Rising luggage fees and headaches at baggage claims now prompt many travelers to avoid checking a bag before boarding a flight. Instead, experienced travelers plan strategies to maximize carry-on allowances, including stuffing their jacket pockets full and stretching airlines’ rules by bringing a backpack or a huge purse as the allowed “one personal item” to stow under the seat.
But the most important part of the carry-on formula is still a primary bag or suitcase to store in the overhead compartment. It can be a duffel bag, a backpack, or, as I prefer, a square suitcase with a handle and two wheels.
Over the past year, on domestic flights as well as for trips to Europe, Asia, and South America, I tested a handful of wheel-equipped suitcases. Several outdoor-industry companies, from Wenger to High Sierra to Eagle Creek, make these types of bags, and many offer similar features and similar price tags.
For me, the No. 1 criteria is size. Major airlines like Delta, American, and United allow carry-on baggage to be a maximum of 22 × 14 × 9 inches. Your bag must not exceed this size to be allowed on the plane. A few of the bags I reviewed, like the Osprey Meridian 22 and REI’s Tech Beast Rolling Duffel, skim within millimeters of those size restrictions. Patagonia’s MLC Wheelie stretches the limit — it measures exactly 22 × 14 × 9 inches — and its name stands for “Maximum Legal Carry-On.”
Capacity hovers up to 2,500 cubic inches for the largest suitcases in the category. With these big bags, I can tote a few days’ worth of clothing and gear. Or, on expeditions and big adventures, the carry-on bag is a piece in the larger luggage puzzle. I try to avoid the huge fees that come with checking multiple pieces of luggage by loading up my carry-ons.
I pack my carry-on suitcases with heavy, valuable, and fragile items, keeping them close and safe as I travel domestically or abroad. My laptop and camera are always included. But I have stowed flashlights, ropes, carabiners, ski boots, and other heavy and bulky gear in a carry-on case as well. Make sure not to include multitools or jackknifes in this case — they will be confiscated.
A few bags I tested, like the GoLite TraveLite and the Thule TCRU-1, include hide-away backpack straps. When you can’t roll it anymore, the straps slip out to let you shoulder the bag. Osprey’s Meridian 22 one-ups the proposal with an integrated zip-off daypack. It can be used as a separate luggage piece or mated to the suitcase and frame.
Features vary from bag to bag, but all have two wheels and a long retractable handle. Some include laptop sleeves and special features to speed bag checks and TSA lines. Thule includes a unique padded sunglasses pocket on the side for quick access to optics on a trip. The Briggs & Riley Explore 19 suitcase, marketed to outdoorsy types and sold at stores like Adventure 16 and The Summit Hut, has the look of a business bag. It has a padded laptop sleeve and is made with rip-stop as well as pack-cloth nylon for a clean look.
Pelican’s 1510 Laptop Overnight Case — a substantial suitcase for cameras and computer equipment that’s watertight, crush-proof, and dust-proof — has thick plastic walls, O-ring seals, and a pressure-equalization valve. It costs $398.95.
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