Whether it’s wrongly taken off the baggage claim or loaded on an incorrect flight, losing a checked bag is an occupational hazard for frequent fliers, which is why most carry their personal effects on instead. For the seasoned traveler, carry-on luggage needs to hold a few changes of clothes and maybe an extra pair of shoes, have pockets for mid-journey access and meet the requirements for fitting in an overhead compartment.
What separates these from backpacks and duffles? Wheels and telescoping handles, because rolling always beats hauling a bag over your shoulder. However, simply having wheels and a handle is the bare minimum. There's plenty more that goes into getting carry-on luggage that's just right for you and the way and where you travel.
Carry-On vs. Checked Bag
For frequent travelers, this is a hotly contested debate. Busy business travelers prefer a carry-on bag because it lessens the likelihood it'll get lost, stolen, opened or rummaged through. Plus, a carry-on helps you get from your arrival gate to the airport's exit faster. For those that travel just a few times each year, checking a bag makes perfect sense, either because a credit card or loyalty program offers them for free or because they'd rather pay the extra for the peace of mind — and a few extra outfits.
To be honest, though, carry-on luggage is a must-buy no matter whether you travel with a bigger bag more often. What happens when you book a quick weekend getaway? Or, when you're whisked away on a one- or two-day business trip? While two backpacks and a duffle might do the job, it's easier to have a carry-on bag on standby. It's the one suitcase everyone should own.
How Big Can a Carry-On Be?
Unfortunately, there's no universal guide for carry-on luggage. Although it'd make sense for each airline to adhere to size restrictions set by the TSA, each one has its own set of rules. Most airlines' carry-on compartments can accommodate a bag or suitcase no bigger than 14 by 9 by 22 inches.
- American Airlines: 14 by 9 by 22 inches
- Delta Airlines: 14 by 9 by 22 inches
- Frontier Airlines: 16 by 10 by 24 inches
- JetBlue: 14 by 9 by 22 inches
- Southwest Airlines: 16 by 10 by 24 inches
- Spirit: 18 by 10 by 22 inches
- United Airlines: 14 by 9 by 22 inches
How Heavy Can a Carry-On Be?
Few domestic airlines set maximum weight limits on carry-on luggage. In fact, few will ever even check your bag unless it seems like you're struggling to wheel it through the airport, lift it onto the security belt or into the overhead bin. Frontier Airlines, for example, lists a maximum weight of 35 lbs, and since you have to pay for carry-on bags, you'll be asked to place it on a scale at checkout — which happens at the check-in counter.
What Is Allowed in a Carry-On?
The TSA has seen it all. As such, there's an ever-growing list of items the TSA has already approved for carrying on. You can access it here. (It's appropriately titled "What Can I Bring?") For any item that is not listed, you can easily message the TSA through Facebook or Twitter for a fast answer, the agency says.
It's important to remember the long-standing rules, though. You can't bring any liquids in bottles bigger than 3.4 ounces, and all of them must fit in a quart-sized bag. You can, however, bring e-cigarettes and vapes as long as they are not used in-flight. In fact, you cannot pack these items in your checked bag. That being said, if these are marijuana products, you risk being referred to the local enforcement if found.
"TSA’s screening procedures are focused on security and are designed to detect potential threats to aviation and passengers. Accordingly, TSA security officers do not search for marijuana or other illegal drugs, but if any illegal substance is discovered during security screening, TSA will refer the matter to a law enforcement officer," the agency explains.
How to Pack Your Carry-On Luggage
- Fold, don't roll: Rolling actually makes your clothes more wrinkled, it takes up more room, and if you’re using space-saving packing tools, rolling just isn’t a good technique.
- Compartmentalize: Organizational tools — packing cubes, vacuum bags, even Ziploc bags — facilitate more thoughtful packing.
- Think in layers: People often make the mistake of packing bulky items instead of many smaller layers.
- Do laundry: It goes back to the concept of a vacation still being your reality — there are still places to do laundry.
- Comes in a bunch of colors
- The battery pack can be added for only $20
- The handle is flimsy
- Everyone has one
Away burst onto the scene in late 2015 with a plan to disrupt the stale luggage market. It was, as we call them now, a DTC disruptor — a brand that'd cut out the middlemen and approach prospective customers directly. (DTC = direct-to-consumer.) Its first product, The Carry-On, was perfectly plain, a product that first appear lame but would go on to be fairly ubiquitous because of its simplicity. It also introduced a feature that's now commonplace on trendy suitcases: an integrated lithium-ion battery for charging your phone.
"My favorite aspect of the Away Carry-On is the integrated lithium-ion battery (available as an add-on for $20 more), which is capable of powering your phone or tablet as you travel. Outlets are hard to come by in the airport, and if you do work from your phone like I do, having a dead battery isn't an option. Being able to take my own power source with me, without having to carry yet another accessory like a portable charger around felt empowering. The most noticeable thing I didn't like about Away's case was its handle — it feels very flimsy, and at odds with the rest of the construction." — Hayley Helms, Staff Writer
- Looks super luxe
- Hardware feels significant
- Gets dinged up fast
- The wheels are not as premium as the shell
- Warranty is lackluster
This is the status suitcase. Recognizable by its ridged aluminum exterior, Rimowa's Classic Cabin Carry-On is a go-to for first-class, full-time and famous travelers. (You've probably see plenty of touring musicians with theirs covered in stickers. It's the cool thing to do.) The German brand dates back the late 19th century and production still takes place in Cologne, where the company is headquartered. It is now, however, owned by luxury conglomerate LVMH.
What does that mean? Well, the quality hasn't changed, but the conversations around the suitcases have. LVMH elevated the brand, making it as much a cultural touchpoint as it is a celebrated titan of consumer product design. You'll appreciate it all-aluminum exterior and leather accents, but the wheels, which are hard plastic, feel lackluster in comparison. Plus, considering this is the most expensive option on this list, you'd expect a better warranty.
Dimensions: 21.7 by 15.8 by 9.1 inches
Weight: 9.5 lbs
Capacity: 48 L
Warranty: 5 years if you register; 2 if you do not
- Affordable in comparison
- Features double wheels for a smoother ride
- Customization is on pause for now
- Certain colors are often out of stock
"So often in the luggage world, functionality equal drab design. July's sleek carry-on tries to buck the trend, melding first-class materials with looks to match. The crush-proof German polycarbonate shell protects 46 liters of storage including a hidden laundry bag, waterproof nylon lining and ejectable FastCharge USB-C battery. With two latch locks, the suitcase is a breeze to get into. And it can move easily from airport to sidewalk thanks to smooth double wheels and a multi-height telescopic handle.
It's common for luggage companies to offer customization. But while most brands stick to monograms, July gives you the option of whole words or phrases — albeit, short ones. The accessible price and lightweight build — it's 8.4 pounds when empty — make this suitcase from a startup Australian brand quite desirable. So much so that certain colors are sometimes backordered during peak travel months." — John Zientek, Senior Editor
Dimensions: 21.5 by 15 by 8.5 inches
Weight: 7.4 lbs
Capacity: 42 L
Warranty: Lifetime warranty
- Also has an easy access front pocket
- Handle is heavy duty
- Front pocket doesn't have a lock
- Suitcase isn't the most luxe
"Most carry-ons are matte plastic of some kind, but Monos' is much smoother and nice-looking than many in this price range (roughly $300). This model comes with a big zip pocket on the front of the case, which has laptop sleeves and spots for books and passports galore. I also think this case has a bit more "stretch" than other hard plastic shell carry-ons I've tried; that extra bit of give means I was able to force an extra pair of jeans in this case where I might not have been able to in another. When you try your best to not check luggage, this is a very big deal. I'm someone who tends to drag the handle up and down constantly while skittering around the airport nervously, so this one was tested, well, thoroughly. This one feels more secure than most, which is a bit surprising because this case leans a bit more into the value realm than it does the high-end.
One negative: I love the laptop sleeve, but I really wish there was a TSA-approved lock to secure it like there is with the main compartment. Perhaps there are guidelines of what can and can't be locked up, but I didn't feel comfortable leaving the laptop in the non-locked zipper, even when it's stowed away." — Will Price, Contributor
Dimensions: 22 by 14 by 9 inches
Weight: 7.8 lbs
Capacity: 36 L
- 7.7 lbs is incredibly lightweight
- Wheels are super durable
- Still pricy
Two Gear Patrol staffers have tested this option from Zero Haliburton.
"This is a polycarbonate case that feels premium. While the plastic-shelled market is pretty saturated right now, Zero Halliburton manages to set itself apart with the details. It's got a handle that's far better than the competition, a scalloped grip handle near wheels for easy lifting, retractable rubberized side handles and an interior designed to help you organize your belongings. It's on the upper edge of the polycarbonate spectrum for good reason." — John Zientek, Senior Editor
"This was my first higher-end carry-on luggage. I tested it thinking it was unlikely to live up to its nearly $500 price tag. Outside the usual airport run-ins, the 'test' included about as rigorous a challenge a suitcase could endure: the nearly millenia-and-then-some-old streets of Seville, Spain.
The wheels, which feel cheap but clearly are not, held fast. Frankly, few things give me more anxiety than my imagination, and imagining a wheel popping off and having to drag my carry-on (which was packed to the brim to avoid having to check a bag) around an unfamiliar city. In an airport, I wish for nothing to touch the ground unless absolutely necessary, so I also appreciate the nubs, for lack of a better word, on the sides of the case. They're about an inch tall, and they make sure the suitcase can sit on the ground horizontally without touching the ground completely.
All things considered, $475 still feels like a lot of cash to spend on a suitcase, but, for frequent travelers, this is a small figure for peace of mind." — Will Price, Contributor
Dimensions: 22 by 14 by 9 inches
Weight: 7.7 lbs
Capacity: 35 L
Warranty: 5 years
- Can expand
- Endless customization
- Emphasizes aesthetics over performance
Everyone has an Away, which makes picking your suitcase out of a lineup difficult. These are all carry-ons, though, so you won't need to grab it off a carousel, reducing the likelihood you'll accidentally grab someone else's. Despite that, Roam offers a unique solution in order to further prevent potential swaps: You can customize this suitcase to your liking. At checkout, you're asked to pick the color of the front shell, back shell, zipper, bindings, wheels, handle and monogram patch. There are between 8 and 10 color options for each, meaning there's a nearly endless number of combinations you could come up with, making your suitcase uniquely yours.
Dimensions: 22 by 14.5 by 9-13 inches
Weight: 7.3 lbs
Capacity: 37-51 L
- Front pocket is unique and easy to access
- Has lots of internal compartments
- If the plane runs out of overhead space, you're best retrieving your laptop so it doesn't get crushed
- Front pocket doesn't have a lock
This Calpak suitcase has a unique feature that separates it from most other carry-on luggage: a hard-shell front pocket. Most suitcases unzip and open like a clamshell, but while Calpak's carry-on does that, it also has a polycarbonate front pocket that opens like a backpack for your laptop and other important items. That makes this bag the ideal option for busy business travelers, folks working on the go and others who do not have the ability (or desire) to carry a personal item. The pocket can fit up to a 16 inch laptop, and it has pockets for your passport, notebooks and even a regular book.
Dimensions: 21.5 by 13.75 by 9.25 inches
Weight: 8.4 lbs
Capacity: 38 L
Warranty: 2 years
- Easy to tip over
- Doesn't protect valuables
I rarely pack valuables in my carry-on. I'll tow a backpack to separate my laptop, headphones and passport from the rest of what I pack because I like knowing I can access them if I really need them. With Eastpak's Trans4 Carry-On, you'll need to, too. The soft-sided suitcase doesn't offer much in terms of protection, but it works well for clothing, shoes and toiletries. Straps on either side help compress the carry-on once fully packed, creating a compact, evenly distributed suitcase that easily glides through airports and airport security.
I did find, however, that the wheels were not the most stable. The bag was easily tipped over if the weight inside was not distributed properly, or if something snagged it as it rolled along. That being said, the soft sides are a refreshing departure from hard-sided plastic or aluminum. Not only is it quieter, but it's softer on the hands when loading it into the overhead bin or pressing your knee on it to get it closed.
Dimensions: 21.6 by 14.3 by 9 inches
Weight: 6.97 lbs
Capacity: 45 L
Warranty: 2 years
- Won the iF Design Award
- Has strong wheels
- Isn't available in the US yet
"This brand of affordable luggage was an iF Design Award winner in 2017 and now gives brands like Away, Tumi and Rimowa some competition. I have been testing one since December of 2019. Not a new product, but it is new for the US. It was supposed to launch in early 2020 stateside, but because of reasons well known, scrapped the initial US launch — so TBD there. But the suitcase is sturdy as hell, has great wheels and a handle that doesn't torque. It also looks great for a fraction of the price of other aluminum brands." — John Zientek, Senior Editor
Dimensions: 21.65 by 14.76 by 8.46 inches
Weight: 9.26 lbs
Capacity: 31 L
Warranty: 5 years
- Easy to wear like a backpack
- Isn't a suitcase
"I have yet to be switch over to a rolling bag, and this incredibly versatile pack is a big reason why. I've used it for everything from cross-country trips to delivering meals-on-wheels by bike around Brooklyn. Super comfortable, even with lots of cargo, and the boxy shape and unzippable sections enable carrying even large awkward items like motorcycle helmets. As structured as it appears, it packs down accordion-style so it's pretty easy to stash when not in use. The daisy chains on the back are great for tying on additional gear too." — Steve Mazzucchi, Senior Editor
Dimensions: 51 by 34 by 28 cm
Capacity: 50 L