How to Choose the Right Carry-On Bag


Over the last few years, carry-on luggage has exploded in popularity. Until recently, a carry-on bag was only used for a few personal items or extra clothes in case your luggage was lost. Today, with the advent of airlines charging up to $100 for each checked bag, they have become the only piece of luggage many travelers carry.

However, picking the right piece of carry-on luggage isn’t an easy task. With so many options and so many airport regulations, it can all be a bit bewildering. If your old Samsonite or American Tourister won’t work, or if you’re in the market for a new bag, here is a little information to guide you to your next carry-on bag — as well as tips for getting it through the airport.


Starting with the Basics

We talk about planning a lot on this blog, and this post isn’t going to break that mold. The truth is planning plays a huge role in everything when it comes to traveling. Having an idea of where you’re going and what you’re doing can help you save time and money while helping you get the most out of your travels.

All that’s to say that finding the right carry-on bag starts with doing your homework. Think through your travel habits and any upcoming trips you have scheduled. Are they typically for leisure or for business? When do you usually travel? How often do you pass through the airport? And, most importantly, how much do you usually pack for your trips?

Here are the main things to keep in mind when getting started:


  • Carry-on bags are usually best for short trips. Anything more than four days away is pushing the limit on even the best packers’ abilities to stick to a carry-on. The bags work really well for shorter trips, but just remember to take into account the different types of clothing for each season — especially the bulky wardrobes of winter.


  • “Carry-on” is a truly fitting name. What you pack is what you carry. While checking your luggage lets you leave (most) of your luggage worries at the counter, carry-on bags stick with you throughout your entire trip. Keep in mind the weight of your bag. We recommend sticking to a max of 30 or 40 lbs.


  • Invest in a bag that fits your needs. From the frequent to the frugal, there’s a carry-on designed for every traveler in mind. We don’t recommend opting for cheap, flimsy bags, but we do recommend you buy a product that fits your needs. Business travelers should consider quality bags with a professional look whereas casual travelers can opt for something middle of the road.


Sizing up Your Bag Options

Although we refer to them all as “carry-ons,” not every bag is built the same. You have different sizes, different features and even varying dimensions — which can be a real problem when airline regulations for carry-on bags are as strict as they are today. If you’re entering the world of carry-on luggage, stick to these rules:


For American, Delta, United and US Airways


  • Bags must not exceed 40 lbs., though the luxury of a carry-on bag tends to fade when it starts getting that heavy anyway.


  • Linear inches, determined by adding the bag’s length, width and height (including wheels and handles), cannot exceed 45”. The exact dimensions are 22” length + 14” width + 9” height.


For jetBlue, Virgin and Southwest


  • Bags have to be even lighter, with the max weight clocking in at 30 lbs.


  • The linear inches cannot exceed 50”. The dimensions for these bags are 24” length + 16” width + 10” height.


Also, don’t forget that carry-on luggage has to fit in the overhead bins or underneath your seat. If it doesn’t, you’ll have to check it with the airline. As we all know, overhead space does tend to fill up quickly. This means you may want to look into early boarding if your bags tend to be on the larger side.


Hardside vs. Softside

Ah, the age-old question of what type of luggage to buy. We’ve spoken at length about the benefits of hardside luggage and how to find the right bag. And we have plenty of high-quality standard luggage as well. Really, you can’t lose with either option so long as you go for quality. That being said, there are a few pros and cons for you to consider:


  • Hardside luggage offers top-notch protection and has the tendency to look sleek and sophisticated. However, protection comes at the cost of materials that have a better chance of showing wear and tear. And due to the bag’s rigid nature, you can’t go around squeezing it into tight spaces. Still, you can’t beat hardside luggage when it comes to protection.


  • Where softside luggage lags in protection it catches up in utility. The bags come with all assortments of exterior pockets and compartments, and the soft material makes it easier to compress if necessary.


Rolling in on the Right Wheels

Don’t make the mistake of ignoring the importance of wheels. These small additions can make or break your entire carry-on experience if you don’t take the time to pick out the right set.


  • No Wheels: Bags that fall into this category tend to be duffels and daypacks. They’re great for carrying around a day or two’s worth of belongings, but the lack of wheels makes it a challenge to carry any hefty weight unless you’re a seasoned backpacker.


  • Two Wheels: This is the most common setup. It works best for rolling/dragging your bags behind you. They tend to be more durable and can handle a variety of terrain, from dirt and gravel to pavement.


  • Four Wheels: These wheels are best for traveling through airports and polished surfaces. They make it a cinch to maneuver your bags wherever you need to go, but they do have more trouble handling tougher terrain.


Coming to Grips with Different Handles

Second to wheels in importance is probably your carry-on’s handle. This is the feature you’ll be using most throughout your travels, and it quite literally bears the weight of your belongings. And that’s only talking about the main handle. You also have to consider the side handles built for lifting and storing. Some additional factors to weigh:


  • Pick a handle that is a comfortable height. Find a way to measure what is a comfortable height for you and compare it to the heights listed on the product descriptions. This isn’t something you want to skimp on.


  • Buy a bag with a handle that attaches to the frame. Some bags attach the main handle to the material itself, and it’s a practice that isn’t structurally sound. Go for a bag that has a handle attached to the frame itself to get the most lifespan out of your purchase.


  • Find a strap that rests comfortably and securely. If your bag is a shoulder bag instead of a wheeled one, look for a strap that is secured safely to the bag itself and that wont cut painfully into your shoulders. There’s no need to injure yourself for the sake of saving some money!


Closing in on a Quality Zipper

Don’t forget about the strength of your zipped enclosure on your bag.

Even the strongest of cases and the sturdiest of handles become obsolete if the zipper on your bag fails. Look for one made of a strong metal or durable synthetic material. Zippers unfortunately don’t show wear and tear until the point of failure, so your best bet is to invest in a quality zipper from the start.


Playing by the Rules with TSA Regulations

Sure, TSA security checks can be bothersome, and they’re far from quick and easy. But you can decrease the hassle they place on your travels by knowing the regulations ahead of time and having a bag that fits the bill without any question. If you’re toting along a carry-on bag of any kind, keep these things in mind for security checks:


  • You can’t bring wrapped gifts of any kind. It may be the thought that counts, but you’re either going to lose your present out of suspicion or you’re going to waste your time on artful wrapping just to have it unwrapped during security.


  • Don’t carry extra lithium-ion batteries. These batteries have a tendency to fail in dangerous ways regardless of your intent. In order to keep everyone safe on an airline, they can’t ride along with you in your carry-on bag.


  • Leave the sports equipment somewhere else. Most sports gear like baseball bats, tennis rackets and hockey sticks don’t have a place in the cabin of a plane mainly because of their size. Ice skates and gear with blades are also banned for obvious reasons.


  • No sharp, flammable or hazardous items. Airlines and the TSA are all about safety. This means limiting anything that could cause damage or harm in the wrong hands.


  • 3-1-1 rule for liquids. Liquids must be in 3 oz. bottles stored in a specific one-quart bag. These bags are limited to one per passenger.


Carrying on to Your Luggage Purchase

So there you have it: a rundown of all the points to consider when finding the perfect bag for your travel needs. Obviously we can’t cover every little detail in the world of carry-on luggage, but hopefully we can help make the experience less daunting and a little more exciting.

If you’re up for the challenge, get started here!