- A durable and reliable carry-on suitcase is a must-have for any traveler.
- Hard-side vs. soft-side luggage and budget is a personal preference, so we’ve included options.
- Our top hard-side carry-on is from Samsonite and our top soft-side carry-on is from Travelpro.
Waiting in a long line when running late for a flight, having to pay hefty baggage fees, and your shoulder hurting from carting around a heavy duffle bag are all hassles that make quality carry-on luggage a must-have.
The best carry-on suitcases are reliable, durable, easy to pack, hold plenty of clothes, and fit on both domestic and international planes of all sizes.
As a travel editor who pre-pandemic frequently took more than 50 flights per year and was often in a destination for just a day or two before moving on, I practically live out of my carry-on at times. I’ve also had checked luggage lost or arrive late enough times to avoid going that route whenever possible, making a carry-on my go-to item even for longer trips.
While my luggage may go through a few more rigorous trials than the average leisure traveler, most people are looking for these same qualities in any good piece of luggage.
For this guide, I put 10 carry-ons to the test. You can read our full testing methodology as well as tips on what to look for in a carry-on bag at the bottom of this guide. You can also find additional carry-on options for traveling with kids towards the end of this guide.
Here is the best carry-on luggage of 2021
- Best hard-side carry-on overall: Samsonite Centric Hardside Expandable Luggage with Spinner Wheels
- Best soft-side carry-on overall: Travelpro Platinum Elite Expandable Carry-On Spinner
- Best budget carry-on: AmazonBasics Hardside Spinner
- Best high-end hard-side carry-on: Rimowa Essential Lite
- Best high-end soft-side carry-on: Briggs & Riley Baseline Domestic Carry-on Expandable Spinner
- Best carry-on for extra space: Monos Carry-On Pro Plus
- Best aluminum carry-on: Away The Carry-On: Aluminium Edition
Form, function, durability, and an excellent price all meet to make the Samsonite Centric Hardside Expandable Luggage a winner.
Pros: Excellent price for the quality, durable, scratch-resistant, wheels easily, expandable
Cons: Handle wiggles a decent amount when fully extended, slightly heavier than other options available
This hard-side carry-on suitcase will fit in just about any overhead bin for domestic and international flights with the exception of tiny jumper planes. The twill texture is scratch-resistant with a slightly shiny finish that helps it stand out in an airport crowd.
I’ve used this bag consistently for more than two years, and while it has a couple of very small white marks upon close inspection, it has overall remained in remarkably good shape — especially in comparison to other hard-side cases I’ve tried.
It’s easy to lift into overhead bins and a rubberized grip under the top and side handles add extra comfort when lifting. The zippers have good grip and run smoothly without catching and the expansion zipper even has a finger hole for extra ease and agility. There is also a TSA-approved lock on the right side.
The four multi-directional wheels are quiet and making rolling the bag in front of you, beside you, or behind you on almost any surface a breeze, though it was harder to pull on thick carpet.
Despite its small size, I’ve been able to pack a week’s worth of clothes in and the 1.5-inch expansion capability comes in especially handy if you’re like me and always end up coming back from a trip with more than you originally packed. While there aren’t any fancy extras when it comes to interior storage, it’s more than sufficient with a mesh zip close on one side and a strong buckle to keep clothes packed in tight on the other.
The bag’s one downside is the adjustable push-button handle. While I’ve never had any major issues with it and it does have two different heights it can lock into, the handle is a little bit wobbly when fully extended. As is the case with most suitcases, the handle poles do also take up some space in the interior compartment, making it harder to lay items completely flat on that side.
After multiple lengthy trips with this bag, it has stood up incredibly well in terms of durability. There are no dents or major scratches, and from a cursory glance, the bag still looks practically brand new both inside and out. As an added bonus, the bag is also backed by a 10-year warranty.
For the affordable price, this Samsonite carry-on is a serious winner.
The best soft-side carry-on overall
The Travelpro Platinum Elite Expandable Carry-On holds everything you need and then some, but its attention to detail makes it stand out from the competition.
Pros: Durable and high-quality materials, leather detailing, doesn’t tip forward even when fully packed
Cons: Easy to overpack
Travelpro is well regarded among serious travelers for a reason. The brand was pioneered by a pilot who knew exactly which small details make a world of difference in a bag, and that thoughtful care and attention is apparent in the Platinum Elite Expandable Carry-On. The brand offers a warranty against defects for life.
This particular bag meets FAA regulations for carry-on sizing and the high-density nylon fabric is durable, stain-resistant, and has not torn or ripped at all in the time I’ve used it. Leather detailing not only adds a sophisticated look but also makes the top lifting handle extremely comfortable compared to those made from plastic. However, the additional handle on the side is a little bit tight even for my small hands.
With an expansion option of two full inches, this bag holds a lot more than just your weekend essentials. There are three front pockets of varying sizes, including one that can hold a laptop. The main compartment has the standard layout of a soft-side bag with one deep side for packing most items and a smaller zipper compartment that is half mesh on the other side.
While the handle poles do take up some space, the bag is deep enough that it’s not much of an issue. Once buckled, there are also two additional mesh pockets available that are good for holding small items.
Large chrome zippers are super easy to maneuver and the four, large PrecisionGlide wheels made this bag one of the easiest to wheel on every surface, including carpet. The adjustable handle is very sturdy and has a contoured grip making it extra comfortable. At 7.8 pounds, it’s a pretty standard weight for a carry-on and is easy to lift.
The bag also comes with several handy extras, including a garment bag, a built-in USB port (battery pack not included), and a removable clear plastic bag attached to the inside for holding toiletries and liquids.
However, I did find that with so many front pockets, the bag was very easy to overpack, especially when fully expanded, which defeats the purpose of having a carry-on if you end up having to check it in after all.
The best budget carry-on
For the casual weekend traveler, the AmazonBasics Hardside Spinner Carry-On is an attractive bag that does the job at an extremely affordable price.
Pros: Very affordable, durable for the price, solid adjustable handle that doesn’t wobble
Cons: Marks up easily, may not hold up well over time, no lock
For a bag that costs much less than our top picks, I was thoroughly impressed by the quality and look of this carry-on. It was sturdier than I was expecting and the material only had a little bit of give when I pressed on the top and sides.
Though it is expandable up to 15% for additional packing room, I found that it held less overall than the similar Samsonite suitcase we recommend in this guide, making it a good option for shorter or weekend trips.
The interior has one mesh zip side and one side with a buckle. The buckle isn’t too sturdy, but it will do the trick of keeping clothes in place as long as you don’t overpack that side. The adjustable handle is comfortable and surprisingly didn’t wobble very much. The wheels also glided smoothly on nearly every surface (thick carpet gave it a bit of trouble), though they were just a little bit louder than others I tested.
The ribbed exterior has a shiny finish, and other than the AmazonBasics logo on the front, is stylish enough that it won’t give away how little it costs. The zippers ran smoothly and for the most part, the bag held up throughout my tests, though it did get marks relatively easily and had a mark on the back after just one use.
That said, some reviewers have complained that after about five or six trips the bag starts to break down, with complaints of broken handles, wheels, and zippers. It’s also missing a notable feature: There’s no lock, TSA-approved or otherwise.
But for the casual traveler who only takes a couple of trips a year, this is an extremely affordable option that still gets the job done.
The best high-end hard-side carry-on
True to its name, the Rimowa Essential Lite sets itself apart with its under 5-pound weight without compromising on durability or quality.
Pros: Incredibly lightweight, durable
Cons: Not as good for organization, expensive
Rimowa is best known for its distinctive aluminum suitcases frequently spotted on celebrity Instagram accounts. While those bags will set you back a cool grand, the luxury travel brand has alternative high-quality options that won’t cost more than your monthly rent.
I was particularly impressed with the newer Essential Lite bag. When it first arrived, I actually assumed a vase I had ordered around the same time had come in an inexplicably large box because it never dawned on me that a suitcase would be that light.
The Essential Lite weighs less than five pounds, which is especially great for chronic overpackers who worry about their bag being overweight. Shockingly, the Lite suitcase actually holds slightly more than the classic aluminum suitcase, too.
To achieve this light-as-a-feather feat, the brand didn’t sacrifice when it comes to the quality of the materials. Although the bag has some give at the top when pressed, the suitcase is plenty sturdy. Its thicker glossy coating also keeps it from scratching or marking up as easily as matte-finished suitcases. I tossed it around several times and even after getting jostled around in a moving van, it came out the other side with no dents, scratches, or marks.
If an aesthetically pleasing or eye-catching bag is important to you, you’ll also likely enjoy the glossy finish, subtle vertical ribbing, and array of rainbow-hued color choices that range from a candy apple red to a deep teal, along with classic black and white options.
The bag has a TSA-approved lock on top, a rubberized top handle that’s comfortable to grip, and a sturdy telescopic handle. The wheels are whisper quiet thanks to cushioned axles and worked beautifully on every surface from hardwood to carpet. I also liked that both sides of the interior had a mesh zipper, which I found made keeping everything organized and in place easier than the typical one-sided buckle system.
The suitcase also comes with a complimentary leather luggage tag and is backed by a five-year warranty. One added bonus of owning a Rimowa bag is that the company not only does in-store and send-away repairs, but also works with a network of luxury hotels that do repairs onsite should anything happen to your bag while you’re traveling.
The best high-end soft-side carry-on
The Briggs & Riley Baseline Domestic Carry-On is worth the investment thanks to an impressive compression feature and high-end materials that stand the test of time.
Pros: Durable, high-quality materials, smart and unique features to help fit more in
Cons: Pricey, heavy
With a hybrid fiberglass frame, ballistic nylon exterior, reinforced corners, and smooth YKK zippers, this Briggs & Riley bag is made to withstand the test of time. The bag is incredibly durable and mine has experienced no rips, tears, or marks to speak of.
This suitcase is also full of ingenious tricks that make packing it a breeze and help you sneak in those extra outfits. For starters, the bag has a CX compression-expansion system that increases packing capacity by 25% before compressing back down to fit carry-on size regulations. I tried the feature out myself and it worked beautifully.
The main compartment is extremely spacious and unlike every other bag I tested, Briggs & Riley has taken the smart step of making sure the adjustable handle is entirely on the outside of the bag so no packing room is lost to the poles. That said, it does mean that the poles are visible on the outside of the bag and may make it slightly harder to slide the bag into the overhead compartment.
Like other soft-side bags, it has one deeper side and a smaller side with a zippered compartment. But another smart feature that adds packable room to this bag is a fold-out divider in the smaller zippered compartment so you can stack clothes, fold it in, and then stack more clothes before zipping it all up. The zippered compartment also has an additional small mesh pocket. Sturdy mesh panels clip together to keep the deeper compartment secure.
The wheels expertly navigated every surface, and the handle is sturdy and easy to grip. Two outer pockets on the front add additional space, but I found they didn’t expand quite as much as the Travelpro front pockets, which was actually a plus since it wasn’t as easy to overpack. There’s also a small zippered pocket on the back ideal for keeping your phone (especially when going through security) that also comes with a hideaway ID tag.
The biggest downside to this bag is the weight. It’s heavier than the other bags I tried and could be hard for some people to lift into the overhead, especially when fully packed. It also became front heavy and tipped forward slightly when completely full.
The best carry-on for extra space
If you’re not restricted to smaller overhead bins, the Monos Carry-On Pro Plus is a sleek suitcase with extra room inside and a smart front pocket for easily stowing accessories.
Pros: Significantly more packable space, smart front pocket that doesn’t protrude when packed
Cons: Doesn’t meet all carry-on size requirements, marks up easily
At 23 inches, the Monos Pro Plus is just a hair too big for many standard flights. However, if you mainly take larger cross-country or transatlantic flights where overhead bins are bigger and space isn’t usually an issue and relish every last ounce of packable space, this carry-on is worth a look.
It offers more packable space than any other bag on this list. It features one side with a zippered mesh compartment and an alternative side that has a fold-out mesh pocket and two wide and sturdy buckles that help to seriously compress clothes when pulled tight.
But what really sets this bag apart is the front pocket space, which is unusual for a hard-side suitcase. The padded pocket holds a 15-inch laptop and has additional pockets of varying sizes for easily organizing everything from your phone to headphones. Unlike soft-side bags with front pockets, this pocket also zips up to fit its original size even when items are inside rather than protruding out. While some Away bags also feature a front pocket, this one has significantly more pockets for far superior organization. It’s also cheaper than other suitcases with front pockets like Arlo Skye and Rimowa.
The bag itself has a simple and chic look and comes in an array of attractive colors like pale pink and royal blue. However, my bag did get several small white marks rather quickly. Though the company does include a small eraser with the bag that worked remarkably well when I tested it out. The adjustable handle is sturdy and doesn’t wobble, the YKK zippers didn’t catch, and the wheels glided smoothly on all surfaces.
As an additional bonus, the bag is guaranteed for life and has a 100-day trial period.
For those who want to ensure their carry-on fits on all flights, Monos recently launched a smaller carry-on option with a pocket, the Carry-On Pro. However, you do lose 10 liters of packable space, so the Pro is best for shorter trips.
The best aluminum carry-on
Away’s heavy-duty aluminum carry-on is as sleek and eye-catching as it is durable.
Pros: Durable, sleek look, dual locks, ample packing space
Cons: Heavy, expensive
Aluminum suitcases are more expensive than standard polycarbonate options. However, they’re supremely durable and built to seriously last. They also have a sleek and shiny look that stands out from the crowd at the airport.
Though I’ve only been testing Away’s The Carry-On: Aluminium Edition for about two months, it’s quickly becoming one of my favorite suitcases. I was worried it wouldn’t easily fit into all overhead bins because it has a bulkier look, but I was even able to fit it on a small regional plane recently.
As for that shiny look, I receive compliments every time I take this bag out. And on durability, this carry-on has held up remarkably well so far, with no scratches, dings, or dents to speak of, even after I also threw it around on my rooftop to simulate the wear and tear that comes with typical plane travel.
Its 360-degree spinner wheels are a breeze to roll on numerous surface types, though they are a bit louder than some other carry-ons I own and have tested. Rather than a typical zipper, this aluminum suitcase features two sturdy TSA-approved locks that easily click into place.
What most impressed me was the huge amount of packing space. I took this bag on a weekend ski trip and was able to fit my long underwear, sweaters, ski pants, gloves, and a light jacket on just one side. I easily fit a weekend’s worth of everyday clothes on the other side.
However, that durability and packable space does come with a price: the weight. At just under 11 pounds, this bag is heavy. While that isn’t too big of an issue on car trips, train trips, or some flights, with airlines that have stricter weight limits I would hesitate to use this carry-on.
As with almost all Away bags, you have the option to choose a standard bag or one that comes with a removable and TSA-approved battery. While the battery isn’t totally necessary and you will have to remember to remove it each time before you get on a plane, it can be a handy perk for on-the-go charging.
The best carry-on luggage for travel with kids
Traveling with kids makes it significantly more complicated to bring just a carry-on bag. You have no choice but to think of every single thing your kids might possibly require, then pack it where you can actually find it.
You also need space for snacks, entertainment devices, and materials to change your child’s bottom mid-air. And of course, you’ll need several extra outfits on hand and within reach during the trip — you know, just in case your kid vomits unexpectedly or spills chocolate milk at the worst possible time.
That means your carry-on needs significantly more pockets for organizing and space-saving options will reign supreme. Here are some carry-on options to consider for family travel:
Genius Pack G4 Carry On Spinner ($219): This carry-on has a compartment for everything. Extra pockets you can use to stay organized include a hidden interior lining pocket perfect for shoes, a removable laundry compartment, and separate spaces for chargers, socks, underwear, and more. If you wind up needing extra room on the ride home, a simple pull of a zipper will garner a 20% increase in space.
Biaggi ZipSak Boost ($89.99): If storing bulky luggage is an issue for you, this bag will wow you by folding down so small that it can easily fit under your bed or inside a drawer. It also features a flexible outer shell that makes packing in lots of stuff a breeze. Its exterior pockets are perfect for storing baby wipes, tablets, or snacks, and you can haul this bag in more than one way — either wheel it along like a regular carry on or use the side handle to carry it like a briefcase.
Timbuk2 Quest Rolling Duffel ($139.30): Ideal for families with toddlers and babies, this rolling duffel has multiple exterior compartments perfect for diapers and wipes, bottles and formula, and extra onesies and sleepers. Not only does it roll like a spinner, but you can throw it on your back like a backpack if you need to free your hands. Extra exterior storage compartments are ideal for everything you’ll need for your baby in the air, and this bag is still appropriately sized as a carry-on.
— Holly Johnson
What else we tested
What else we recommend:
- Away Carry-On ($225): I’ve had an Away bag for years and it’s another good option. I have found that over the years it’s gotten quite a few marks and scratches though, and it’s more expensive than the Samsonite bag and not as high-quality or lightweight as the Rimowa bag. That said, I would recommend this bag to anyone who absolutely wants charging capability for their phone or who wants a wide array of fun color options.
- Tumi International Carry-On ($750): This is a high-quality, premium bag that will likely last you years. However, the extremely high starting price point is prohibitive for many.
- Target Open Story 21-inch Hardside Carry-On ($149.99): Travel Editor Emily Hochberg tested out this bag and found it to be another great option at a similar price point to the Samsonite bag. It features a durable but lightweight polycarbonate shell, heavy-duty zippers, quiet spinner wheels, and a telescoping aluminum handle. She also liked the multiple interior compartments for easy organizing and the built-in USB port for use with a power bank or battery charger, though that’s not included. However, the lighter colors especially show marks easily and more than one reviewer has noted that the lock didn’t work properly. It also doesn’t have an option for expansion.
- Roam The Jaunt ($495): This bag is on the pricey end and didn’t hold quite as much as other options I tested, though it would be just right for a long weekend trip. However, when it comes to being able to customize, this bag stands out. If you want to be able to mix and match colors from the handle to the spinner wheels, this may appeal to you.
What we don’t recommend:
- London Fog 20-inch Spinner Carry-On ($139.99, currently out of stock): I couldn’t fit in quite as much to this bag as other options I tried. Additionally, it comes in very limited color options and there is no plain black.
What we’re testing next
- Travelpro x Travel & Leisure Carry-On Expandable Spinner ($420.75): This new collaboration includes an aesthetically pleasing and quality hard-sided carry-on. In a similar price range to the high-end Rimowa and Tumi bags, we’ll be testing this to see how it stacks up.
- Roam The Jaunt ($495): Lightweight and fully customizable when it comes to color options for the shell, wheel caps, stitching, and more, we’ll be seeing how this bag compares to those we already tested.
- Kenneth Cole Reaction ‘Chelsea’ 20-Inch Carry-On ($83.66) & AmazonBasics Softside Carry-On Spinner ($59.99): We haven’t found the best option for a soft-side suitcase under $100 yet, but we will be testing both of these options to see if there’s a clear winner.
How we tested
For this guide, I narrowed down the field to the 10 top contenders based on my own considerable travel experience and knowledge as a travel editor, as well as additional research and user reviews. While some of these bags I’ve personally owned and used for several years, others I tested extensively specifically for this guide.
I put all 10 of the bags through the same tests, which considered durability, packability (both ease and how much the bag could actually hold), maneuverability across multiple surface types, as well as the weight of the bag. I also took into account the price point, style, quality of materials, and any extra features the bags included.
Due to the pandemic, I have not been flying recently, but I still mimicked the conditions carry-ons would typically go through in a number of ways. I packed each bag to capacity, rolled them for several blocks on the street, tested the wheels on wood floors, thick carpet, and concrete, stress-tested the zippers, and lifted each bag onto a high closet shelf roughly the same height as an overhead bin.
I even used all of the bags in a recent move where they were thrown around the back of a moving van in a similar fashion to how they might be tossed around on and off a plane by bag handlers to test durability.
What to consider when buying carry-on luggage
While this may be the most obvious thing to consider, it’s also the most important. Think about how you’ll be using your carry-on most frequently and factor that in. For most standard domestic flights, anything 22 inches and under will suffice. However, if you frequently travel on short jumper flights or often fly on budget airlines overseas, you may want to consider going even smaller. On the flip side, if you mostly take large cross-country or transatlantic flights, you might prefer a bag with a little extra space since overhead space won’t be as much of an issue.
Hard-sided vs. soft-sided luggage
While people on both sides of this debate swear their preference is the right one, this is pretty much a matter of personal choice. Soft-sided bags tend to have more front pockets you can stuff extras into, which can be a blessing or a curse depending on how prone you are to overpacking and going over weight limits. Hard-sided bags tend to have two compartments of equal size, one on each side, while soft-sided bags usually have one deep side and one small zipper compartment on the other. Your personal packing style will largely dictate which option is best.
Of course, in general, the lighter the bag, the better. But if weight isn’t a huge concern for you, you might like a bag that comes with some extra bells and whistles in lieu of one that’s more minimal to save on weight. However, if you frequently take small flights where every last ounce matters, you may want the lightest bag you can get your hands on. If you have mobility issues or trouble lifting bags into the overhead bin, weight will especially be a consideration.
I am a staunch believer in the four-wheel systems that most newer bags have. While some are still adamant in their use of two-wheel bags, I have found four-wheel bags to be lightyears ahead in terms of maneuverability. If you are still living in the two-wheeled past trust me on this: Being able to easily wheel your bag in front of you, beside you, or behind you will change your life.
Materials will be dictated largely by your budget and choice of hard- or soft-sided suitcase. It can be worth splurging on a more durable option if you travel frequently or just want to invest in a suitcase you’ll have for years to come. In general, look for bags that are tear- or scratch-resistant. The most common materials for hard-sided suitcases tend to be aluminum, polycarbonate, and ABS. Aluminum is extremely durable, but also extremely pricey, and ABS is less durable but more affordable. A good polycarbonate bag can hit the sweet spot of price and quality. When it comes to soft-sided suitcases, ballistic nylon is one of the most durable options, but again can mean a higher price point. Regular nylon can still be high-quality while being more affordable, while polyester tends to be a good budget option.
The look of your bag is a very personal choice. Some suitcases are all about function but a bit of an eyesore, while others prioritize aesthetics and come in pleasing pastels practically made for Instagramming. How important a chic bag is, and what exactly that means to you, should be taken into consideration when choosing luggage.
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