If there’s one travel rule I have, it’s to only use a carry-on—yep, even for international travel. Whether I’m going to Colorado or Canada, I’ll reach for a carry-on to avoid checked bag fees, lost time at luggage claim, and lost baggage (which, in case you were wondering, is at an all-time high) this year).
Now that we’re starting to travel more regularly again, I’m spending every minute that I can anywhere but where I actually live. And just in time too, as testing carry-on luggage comes with the job.
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How we tested the best carry-on luggage
I had a pretty good idea of what’s popular based on years of people-watching at airports, but I still went about developing the testing pool as I normally do with other Best of the Test guides. I researched what carry-ons industry competitors and frequent fliers considered to be among the best, browsed the top sellers at our community’s favorite brands, and filtered through positive and negative reviews.
From there, I set up certain testing parameters to keep things realistic: the carry-ons had to fit most airline regulations (it’s best to check your specific airline, but generally, carry-on luggage for domestic and international flights are 22 inches x 14 inches x 9 inches, had to have a hard shell (they’re better at protecting breakable items than soft-sided ones, and prevents you from overpacking to the point where the bag no longer fits in the overhead compartments), had to have four wheels (also more convenient when
running rolling around airports and tight aisles), and had to have a minimum one-year warranty on parts.
Once I whittled the list down to five carry-ons, I tested each one for a month in a series of stress tests, and traveled with two during a three-day trip with my husband. I plan on testing the others during my next trip since well, you can only have one carry-on per person.
Here’s how we tested and evaluated the best carry-ons:
Capacity: I packed three days’ worth of clothes, shoes, accessories, and camera gear for a hiking trip into each suitcase with compression bags, and evaluated how full the clamshell sides were, and how easily the carry-ons zipped. I also considered the weight of each empty carry-on.
Durability: Here’s where the stress tests came in. I zipped and unzipped each suitcase for five minutes until my hands and wrists were sore, and pushed each one over gravel and concrete five times. Normally, I’d be happy to drop something from 10 feet in the air, but realistically, you’re more likely to knock over your suitcase while traveling. I also rolled each suitcase over yards of gravel and concrete, and—in the case of the ones that I took to the airport—smooth carpet, shiny tiled floors, and tricky escalators.
Useful features: I tested each carry-on’s suite of features including removable battery packs, telescoping handles, laptop sleeves, compression sleeves, TSA-approved locks, and more.
Warranty: Each carry-on had to have at least a one-year warranty on parts.
Four of the five carry-ons I tested made it into the guide (a sticky zipper was the deciding factor), and I’ll continue to test them over the next few months to see how they hold up. In the meantime, check out the handy chart below for the quick hits. For the full results, keep reading.
1. Best carry-on luggage for overpackers: Away The Carry-On Flex
Overall dimensions: 21.7 inches x 13.7 inches x 9 inches (+2.25 inches when expanded)
As a habitual overpacker, testing Away’s Carry-On Flex gave me a slight sense of relief. When it’s not expanded, the Carry-on Flex can hold up to 39.8 liters—which was the smallest capacity among the carry-ons I’d tested and held just barely enough for three days. But when you expand the suitcase, you get another 2.25 inches of room and a larger 46.7 liter capacity. Depending on the airline, this might be fine, so be sure to check your airline’s carry-on measurements first. Otherwise, you risk playing the fun game of rearranging your bag at the gate, which is going to be more stressful if you forget the combo on the TSA lock, or (even worse) checking in your carry-on.
To maximize the capacity, there’s a compression sleeve with a large mesh pocket and a laundry bag conveniently tucked out of the way. Overpackers will also find the recessed handle at the bottom of the carry-on extra useful; the handle helps lifting the bag in and out of the overhead compartment a bit easier and safer. And your hands won’t have to touch the gross wheels if you place the suitcase handle-first. No matter how much I
packed overpacked, the zippers never stretched out and the wheels never groaned—both features were among the smoothest of the bunch.
It’s an investment piece for sure, but the 100-day trial means you can try it out on an upcoming trip before deciding if it’s right for you. Plus, the limited lifetime warranty on parts means that Away will fix or replace parts if they’re broken.
2. Best carry-on luggage for work trips: July Carry On Pro
Overall dimensions: 21.5 inches x 15 inches x 8.5 inches
There’s nothing more stressful than cracking open your carry-on to fish out your laptop or tablet in front of 20 other weary travelers in the security line, or trying to grab your laptop before shoving your bag into the overhead compartment as someone tries to weave around you in the aisle while boarding. For travelers on work trips, or even travelers who plan their next trip while in the air, July’s Carry On Pro has a convenient removable sleeve for laptops or tablets up to 16 inches.
There are two pockets: one that fits a laptop up to 16 inches and another for smaller documents like a passport or physical boarding pass. You snap the sleeve onto the exterior of the carry-on, and when you need it, unzip the sleeve and pull up on the interior handle—this step gave me a sense of comfort and security that someone wouldn’t be able to steal my laptop in the airport. I’d be hesitant to put too much in the sleeve, though. It fell off once because I overstuffed it (no surprise here) and the sleeve couldn’t get a secure fit on the suitcase.
There’s also a TSA-friendly lock and a handy ejectable battery pack right by the telescoping handle for convenience. With smooth wheels, a useful compression sleeve with a mesh pocket, and a hard shell, July’s carry-on was sleek and easy to travel with. Unfortunately, it doesn’t expand like Away’s Carry-On Flex, but with 42 liters of capacity—the second largest I tested—it could fit three days’ worth of clothes, accessories, and gear with no major problems. Similar to Away though, July also comes with a 100-day trial and limited lifetime warranty on manufacturing defects.
3. Best eco-friendly carry-on: Aviator Carry-On
Overall dimensions: 21.7 inches x 13.7 inches x 9 inches
Flying isn’t an eco-friendly activity; there’s carbon emission with every flight and so much single-use plastic on the plane for hygiene reasons. But with Paravel’s Aviator Carry-On, almost every piece is made from upcycled materials: the shell from recycled polycarbonate, the handle from recycled aircraft-grade aluminum, the zippers from recycled materials, and the interior lining from recycled plastic bottles. Paravel also offsets the carbon emissions from sourcing, assembling, shipping, and delivery of each suitcase.
The carry-on was a breeze to test, and I almost didn’t want to knock it all over my driveway because it’s so pretty. While I love the sleekness of Away and July, Paravel’s contrasting leather accents and metal reinforced corners are surprisingly chic for luggage (almost making up for the awkward placement of the TSA lock). The wheels are smooth and the interior pockets offer the same compression as others I tested. I actually prefer Paravel’s compression sleeve to the rest—it’s not made of mesh like the others so it offers more privacy and is less likely to snag, too.
At a little over eight pounds when empty, this was the heaviest suitcase I tested, so avoid overpacking if you’re not going to be able to lift it into the overhead compartment. Or if you’re traveling with someone, just ask them to help so you can squeeze in a few extra things to maximize the 43.7 liter interior (the largest of the carry-ons I tested). The five-year limited warranty covers manufacturing defects, wear and tear on parts through normal use, and structural damage, which is more generous than other warranties that only cover manufacturing defects.
4. Best affordable carry-on luggage: Samsonite Omni PC Hardside Expandable Luggage
Overall dimensions: 22 inches x 15 inches x 9.5 inches
Durable luggage is usually expensive, but Samsonite’s Omni PC Hardside is an exception. While $157 is not cheap, it’s a reasonable price for travelers who might hop on a plane a few times a year and don’t want to strain their shoulders under a large tote.
The hardshell case has a tiny crosshatch pattern that hid the most scuffs during testing. The rugged exterior doesn’t look as sleek as Away’s or as pretty as Paravel’s, but when you’re hustling through a crowded airport, it’s likely the last thing on your mind—you’ll just appreciate the hard shell and seamless 360° wheels even more.
However, the Samsonite’s TSA lock is on the side, which is awkward when you need to quickly access the interior, and lacks a compression sleeve and an interior pocket, which all the others I tested had. There are straps to prevent items from tumbling out if you open the carry-on when it’s upright, but nothing that’ll help get you more space. These shouldn’t be deal breakers for most travelers though, especially those who rely on packing cubes.
Samsonite has the longest warranty at 10 years, which covers manufacturing defects and workmanship, and makes this budget-friendly carry-on go the extra mile.
5. Community Favorite: Away The Bigger Carry-On
Overall dimensions: 22.7 inches x 14.7 inches x 9.6 inches
Our Instagram community overwhelmingly raved about Away’s The Bigger Carry-On, which I plan on testing next. It’s slightly larger than the The Carry-On Flex I tested, so be sure to compare the specs and see if the airlines you usually fly are compatible. If so, you may want to consider this because the capacity is much more impressive at 47.9 liters, which the brand says can fit enough for four to seven days, and it’s slightly less expensive, too. It has the same features otherwise: 360° wheels, interior compression, TSA lock, a laundry bag, 100-day trial, and lifetime warranty.
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