How to Buy Carry-On Luggage
Updated: Jul 19
My daughter wants new luggage for Christmas—carry-on, of course. I’ve trained her well. But even though I've traveled carry-on for years, choosing one for her now is not as easy as looking at a label "carry-on” and choosing a color.
New (and evolving) airline regulations, contemporary materials, and innovative features increase the options. For her gift, the goal was to combine as many of the carry-on features that work best for carry-on travel.
Complicating that, was choosing for someone else. We all have personal preferences but practical considerations rule because travel has enough challenges--struggling to pack and maneuver luggage shouldn’t be one of them.
Carry-on Sizes Are Not Created Equal. Bags labeled “carry-on” can be inches apart in actual size. Most of us want the largest amount of space an airline will accept. (Guilty as charged.) I went to the limit with my current bag purchased three years ago but regulations are getting stricter. (By the way, if you're shopping discount like I do, double-check carefully. That may be a reason a spiffy carry-on is now reduced.)
In any case, airlines have different size regulations. If you fly one airline regularly verify theirs; otherwise generalize and make a judgement call. That's where an expansion feature helps to start out small and jam a bit more in when needed.
At this writing, the basic size is 20"H x 14 W” x 9 D” (including wheels and handle (collapsed.) You can go a tad larger (22"H max) if you are willing to chance it. I'm still using mine but it looks like Brutus vs Baby compared to the new one for my daughter. You can see the size difference in the photo below. (Jenn, stop now. No peeking.)
Start as Lightweight as Possible. You have to hoist that case into the overhead . Some weight depends on material (new composition materials are lighter than structured fabric styles); some depends on added features such as wheels, batteries, padding, pockets or trim. You can find some high-end carry-ons near 5 lbs but 6+ a few ounces is good.
4-Wheel Spinners Add Maneuverable Ounces. Spinner styles add wheel-weight over two-wheels but they are much easier to maneuver. Which brings up a point. You can shop luggage on-line but nothing beats being able to lift and roll the case before you decide.
Whatever the Material, Make Sure It's Sturdy. Cheap handles or wheels that break are not fun while running through an airport. This does not mean spending a fortune. You can find decent deals on carry-ons during sales, on-line, or at your local discount stores for $75-$125. More than that is bells ‘n whistles.
Pockets: Enough But Not Too Many. Consider how you normally pack. Check for two large sections, plus some well-placed pockets (enough to organize, not so many there’s no main space left!) An outside zipped pocket lets you stow and grab a magazine or folding rain parka without having to open the main bag; these are common on fabric cases, not so much on the sleek new hard-sided ones, but some do have them.
Some bags have built-in TSA-approved locks; if not, simply buy some. You can use them if the bag needs to be checked and then use them on a backpack while touring pick-pocket-prone areas.
Adjustable handle / side handle. A telescoping handle should feel comfortable (padding is nice) to your hand. A side handle helps to carry the bag horizontally and provides leverage when you need to grab the bag from an overhead bin.
A Note on New “Smart” Bags. It's tempting to get “smart”when you remember an older airport where plugs were non-existent. (Newark, this means you.) But don't out-smart yourself. Airlines do not let the batteries go in the hold so if the carry-on ever needs to be checked, you’ll have to remove it. Check to see how easy it is to remove the battery without opening the bag. Or just consider tucking a small portable charger in your personal bag.