Traveling expenses can really add up. A few of those, like amazing food in a unique restaurant or a guided tour of ancient ruins, might be worth it. Others, like extra baggage fees, might not.
Baggage fees are big revenue for the major airlines, and in 2021 the three major U.S. carriers–Delta, American, and United–collected $1.2 billion in revenue from checked baggage alone. With the right equipment, you can save money by choosing to pack a carry-on bag instead.
And picking the right type of carry-on bag really comes down to individual choices. There are frequent flyers who swear by duffel bags, and others, like ourselves, who would rather bathe a cat than carry a duffel. There are backpack lovers and roller board bag lovers. More than checked luggage, carry-on bags are a matter of personal choice and how they’ll function best for you and your travel style.
We’ve selected some of the best reviewed carry-on bags available on the market to help you decide which bag is right for your travel style.
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Hard-sided luggage is all the rage these days, with good reason. The hard outer shell, usually made of a lightweight polycarbonate plastic, is sturdy, long-lasting, easy to clean, and often waterproof.
Additionally, these types of bags have proven to stand up to a beating in the cargo hold, but that’s not as much of a concern in a carry-on bag, as you’ll handle it yourself. For all those benefits, the hard-sided luggage is less flexible, sometimes harder to store in overhead bins, and can show scratches and general wear-and-tear more easily.
Taking all those things into mind, here are our favorite hard-sided carry-ons:
While other hard-sided luggage has been around, Away has taken over the competition with this original carry-on sized piece. It’s lightweight at only seven lbs. empty, with four 360-degree spinner wheels for easy maneuvering through busy airports. The interior compression system allows you to pack more items than you’d expect, and there’s even a water-resistant laundry bag to keep your wet or dirty clothes separated from your clean clothes. The optional battery-powered charging station in the top of the bag will charge up your phone while you wait in an airport lounge (check airline regulations for bringing the battery on a plane, though). Plus it has great return and warranty policies.
At just six lbs. empty, the CALPAK Ambeur Carry-On is one of the lightest hard-sided carry-ons we found. It’s fairly no-nonsense, with the usual polycarbonate exterior, spinner wheels, and interior compression straps. What sets it apart are the multiple interior pockets, which are handy for sorting clothes, and the price. At $195, it’s one of the rare carry-ons of this quality under $200.
Similar in size and style to the Away Travel Carry-On, the Roam version is also lightweight and versatile, with a strong polycarbonate shell and TSA approved lock, plus compression system and 360-degree spinning wheels. The zipper is water-repellant, protecting your belongings from the elements if you find yourself caught in a surprise storm.
However, the Roam Carry On is available in an infinite combination of colors. You can customize front and back shell panels, zipper, binding, wheels, and handles with a variety of color choices, and they’ll even add a monogram patch. With so many hard-sided carry-ons in airports, that’s a great way for your bag to stand out from the crowd.
Soft-sided bags have traditionally been more popular among carry-on luggage. They’re easily expandable, have exterior pockets, and more readily fit into most overhead storage bins on airplanes while showing less wear-and-tear.
However, they are not oblivious to wear and can, on occasion, tear, though most modern luggage material is substantially improved over bags of the past. They are not waterproof or water-resistant like their hard-sided neighbors either.
Here are a few of the best reviewed soft-sided carry-on bags:
Of all the soft-sided luggage we’ve personally had, this is our favorite. With multiple pockets, including some mesh to allow breathability of our clothes, there’s a place for everything in this suitcase. The spinner wheels allow you to zip through airports and train stations unimpeded, and the tough exterior has shown little to no real wear in the several years we’ve used it. Should things spill, the lining is removable and washable.
This standard soft-sided carry-on suitcase isn’t so standard after all, with a zip out garment bag (handy for business travel) and a built-in USB port for charging your phone. Reviewers love the compact size, guaranteed to fit most overhead bin spaces, and the easy glide across airport floors. The padded exterior pocket allows you to pack your laptop in this suitcase without worrying about damage or having to carry a separate laptop bag. And if that’s not enough, you can upgrade your plastic sandwich bag and use the included TSA-compliant toiletries bag that fits conveniently into an outside pocket.
For the money, at less than $130, this carry-on suitcase from SwissGear is a solid piece of luggage. It’s got everything you could need without any extra fancy bells and whistles. There’s plenty of packing room, interior and exterior pockets, 360-degree spinner wheels, a locking telescoping handle, and is lightweight at under six lbs. At 18 inches, it’s smaller than other carry-on suitcases but is perfect for a quick weekend getaway.
Those who love duffel bags swear by them. They are almost infinitely expandable, pack easily, and can be roomy in spite of their size. In addition, most are made from a water-resistant material or if you’re the fancy type, a sleek leather. They squish into overhead compartments with ease.
The drawback to all that packing room is the temptation to pack it so full it becomes too heavy to maneuver. While some have rollers attached, most are carried by a strap over a shoulder or cross-body. They’re also less secure and more difficult to keep organized on the road.
Here are some of reviewers’ favorite carry-on sized duffel bags:
The Everywhere Bag is both a duffel, and not. It’s built like a traditional duffel bag on the outside, and has both hand-held and shoulder straps. It’s compact and slightly smaller than the average carry-on suitcase, and weighs less than four lbs. But unlike regular duffel bags, this one has structure and compartments that make it pack much like a regular suitcase, giving you the best of both worlds. It has a hook for your water bottle and a padded pocket for your laptop, and slips easily over the handles of any Away suitcase, making it a great addition to your suitcase collection.
If you’re anything like us, you hate packing shoes so they touch your clean clothes. It’s a thing, we know, and Calpak has solved that problem with this Stevyn duffel bag. The bottom compartment is designed for shoes, but of course you can put anything you like in there, keeping it separate from the rest of your goods. It’s lightweight polyester fabric comes in six colors, and is just the right size for a quick weekend getaway.
Like all things YETI, this duffel is meant to take a beating, with an ultra-durable nylon material that’s stain resistant and slow to show wear-and-tear. It also comes with internal pockets, something lacking in the traditional duffel bag structure, as well as a more structured shell, so the bag won’t collapse on itself while you’re packing. While it comes in a 40L and 60L size, only the 40L is small enough to count as a carry-on suitcase on most airplanes.
Backpacks are the ultimate in lightweight(ish) travel, and they’ve come a long way in the last decade. Combining the simplicity and packability of a duffel bag with the added support of backpack straps makes them easier to carry and free up your hands.
They usually have a plethora of pockets for organized storage, and because they are attached to your person, they can be more secure. Backpacks are also all-terrain travelers, because they aren’t dragged behind or beside you — where you go, they go.
While it’s on the expensive side for a backpack, this is more than just a backpack. The Away Travel F.A.R has enough room to pack for at least five days of adventures, thanks to an internal compression system. And the backpack straps stow away into their own compartments, so it converts into a duffel bag as well. Better yet, It’s made from 100% recycled materials and is water resistant.
This carry-on backpack has separate compartments for organizing all of your belongings, making it much like a regular carry-on suitcase, but much lighter, at less than three lbs. empty. The many pockets include a protective pocket that holds up to a 17-inch laptop and organizers for your phone as well.
Reviewers loved the size—just big enough for up to five days travel, but light enough to carry without much effort. It’s also small enough to count as the personal item that fits under the seat, so it can make a great companion to another piece of carry-on luggage, though for short trips we don’t think you’ll need anything else except this bag.
We’ve traveled with backpacks before, and would have loved to have some of the features in this model from Samsonite, including the two inches of expansion room and the open flat interior compartment. The latter allows you to pack this backpack like a suitcase. Nothing wrong with the ranger roll packing method, but this keeps your clothes neat and tidy, with compression straps and zippered mesh pockets. The easy access side pocket makes reaching for your phone easy, without having to take off the pack as well.
What to Keep in Mind When Choosing Carry-On Bag
The average carry-on bag should be no larger than 22”x14”x9”, and weigh around 22 lbs. when fully packed. However, each airline has different regulations for both the exact size and weight of carry-on luggage. For example, American Airlines allows carry-on bags to weigh up to 40 lbs., but Delta Air Lines has no weight limit attached to its carry-on bag policy (with the exception of a few airports).
When choosing a new carry-on bag, there are a few things to take into consideration, including weight when empty, maneuverability, looks, functionality, style, and budget. We feel budget is an important part of the equation, as quality luggage can get expensive; however, in some cases you do get what you pay for. Frequent travelers invest in quality luggage because it needs to be durable and long-lasting. Those who travel infrequently can usually get away with a less expensive carry-on bag, as it doesn’t see the wear and tear of a die-hard traveler.
To help make your choice easier, we’ve broken up our picks for carry-on bags into four subcategories: hard-sided, soft-sided, duffel, and backpacks.
Prices are accurate and items in stock at time of publishing.