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Buyer’s Guide: The Best Carry-On Bag

Which carry-on bag is right for most travelers? This guide from The Wirecutter will tell you.

Buyer’s Guide: The Best Carry-On Bag
[Photos: courtesy of The Wirecutter]

No matter how much you travel, the right carry-on luggage should last you for years. On the inside it should fit enough clothes for at least a five-day trip with room for a little more, but on the outside it should be small enough that it won’t get you gate-checked. For the majority of flyers (people who fly under 25,000 miles annually), we recommend the $165 Travelpro Platinum Magna 22-inch Expandable Rollaboard Suiter. For those who fly more than that (or less), we have picks for you too.

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How We Decided

Over the years, we’ve spent hundreds of hours on research and testing. To determine what the perfect bag should have, we consulted a host of industry experts, including travel writers from other publications and flight attendants who know what to look for. We even took bags to a flight attendant training facility, walked them around mock airplane cabins, and had experienced flight attendants try their hand with them and give us feedback. We then took our own measurements, and did our own load, usability, and ruggedization testing.

Our test group, left to right: The Tumi Alpha 1, the Tumi Alpha 2 Continental, the Briggs & Riley Baseline (U122CX), the Briggs & Riley Baseline (U121CXW), the Travelpro Platinum Magna 20-inch, the Travelpro Platinum Magna 22-inch, the Kirkland Signature 21.5-inch Upright Expandable Carry-on, the REI Stratocruiser, the REI Wheely Beast, and the L.L. Bean Sportsman’s Expandable Rolling Pullman.

What we concluded is that you’re looking for a bag that has a fabric exterior (not a hard shell) which makes it tough yet flexible. You want two, seal-bearing wheels (four wheelers sacrifice storage space for their overall footprint). You want YKK zippers, aluminum telescoping handles, roomy suiter compartments, good warranties, user-replaceable parts, and maybe most importantly, maximum cubic volume while taking up minimum space.

With all that in mind, we came up with three bags as our picks, for three levels of travel frequency and budget.

For Most Travelers

At $165, we think the Travelpro Platinum Magna 22-inch Expandable Rollaboard Suiter has the best balance of size to capacity, features, and price for those traveling under 25,000 miles per year. It’s relatively light, the wheels are built to last, and it’s big enough to easily fit five days’ worth of clothes. Compared to other bags in this price range, you also get surprisingly high-end components and a warranty that covers anything (even airline damage) for the life of the bag. If you want something reliable and don’t want to spend a ton, this is an excellent choice.

The Kirkland bag looks big and bulky, and is more likely to get you gate-checked.

Like most bags, this one isn’t perfect—it should be harder to tip over when loaded, the handle hardware takes up more interior space than we’d like, and it gets a bit banged up when it goes up and down stairs due to a lack of protective plastic strips that can be found on our other picks. But for the average traveler, this is still a high-quality bag that can hold a lot.

A side-by-side comparison of the Kirkland (left) and Travelpro luggage.

For Infrequent and/or Budget Travelers

If you only fly a few times a year (and you’re a Costco member), you can get an even better deal than the Travelpro: For just $100, we recommend Costco’s Kirkland Signature 21.5” Expandable Upright Carry-on. It’s an impressively built bag with a ton of amenities—an even higher capacity than our main pick, ample pockets, and easy-riding large-diameter wheels, for example. This was also one of the toughest bags we tested, and you can easily strap a second carry-on to its handle.

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There are a few downsides—namely, its borderline-too-big dimensions and some occasional problems with the handle—but Costco’s returns policy reliably fixes any defects you encounter. And most of the time, flight attendants won’t make you check your bag if it’s on the upper limit of what’s allowed, but during a busy holiday travel season, all bets are off. For a decent bag on a budget, you just can’t find a better bargain.

For Frequent Fliers

If you fly more than 25,000 miles every year and you’re willing to invest in a higher quality product, we recommend the Briggs & Riley Baseline U121CXW, a $465 bag that’s made well enough to actually improve your travel experience. Several unique design elements enable the Briggs & Riley to fit more stuff into—say, nearly seven days worth of clothing—because the handle rails are outside the luggage compartment, freeing up internal space.

All of these features add up to a carry-on that you can pack more into, more easily, than any other bag.

There’s also an ingenious expansion/compression system that can adjust to variable levels, not just open and shut. No other bag has anything like it. We feel it comes up short in internal pockets, but its suiter is second to none, as is its warranty.

In Closing

For the average Joe in need of a carry-on bag, the TravelPro and Kirkland should do you just fine. For Johnny Jetsetter, go with the Briggs & Riley.

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