. You have to decide which type of bag works best for you when traveling carry-on only. But finding the best carry-on bag will make your travels much easier and much more enjoyable.

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 the best carry-on 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 | best carry-on luggage | best rolling carry on luggage | best carry on backpack