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Tim Leffel

Professional Travel Expert

Carry-on Bags

As more airlines charge for even the first checked bag and flight delays keep getting worse, it is getting increasingly more important to pack light enough to carry on what you need. The trick is finding a bag that will hold what you need but still come in under the size limits for the airline cabins.

For most airlines, the length plus width plus height should be no more than 45 inches. Some have a stricter limit than this though, so a bag that’s 22 inches long may be technically advertised as a carry-on, but it will require checking in some cases. A soft bag gives you more flexibility in these situations because you can scrunch it up smaller (if it’s not packed to capacity) to make it fit in those bins the airline displays as the limit.

If you are traveling more for pleasure than business, you are better off with a non-wheeled carry-on bag since it will be significantly lighter and will have a higher capacity for the size. Wheels add both weight and bulk, even in the most lightweight versions, so be sure you’ll be spending most of your transit time in airports and taxis before going with a wheeled carry-on. Otherwise you’re better off with a duffle-style bag that can be slung over your shoulder or a small backpack that can be worn up and down stairs and hills.

Best Carry-on Bags by Tim Leffel

The Best You Can Get

  • Red Oxx Air Boss

    Tim says: The 21-inch Air Boss bag was designed with input from the founder of and is designed to be crammed with enough essentials to last a road warrior a week. Since there are no wheels or hard surfaces, it holds as much as some suitcases with double the weight: 2,184 cubic inches (36 liters).

    There are three main compartments, two outside zippered pockets, an outside sleeve pocket, and tie-downs to hold slacks and dress shirts in their place. As with all Red Oxx bags, it is made in the U.S. using the strongest materials and stitching methods available. It comes in twelve different colors and has a lifetime warranty.

    • Maximum capacity carry-on with a small footprint
    • Lots of pockets to keep items separate
    • Rugged, with a lifetime warranty
  • Tough Traveler Tri-Zip

    Tim says: True to its name, this is one tough bag. It is similar to the Red Oxx Air Boss in weight and size, but has one additional key feature: tuck-away straps that turn it into a backpack - with removable aluminum stays for support. So when there are four flights of stairs or a series of hills to navigate, you can give your arm or one shoulder a break.

    The bag features a full-width outside pocket for things you need to keep handy, a roomy middle section with cinch straps, and a separate compartment for a laptop or other items. Handcrafted in the USA and available in nine colors, the Tough Traveler uses the strongest available nylon and heavy-duty zippers, plus reinforced and double-stitched stress points.

    • Limited lifetime warranty
    • Converts to a backpack
    • Weighs only 3.5 pounds
  • Tony Perotti Venice (Venezzia) Get-Away Bag

    Tim says: It is easy to find designer Italian leather carry-on bags retailing for more than a few thousand dollars, but this stylish alternative from Tony Perotti delivers the same head-turning look for a lot less. This sumptuous leather suitcase with a shoulder strap will look good with any outfit, but it holds a few days’ worth of outfits and easily qualifies as a carry-on.

    Made from thick, wear-resistant leather, this classic model in dark brown or black will still be in fashion and in working order a decade or two from now. Metal feet protect the bottom and an outside zippered pocket holds tickets and reading material.

    • Timeless leather designer bag
    • Looks serious and expensive
    • Fits within carry-on requirements, but large capacity
  • Travelpro Platinum 5 19-inch Expandable Rollaboard

    Tim says: Travelpro introduced the world to rollaboard suitcases back in 1989 and has been continually refining its product lines ever since. With a 19-inch length, this bag will be allowed in nearly any airplane cabin. This Platinum line is not light (nine pounds, six ounces for this model), but it uses some of the best components available and throws in a lot of extras, including leather trim.

    Frequent travelers appreciate the smooth and quiet wheel assembly and the “no tipping over” design on the bottom. There’s a removable hanging wet pocket, a water-resistant lining, a leather luggage tag, and a TSA-approved combination lock.

    If you buy too many souvenirs to carry on coming home, no worries. You can check the bag for the return; the main body expands for 30% more packing capacity.

    • Heavy-duty 19-inch bag for frequent travelers
    • Plenty of pockets and storage areas
    • Limited lifetime warranty
  • Eagle Creek Hovercraft 20

    Tim says: With a 20-inch length and 14-inch width, this bag meets most airline carry-on limits, but the external pockets and inside compression straps enable you to pack in a lot. With a lifetime warranty, it is designed to withstand regular stress and knocks; it has a protective kick plate and wheel housing plus a reinforced bottom.

    The ergonomic telescoping handle is joined by soft but sturdy top and side handles. This model opens like a book for easy packing and unpacking. Coming in under seven pounds, this rolling suitcase is lighter than nearly all of its competitors, despite the large wheels and construction meant to last through years of wear.

    • One of the lightest softside wheeled suitcases available
    • Generous 2550 cubic inch (41.8 liter) capacity
    • Lifetime warranty

You will be happy with any of these

  • Case Logic 18-inch Lightweight Upright Roller

    Tim says: At 18 inches by 12.5 inches, this attractive and compact bag from Case Logic should even fit into those cramped commuter jets with three seats across. At only seven pounds, it’s also an easy one to pick up and carry when you are on cobblestones, navigating stairs, or going up and down across curbs.

    One of the unique attributes of this roller is the included laptop compartment, which stores most 15-inch computers and allows it to be a single-bag solution on a short business trip. Smooth in-line skate wheels easily glide through airports and organizational panel stores magazines, portable electronics, and other travel accessories. The 18-inch Case Logic roller is available in three color combinations, has a water bottle holder on the outside, and comes with a ten-year warranty.

    • Small enough for most any luggage compartment
    • Cushioned laptop compartment
    • Lightweight but equipped with lots of gadget compartments
  • Osprey Porter 46 Backpack

    Tim says: This popular backpack bumps right up against the 45 linear inches limit for carry-ons, allowing you to cram in plenty of clothes without the extra bulk and weight of wheels and a handle. It is a fully functional backpack for long walks, but the straps do zip away so it can be carried as a suitcase, with a handle on the top and the side.

    The main compartment has some smaller internal pockets and outside compression straps to keep everything tight. An outside zippered pocket keeps the passport and tickets handy. This bag is built to last, constructed of abrasion-, moisture- and tear-resistant denier nylon. The Porter 46 weighs just a shade over three pounds, but has an impressive 2,800 cubic inches (46 liters) of storage capacity - greater than any 20-inch rolling suitcase.

    • Large capacity in a small backpack
    • Straps tuck away for conversion to a suitcase
    • Only weighs three pounds
  • Heys USA Xcase 20-inch Lightweight Carry-on

    Tim says: For hardside luggage that is lightweight and fashionable, the Heys XCase line is the clear winner. Available in an array of eight colors, these strong polycarbonate carry-ons are amazingly light, coming in at barely over five pounds. They are also a good value, often retailing for half the price of their softside counterparts.

    The company does not skimp on materials however, using inline skate wheels that are quiet and turn easily. The monopole pushbutton handle is comfortable in the hand. There is one main compartment, but compression straps allow you to stuff in a lot of clothes and there is a built-in flap inside the top of the case for separating items. All Heys bags come with a ten-year warranty.

    • Hardside luggage to protect contents
    • Only weighs five pounds
    • Comes in eight colors
  • High Sierra ATQ Carry-on Wheeled Backpack

    Tim says: This bag is twice as heavy and more bulky than a non-wheeled backpack of the same size, but is easier to carry around in airports and hotels. The combined 3068 cubic inch (50 liter) capacity of this High Sierra model means it barely squeaks under standard carry-on limits, but the ability to remove the daypack and carry that on as your “personal items” bag gives you the option to make it smaller when necessary.

    The daypack is a great companion for the flight itself, with a zippered accessory pocket, two mesh water bottle holders, a headphone port, and room for all your books and camera gear.

    With a telescoping handle for the wheels plus side and top handles for other times, this is a versatile bag that works well for a trip of a week or two. Be advised though that this type of bag is suitcase first, backpack second: there’s no adjustable internal frame and no additional support straps for your waist or chest.

    • Wheeled backpack holds more than a standard suitcase
    • Daypack can be carried separately
    • Versatile bag offers multiple carrying options
  • Red Oxx Safari Beano 4

    Tim says: This 19- by 9- by 9-inch workhorse duffle bag is probably the toughest and strongest carry-on you can buy, but it weighs in at only 3.5 pounds. Made of 1000 weight urethane coated Cordura nylon and using the strongest YKK zippers, the bag shows its heritage of being designed by two former parachute riggers. All seams are double stitched and bound, with double box stitches on the carry handles.

    There are two side pockets for items that need to be kept handy and 1,539 cubic inches (25 liters) of capacity. If you’re also checking a wheeled suitcase, there’s a pass-through panel to secure this to the handle. The Red Oxx PR4 comes in 12 colors and has a lifetime warranty.

    • Military-grade toughness and a lifetime warranty
    • Weekend duffle for light packers
    • Will hook to a rolling suitcase handle

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