We’ve tested carry-ons, checked bags, summer weekenders, and beauty products all for our beloved Fodor’s Approved series. But we’re still on the hunt for the best stuff to bring on the road. And you can’t get any of that stuff anywhere without a great bag. So we went out and found a fresh crop of stellar carry-on bags to test for 2013. We searched high and low for bags at all price points, styles, colors, and makes from cool and casual duffels to swanky, high-tech wheelies. There’s bound to be a bag in this list for nearly every kind of traveler.
Each bag that we recommend below has been road-tested by our own editorial staff. These bags came with us on the NYC subway, on planes and trains, to Mexico, Italy, Canada, and more. They went on road trips and week-long getaways. And the editors came back with lots to say about each of them. Without further ado, the carry-on bags class of 2013.
1. Lands’ End Lighthouse 20″ Hybrid Upright Bag (Deep Sea Navy)
The Tester: Arabella Bowen, Editor-in-Chief
Where did you go? Cramped office elevators; the NYC subway; three airports (JFK, ZUR, VCE); Venice, Italy.
The Review: This bag has it all ($248): Four smooth spinner wheels; a roomy interior (with the option to expand); lightweight materials perfect for navigating Venice (or anywhere); and a compact size that slid easily into overhead bins. It fit everything I needed it to, and more. And I loved the color—it’s a smart little number. Plus the hardback exterior protected the bottle of Campari I lugged home.
The Catch: One thing this bag needs? Brakes for the wheels! I let go of it on the subway and it rolled away from me!
The Verdict: I would absolutely buy this bag for myself. It offers amazing value for $248 and a lightweight style that won’t slow you down.
2. Hideo Wakamatsu Flash Carry-On 20″ (Gold)
The Tester: Erica Duecy, Deputy Editor, Fodors.com
Where did you go? Boston, on the train, for a 3-day work trip.
The Review: This is an exceptionally light, well-styled wheelie ($209). The hard outer shell is surprisingly flexible. The interior spaces are smartly designed: there is space to strap in a computer and office items in the front section (perfect for when you’re traveling with a computer and files, like I was) and plenty of room for a long weekend’s worth of clothing. The Gold color sounds flashy, but its matte and really cool looking for men and women.
The Catch: There was only one drawback: no skid pads on the back to prevent scratches when pulling it up stairs or onto curbs.
The Verdict: I would definitely buy this bag (er, can I keep it?!).
3. Muji Bellow Pocket 4 Wheel Carry in Medium (Black)
The Tester: Linda Cabasin, Editorial Director
Where did you go? Two mile-long walks in NYC; a weekend in the Adirondacks.
The Review: I loved how the bag was super light ($149.50) even when stashed with a weekend’s worth of outdoor gear and my iPad. Since the case has four wheels, it’s great to have an easy-to-use wheel lock to avoid runaway bag syndrome. There are plenty of pockets in the outside section as well as a nice big one inside. Tidy packers (or aspiring ones like me) will appreciate the nylon panel you can fold over your gear before you strap it in.
The Catch: Oddly, the handle wasn’t long enough for me (5 feet, 9 inches)!
The Verdict: All of the bags qualities would make me want to buy (and definitely recommend) this bag, but because of the handle length, I wouldn’t be able to buy it for myself.
4. Briggs and Riley Torq International Carry-On Spinner (Red)
The Tester: Douglas Stallings, Senior Editor
Where did you go? Flight to Miami, short cruise on Disney Magic
The Review: All the various packing sections in this bag ($479) are phenomenal. It comes with a combination lock that clips the zippers to the bag, which is surprisingly useful. There’s a protected outside section perfect for a laptop and I loved the polycarbonate shell—it didn’t show a single scratch! Plus it holds a tremendous amount of stuff. I’ve always been skeptical about 4-wheeled bags, but I enjoyed being able to push the bag through the airport.
The Catch: The bag was fairly heavy when empty. And while it certainly meets all airline carry-on requirements, it’s not small. The crew asked if I would check it on my return flight.
The Verdict: This isn’t the bag for everyone, considering its weight, but if you’re willing to spend $479 for a sturdy and sleek carry-on, definitely consider this one.
5. REI Wheely Beast Wheeled Duffel 21″ (Castlerock)
The Tester: Margaret Kelly, Senior Editor, Special Projects
The Review: Right off the bat, this bag ($149) is best suited to sporty or outdoor adventures. Not just because of the look, but because of useful features like extra-large wheels making it easy to roll over more treacherous patches of ground and padded duffel handles that made it easy to carry even when full. Plus, the interior is cavernous and the top flap gives easy access for packing it up. The fabric seems totally durable as well—I didn’t take it out into inclement weather, but I’d guess it could handle it.
The Catch: You wouldn’t take this bag on a weekend trip to Paris or something. It’s made for, and is best suited for, outdoorsy pursuits.
The Verdict: Someone sportier than I should definitely buy this bag. It was super easy to maneuver when full and has a great, durable feel.
6. Fjallraven Duffel No. 4 Large (Green)
The Tester: Linda Cabasin, Editorial Director
Where did you go? Overnight road trip to the Brandywine Valley in Pennsylvania
The Review: Ok, listen. Most duffels frustrate me because they’re either too small, too heavy when packed, or so big they flop around. This one totally won me over, though ($175). Fjallraven is a Swedish company that makes serious hiking gear and clothes, so they are not messing around. This bag is trim but substantial, I liked the outdoorsy look and the feel of the waxed, water-resistant fabric. The sturdy leather handles and protective zipper flat were great touches. Plus, the company’s leather arctic fox symbol is downright cute.
The Catch: I guess I may not have chosen green, but it comes in 4 colors, so…
The Verdict: I would definitely buy this, although I’d have to share with my husband who was eyeing it.
7. Billykirk No. 165 Black Waxed Carryall (Black)
The Tester: Nicole Campoy, Blog Editor
Where did you go? Palm Springs and Los Cabos, but full disclosure, I also had a wheely carry-on. It was two weeks!
The Review: It has a hip, doctors-bag look ($325) with leather straps that close with belt buckles and two strap lengths for carrying it on your arm or your shoulder. The fabric is sturdy and makes you feel like you can’t ruin it, no matter the wear and tear. The interior has 2 useful small pockets for lip balm, phone, passport, etc, and the main pocket easily fit my Macbook Air, magazines, and a pair of shoes.
The Catch: The bag is heavy even when empty, so it’s best used alongside another carry-on. I would not use this on its own if I had to lug it through the airport.
The Verdict: I would buy it as a bigger-than-my-purse addition to my wheely.
8. Alternative Apparel Hogan Duffel (Black)
The Tester: Amanda Oppold, Editorial Intern
The Review: I liked the size and sleek design of this duffel ($56) a lot with its gray stitching and cool leather accents. It has outer pockets that are useful for storing things you’ll need to grab in a hurry on the go. It’s easy to carry around and fit a ton of stuff. At the same time, it is not so big that you’re overwhelmed by it, even when full. It’s easy to pack, but is best suited to organized packers because of its few interior pockets.
The Catch: I could have used a few more interior pockets. And once I’d really filled it to the brim, I was slightly worried that the long shoulder strap would snap. It didn’t, but I thought about it.
The Verdict: At this price point, I’d buy it to use in combination with a wheeled carry-on, for road trips, or for more day-to-day uses. I just worry about packing it to the brim.
9. Lipault 2-Wheeled 20″ Satchel (Purple)
The Tester: Caroline Trefler, Senior Editor, Cities and Cultural Destinations
Where did you go? Toronto for a long weekend
The Review: My weekend included casual daytime plans, a dressed-up party, and running, meaning several pairs of shoes and outfits (more than the average weekend). This bag ($179) really fit everything I needed easily and was still light to carry, whether I was rolling it or holding it as a satchel. I loved the color and felt stylish rolling it through the airport.
The Catch: The zipper can be hard to open and close because it sort of folds inward in a weird way.
The Verdict: The zipper thing bugged me, but otherwise I loved this bag.
10. Baggu Knapsack (Yellow)
The Tester: Róisín Cameron, Associate Editor, Countryside and Adventure
The Review: For a backpack ($64), it’s surprisingly spacious and comfortable to carry with the padded straps, plus I liked the bright color and the hip style of it. It looks very Scandinavian. It might be tough to use for more than a night away, but for a more relaxed or rugged trip it is perfect. I actually think this is the bag you buy to carry through the airport alongside a bigger bag that you’ve checked. Or it’s the bag you give to your kids to carry their in-flight entertainment.
The Catch: As I said, it would be tough to travel for long with this bag. And the fact that it shuts with just a drawstring and Velcro gave me pause if I were to use it on a foreign public transportation system, for example.
The Verdict: I would definitely buy it as a good multi-tasker bag for short trips or a hike or something, but not as a stand-alone carry-on.