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The best carry-on luggage and suitcases for 2021

Avoid the dreaded baggage claim during your next trip.
Couple packing suitcases for vacation with two children
10'000 Hours / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

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It's been a little under two months since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated guidelines for fully vaccinated travelers and airports are starting to come alive again. But after over a year of being stowed away, you might be taking a look at your luggage and realizing it's time for an upgrade.

If you're anything like me, checking luggage is not your favorite thing to do. I love being able to get off a plane and head straight to my destination without having to wait for a wave of suitcases to come tumbling down the baggage claim carousel and squint at every bag wondering if it's mine. All that to say, having a quality carry-on is of the utmost importance to me.

Like anything else, there are thousands of brands and styles of travel bags to choose from, so we spoke to a few travel experts about their tips for picking the best carry-on luggage for your next trip.

What to look for in a carry-on luggage

A lot has changed since we last regularly traveled, not just in terms of restrictions, but also what we're actually packing. "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 told Shop TODAY via email.

For those who'd like easy access to their sanitizing products, Belles recommends purchasing a softside luggage because they often have outside pockets. If you're okay with waiting to retrieve these items, then a hardside luggage is a lightweight and durable alternative.

When it comes to picking carry-ons, all of our experts recommend asking yourself these questions: How long are you traveling for? What season is it? What will the weather be like where you're going? What is the purpose of your trip?

If you're traveling for more than a week, then a solo carry-on might not be for you. Instead of forcing everything to fit in a smaller bag, this is one of those instances where you might just need to take the leap and check a full-sized suitcase. If you're heading to a destination with a warmer climate, a carry-on will work because summer clothes are thinner and lighter than bulkier winter or fall attire. And finally, if you're taking a trip for leisure, a standard carry-on might work best. But if you're taking a trip for work and need easy access to your laptop or other devices, it might help to opt for a carry-on with easily accessible compartments.

"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," creator and co-host of Bloomberg's Travel Genius podcast Mark Ellwood told us over the phone.

While many of the factors you decide upon stem from preference, there is one universal thing travelers must be wary of: size. Most major airlines like JetBlue, Delta and United only allow carry-ons no larger than 22" L x 14" W x 9" H, so always check the carry-on size restrictions for the airline you're flying before picking and packing a bag. (Nothing is worse than getting to your gate and having to check your carry-on because it won't fit in the overhead compartment.)

"You want something that's lightweight [and] that you can lift over your head to put in the carry-on compartment," said Dr. Nadeen White, creator of The Sophisticated Life travel blog, on a phone call. She even recommends practicing lifting up your fully-packed carry-on at home so you are certain you can do it once you're on the plane.

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 told us via email.

Keeping all of this in mind, here some of the best carry-on luggage on the market in both hardside and softside styles.

Best hardside carry-on luggage

Away The Bigger Carry-On

This comprehensive Away carry-on luggage has four 360° spinner wheels for easy rolling, leather detailing, a TSA-approved combination lock and a built-in USB port and battery. The best part? It's super lightweight! There is a smaller carry-on bag sold by the brand, but we prefer the "Bigger Carry-On" as it allows you to fit more items thanks to its interior compression system.

"I have been using Away carry-ons for the last five years and love them," Raymond said.

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," said Belles.

Samsonite Omni PC Hard-side Expandable Luggage

A Samsonite luggage for under $100? What a steal! This 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 said.

Calpak Hue Carry-On Luggage

This carry-on will help you travel in style and with ease. 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

No room in the overhead bin? That's OK. This dome-shaped bag fits under the seat in front of you. It has a padded laptop pocket and a compartment in the front for quick access to whatever you need. This durable case is perfect for anyone frequently traveling for business.

Best 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 overpacker like me 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 told us.

American Tourister 4 Kix Expandable Carry-On

Add a pop of color to your luggage collection with this teal carry-on from American Tourister. It has two exterior pockets and 360° spinner wheels that keep up with you. This is also a great affordable option if you're looking for a carry-on for an upcoming trip.

Rockland 2-Piece Upside Luggage Set

Amazon's current bestseller in luggage sets has over 23,600 five-star ratings. It comes with a 19-inch wheeled rolling suitcase along with a 14-inch tote. The best part? It's currently 50% off! You can choose from 20 different colors and patterns available.

Traveler's Choice Birmingham Expandable Carry-On

This lightweight carry-on weighs in at just under eight pounds. It features several exterior pockets, in-line wheels and is made out of ballistic nylon — all things Ellwood says to aim for when buying a carry-on.

"If you have a four-wheeled carry-on, you can push it but it always drifts away," he said. "I have tried four-wheel carry-ons and I always buy two-wheel."

Samsonite Ascella Under Seat Bag

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.

More top-rated carry-on options

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.

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This article was originally published on March 5, 2018.