With some airlines now charging a $15 fee for your first checked bag, a good carry-on can save you money as well as hassle. Use our carry-on bag buyer’s guide to avoid the new airline fees.
Talk Travel: Do you love your carry-on?
When considering a carry-on bag, think about three major things. First, look at the size; you want a bag that weights 8 lbs or less empty (otherwise it’s going to be very heavy once it’s packed, and every pound makes a difference); also, bags that expand may be small enough to carry-on initially but may grow too large once expanded. Second, consider the quality of constructions; zippers are the most likely part of your luggage to fail, followed by the wheels, so make sure they are good. Third, you must consider how much you are willing to pay; if you travel only one or two times a year, then it’s not worth investing a large amount in a carry-on bag, and you can buy one at any discount store for about $30. But if you travel a lot and want a bag that will be with you for years rather than just for one or two trips, shop carefully. The bags we recommend below should last a while.
Remember that all airlines limit the size of carry-ons to approximately 45 linear inches, meaning the largest bag you can carry onto a plane will be 22 x 14 x 9 inches. Bags may also be limited by weight, but if you meet the size limitations, the weight usually isn’t a problem. Most U.S. airlines allow a maximum of 40 lbs. It’s a different story if you are traveling overseas, where the weight limits are much more strict—as little as 8 kilos (16 pounds).
Where do you buy luggage? A good source for almost every type of luggage, including many top luxury brands, is ebags.com. Macy’s carries many of the top brands and also sells luggage through its Web site. And Target.com sells a much wider selection of bags than the stores do. If you want to test out a bag in person before buying, you can always take a trip to a local retailer (check the Web sites for each luggage company we recommend to find a local retailer) before buying the bag online. Some people prefer to do their luggage shopping in person since it’s easier that way to return a bag if you have buyer’s remorse after returning home.
The Travel Pack
Red Oxx Skytrain
4.0 lbs. | $255
• Lightweight (3½ to 4lbs) but full size
• Extraordinarily well-made
• Has backpack straps that can be concealed; shoulder strap included
• Best bags are expensive
• No wheels
Alternatives: Tom Bihn Aeronaut for $180, eBags Weekender Convertible for $69, LLBean Quick-Load Travel Pack for $99
Traditional Wheeled Carry-On
Eagle Creek Centerline Hovercraft 20
6 lbs, 13 oz. | $185
• Has wheels for those who don’t want to carry their bags
• Well-made and durable with heavy zippers and good, strong handles
• Designed especially to hold Eagle Creek packing folders and cubes
• If stuffed too full, may have to be checked
• Heavier than non-wheeled bags (wheels add about 3 lbs to most bags)
• Packing folders and cubes add more weight and are not included
IMPORTANT NOTE: Some 22″ wheeled suitcases can be too big for a carry-on when fully packed.
Alternatives: Almost every luggage company makes a bag of these dimensions, but a no-name 21″ or 22″ wheeled suitcase from any big retailer is the cheapest option (about $30).
Rigid Polycarbonate Carry-on
• Lightest hard-case carry-on (just 5.3 lbs)
• Polycarbonate is durable (more durable than nylon, some say)
• Water just rolls off case but can enter through zipper
• Sloping, ergonomic handle
• Not quite as roomy as soft-sided bags
• Handle takes up a fair amount of room inside the bag
• Can’t be expanded or overstuffed because of the hard case
• Shiny polycarbonate scratches easily, though many scuff marks will wash off
Alternatives: Titan X2 International Carry-on 21″ ($550), Zero Halliburton 21″ polycarbonate expandable ($206).
Wheeled Carry-on Duffle
• Inexpensive (up to half the retail price is a typical discount).
• Roomy single compartment adaptable to a wide variety of packing styles.
• Water-resistent if you need to check the bag in.
• Duffles can be awkward to store in some overhead bins.
• Because of shape, some airlines will ask you to check this bag.
• Can tip over if you turn quickly.
Alternatives: ebags Mother Lode Mini 21″ Wheeled Duffle ($149).
From the Forums: “The soft-side style may be important for getting carry-on successfully. I saw a tip from an airlines employee. She said that sometimes even if your rigid-side carry-on is not over the 21” maximum, if the plane is crowded they may come through and make you check it. It’s because it’s harder to get it into the overhead bin, and it won’t “give” if the bins are jammed.” — travelerjan (more)
Top photo courtesy of Stephen Witherden.