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The Very Best Carry-on Luggage

From duffel bags and rolling suitcases to roomy backpacks.

Photo: Marcus McDonald
Photo: Marcus McDonald

In this article

It takes just one lost-luggage disaster to default to carry-on bags instead. My own involved a suitcase that disappeared between London and Tokyo, forcing me to meet a then-boyfriend’s family in his old PE shorts. I largely fly on European airlines, which charge about $50 to check a bag, so I now mostly forgo a bigger suitcase. From researching this article, I’ve learned just how much picking the right carry-on luggage can inform a stress-free airport experience. If you’re looking for a carry-on that can haul all of your essentials, or just a piece of lighter luggage for a weekend away, we spoke to 15 frequent fliers to compile a list of the very best carry-on cases, duffels, and backpacks for every type of traveler.

What we’re looking for

Dimensions

No one likes handing over upwards of $35 at the airport to check a too-large carry-on. Luckily, most major U.S. airlines agree on a carry-on’s size (22 inches long x 14 inches wide x 9 inches high, to be exact). All the luggage on our list meets those requirements, so we’ve instead specified liter capacity.

Hard-sided or soft-sided

Sometimes a carry-on is a miniature suitcase. Sometimes a carry-on is quite literally a bag you’ll carry on. Both have their benefits, so the choice really comes down to personal preference. All the cases featured here have spinner wheels, making them easier to maneuver, and most of them are hard-sided. With bags (which on this list, are all soft-sided), we’ve specified which kinds of straps and padding they have, as you’ll need to think about how they distribute the weight of your stuff.

Compartments

Again, this comes down to personal preference, and you may have your own system to keep your essentials organized. But if you’re anything like me and you need to frantically check for your passport every five minutes, various pockets are really handy. They’ll also help you easily grab your laptop and liquids when heading through security.

Warranty

We’ve highlighted the warranty on each carry-on and the kinds of damage it covers. Most companies we’ve listed will fix faults that are due to manufacturing defects, but general wear and tear isn’t covered.

Best overall carry-on

$275

Dimensions: 39.8 liter | Hard-sided or soft-sided: Hard-sided | Compartments: Organizational compartments, laundry bag | Warranty: Lifetime warranty

At less than $300, this case offers (practically) everything: gliding 360-degree spinner wheels, a durable polycarbonate shell, built-in dividers, and an integrated USB charger. This charger is what first enticed Briona Lamback, the founder of Buoyant Travel, to buy the case. “Away was one of the first brands I learned about that had a built-in portable charger, and the laundry bag that comes with the luggage was one of those elements that made me feel like they’d thought of everything a traveler needs,” she tells us. Lamback did admit that the frame supporting the dividers broke in her suitcase because of overpacking but that “the bag’s body (the important part) holds very well.” The sleek case is available in eight matte shades, including a deep green and dusty pink, and comes with a “limited lifetime warranty.” Basically, Away will repair any functional damage to the shell, wheels, handles, and zippers, but repairs to the USB charger are offered for only the first two years.

Best less expensive carry-on case

Capacity: 37 liter | Hard-sided or soft-sided: Hard-sided | Compartments: Compressed compartments | Warranty: Three-year warranty

This budget-friendly case is a favorite of writer Robin Reetz. It’s cheaper than many polycarbonate options because it’s made from ABS, a less durable plastic. Even so, Reetz tells us the inexpensive case performs very well. “It’s really perfect for a weekend or four-to-five-day trip,” she says. “I’ve traveled recently with friends who have Away and Delsey luggage, and all of them are now thinking about getting this bag.” With its compartments and 360-degree spinner wheels, the case offers a lot of the same features as ones costing twice as much — it does come with a shorter warranty of three years, though.

Best roomy polycarbonate carry-on case

July Carry On
From $275
From $275

Capacity: 46 liter | Hard-sided or soft-sided: Hard-sided | Compartments: Hidden laundry bag | Warranty: Lifetime warranty 

Meanwhile, Strategist associate editor Jenna Milliner-Waddell favors this polycarbonate case from July. “I’ve never had an issue with mine fitting in an overhead cabin, and it’s been roomy enough to hold clothes for an outfit-change-heavy weekend in Miami and a weeklong trip to my parents’ house over the holidays,” she says. She’s also impressed by the bag’s silent wheels: “I used to only Uber to JFK because dragging my suitcase to the subway and getting stuck on every uneven patch of sidewalk in Brooklyn was infuriating. Now I have no problem rolling it wherever.”

Best polycarbonate carry-on for domestic flights case

Capacity: 47.9 liter | Hard-sided or soft-sided: Hard-sided | Compartments: Organizational compartments, laundry bag | Warranty: Lifetime warranty

Lamback also owns Away’s Bigger Carry-On. She says it “works best for trips on this side of the Atlantic; across the pond, it’s usually considered too big for European carry-on standards.” That’s when she pulls out the Away Carry-On instead.

Best statusy polycarbonate carry-on case

Capacity: 37 liter | Hard-sided or soft-sided: Hard-sided | Compartments: Flexible compartments | Warranty: Limited lifetime warranty

Summer Hull, director of travel content at the Points Guy, justifies the price of this Rimowa Essential case because she’s a frequent flier; her luggage is a “regular companion,” not an occasional thing. She says this case slots seamlessly into overhead bins. “I won’t pretend to understand all the physics behind the bearings and axles on Rimowa’s bags, but I do know they spin amazingly well through the airport,” she adds. Taymoor Atighetchi, the CEO and founder of Papier, puts it simply: “Nothing beats Rimowa’s smooth wheels.”

You also get the brand’s Multiwheel system, adjustable dividers, a sturdy telescopic handle, and TSA-approved locks. The Essential Cabin’s polycarbonate shell makes it much lighter than a classic aluminum Rimowa. Fashion content creator Isabel Tan appreciated this when squeezing 15 or so outfits into the case on a trip to Bali. Stylist Tina Leung also fills her case to the brim and told us it accompanies her truly everywhere she travels, from Montana one week to New York Fashion Week the next. Like Away, Rimowa offers a lifetime guarantee on its cases, and Leung told us that almost every destination she has traveled to has a place to pop in for repairs. “If the wheels break off or something, it’s so easy to just go and get it fixed,” she says. “There’s pretty much one in every major city.”

Best aluminum carry-on case

Capacity: 40.9 liter | CaseHard-sided or soft-sided: Hard-sided | Compartments: Laundry bag and compression bands | Warranty: Lifetime warranty

This aluminum case from Away is travel writer Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon’s “workhorse.” She mostly travels to the Caribbean for three- or four-night short stays and says the case fits everything she needs. “One side of the bag is practically always ready-to-go packed. It has my essentials in it: a shoe bag (with three pairs of shoes), another packing cube with stuff like glasses, exercise bands, and a Nike raincoat, and then my toiletries bag.” Zips always felt vulnerable, so Greaves-Gabbadon wanted a bag with clamps for extra security. Its wheels are smooth too: “I feel like I could just push it with my middle finger and it would glide along the concourse.”

Best mixed-material carry-on case

Capacity: 38 liter | Hard-sided or soft-sided: Hard-sided shell with soft-sided pockets | Compartments: Dedicated laptop pocket | Warranty: Two-year warranty for manufacturing faults

This case’s shell and wheels are hardy, and the pocket is “great to quickly tuck in your laptop and get it out fast through security,” says Brittany Allyn, founder of Thirty Waves. It also rolls along quickly and smoothly. As Allyn puts it, “having a bag that can fit as much as possible (because I’m an overpacker and not afraid to say so) and can get me to my gate ASAP is most important.” This bag also has a steadfast lock and a small but mighty selection of colorways (the sage green looks similar to Rimowa’s Bamboo).

Best carry-on duffel bag

Capacity: 40 liter | Hard-sided or soft-sided: Soft-sided with handles and shoulder straps | Compartments: Various handy pockets | Warranty: Lifetime warranty

We recently named the Black Hole by Patagonia the best overall weekend bag as praised by Strategist editors and frequent travelers. Strategist senior editor Simone Kitchens loves the “zillion separate little pockets and perfectly sized compartments for things like chargers and night guards and passports and AirPods” on her larger, 55-liter version. While the bag is lightweight (at less than three pounds) and water resistant thanks to a waxy coating, the strap design is what makes it a thoughtful travel companion. If you’ll be trekking far, the over-the-shoulder strap can be switched out for backpack straps to give your shoulders a respite.

Best (less expensive) carry-on duffel bag

Capacity: 20 liter | Hard-sided or soft-sided: Soft-sided with handles and shoulder strap | Compartments: Dedicated liquid pocket | Warranty: No warranty

Nail technician Hannah Clisby once took eight trips around Europe. “The new rule meaning you had to pay around $30 each way for a carry-on case was really not in my budget. I knew I had to get creative,” she says. She did so with this Essential bag by Kipsta, which is small enough to count as a (free to carry) personal bag — and costs less than $15. “From Ibiza to Croatia, I could fit around five days of clothes in here with some serious rolling and slotting,” she explains. “The small side pocket was great for keeping my liquids on hand to be checked by security.” Overall, Clisby estimates she saved around $500 by skipping a larger carry-on altogether (plus her bag doubled up well for use as a cushion when riding out several flight delays).

[Editor’s note: This duffel is currently out of stock, but you can sign up for restock notifications on the product page.]

Best larger carry-on duffel bag

Capacity: 52 liter | Hard-sided or soft-sided: Soft-sided with handles and shoulder strap | Compartments: Concealed ID and coin pocket | Warranty: 30-day return period if faulty

Austin-based brand Tecovas may be known for its cowboy boots, but it also makes this duffel that Andres Zuleta, travel expert and founder of Boutique Japan, grabs for short local trips. You can see Tecovas’s design pedigree in the waxed-canvas bag’s leather handles and rugged feel, but with interior and exterior pockets, a durable wax coating, and a long, detachable shoulder strap, it’s not just about aesthetics.

Best carry-on backpack for short trips

Capacity: 18 liter | Hard-sided or soft-sided: Soft-sided with handles and shoulder strap | Compartments: Laptop pocket | Warranty: Lifetime warranty

“Most of my travel these days is for modeling jobs, which last only a few days and — here’s the kicker — for which I don’t need to bring many of my own clothes,” says Lauren Chan, the CEO and founder of Henning. This means she often opts for a backpack. “It’s so much easier to move around the airport with, and when the overhead compartment is small or full, I can just throw it under my seat.” If you too like to pack light, this backpack is ideal, and, like Kipsta’s Essential bag, it won’t incur any extra charges. “I’d say it’s big enough to fit all of my tech, toiletries, and about three outfits,” says Chan. “What more could you need?”

Best larger laptop backpack

Capacity: 27-liter | Hard-sided or soft-sided: Soft-sided | Case vs. bag: Bag with shoulder straps | Compartments: Laptop pocket | Warranty: Lifetime warranty

Travel blogger Gabby Beckford likes to travel light with this Outbreaker backpack. It’s small enough to stow under the seat in front of you as a personal item but has an impressive 27-liter capacity and plenty of zipped compartments. Beckford also likes the full front-opening zip that lets you see everything you’re packing at one time, more like a suitcase than a backpack. The waist strap, when clipped, allows you to redistribute the weight of the backpack away from your shoulders (preventing potential aches and pinches).

Best carry-on backpack for staying organized

Capacity: 35 liter | Hard-sided or soft-sided: Soft-sided with shoulder straps | Case vs. bag: Bag with shoulder straps | Compartments: Mesh packing cubes | Warranty: One-year return period

If you like the sound of a backpack but want something a little roomier, writer Margaret Eby recommends this clamshell pack from Cotopaxi. “Unlike most backpacks that only zip at the top,” she says, this one unfolds into a butterfly formation, “allowing you to make better use of all the space.” And while we love how much space is inside, the built-in mesh packing cubes make it a dream for keeping everything in check. Eby used it to take a change of clothes, a laptop, snacks, a sun hat, a jewelry case, a day purse, and even a crochet project on a ten-day trip to Italy. And she says it fits comfortably under the seat in front of you — no squishing required.

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The Very Best Carry-on Luggage