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Carry-On Luggage Buying Guide

Learn about the different types of carry-on luggage with this buying guide.

Traveling with carry-on luggage

Traveling with carry-on luggage is often a great idea, if feasible, as prices for checking luggage continue to increase and spending your afternoon in baggage claim is less than desirable. With so many options and with travel rules and regulations constantly changing, how do you pick the best carry-on luggage for your travels? This buying guide will break down how to choose the best luggage from rolling carry-on luggage to duffels and even small carry-on luggage like backpacks.

How do I choose a carry-on bag?

Carry-on luggage being stowed
Choosing the right carry-on luggage depends largely on how you travel. If you are traveling internationally, the carry-on luggage size requirements may be different than traveling domestically. Each airline varies as well. This handy luggage measuring guide displays sizing for some of the more popular airlines around the world. (As rules are constantly changing, check with your airline for the most up-to-date information.)
You’ll then want to consider factors that are important to you personally when deciding on the best carry-on luggage:
  • Purpose: Are you traveling mostly for business or pleasure? Do you need a carry-on bag with multiple compartments and room for a laptop? Are you traveling so frequently that you may want something a little more durable?
  • Maneuverability: According to a Consumer Reports survey, more than 60% of respondents cared most about the “wheelability” of rolling carry-on luggage, if it had two wheels instead of four and was able to rotate at 360 degrees so it could fit in tight spaces like airplane aisles and was easy to run through the airport for a flight.
  • Aesthetic: Is the appearance of your suitcase important to you? Are you looking for something colorful or plain black? Do the number of pockets matter to you?
  • Physical Limitations: If you have any physical limitations like a bad back you may want to consider a lighter carry-on bag or a rolling carry-on bag that is easy to maneuver without hunching over. If you are traveling with kids old enough to help with the luggage, you may want to look at getting a small carry-on bag that they can roll themselves.

What is carry-on luggage?

Carry-on luggage is airline dependent, but it’s generally something that can fit in the overhead compartment of an airplane. In most cases, carry-on luggage falls into three categories: rolling carry-on luggage, backpacks or duffels.

Carry-on luggage sizes

Carry-on luggage can come in a variety of sizes but the general rule of thumb (again, every airline is different) is to choose a size that caters to most airlines, something around 22” x 9” x 14” or smaller. Again, we recommend checking with the specific airlines you may be flying. Also note, some international airlines have even smaller dimensions. When you measure, make sure to include the wheels and handle. Some airlines can be very strict.

Types of carry-on luggage

There are a variety of different types of carry-on luggage:
  • Rolling Carry-on Luggage: Perhaps the most popular carry-on option, rolling carry-on luggage comes in a hard or soft exterior. You can find rolling carry-on luggage at a variety of price points as well.
  • Duffel Bags: Duffel bags can be a popular carry-on choice because they are roomy, flexible to squeeze into tight spots and easy to throw over your shoulder if you are walking down a cobblestone road or up a flight of stairs. The downside is they are less secure and protective against the elements and not as easy to keep organized.
  • Backpacks: Backpacks are a great choice when you need to be hands-free or going on a trip like hiking or backpacking through Europe where you need to be particularly cognizant of packing a smaller bag.

Carry-on luggage durability

Durability is a key consideration when buying carry-on luggage. Most carry-on luggage has either a hard or soft shell. Harder shell suitcases are still lightweight made of materials like aluminum, graphite or sometimes plastic. Like any soft metals, the suitcases may end up with dings or dents.
Some suitcases are made with polycarbonate, a very lightweight material that is more durable and flexible than some of the other hard shell options, but can often carry a higher price tag.
A soft shell carry-on bag is often made of a material like durable nylon, fabric or polyester. They are a little more durable (if you are really trying to squeeze that bag up overhead) and some of them can expand, but depending on the material, they can rip more easily.

Carry-on luggage safety features

Keeping your luggage safe and secure is always a priority. Carry-on bags from Tumi, like this Continental rolling carry-on bag, have two layers of security. The exterior has a TSA approved lock, meaning TSA has a master key to open it without damaging the lock.
Tumi also offers an extra layer of protection with Tumi Tracer. If you register the suitcase, Tumi can track your bag in the event it’s lost or stolen.
Briggs & Riley bags feature self-repairing zippers and lockable zipper pulls to insure your belongings stay put in your bag.
Part of carry-on safety is knowing what you can and can’t bring so your bag isn’t subject to a search which can occasionally damage your belongings. This TSA guide is something to keep handy as you pack.

Special carry-on luggage features

There are tons of different special features that carry-on luggage can have, and some of it depends on the brand.
If you are traveling mostly for business, look for carry-on luggage that has built-in USB ports and laptop sleeves, and a garment sleeve to hold a suit.
For longer trips where space is a luxury, you may want to look for a carry-on bag with compression features that squeeze all of your belongings together. Mesh pockets are another added bonus to keep your items organized.
Features like front cooler pockets and easy to access front pockets are great when traveling with kids for easy access to toiletries you need to remove for security to snacks.

Pros and cons of inexpensive carry-on luggage

Carry-on luggage can be expensive and with so many less costly options out there, you may be interested in exploring something that is less of an investment.
Pros: You may be less concerned if inexpensive carry-on luggage gets damaged. There is of course a cost savings by buying inexpensive carry-on luggage. If you don’t travel often, inexpensive carry-on luggage may be the way to go. Inexpensive carry-on luggage can be helpful in a pinch if you need an extra suitcase before traveling home after a shopping trip or an extended vacation.
Cons: The materials are often more prone to damage, for instance, many hard shell suitcases are made of plastic that cracks more easily. There is often no warranty or protection on inexpensive suitcases. For rolling carry-on luggage, the wheels aren’t always as smooth so it may be a bumpy ride through the airport.

Q&A Summary

What is carry-on luggage?

Carry-on luggage is generally considered what meets the airline specifications to fly with your bag on the plane. Carry-on luggage can be a roller bag, duffel, satchel or backpack.

What should I consider when buying carry-on luggage?

When buying carry-on luggage it’s important to consider purpose, durability, and cost. It is also important to consider any physical impairments of the traveler.

How big can carry-on luggage be?

Each airline has different size requirements for carry-on luggage. It’s important to check the requirements of the airline you are flying. Contact your airline for the most up-to-date information.

How to measure carry-on luggage?

To measure carry-on luggage you need to measure the height, width and depth. To measure the height, make sure you measure from wheels to (collapsed) handle. If your bag is not one uniform width, you’ll want to measure from the widest part.

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