Choosing the Best Carry-On Travel Bag

Stefan Loble
read

Bags are hard.

As we mentioned in Part 3: Packing Bags for Travel (from our packing philosophy series), we’ve spoken to a lot of people about their luggage, and they told us that they often own quite a collection – but don’t yet have the perfect bag.

What it suggests is that in selecting a travel bag, you may want to spend sufficient time to understand the options, and the tradeoffs of various choices. For us, this means more than simply understanding how a bag holds everything, but also thinking through what role it plays in our trip after we arrive at our destination.

Let’s take a look at bags in the three significant categories: roller boards, travel backpacks, and Stefan’s own duffle and backpack combo – with breakdowns of the pros and cons of each, how to evaluate them, and some specific suggestions.

The Rollerboard

Look around at any airport, and it’s no surprise that rolling luggage dominates the scene. Roller boards are very popular as both checked luggage and carry-ons. But there are some exceedingly relevant details in deciding to travel with a roller board, and which one you buy makes a big difference.

Roller boards are good for:

  • Keeping a load off of your back.
  • Providing more structured, harder-sided packing.
  • Surviving being banged around in baggage handling.
  • Looking “normal” and presentable in business settings.

Roller boards are bad for:

  • Mixed terrain, like stairs or cobblestones.
  • A trip that has varied activities, like maybe a hike, or a more adventurous trip, where a roller board feels wrong.
  • Reducing weight – they can be heavy, even when empty.

The posture required by dragging a roller board behind you can be grating over time. For this reason, luggage companies have created “spinners”: upright luggage that can be rolled in front of you. While a spinner can always be rolled behind like a regular piece of luggage, it can only be pushed upright on the smoothest of surfaces - like in an airport. And, the potential tradeoff is lost space and added weight due to the special wheels.

Checking vs. Carrying a Roller Board

Roller boards are designed to be either checked or carried on. You’ll find them sized with a specific purpose in mind.

But, here’s the rub – if you push the limit on the size of your carry-on roller board, your bag may be denied boarding, either because the storage is full, or because your bag is outside the size limitations. On the upside, you don’t have to pay the bag fee when they check it at the gate (a trick we’d bet some travelers intentionally employ).

Restrictions vary by airline and route, but the standard domestic carry-on luggage size is 22” x 14” x 9”, which includes the handle and the wheels. Sometimes, a larger bag – or an expanded one – will be allowed on, other times not.

How to Choose A Roller Board Bag

  • Weight

    Even though you're rolling it, you have to lift it at some point. In fact, you may be prone to overpack it (because you’re thinking, “Hey, I don't have to carry it!”) and then you wrench your back because it’s so heavy. For this reason, weight still matters.

    The same size bag options can range from 6 lbs to 10 lbs, which can add up with your actual belongings in a heartbeat.

    The lightest weight roller boards are almost always hardshell. And, often the most expensive.

  • Wheels

    When wheels first came on the luggage scene, they were game-changing. The problem is how poorly small wheels handle rough terrain, and the physical impact of rolling a bag behind you for long periods of time.

    Two developments have since been made:

    1. Better wheels, such as the G-RO with large wheels (Gravityroll Wheel Technology) that excel on challenging terrain.

    2. Spinner bags, which can be pushed upright in front of you, but only work on the smoothest of surfaces, like an airport floor.

    But wheels come with tradeoffs – the more benefit they add, the more they take away elsewhere. Particularly by robbing a bag of space and adding weight.

    When comparing spinner bags to a conventional wheeled roller board, it’s important to know the internal dimensions of the bag. You may think, “those two bags are both 6 lbs and 22 inches,” but later realize that one has 10% less room due to the space occupied by spinner wheels. Remember, airline size guidelines measure the outer dimensions of any bag, which includes the wheels. 

    Finally, regarding durability, wheels are known to be a weak point in a roller board. And spinner wheels are notoriously more vulnerable to being broken or failing since they are exposed and more mobile.

  • Pockets

    A small, external pocket can go a long way when you’re trying to stow something like a magazine, charging cable, passport, etc.

    The problem is that pockets are more easily built into soft-sided roller boards (with the exception of this novel product by Nomatic, currently offered on Kickstarter, and Away’s new offerings).

  • Expandability

    Some roller board models come with the ability to expand. Although a tempting prospect, it’s important to choose one that doesn’t expand beyond size or weight limits.

    The option exists for both hard and soft shell suitcases. A typical benefit is to add 1-2” of space to a roller board.

  • Durability

    Hardshell suitcases are the toughest, provided you don’t buy a cheap one. Of course, material quality also makes a difference for soft luggage, as does design – to be sure that straps won’t get caught in conveyor belts, etc.

    Aluminum hard-sided luggage is considered to be the most durable, yet also the heaviest. Most hardshells are made of polycarbonate plastic, and are both very strong and light. Low-quality hard-sided luggage can crack, which defeats the purpose of choosing a hardshell suitcase.

    Soft-sided luggage can still be very durable. We suspect many people move on from a bag, replacing it before it actually fails. Common soft-side materials like woven nylon, cordura, ballistic, and ripstop are all very hardwearing.

    Because soft-sided bags flex, they can more easily be jammed into a space such as overhead storage. But since hard shells are more rigid, they provide better protection for the contents of your case.

  • Security

    A true clamshell with a built-in TSA approved lock is considerably more secure than luggage with a zipper. Although theft is rare, zippers can be broken into, and a soft-sided bag can be cut. But in reality, a thief has to be very motivated either way, and a good soft-side is strong. Your office scissors aren’t going to easily do it.

  • Other Features

    The most notable other feature is a built-in battery pack. When the TSA changed restrictions on traveling with batteries, one company (Bluesmart) went out of business. Now, all batteries included with suitcases must be removable.

    We find that many people don’t need their suitcase to come with battery, as they typically carry their own battery backup power that is the right size to fit in a backpack the rest of the time (like after landing and leaving luggage in the hotel). But it can be a handy option for charging on the go, and may be a perk for you.

    Some companies (like G-RO) include built-in luggage tracking. The incidence of lost luggage is now notoriously low when traveling through places with advanced infrastructure, so it doesn’t seem like a critical feature, but maybe the travel gods will frown upon us and the next time we fly, we’ll lose a bag.

When You Land

When you land, roller boards aren’t likely to be that useful. They just sit in your hotel room. For local travel, most people carry a smaller daypack or briefcase with them that often slides over the handles of the roller board.

Because our trips are usually more adventurous, with a fun activity planned (so we’ll need a larger backpack), we seldom use a roller board, and would typically only reach for one for a business-only trip – especially where carrying even a little bit of weight could result in a pool of sweat, like in a hot and steamy climate.

A business traveler with a roller board suitcase.

The Best Carry-On Rolling Luggage

A few notable examples of the best rolling luggage in a carry-on size:

Briggs & Riley

A 100-year-old maker of luggage, and it shows. We’ve been impressed by a whole host of features in their bags – from being lightweight to interesting new features like a monogrammed handle. Briggs is intensely focused on product, and it shows. They offer what is possibly the best no-questions guarantee you can find.

Briggs & Riley Explore Domestic Expandable Upright
$349
At 7.3 lbs, the lightest soft-sided bag, and one a friend swears by. Expandable with pockets.

G-RO

When G-RO broke on the scene, it was an immediate hit as their large wheels resolved some of the drawbacks of wheeled luggage, mainly the ability to move over rough terrain. The current G-RO carry-on includes many features like multiple pockets, a built-in battery pack, and their trademark wheels. The tradeoff is higher weight, coming it at 9 lbs.

G-RO Classic Carry-On
$265 (reg $445)
Removable battery pack, lots of pockets, and GPS luggage tracker. Plus, their trademark large wheels. 9.3 lbs.

Rimowa

The silver-colored, aluminum Rimowa is the essence of travel style. Carry one and it’s like you’ve arrived, not at your destination but at success, as they cost $1,000 or more. But, they make another very notable option...

Rimowa Essential Light Cabin
$575
Polycarbonate spinner that is the lightest bag on our list, with 37 L capacity weighing just 4.85 lbs.

Away

Away rocked the luggage landscape as a reliable, accessibly priced option, and people love them. They are now expanding with additional sizes, soft-sided luggage, and more travel goods to come. A good option to consider if you don’t want to spend on the Rimowa.

Away The Carry-On
$225
Sold in many colors and with or without a battery. 38 L / 7.6 lbs, notably heavier than the Rimowa bag.

Travelpro

If some of these bags have given you sticker shock, Travelpro has been known for making some of the most economical, yet reliable luggage for quite a while.

Travelpro Platinum Elite 21” Expandable Carry-On Spinner
$299
A soft-side with multiple sections and notably 2 outer pockets. 46 L / 7.8 lbs, with 2” expansion.
 

The Travel Backpack

When modern young people first began seeing the world en masse, they were referred to as backpackers because they were carrying huge mountaineering backpacks – and it stuck.

Eventually, the industry caught on and began making travel-specific backpacks with tons of features.

Travel backpacks are good for: 

 

  • Mobility, especially moving through varying terrain, like over cobblestones or through narrow alleyways, and getting on and off transit quickly.
  • The ability to be more flexible with what you carry: it’s easier to strap additional items onto a backpack than cram into a roller board.
  • Adventure travel that includes hiking, biking, etc, where your luggage can also function as your daypack.
  • Lightweight travel because backpacks are typically lighter than a hardshell.
  • Being hands free.

Travel backpacks are not ideal for:

  • The heaviest of loads, particularly in warm climates, where they can make you sweat.
  • Business and style – although brands are trying to make bags more urban and professional, and some of us can get away with it (or just don’t care), most formal business settings still usually expect a roller board.
  • The utmost protection for the contents of your bag, as compared to a hard-shell roller board.

Checking vs. Carrying a Travel Backpack

Carrying on a travel backpack will usually go smoothly. They are intended for this after all, with a typical carrying capacity of 45 liters. But you do have to pay attention not to buy one that is oversized, at the risk of it being denied aboard by the airline.

When checking a travel backpack, there are three main considerations:

  • Squish – Are you OK with your bag being compressed? If the answer isn’t yes, you need a hard shell suitcase.

  • Wear and tear – These bags are meant to take the punishment, but they can come out looking for the worse on the other end. This goes with the backpacker territory.

  • Hanging straps – Most travel backpacks address this by making their straps stowable. The possibility of getting a strap caught in the conveyor belt is a real thing. If you’re concerned or have straps that don’t stow, some airlines may bag your bag – sometimes you have to ask. You can also buy a rain cover that doubles as a way of reducing stray straps.

How to Choose a Travel Backpack

  • Size

    The typical travel backpack is sized to be an MLC = Maximum Legal Carry-On. The whole idea is that it can go with you, wherever you go.

    But there are bigger options for larger backpacks that get checked as luggage, which works well as long as you consider the straps we mentioned earlier.

    Some companies – notably Osprey – offer a combo bag that connects a daypack to a larger bag, so you can carry them as one and then separate for your local adventures.

  • Weight

    One of our biggest dissatisfactions with travel backpacks is how much they can weigh. You’d be surprised at how all of the zippers, compartments, plus the toughest of materials can add up.

    Be sure to pay attention to your selection, particularly when ordering online.

  • Carrying Frame / Hip Belts

    The frame of a backpack is very important. It needs to be made to a) fit you and b) support the load.

    For me, a big part of this is an available hip belt. Some people hate them (mostly due to the way they look when wearing them). Many versions are removable or easily tucked away. However, just like when backpacking, if you are carrying any significant load, it should be on your hips and not on your shoulders.

    On the other hand, if you pack light, your load may not be that heavy at all.

  • Materials / Waterproofing

    How long did it take manufacturers to make waterproof – or at least water-resistant – backpacks? Now, with the right materials, it comes down to how waterproof the zippers are.

    When shopping, you need to be mindful of just how waterproof you need your bag to be. A waterproof rain cover also works, but it’s one more thing to manage.

  • Organization

    Travel bags are known for coming with organization built-in. But, if you read our packing cube post, you’ll find that one of our major complaints is the organization never matches what we need. And, all of the extra pockets, stitching, and zippers can add significant weight.

    Our preference is to go with a bag with less organizational overkill, and use packing cubes to do it ourselves. (But we have a suspicion that the bare-bones approach doesn’t help sell bags like special features do.)

  • Style

    This is a real consideration for many people in choosing a bag. As the bag is actually worn, people seem to care more about how it looks than a piece of luggage they roll.

When You Land

Once at your destination, you have to make a decision on whether to empty out the travel backpack, and use it as your main bag (which will sometimes work fine, and other times will be too large). Or, you may choose to bring a second, smaller daypack for this purpose – either as your second carry-on bag or packed away.

This is one of the reasons we like the duffle + backpack approach (see below), and also why combo bags like the Osprey Farpoint 55 exist.

The Best Travel Backpacks

Some of the more notable travel backpacks:

Tortuga

Travel backpacks are what Tortuga does. They are constantly talking to their customers and honing in on what features people need. For example, their Setout bag has a companion set of packing cubes that are designed to fit right in as the top layer of the bag.

The Outbreaker
$299
Fully equipped, zips open like a suitcase, has lots of pockets, including storage for laptops, etc. Is a nearly waterproof backpack for all weather conditions. Multiple size options. 45L / 5.1 pounds. Removable hipbelt. 
The Setout
$199
A more minimalist approach with a couple fewer pockets and is slightly less weather resistant. The benefit is that this 45L version comes in at just 3.3 pounds. Removable hipbelt. 


Tom Bihn

Talk about a rabid following. Tom Bihn backpack owners are a virtual tribe. Their gear is of the highest quality and all made in Seattle, just with a notable price tag.

The Synapse
$210
The choice of the ultra-light one bag community is the Synapse 25. Just 25 liters, it is designed to go with their packing solutions. At this size, no hip belt is typically needed. People always say the bag feels bigger than it is. Water resistant.
The Aeronaut 45
$300
Shaped more like a duffle bag that is designed to also be wearable a backpack. It’s very different than most travel bags. 45L / 3lbs. Optional lightweight hip belt. Water resistant.


Peak Design

Originally a camera accessory company, Peak Design is far and away the most successful company ever created on Kickstarter. Their bags have a strong following with young, urban professionals, and many photographers. Pick one up, and it feels different due to being exquisitely designed and extremely well made.

Travel Backpack
$299.95
This is an interesting bag. Noted for its side access, the whole bag is chock-full of features purpose-built for the task, such as the fastest stowable hip belt that pivots into its own compartment in seconds. Weather proof. Divisible internal cavity to organize cameras or other gear. Expands from 30L to 45 L / 4.5 lbs.


Osprey

One of the largest players in travel backpacks, Osprey makes solid, feature rich bags designed for travel at an accessible price point. They also offer women’s specific bags.

Osprey Farpoint 55
$180
Essentially a 40L main pack, with a 15L strap on daypack. This allows you to carry a larger load, but then slim down the bag when boarding a plane, to place the large bag in the overhead, and keep the small bag with you. Or, just use the smaller bag at your destination. 55L / 3.9 lbs.
Osprey Meridian + Sojourn Lines
Various
Ranging from 45L to 80L, these backpacks have built in wheels for rolling like a roller board - best of both worlds. But, the 45L Sojourn weighs 8 lbs.

Additional smaller backpack brands worth exploring include Nomatic, Minaal, and Aer. Boy, there are a lot of brands out there. If it isn’t due to a specific feature standing out, it may come down to which one you connect with in terms of the aesthetic or mission of the brand. 

Duffle Bag + Travel Backpack Combo

Stefan – our founder – once realized that the number of days his son has seen him not carrying a backpack is very, very small. Which means when he travels, he still uses his favorite, everyday backpack.

That’s why over the past few years, we’ve gravitated to bringing our normal backpacks, plus a duffle bag. A duffle is ideal because it enables packing things in the lightest, most simple vessel possible. We don’t need pockets, or much organization (use packing cubes to customize it).

So, we add a duffle that we can throw over our shoulder while our normal backpack is on our back. At the airport, we often see people doing the same.

The approach works well for traveling with carry-on, enables faster movement, and keeps hands free. It also means our primary backpack always remains in use as exactly that – our primary daypack – and is not replaced by a travel bag.

This is essentially the roller board + briefcase (or purse or backpack) approach, but with the whole load on your back and in a soft bag.

Duffle bags are good for: 

 

  • Going lightweight because they’re typically fairly unstructured and don’t weigh a lot.
  • Flexibility in what you want to carry: because duffle bags are so wide open, anything can go in there (like in Stefan’s case, often carrying some kind of outdoor gear).
  • Cost: they are usually the most economical.
  • Fitting into overhead compartments and tight storage spaces.

Duffle bags are not ideal for:

  • Organizing small things, unless you use packing cubes.
  • Being the primary bag on your back (like a travel backpack) because they don’t have backpack frames or other structure.
  • Protection for your belongings, like a hardshell roller board provides.
  • Carrying the heaviest loads, except for the giant ones with wheels.

Checking vs. Carrying a Duffle Bag

Duffles are easy to check, or carry on-board. However, alongside a collection of perfectly sized roller boards or travel backpacks, a duffle can sometimes seem an odd fit.

How to Choose a Duffle Bag

When it comes to picking the best duffle bag for you, there aren't as many factors to consider as with a roller board or backpack because duffles are usually so simple – that’s one of the primary benefits of this style of bag: they’re great as a minimalist option.

  • Size

    Duffles can range widely in size, so it’s important to check the specs to ensure that the duffle you choose is within carry-on limitations, if that’s how you plan to use it.

    However, a benefit of duffle is that if they’re not completely full, they can be squeezed into different sized and shaped spaces more easily than other types of luggage. So you have the best chance of fitting a duffle into a crowded overhead compartment.

  • Weight

    One of our favorite key qualities of duffles is that they’re often the lightest weight option for luggage. A very simple duffle bag, with no bells and whistles (ie: pockets, compartments, straps, etc) can weigh just a few ounces.

    In fact, we find that many manufacturers add in overkill options, yet our favorite duffle bags remain the most basic ones.

  • Structure

    The flip side of a duffle bag is that without any frame, hard sides, or internal organization, especially if you’ve chosen a lighter weight option, you’re basically packing an amorphous tube.

    A fully packed duffle will create some structure, but otherwise, many won’t offer much in this department. With a carry-on size duffle, this is usually less of a concern because they’re not big enough to be unwieldy, but it’s worth considering what your needs are and how it may impact your ability to comfortably carry.

    Some offer strap options so that you can wear your duffle like a backpack, but without the frame or an intentional backpack design, this is usually only for short term carry.

  • Materials / Waterproofing

    Like backpacks, the main material factors for duffles are durability and waterproofing. A lighter fabric is often thinner and less water-resistant, with some opportunity for risky material wear. But overall, fabrics are tough enough now that even a ultra-lightweight duffle is likely to be sufficiently strong.

  • Organization

    As we mentioned in the other sections, organization is often built into bags as a benefit for travelers. In our opinion, bags with fewer compartments are better because they’re lighter weight and you can customize how you pack using packing cubes to develop a personalized system.

  • Style

    For duffle bags, looks are the main concern for most purchasers since many options offer the same comparable factors.

    There are also more aesthetic options for duffles than probably any other type of luggage. Suppliers like Herschel offer dozens of patterns and colors, and Patagonia has bold color combinations, allowing customers to make a strong personal stylistic statement with their duffle choice.

 

When You Land

Once you’ve arrived, the duffle hangs out in your hotel room while your main backpack serves as your daypack, just like at home.

Stefan with a travel bag in Cuba.


The Best Duffle Bags for Carry-On Travel

A selection of recommended duffle bags are:

Patagonia

Patagonia makes what is arguably the most famous duffle bag - the Black Hole. Now a whole line of high-end duffle-type bags, they come in various colors and sizes and have straps to double as a backpack for short periods of carry. A few of our team members own this bag style, and love it. If you need a strong, weather-resistant duffle, this is the way to go.

Patagonia Black Hole Duffel Bag 60L
$129
Bombproof. Will last forever, and is an all-around satisfying bag to own. Comes in lots of smaller sizes too. For checking, the 60L is ideal. At 2.5 lbs, it isn’t that heavy, and often has room to spare.
Patagonia Lightweight Black Hole Duffel 45L
$99
Smaller and made from a lighter material, it comes in at just 1 lb. We’ve examined them, but never owned one until recently. This may be our new carry-on duffle.


L.L. Bean

It’s easy to let a company like L.L. Bean slip your mind, but they continue to make high quality basics for many useful products.

L.L. Bean Adventure Duffle, Medium
$59.95
33 L / 1lb 7oz. Comes in lots of colors. A solid option, albeit not very exciting.


 

Outdoor Products

This is one of those brands whose products you may end up buying from a general outdoors store. The reason we included it is because one of their basic duffles was Stefan’s go-to for many years – he even had it repaired a few times.

Outdoor Products Mountain Duffel, 16 x 18 x 36 inches
$44.99
This isn’t a perfect match for our favorite, but, you get the idea. Lightweight and simple.

 

 

Dang, that’s a lot of high-quality bags.

In the end, your choice has to come down to a combination of your personal carrying style, and the needs of your trip.

Which means that for different trips, you may need to own different bags. Isn’t that maddening? Or, is there a single zinger out there?

We’re still searching… and we’d love to hear your experience and recommendations.

 

 

Notify me when this size is back in stock.
Notify me when this size is back in stock.