Hunting for the Best Carry-On Bag
For me, here were the signs that perhaps my boxy black Samsonite, circa 2003, was reaching the end of its road: The handle was held together by Super Glue and several layers of frayed duct tape; the outside pocket had a six-inch rip along the zipper, exposing its contents (my underwear, typically) to the rest of coach class; the once sturdy wheels were stripped down to nothing from years of clattering over cobblestones, bumping over tree roots and bouncing down subway stairs.
Oh, and at 25 inches long, it’s not even close to a regulation carry-on, and I bought it when no airline was charging for checked bags. So for the last few years, I’d get nervous every time I pass that tiny “Does your carry-on fit in here?” frame. I have never been stopped, but when I read United has beencracking down on carry-on violators, that was the final straw. (Guess which airline I’m flying this week.)
I’m obviously not the kind of traveler who cares deeply about luggage. So I started from the beginning: What’s the least you can pay for a bag that looks decent and can take some serious abuse? Hard, soft or duffel? What pockets are right for me? And do I need a spinner wheels?
After wheeling and lifting and zipping and unzipping dozens of bags in stores, poring over dozens of other models online and reading reviews by experts and consumers, these were my criteria. (My needs are probably common for a budget-conscious traveler. Below are some picks for other types of trips.)
— My pricing sweet spot was at about $150. You can find plenty of bags for under $100, but most are blatantly shabby. That may be fine for infrequent travelers or those whose luggage travels exclusively by taxi and elevator, not city streets and stairways. Above $200, things begin to get unnecessarily stylish for my needs, or the needs of any traveler who wants to blend in at hostels or on buses (though I could hardly tear myself away from the Tumi section at Macy’s).
— Instead of wading into different standards for domestic and international carriers, I wanted something that worked everywhere, which means a maximum length of 21 inches and a linear total of 45 inches (that is, length plus width plus depth).
— A sturdy handle was a top priority. I lift up the whole suitcase with it even when it’s telescoped all the way out. You’re not supposed to do that, but I’m not going to stop.
— The lighter the better. I travel with books and electronic equipment, and need every last ounce.
— The appeal of spinner wheels is lost on me. I get that they make the bag easier to maneuver on airport floors, but I can’t see them bouncing along rutted sidewalks very smoothly, at least in their low-end versions. If I ever enter a figure-skating-with-luggage competition, I’ll give in, but for now, it’s old-fashioned bulky two-wheeled rollers.
— I liked the idea of hard-shell carry-ons, and if I traveled on (real) business, I’d probably get one: the two shallow compartments look perfect for ironed shirts and fine shoes, but not the bulky items I sometimes carry: hiking shoes and a telephoto lens that needs to be wrapped in layers of T-shirts. (I lost the case, O.K.?)
— Between soft-sided regular suitcases and wheeled duffels, I thought I’d definitely want the standard look. But aesthetically, I was torn: the suitcases in my range — lower-end models from dependable brands like Samsonite and TravelPro — were squatter and uglier than the one I was replacing. And the duffels looked better than I thought they would. I was torn ...
— ... But with the duffels, I definitely didn’t want to give up space for hidden backstraps. That’s a younger traveler’s game.
And the winner: REI Wheely Beast 21-inch wheeled duffel, $149.
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I wasn’t going to go for the duffel, I really wasn’t. But it had everything I wanted and still managed to look good, and in just the shape I wanted. It has a big, deep main pocket — no divisions, although there are two small interior pockets and one huge mesh one under the top flap (my new underwear drawer!). There’s an exterior one, too, for easy access, and a pocket underneath that is perfect for papers or tablets (but not big enough for a laptop, fine with me since I carry a small bike messenger bag for that).
Its handle was about the most solid I saw on anything in the price range, and its sturdy wheels make me feel much more comfortable than those little fragile-looking spinners. It’s also among the lightest, at seven pounds. The only issue: at nine-and-a-half inches deep, it’s technically a half-inch too deep for many airlines — which I can’t imagine will cause a problem — and one-and-half inches too deep for a small number of international carriers, a risk I’ll have to take.
The price almost exactly hit my ideal — and as an REI member I received a$20 gift card and will get 10 percent back in cash next year.
Runners-up: If I had wanted a spinner, the Travel Pro Marquis 21-inch edged out a similar Samsonite as a standard carry-on, $152.99 at ebags.com; if I had gone for a hard shell, I liked the look and feel and solidity of the Delsey Helium Aero 21-inch hard shell expandable, $127.49 from ebags.com.
But what if your needs range to longer or shorter or more specific trips? Here are some picks in other categories.
Larger suitcase: I’d move right up into the Wheely Beast 28-inch ($179) or 34-inch ($199). In fact, I liked this one even better than the carry-on, as its telescoping handle was rock-solid.
Small carry-on: The Burton Access Messenger, $89.95. If I were traveling with small children, this is what I’d stick under the seat in front of me. It’s called the “access” for a reason: It features all kinds of easily reached compartments, including one for a laptop, perfect for the parent pulled in a million directions.
Backpack: Gregory Savant and Sage, $179 to $199. I don’t want a backpack as my main checked bag, since for longer trips I carry a camera backpack as my carry-on — and I have only one back. But if I did more hiking and less shooting, I’d love to have one of these. A lower-end choice from a dependable company, it’s available in multiple sizes. The Savant is built specifically for men, the Sage for women. Solid and made for treks, they work well as travel bags, too — especially if you’re as abusive with luggage as I am. I liked the plentiful and accessible pockets, the additional hidden security pocket and the built-in rain cover.