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What to look for in carry-on luggage, according to travel pros — plus 20 top picks

"Look at suitcases like a pair of sneakers that you're going to wear 24/7 for the next month."
SimonSkafar / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

If you're anything like us, checking luggage is not your favorite thing to do. Who doesn't love being able to get off a plane and head straight to their destination — instead of having to wait for a wave of suitcases to come tumbling down the baggage claim carousel, wondering which luggage is yours?

But if you're looking at your current carry-on luggage and are realizing it's time for an upgrade, this guide is dedicated to you. It's a task that sounds easier says than done, but like anything else, there are thousands of brands and styles of carry-on bags to choose from. Plus, everyone's travel needs and priorities are different. Take it from Summer Hull, Director of Content at The Points Guy, a travel advice website.

"Generally speaking, the best luggage for you is going to be the bag that fits your budget, your priorities and [one] you are able to manage on your own (or with the assistance you know will be available)," she says. Reviewing those needs before you shop will determine whether you need carry-on vs. checked-in or overhead vs. under-seat luggage, she explains.

"No bag can do it all, which is why prioritizing what’s most important for you out of your bag matters," Hull adds.

While there's no one-size-fits-all carry-on luggage, there are even more specific questions you can ask to make shopping for a new one less stressful. We spoke to Hull and other travel experts to get their tips for picking the best carry-on luggage for your next trip.

SimonSkafar / Getty Images

What to look for in a carry-on luggage

  • Assess if you'll need easy access to certain items. "Coming through this pandemic, we’re all packing things we never considered before: hand sanitizer, wipes, face masks, gloves. It used to be that travelers wanted easy access to their phone, laptop and favorite magazine; now travelers want quick access to their sanitizing regimen," travel expert Misty Belles tells Shop TODAY via email. For these instances, she recommends purchasing softside luggage, which often have outside pockets.
  • Ask: Why are you traveling and for how long? What will the weather be like? If you're traveling for more than a week, you may need to reconsider the possibility of checking in a full-sized suitcase. But if you're heading to a destination with warmer climate, you may be able to get away with a carry-on due to summer clothes generally being thinner and lighter than winter wear. Taking a trip for work? Opt for a carry-on with easily accessible compartments if you need your laptop and other work devices handy.
  • Be mindful of size. Most major airlines like JetBlue, Delta and United only allow carry-ons no larger than 22 x 14 x 9 inches, so always check size restrictions for the airline you're flying before picking and packing a bag. "You want something that's lightweight [and] that you can lift over your head to put in the carry-on compartment," says Dr. Nadeen White, creator of The Sophisticated Life travel blog. She recommends practicing lifting up your fully-packed carry-on at home so you're certain you'll be able to do it on the plane.
  • Do your research (including hands-on, if you can). Finally, if you're shopping online, travel expert Oneika Raymond stresses the importance of reading reviews online. If you can, test it out in-store before committing. "You definitely want to try before you buy," she tells us via email. Mark Ellwood, co-host and creator of Bloomberg's Travel Genius podcast, also has this advice: "You have to look at suitcases like a pair of sneakers that you're going to wear 24/7 for the next month. They need to be really, really tough."

Now that you've got those tips stowed away (we couldn't resist), take a look at 20 of the best carry-on luggage on the market, according to experts and shoppers. You can also click on the links below to jump to the category you're looking for.

Hardside carry-ons | Softside carry-ons | Backpacks and more carry-on options | Carry-on luggage FAQs | Meet our experts

Hardside carry-on luggage

Away The Bigger Carry-On

"I have been using Away carry-ons for the last five years and love them," Raymond says. The brand's Bigger Carry-On is Hull's best overall pick for those domestic travelers who want to pack as many items as possible into their carry-on.

"I want my carry-on to be as large as possible but still pass muster to fit in domestic overhead bins and not cost a crazy amount. I want an internal zipper pocket for ‘dirty clothes and loose items," Hull says, which is why this is her personal pick as well.

The Away Bigger Carry-on Luggage has four 360-degree spinner wheels for easy rolling, leather detailing, a TSA-approved combination lock and a built-in USB port and battery. It's also super lightweight. There is a smaller carry-on bag sold by the brand, but, like Hull, we prefer the Bigger Carry-On as it allows you to fit more items due to its interior compression system.

If you're traveling internationally, however, the smaller Away carry-on is your best bet since the Bigger model may not pass international size guidelines, according to Hull.

"It comes in many colors, has a stylish look and is made of a hard, water-resistant shell. It does not have an easy laptop section though," she says. If you want to get your hands on it, there's a 100-day return guarantee so you can try it out risk-free, Hull adds.

Samsonite Omni PC Hard-Side Expandable Luggage

This 20-inch expandable carry-on is made with micro-diamond polycarbonate casing, making it scratch-resistant and durable for long-term use. There are even TSA locks mounted on the side to keep your belongings safe.

Samsonite has been in business for over 110 years, which is part of the reason why it's a top contender for Ellwood when he's looking for new luggage. "Just like I want someone cooking dinner for me who's had 10 years grilling a steak to perfection, I want to buy a suitcase from a company that's got more than five years behind it," he says.

Arlo Skye Zipper Carry-On Max

"If you want a carry-on bag with an easily accessible laptop type of pocket, check out the Arlo Skye Zipper Carry-On Max," suggests Hull.

Specs-wise, it's as light as the Away pick and slightly heavier than the Samsonite Omni, but for us, what makes this worth spending the extra dollars is the exterior pocket that can fit a 15-inch laptop and a few other small travel accessories — including a pullover, according to the brand. It also comes with some nice bells and whistles, including a removable USB C/USB A phone charger, a TSA-approved combination lock and an impact-resistant shell.

It's also available in colors like Burgundy and Sea Sage, which doesn't hurt, either.

Calpak Hue Carry-On Luggage

If the Arlo Skye exceeds your budget, Hull recommends Calpak's hard-case carry-on, which still has the easy laptop access — and which has a price point that's squarely in the midrange.

We like that this affordable carry-on doesn't skimp on style and ease of use, despite being almost $200 cheaper than the Arlo Skye. The front pocket has a laptop sleeve that holds devices up to 15 inches long, and it also has smaller pockets to hold things like your passport, wallet or portable charger. It is currently available in pink, black and green.

Rockland Revolution Carry-On Computer Case

If Calpak is above your price range, and if you can afford to pack a little less than what can go into an overhead bag, we recommend this affordable yet still well-reviewed under-seat option from Rockland Revolution.

This dome-shaped bag It has a padded laptop pocket and a compartment in the front for quick access to whatever you need, and it fits under the seat in front of you, making access even easier. The durable case is perfect for anyone frequently traveling for work.

Roam The Jaunt Carry-On Suitcase

This lightweight carry-on from Roam has everything you need to make packing a breeze. There are waterproof zippers with a TSA-approved lock, water-resistant and washable lining, a roomy laundry pocket and two accessory pockets. You can even add free monogramming to give it a personal touch.

"Roam entered the market with their previous industry know-how and have upped that ante by introducing completely customizable bags that combine travel with personal expression," says Belles.

Wrangler Spinner Smart Carry-On Luggage

For a bag that's both rugged and lightweight, and affordable to boot, this 20-inch expandable hardside option from Wrangler fits the bill at under $65.

The bag's shell is made from 100 percent ABS plastic, which likely accounts for its weight, which is just under seven pounds. The luggage also comes with a cup/phone holder, a USB charging port (charging cord and power bank not included), 360-degree spinning wheels and a lined interior.

While this has a strong average rating from over 8,000 reviews, with scores of reviewers praising the bags compactness, light weight and nifty cup holder, note that many others mention that it's best for the occasional trip and may not be durable enough for frequent fliers.

Samsonite Freeform 21-Inch Carry-On

If you're looking for a carry-on that's as functional and easy to maneuver as Samsonite's Omni PC but boasts a style that'll stand out from the crowd, we recommend the brand's Freeform 21-inch carry-on. With a design described as "futuristic," this bag is as tough as it looks, with its scratch-resistant polycarbonate exterior shell, aluminum pull handle and retracting side handles.

It's also more lightweight than the already-light Omni by about half a pound, and that, combined with the 360-degree spinning wheels, makes this one of our top picks for easy airport maneuverability.

Softside carry-on luggage

Travelpro Maxlite Expandable Carry-On

This lightweight carry-on expands up to two additional inches, which is great if you're an over-packer or just need the extra room for souvenirs. There's a place for everything with two exterior pockets, an interior pocket that runs the length of the lid and an accessory pocket.

"TravelPro has long been the workhorse of carry-ons — just look at any flight attendant and chances are that what they’re pulling behind them," Belles tells us.

Samsonite Ascella X Wheeled Underseater Carry-On

This is a softside version of an under seat bag that is ideal when there's no more overhead room on the plane. It has a laptop pocket, in-line wheels and two exterior pockets. It's small enough to qualify as a personal item, so you can pair it with a larger carry-on to maximize your packing capacity.

Rockland 2-Piece Upside Luggage Set

Amazon's bestseller in luggage sets has over 32,400 five-star ratings. It comes with a 19-inch wheeled rolling suitcase along with a 14-inch tote. The best part? It's currently almost 40% off on Amazon. You can choose from 20 different colors and patterns available.

American Tourister Burst Max Softside Spinner Carry-On

Add a pop of color to your luggage collection with this blue, bestselling carry-on from American Tourister. It has two exterior pockets and 360-degree spinner wheels that keep up with you. It also comes in hot pink and is a great option if you're looking for a carry-on for an upcoming trip.

Skyline 21-Inch Softside Spinner Carry-On

This lightweight carry-on weighs in at just under seven pounds and features two exterior pockets, four spinner wheels, and is covered in polyester for durability, according to the brand. It's also priced at $50, making it the an affordable pick for your next vacation.

More carry-on options: Backpacks, duffel bags and more

Dagne Dover Large Dakota Neoprene Backpack

Hull likes to pair her carry-on luggage with an equally solid travel backpack, particularly one that can slide neatly onto the handle of the carry-on. (And so you have the option of not always having to wear it on your back.) For that, Hull recommends the Dagne Dover Large Dakota Neoprene Backpack.

"It is made of a soft but water-resistant material and has so many useful nooks and crannies, such as a top phone pocket, a padded back laptop compartment, as well as a laptop sleeve," she says.

Hull also recommends the equally chic Dagne Dover's Diaper Bag Backpack for those who can't get enough pockets — "even if you never thought you’d have a need for a diaper bag." Rebecca Brown, Shop TODAY holiday editor, uses her diaper bag for traveling now. "I've given new life to my Dagne diaper bag. I use it for travel and I love how easily it sleeps over the handle of my suitcase."

Terra Thread Earth Backpack

Is the Dagne Dover a little (or a lot) above your price range? While this sustainably and ethically made all-purpose backpack from Terra Thread won't exactly compare (it isn't designed to slide neatly onto the handle of a rolling carry-on, for instance), for an unassuming backpack that rings up at just under $70, it's surprisingly roomy and heavy-duty. In fact, the brand describes it as "the workhorse of our line."

And it's true, at least in the experience of Fran Sales, Shop TODAY associate editor, who recently traveled with her Charcoal Gray Earth Backpack from New York to Utah.

"I was skeptical about how much this could fit, because it looks so simple and also kind of small," she says. "But I kept finding more compartments. I was able to fit a 13-inch laptop in the dedicated compartment, two books, gigantic over-ear headphones, a reusable water bottle, tons of feminine products, two phones ... I'm sure I'm missing something. But I had zero trouble zipping the bag, and it didn't feel like it was going to burst."

Courtesy Fran Sales

But the kicker, Sales adds, are the straps, which are wide and made of the same durable cotton as the rest of the bag.

"It is probably the most comfortable backpack I've ever worn. And that's coming from someone who's gone through three backpacks in the past year due to overstuffing and over-packing."

Tumi Alpha 3 Compact Laptop Briefcase

If you're someone like Sales' boyfriend, whose business trips make up the majority of his travels, and who likes to pack everything (and she means everything) into the same laptop bag as his machine, then go for what he's been using for several years: Tumi's Alpha 3 expandable laptop briefcase.

Like other Tumi products, at over $500, it's pricey. But before you balk at the sticker price, let us make the case. If you have the budget to splurge (and if you manage to catch this pick on sale), splurge on a laptop bag that lasts, according to Sales' partner, and according to several reviewers; variations of the words "sturdy," "great quality," "durable" and "can handle a lot" pop up frequently on the Tumi product's reviews section.

That's because it's built to handle a lot. It has both a tablet compartment and a removable 15-inch laptop sleeve (both padded), five exterior pockets and 13 interior pockets of varying sizes, and a file divider, just to name a few specs. It's also made of heavy-duty ballistic nylon and is expandable via zipper. It's also designed to slide neatly onto the handle of your carry-on.

Bonus: It comes with a five-year warranty.

Samsonite Tectonic Sweetwater Backpack

Made of durable nylon fabric, according to the brand, this backpack can hold everything you need for a weekend trip and more. It features several interior and exterior pockets, fits a laptop up to 17 inches, and has a handy USB port so you don't have to go digging for your charger while traveling.

Fjallraven Splitpack Backpack Duffel Bag

Fjallraven's backpack-duffel hybrid is perfect for a weekend getaway or a short trip where function is as important as form. Instead of one inner chamber, the bag has two, making it easy to keep dirty items separate. We also like knowing that this bag is good enough for royalty (Fjallraven is the purveyor to the Royal Court of Sweden).

Cotopaxi Allpa 35L Travel Pack

Cotopaxi is another go-to luggage brand for the active traveler. Its organized Allpa travel pack is meant to last a lifetime (the warranty is 61 years) and comes with loads of bells and whistles. There's a hip belt so your back doesn't bear all the weight, padded sleeves for your tablet and laptop and a rain cover in case your adventures encounter precipitation. The external zippers even feature webbing to deter pickpockets.

Filson Duffel Backpack

Filson has been making quality gear since 1897, albeit adapting its designs as the times change. For example, this rugged duffel-backpack hybrid comes with a padded sleeve for electronics. It's great for a safari (if you're that lucky) or simply a weekend camping trip in a national park. We think you'll also love that it's made in America.

Frequently asked questions about carry-ons, answered

Is it better to bring a check-in or carry-on when flying?

If you can swing it, go for a carry-on bag, Hull advises.

"If you are able to get your luggage comfortably through the airport and on the plane, using carry-on bags is optimal as it puts your luggage destiny more in your hands and less in the hands of the airline," she says.

It also gives you a little more leeway when it comes to when you need to get to the airport, as well as how long you have to wait for your luggage after your plane arrives at the gate, Hull adds.

When is the best time to shop for carry-on luggage?

The answer won't be surprising: "winter holiday sales and Black Friday," Hull says.

"Not only are there often sales and promotions from the sites and retailers, but you can often stack other sales, such as larger-than-normal bonus cash back from [e-commerce sites like] Rakuten," she adds.

Meet our experts

  • Misty Belles is the Vice President of Global PR for Virtuoso Travel.
  • Mark Ellwood is the co-host and creator of Bloomberg's Travel Genius podcast.
  • Summer Hull is Director of Content at The Points Guy.
  • Oneika Raymond is travel expert, journalist and writer. She is a lifestyle correspondent for NBC New York and host of the Travel Channel’s "Big City, Little Budget" and "One Bag and You’re Out."
  • Dr. Nadeen White is the creator of The Sophisticated Life, a luxury and culinary travel website. She's also a medical expert, author and speaker.