Photo by Kelsey McClellan, styling by Michelle Macguire
Photo by Kelsey McClellan, styling by Michelle Macguire
Roam’s Jaunt carry-on can hold 40 liters and comes in seven different colors.
Watch out, wobbly handles. Back off, boring colors. These compact carry-ons are making their way to an overhead compartment near you.
Where in-line fixed wheels and rickety handles were once the standard, sleek and sturdy luggage options have rolled in to steal the show when it comes to the best weekend getaway bags. These four-wheeled spinners—and backpacks and duffels for the wheel-averse—are compact and colorful but spacious enough to pack what you need for a few days of adventure. With all the bells and whistles, though, one question remains: Which one is actually right for you? We reviewed 10 of our favorite carry-on bags to make your decision easier.
Before you purchase a new carry-on, you’ll want to consider the kind of traveler you are and the kind of trip you’re taking. Do you pack light or do you like bringing along lots of options? Are you heading to a city or going somewhere off the grid where wheeling a suitcase along dirt paths will be a hassle? If you’re traveling for work, will you need a bag with a laptop compartment? Most importantly: Will it fit into the overhead bin on an airplane? These are the features you’ll want to keep in mind when shopping for your next piece of carry-on luggage:
Style. A four-wheeled spinner carry-on can zip through airports with ease and roll down city sidewalks without weighing you down. But if you are heading somewhere more remote, or need to navigate train stations with lots of staircases during your travels, a backpack or duffel bag you can sling across your shoulders may be more efficient.
Size. Carry-on size restrictions vary from airline to airline, but most domestic carriers allow bags up to 22 x 14 x 9 inches to be placed in overhead bins. Any larger will need to be checked, while bags under 18 x 14 x 8 can generally fit underneath the seat in front of you. In terms of capacity, carry-ons between 30 and 50 liters tend to be big enough to pack essentials for a short trip, but small enough to fit into overhead compartments.
Weight. Rolling carry-on luggage lacks the bulk it had back in the day thanks to lightweight polycarbonate shells. But if your airline also imposes strict weight limits on carry-ons, consider ditching the wheels for a travel backpack or duffel bag.
Material. When it comes to rolling carry-ons, you can choose from hard-shell polycarbonate options or soft-sided ones typically made with thick nylon. The decision is mostly aesthetic, but soft-shell luggage often comes with more pockets and expandable zippers, while hard-shell pieces tend to be more water-resistant. Carry-on backpacks and duffel bags can be made with nylon, canvas, leather, or a combination of all three. Nylon is your most durable and waterproof option. While leather may look great, it weighs more.
Sustainability. The most sustainable option is to buy a carry-on secondhand (websites like eBay, Poshmark, and REI’s used gear section are a good place to start your search online). Beyond that, many luggage brands have incorporated repurposed materials—like nylon woven from recycled water bottles—into their bags, while others like Paravel have taken their commitment to sustainability even further by off-setting carbon emissions from manufacturing and shipping.
Exchange policy and warranties. Until you take your new bag for a spin, you won’t know if it’s completely right for you. If you’re buying online, check to see if the brand offers a trial period with free returns. While you’re at it, consider its warranty policy too. You don’t want to invest hundreds of dollars in a new bag that can’t be replaced if the shell cracks or the handle breaks.
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Additional features. If you’re a business traveler who needs to stay connected on the go, you may want carry-on luggage that comes with a laptop compartment or an ejectable battery pack. Heading to a damp climate? You’ll want a bag that is water-repellent. And for those who want to stand out at the luggage carousel, consider a brand that offers its bags in a rainbow of colors.
>> Read More: The Avid Traveler's Guide to Buying Luggage
Inside, Roam’s 40-liter bag (pictured above) is simple: two big compartments with two removable accessory pockets and a laundry bag. However, it’s a showstopper in more ways than one. The Jaunt Carry-On features Hinomoto wheels–arguably the highest quality wheels in the luggage industry and made with ball bearings to ensure an ultra-smooth ride. And Roam leaves the appearance of the bag to you. With seven whimsical colors to choose from, such as Como blue and Arabian purple, it’s completely customizable–the shell color, accents, zipper, binding, wheels, carry handle, right down to the stitching. You can even monogram the leather patch on the back of your case. With details like a water-repellent zipper and a precise fit of the handle to minimize wiggling, this 6.6-pound carry-on is a solid contender.
Weighing in at 8.5 pounds, Arlo Skye’s Frame Carry-On is a bit bulkier than others on the market, but the polycarbonate shell is reinforced with an aluminum frame, making the bulk more bearable. The zipperless, 40-liter bag latches with two TSA-approved combination locks and is decked out with a compact charging station, portable charger, charging cable and adapter, two shoe bags, and a laundry bag. It rolls nicely and features an antimicrobial lining infused with natural silver fibers to prevent germ growth and odor-causing bacteria. Structurally, the bag looks a bit industrial, but the sleek color combinations—black, navy, and champagne with silver accents—ensure you’ll be rolling around the airport in style.
When quick work trips beckon, the Aer Travel Pack 2 swoops in to save the day. This versatile piece keeps all of your business trip essentials (passport, laptop, cords, and such) organized, at the ready, and secure with lockable zippers. The 33-liter Travel Pack can be carried as a backpack, shoulder bag, or briefcase, thanks to hideaway compartments that conceal straps and keep your bag looking sleek and professional.
This stylish tote is hand washable, quick drying, and prepared for whatever you’ll be getting into each weekend. Choose from a variety of colors including classic black, gray, and navy, as well as limited edition colors released seasonally. Available in five different sizes, the “extra large” is sized to fit in overhead bins on most airlines and also comes with a dedicated laptop sleeve, shoe bag, exterior phone pocket, crossbody strap, detachable zip-top pouch, and numerous interior compartments to keep belongings tidy and easy to locate.
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If your main priority is finding a good-looking bag, you could stop your search with the Paravel Aviator Carry-On. Available in six stylish colors like Safari green and Scuba navy, these hard-shell spinners come with vegan leather-wrapped steel handles, carbon steel bearing wheels, and TSA-approved locks. Beyond its beautiful design, it’s also one of the most sustainably made suitcases available on the market. In addition to using recycled materials for everything from its polycarbonate exterior to the zippers and the lining made from 15 upcycled water bottles, Paravel also offsets the carbon emissions from manufacturing and shipping the bag to you. Another bonus? It also offsets the estimated emissions from the first flight you take with the bag.
Away expertly amped up its former carry-on in linear measurements and capacity without compromising the weight of the bag itself. The 8.4-pound Bigger Carry-On holds a whopping 47.9 liters and is separated into two larger compartments, a removable mesh bag, and a hidden laundry bag, which is easily compressible and waterproof, so it can be used for, say, a wet bathing suit. Plus, this bag is the most budget-friendly of all the luggage on the list. Despite its low price, the bag looks really sleek and has top-tier Hinomoto wheels, specially built for a smooth roll. The polycarbonate exterior is available in a number of matte-finished colors, including blush, black, green, and several shades of blue. Aside from which color to buy, your toughest decision will be whether to buy the bag with or without the ejectable phone-charging battery.
The sporty Latitude International Carry-On comes with a hefty price tag, but Tumi made sure to deck out this Corvette of carry-ons to make it worth your while. The roll is smooth, the retractable handle is sturdy, and the hard shell–specially crafted with Tumi’s trademarked self-reinforced polypropylene ballistic material–is durable enough to bear high impact while still being flexible. Built to hold 35 liters, the 6.29-pound bag allows you to neatly separate and secure your items with two fully lined packing compartments, two smaller zip pockets, a mesh zip pocket, and tie-down straps. Extra corner protection comes in handy during those inevitable rough patches at the airport (like shoving your suitcase into the metal measuring bin), and it keeps your luggage looking fresh.
Weighing in at roughly half a pound, this duffel bag is for light packers who also want to keep their purchase under $100. The wide zipper opening allows easy access to belongings, and a single interior stash pocket provides just enough space for valuables. What this piece lacks in organization, it makes up for in mobility: The bag can be worn over the shoulder or as a backpack and stuffs into its own pocket for storage. Nylon ripstop fabric makes the bag tear-resistant, and a special finish means it’s water-repellent, too—an ideal outdoors pick. Plus, its body fabric, lining, and handle webbing are made with 100 percent recycled materials.
For travelers who want maximum organization but minimal bulk, the Matador SEG30 beckons. The lightweight, 30-liter backpack includes four segmented compartments that act like built-in packing cubes. As your trip unfolds, use the full-access clamshell zipper to stash larger items like dirty laundry and shoes. Better yet, there’s also a dedicated laptop compartment and zippered water bottle pocket. Another bonus? It’s waterproof (yes, even the zippers are sealed for water resistance).
Potentially the lightest carry-on you’ve ever traveled with, Rimowa’s Essential Lite Cabin bag lives up to its name. Weighing 30 percent less than its predecessor, the Essential Lite is refined with portability in mind. The 4.9-pound, 37-liter carry-on is only separated into two big, zippered sections on the inside, but what it lacks in interior compartmentalization, it makes up for in exterior flash and durability. With a polycarbonate shell, it is built to withstand wear and tear but also bend, depending on its environment. The bag is available in six eye-catching colors, including a Ferrari red and electric blue, and it has a smooth roll and comfortable T-handle.
This article originally appeared online in April 2019; it was updated on October 1, 2020, and again on February 22, 2021, to include current information.
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