We have updated this list for 2013. Read Fodor’s Approved: 10 Best Carry-On Bags for 2013
Expert travelers may disagree when it comes to the most breathtaking beach, the most thrilling destination, or the best digs on the planet to rest our wandering bones. But there’s no debating one thing: We avoid checking a bag at all costs.
Who can afford to waste time, money, and street cred waiting around an airport conveyor belt? With that question in mind, we road tested bins full of bags and came up with the ultimate list of Fodor’s-approved carry-ons. After taking our favorites for a spin, stuffing them in overhead bins and car trunks, every last one of us is a carry-on convert (yes, even those of us that pack for the unexpected–like a black-tie dinner just in case we bump into a world leader on our Southwest flight).
Tumi: Super Leger International ($395)
Best for an easy-breezy week (or more!) away
This immensely lightweight and extraordinarily maneuverable soft-sided case is also a treat to pack, with trim and tidy exterior pockets. This chic workhorse easily fit four days of clothes with room to spare for an entire week’s wardrobe. Our only complaint? Oh, that price tag.
"This bag outpacks its size," raves editorial director Linda Cabasin. "It makes the list because it combines superb functionality—great wheels, a sturdy handle, good zippers, useful pockets—with surprisingly abundant space for its size. Wheeling this super light bag on city streets and on escalators is so easy that it really is fun to travel with." Plus, we’re a sucker for all the bright colors it comes in.
Muji: Water Repellent Bellow Pocket 4 Wheel Carry-S ($112.50)
Best for frequent air commuters
Proof positive that good things do come in affordable, small packages, the ultra-lightweight, waterproof Muji roller packs a lot into its super-trim shape. Measuring a compact 6.1 (wheel included) by 13 by 9.8 inches, its below-FAA-regulation size means it fits easily on intra-city commuter airplanes (and even Caribbean island hoppers), where luggage space is typically quite limited.
"I’ve been a soft-sided carry-on devotee for over a decade, but this smart roller suitcase inspired me to convert at last," says executive editorial director Arabella Bowen, who used the svelte bag on a weekend trip to Toronto on a small Bombardier Dash 8 airplane. "It slid easily into the overhead compartment—my most important requirement—and got extra points for its smooth 360-degree-turning wheels and base weight of 5.3 pounds, which made navigating urban terrain, from airport terminals, to subway stairs, a breeze. Its well-designed interior and exterior compartments also easily accommodated my weekend wardrobe, shoes, books, and iPad without feeling cramped. No question, this is a great-value choice for frequent short-haul travelers."
Lo & Sons: The O.G. (Overnight & Gym Bag) ($295)
Best for keeping fashionable fliers organized
We packed this chic bag for a week and loved its silky lightweight exterior and its abundance of secret zippered pockets and segmented compartments. It fits easily beneath an airplane seat and boasts comfy-on-our-shoulders leather straps.
"The design allows you to find everything immediately, not digging required," says Amanda D’Acierno, Fodor’s vice president and publisher. "I loved that things could stack vertically—books, magazines, files, and computer – rather than everything lying flat and [having to] dig through the stack."
"It was very stylish and didn’t scream ‘frazzled mom’ – instead, it gave the illusion that I was a sleek lady who also happened to be traveling with a toddler," adds Erica Duecy, deputy editor of Fodors.com. "I got my MacBook Air in one pocket, an iPad for my daughter in another, and all of our airplane carry-on products (including sandwiches, drinks, diapers and wipes, books, and drawing pads – and even a stuffed otter named Bat) were magically contained within a sleek exterior."
Lipault: 22" 2-Wheeled Soft-Side Foldable Carry-On ($189)
Best for short hops with high style
This petite bag and its soft-sided design make it easily squeezable into overhead bins for a few days away. Its modern look stands out from basic black bags, while plush padded handles are ideal for yanking it up and down steps and in and out of trunks. Its only fault may be the surprisingly loud clackity-clack of its wheels.
"I wanted to keep it!" enthuses Katie Fleming, senior publicist for Random House digital publishing group. "This bag made me a carry-on convert. It made me realize I can actually pack less, which makes it easier to get around while traveling. But the wheels seemed to clack quite a lot; I felt a little self-conscious walking in quiet areas."
Lands’ End: Canvas 1963 Trip Bag ($140)
Best for all-weather adventures
We packed this bag for "three days of guy stuff" on a mountain-bound road trip weekend. Its rugged nature survived a sudden downpour and its classic, masculine design and plenty of extra handles slid handsomely into a car trunk. But this bag would be totally more tote-able without such a hefty base weight.
"Its leather and subtle logo are classy and help attribute to its timeless look—it would look even better with a little wear on it," notes Cate Starmer, outdoor and adventure online editor. "The huge zipper really opened things up for better access than I thought. And it made a great valise for my writer husband!"
Patagonia: Maxiumum Legal Carry-On ($159)
Best for condensing clothes for a sporty weekend away
This sporty and versatile unisex bag stretches to the maximum dimensions allowed as a carry-on, and can be toted as a briefcase, messenger bag, or backpack. Its compression pocket and a laptop pouch offer plenty of packing space for our weekend away. But if we’re going to nitpick, it’s a little bland on style and color options.
"The clip-in ‘compression’ pocket in the main clothes area has one big zippered compartment and lots of little ones," explains Salwa Jabado, countryside and adventure editor. "I found this was helpful to separate out undergarments, jewelry, and phone chargers. It would also help to squeeze clothes in and keep them there because the straps are adjustable. I used it to separate out clean clothes from dirty clothes at the end of my trip."
"This bag is great for a no-fuss traveler who wants a sporty but nice bag," she adds. "And it’s made from recycled materials—nice eco bonus—and it’s water repellent."
Filson: Wheeled Carry-On ($495)
Best for men on the move
This handsome and masculine bag features a classic, old-school look along with plenty of zippered compartments for toiletries and clothes. Ideal for a long weekend away, it has room for men’s and women’s outfits (including shoes!) and fits easily in overhead bins—even on smaller planes. Our big request: Lighten up the base weight, as it’s a bit tough to lift and lug.
"I love the look of the bag," enthuses Nicole Campoy, Fodors.com blog editor. "It’s very handsome and was very easy to pack (and un-pack, and re-pack). It’s an expensive bag, but I would love to give it as a splurge gift. I also really like how distinct it is at any airport. But it was tough to lug around on my own."
Tumi: Alpha Lightweight ($595)
Best for back-to-basics with panache
This glamorous hard-shell bag is surprisingly lightweight, stowing easily in overhead bins and car trunks. Its sturdy design and smooth wheels make it ideal for four-day treks. However, we wish Tumi would add a side-handle instead of just one on top. And testers remain divided over its clamshell style storage system.
"This bag zips open in the center rather than the top half, giving you two equal areas for packing and great visibility into everything in the case," explains Amanda D’Acierno, Fodor’s vice president and publisher, who describes the bag as "perfectly utilitarian!"
"While that doesn’t sound like much of an endorsement, it accomplishes everything you need," she adds. "As far as black wheelie suitcases go, this is the best I’ve ever used."
But, cautions, Maria Hart, cities and cultural destinations editor, "The clamshell design—zipper in the center dividing the bag into two halves—means you’d either have to heap up your clothes and items and then fit the top half over it, or you’d need to use the mesh netting to seal the top half in.
"I did think the suitcase was well-designed and quite glamorous," she concludes.
Lipault: 22" Hard-Side 4-Wheeled Carry-On ($199)
Best for elegant jaunts
This quick-moving carry-on easily handles four days (and more) of clothes and shoe changes as well as overhead or trunk storage. It sports a surprisingly light base weight and has a fresh design, providing relief from "same-old bag syndrome" without any ostentatious elements. If we could add anything to this bag, it would be a few smaller interior packing compartments.
"I packed a pair of shoes in the main compartment, a pair of sandals in the inside zipper pocket, and fit various clothing options, from casual wear to more formal wear," Eric Wechter, editor of cruises and resorts, explains of his getaway with the bag. "Although I had to compress everything a bit, my items remained protected and unwrinkled.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning two runners-up. These carry-ons went through the same poking and prodding as the rest. They had plenty of lovely attributes and almost made the cut. But, here’s why they didn’t…
According to our special projects editor, Margaret Kelly, the Briggs and Riley Explore 19 Upright Luggage ($280) was just too chubby to make it smoothly into the overhead, which knocked off a few points. "It’s a bit fatter than most carry-on pieces," she notes. "Had my bag been filled to capacity, it would have been very hard to jam it into the overhead. But I loved the look. Very simple and durable looking—right up my alley."
And the Patagonia Maxiumum Legal Wheely ($249), according to Jabado, didn’t offer as much space as Patagonia’s Maximum Legal Carry-on option. Although she enjoyed its durability and multiple compartments, "the space you give up for the wheels would make this hard to take on a trip of more than a few days to a tropical climate. Also this costs $249 whereas the MLC costs $159. Are wheels worth $100 price jump? Not to me."
What’s your favorite carry-on bag? Check out recommendations from Fodor’s readers and add your own reviews here!
Text by Carrie Seim
Photo credits: Top left, MUJI U.S.A. LIMITED; Bottom left, Lipault Paris; Top center left top, TUMI; Top center left bottom, FILSON COMPANY; Top center right top, Patagonia, Inc.; Top center right middle, Lo & Sons; Top center right bottom, Lands’ End; Top right, TUMI; Bottom right, Lipault Paris