Airline Carry-On Suitcases


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.

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Roll-aboard suitcases from Wenger, Thule and Briggs & Riley

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.

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Suitcases from Osprey, REI, and Rick Steves

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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Posted by Marianna - 01/19/2011 01:52 PM

I almost never check anymore. I’ve gone for 4 weeks w/one carry on. Since I’m a runner I use the tech shirts they give you. They will even dry overnight at high altitude. Compression sacks. Organize clothes by type for each sack, makes everything easy to find.Take only 2 colors.I personally only use a small rolling carry on that has back pack straps.There usually are a lot of steps in travel and being able to “put on” your bag helps.Every trip the bag has gotten smaller.We’ll see what happens on the next 3 weeker.

Posted by Kelly - 01/20/2011 01:53 PM

I was always a rolling luggage carry-on fan until I was turned on to non-wheel carry-on bags. I bought the Mother Lode TLS Weekender Convertible from and have never been happier. This bag weighs roughly 4 lbs. less than typical wheeled carry-ons and holds approximately 1000 cubic inches more than similarly sized wheeled bags – it even expands to hold an additional 300 cu. inches, but would need to be checked if expanded. It’s equipped with a shoulder strap and also has hidden back pack straps. Extremely versatile and it’s typically on sale for less than $100 at their website.

Posted by Kim - 01/26/2011 10:47 AM

Because of my work, I have to travel a lot. I almost never check my bags anymore. I’m a practical person. To me it’s not worth buying any expensive $100-and –up carryon rolling suitcase. I mean we hand carry our carryon where ever we go in the airport, and we don’t throw it around like the luggage handlers do. A $30-$50 carry-on is usually good enough to meet my needs. I have a Traveler’s Choice Amsterdam carryon suitcase and have been traveling with it every month and it works just as good as those expensive suitcases.

Posted by Pam - 04/01/2013 08:13 PM

OK carry-on aficionados: I gave up looking for the perfect travel case and made my own. I’d love to know what you think.

Posted by Jackson - 04/19/2013 05:51 PM

For short trips, I like to simply carry a men’s leather messenger bag. They look classy as all get out, and some of the larger models actually have quite a bit of storage space inside.

Posted by Nathaniel - 05/31/2013 07:49 AM

I am looking for a graduation present for already graduates. One item you have on display is luggage. I think this would be an excellent gift. Would you send me a selection of luggage within the $100.00 dollar range?

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