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, especially during the holiday season, when a lost bag means lost gifts. 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.
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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.
How We Tested
Our testers took a number of carry-on suitcases on flights across the US and the Atlantic. Each one observed the suitcases' key features, like whether the wheels roll smoothly, the handle is truly telescopic or if the inside isn't forgiving to over-packers.
They stayed with them, too, so they could be observed outside the airport. As such, we also considered how it fit in the trunk of your car, onto a luggage trolley, inside your hotel room and even in your closet at home (when not on the road).