The best carry-on luggage for every traveler

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Whether you’re crossing state lines or international borders, having the best carry-on luggage can help you enjoy your trip fully. After all, no one wants to pay to check any more baggage than they have to. The trick is to find a carry-on that is big enough to carry your belongings, without being so big it won’t fit in the overhead compartment or exceed TSA requirements for carry-on bag size. Keep in mind though, that different airlines may have their own requirements for what is considered carry-on luggage and what will fit in their planes. Generally speaking, the smaller the plane, the smaller the overhead bins — and the smaller your luggage will have to be. 

While quality luggage can be expensive, a carry-on you can depend on is more than worth the investment. When comparing different carry-ons, consider not only size and maneuverability but other features like interior pockets, TSA-approved locks, and built-in portable chargers to help you stay powered while on the move. Oh, and don’t forget to choose something attractive, too — you want a bag that’s easy to spot, so you don’t lose it or get it accidentally mixed up with another traveler!

What makes a carry-on bag? 

Technically speaking, any bag that you “carry on” to an airplane is considered a carry-on bag. Most airlines allow travelers to bring one piece of carry-on luggage or “hand baggage” that can fit in the overhead bin onto a flight. In addition, you may also be able to bring a “personal item” such as a smaller purse, computer bag, diaper bag, or small backpack onto the plane in addition to your carry-on luggage.

What’s the maximum size for a carry-on bag?

Each airline has its own restrictions for how large your carry-on luggage can be, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) doesn’t regulate a set size and weight either. This can make it complex and confusing for travelers to know if their carry-on bag is “legal” or not. Most airlines allow carry-on luggage that according to the FAA must not be larger than 45 linear inches (length + width + height). 

To avoid the hassle (and cost) of having to check your bag, make sure your carry-on doesn’t exceed this size at full capacity, especially if it is an expandable model. No matter what, you should always check with your airline for their latest guidelines on carry-on size. And believe it or not, some airlines even have different carry-on size restrictions depending on whether you’re flying economy, business, or first class.

Most domestic carriers in the U.S. allow carry-on luggage with maximum size ranging from 45 linear inches to 51 linear inches. The only airline to have a set carry-on weight limit is Hawaiian airlines (25 lbs).

How to measure carry-on luggage

Knowing the dimensions of your carry-on bag is one thing, but knowing how airlines will measure your bag is key to ensuring a smooth trip. For starters, the airline will measure your luggage from the contact point with the ground to the highest point — this means that both handles and wheels are included in the measurement.

To measure your carry-on at home, follow these steps

  1. Height: To measure the height of your luggage, measure from the contact point with the ground to the highest point of the bag.

  2. Width: Lay your carry-on on its side and measure from the ground to the top point. Don’t forget to include straps, handles, and side pockets.

  3. Depth: Lay your carry-on on its front or back and repeat the ground to top point measurement to find the depth.

  4. Total: Add these three measurements together to find the total linear inches of your carry-on — most airlines have a maximum of 45 to 51 linear inches. If your carry-on luggage exceeds any airline maximum or 45 to 51 linear inches, you may have to check it.

What should I look for in a carry-on bag? 

With so many carry-on bags available on the market, it can be hard to know what to look for to ensure you’re getting the best carry-on luggage. Here are some features that make packing and traveling a more pleasant experience. 

Size Plus Weight

Arguably, the most important considerations when it comes to choosing the best carry-on luggage for your needs are the size and weight. As discussed, you want a bag that meets the FAA guidelines of being less than 45 linear inches. But you also need a bag that’s large enough to hold all your gear for at least a couple of days. It’s a balancing act between the two sides. Additionally, you want a carry-on that is lightweight, so you don’t tire yourself out wheeling it through the airport or carrying it between destinations. Look for bags that weigh no more than 7.5 pounds.

Expandability

Carry-on luggage that is expandable offers you just that little bit of extra storage capacity so nothing gets left behind. However, if you’re going to carry on your luggage in its expanded format, be sure to measure it to see if it meets airline specifications. The expandable feature is really ideal for when you’re using your carry-on as a weekend or overnight bag for non-air travel. 

Spinner wheels

Most carry-on luggage comes with wheels, and in this case, more really is more. Bags with four wheels instead of two — also called spinner luggage — are easier to navigate in tight spaces because the wheels turn 360 degrees. They’re also more ergonomic than two-wheeled rolling luggage because you can push ‘em, pull ‘em, wheel ‘em at your side, and they turn in any direction.

Laundry bag/compartment

A carry-on bag that includes a laundry bag or compartment makes it easy to keep your clean and dirty (or wet and dry) clothes separated. Some bags also feature a dedicated shoe compartment, while others have a tri-fold garment bag to help keep your suit or fancy dress wrinkle-free. 

Smart luggage 

Smart luggage includes features such as built-in chargers and USB ports for helping you stay powered up while away from home. Smart carry-on luggage may also have a built-in scale or TSA lock, as well as the ability to share its location via GPS or cellular — so you never have to worry about losing your bag again.

Squared corners

Carry-on luggage with squared corners may not look as stylish as their rounded-corner counterparts, but they allow you to fit just a little bit more into your bag — and make it easier to pack, to boot. 

TSA lock

While it’s understandable that you want to keep your belongings secure, TSA officers must be able to inspect your baggage and its contents should the need arise. However, there are carry-ons with locks that are TSA-approved — which means they can be opened using a universal “master” key that only TSA agents have access to so that they don’t have to cut the locks off your bag. 

What are the benefits of hardside and softside bags?

The advantage of hardside luggage is pretty obvious — it helps to keep the items inside the bag safe from damage. This includes an accidental drop. Hardside luggage is also able to withstand the elements a bit better than softside bags. The advantage of softside luggage is that it is a bit more forgiving in terms of being able to stuff more things inside — and to stuff them in the overhead compartment. They’re also better for packing irregularly-shaped items. Soft-sided bags also tend to have more external pockets than hardside luggage, perfect for quick access to smaller items.

Remember, even if your bag meets the required dimensions and weight limit of the airline you’re flying with, you could still be asked to check or gate check your bag. This usually happens if the flight is full or it is an older, smaller plane. Additionally, not every plane has overhead storage compartments that are large enough to accommodate full-sized carry-on luggage at all. The good news is, if your bag needs to be checked for one of these reasons, you shouldn’t be charged a fee for checking it. No matter what type of carry-on luggage you’re looking for, we’ve got an option for you. Check out our list of the best carry-on luggage below to find your next bag — and bon voyage!



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