Updated May 2017
Whether you're traveling for work or pleasure, the 2017 update to our carry-on review is your first stop before you shop. We bought and tested the latest version of the Editors' Choice winner from Eagle Creek, which was updated this year and proved to be even better than its predecessor. Each test metric in this review now has a chart for quick and easy comparisons in key areas of performance, and the rating table summarizes these scores to see which models came out on top overall.
Best Overall Carry-On Luggage
Eagle Creek Tarmac AWD Carry-On
Fits a lot
Our Editors' Choice Award winner for 2017 is the Eagle Creek Tarmac AWD Carry-On
. Its predecessor won this award last year, and we are stoked to see the manufacturer upping their game with the latest iteration in the Tarmac line. Improvements come in the form of internal compression straps for streamlined packing and a new fabric on the outer pockets. With Eagle Creek's signature outdoorsy styling, this bag works for adventure tourism, family vacays, and everything in between. Easy to maneuver and not too heavy, its packing capacity is large. What set it apart, though, were its features. There's an add-a-bag strap, a "Coat-Keeper" strap that holds your jacket to the top of the bag, an expandable zipper, easy pulling zipper tabs, and so on. The bag is backed by Eagle Creek's No Matter What warranty, which means they'll repair or replace your bag "no matter" the cause. For anything but dedicated business travel (see our Top Pick below), the Eagle Creek Tarmac AWD
is tough to beat. Eagle Creek also makes the less expensive Tarmac Carry-On, a two-wheeled version of the same model
, in case you prefer to pull and save some cash.
Read full review: Eagle Creek Tarmac AWD Carry-On
Best Bang for the Buck
SwissGear Meyrin 20
Rolls across hard, flat surfaces well
Expandable to a large volume
Rolls poorly on bumpy surfaces
Simple, functional, and best of all, affordable. That sums up our Best Buy Award winner, the SwissGear Meyrin 20
. The swiveling four wheels break from traditional carry-on design, allowing the user to push it along terminal corridors instead of pulling, saving your shoulders. Its large capacity was sufficient for a week's worth of travel with our testers. It features an expandable zipper, too, in case you return home with more than what you packed. A removable wet bag for toiletries and outside pockets for storing odds and ends is another excellent feature. This model retails for $120 and comes with a five-year warranty against manufacturer defects. Unfortunately, we had an "incident" with the bag (see the individual review) that did damage. If this were an Eagle Creek or Briggs and Riley model, it would be repaired or replaced under their comprehensive warranties, but with SwissGear, we're out of luck. But considering the low price, we'd be surprised if there were a "no questions asked" warranty. Long story short, this is a great, inexpensive piece for the infrequent traveler, but if you are clumsy (like us), fly a lot, or are hard on your gear, consider a more expensive model that will cover damage that you or the airline cause.
Read full review: SwissGear Meyrin 20
Top Pick for Business Travel
Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic
Built to last
Lots of features
Heavy and more difficult to maneuver
The $499 Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic
is our Top Pick for the business or heavy traveler. It's a traditional two-wheeled bag, but the handle tubes are on the outside, creating a flat interior packing surface that maximizes storage capacity. The Baseline Domestic is made with longevity and ease-of-use in mind: it uses ballistic nylon to resist scratching and dirt, has self-repairing, lockable zippers, and other well-crafted features. The built-in, tri-folding suiter keeps clothes wrinkle free, and the internal expansion system is a unique way to add 25% more capacity to the bag. This expensive piece is the Cadillac of carry-on luggage models, and it comes with a no-questions-asked guarantee; Briggs and Riley will repair, for free, any damage done to this bag for life. With a guarantee like that, it might be worth paying more upfront to get a piece that will last a lifetime.
Read full review: Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic
Analysis and Test Results
After much thought and research, we determined the six most important things to consider when purchasing a piece of carry-on luggage and then rated each bag according to its performance in that category. We also weighed certain categories, like Ease of Transport and Storage, as being of greater importance than a more subjective category like Style. In fact, when combined, Ease of Transport and Storage make up 50% of our rating for each bag. We also evaluated each piece on its available Features, Weight, and Durability. These metrics were designed to compare the different models across the board and highlight the places where each bag shined and where it fell short. It's certainly no secret that a good suitcase can make navigating airport security far more enjoyable, and our goal is to give you all the information you need to choose the product that best suits your needs.
To learn more about our testing process, check out the How We Test tab.
Rolling into the airport with a two-wheeled bag and a four-wheeled spinner. We tested these models side-by-side while travelling to compare their various features and abilities.
Ease of Transport
We think that one of the most important characteristics when choosing a suitcase is how easily you can move your stuff from point A to point B. Your carry-on luggage will likely be used in a variety of different situations and terrains, from polished floors or carpeting in airports, to parking lots, sidewalks, and public transportation, etc. We evaluated the performance of each bag's wheels and whether they improved or hindered airport navigation. We took into consideration handle placement and comfort, as well as the sturdiness of the telescoping handle. We also paid attention to the placement (or lack) of external carrying handles, which make removing carry-on luggage from overhead bins or trunks of cars that much easier, not to mention having to tackle a flight of stairs.
When it came to rolling performance, we found that there was not much difference among the different two-wheeled bags that we tested. They pulled along in their predictable way, transitioning well from polished airport floors to broken cement sidewalks and gravel parking lots. The best performing two-wheeled bags on uneven surfaces were the Osprey Ozone Wheeled 22
and The North Face Rolling Thunder 22
. These bags have 3.5 and 3-inch diameter wheels (respectively) with ridges on them that provided traction when surfaces got rough. The other two-wheeled bags that we tested had 2.75 to 3-inch wheels with a smooth finish. Regardless, the Osprey Ozone kept tipping over on us when going over a curb or making sharps turns, and overall got a lower score in this category after we took that into account.
The 3.5 inch wheels on the Osprey Ozone (left) handled rough terrain better than the smaller 2.75 inch ones on the Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic (right).
Comparing the performance of two- vs. four-wheeled bags was an interesting experiment. Firstly, the four-wheeled bags that we tested varied considerably in rolling performance. The Eagle Creek Tarmac AWD and Samsonite Inova 20 had the best performing action of the lot, while the Rockland Melbourne 20 continually pulled to one side. When the four-wheeled bags were working well, we preferred them for airport navigation over a two-wheeled bag. Instead of dragging a heavy bag behind you, you can push it by your side with minimal effort.
Even a four-year-old was able to push his four-wheeled bag through an airport!
Four-wheeled bags are also easier to take down the aisle of a plane. Simply push it in front of you and avoid banging it into arms rests as you go down the aisle. These wheels do tend to be smaller than the wheels on the traditional bags, ranging in diameter from 1.75 to 2 inches. This made them harder to roll over rough surfaces, either when pushing them or tilting them up and dragging them like a two-wheeled bag. We delve deeper into the pros and cons of two- vs. four-wheeled luggage later on in our Buying Advice article.
Spinner wheels (left) are usually much smaller than regular wheels (right), which you'll particularly notice when crossing a gravel parking lot or other uneven surface.
Equally as important as Ease of Transport, our Storage metric evaluated how much stuff each bag would hold. We did a variety of tests to gauge the storage capability of each bag, including a "wintertime long weekend" test and a "pack for a week" test. While every bag passed a basic three-day pack test (two pairs of pants, four shirt and sweaters, undergarments, running shoes and workout gear, toiletry bag, and novel), there was a broad range in internal volumes between the different models that we tested. Some bags, like the Osprey Ozone, could hold the basics but there was no room for a nice set of clothes and shoes. Others, like the Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic, had room for all of the above and some fancy duds or business attire as well.
Our "pack for a week test" (see the photo below), helped separate the roomy bags from the standard ones. The Eagle Creek Tarmac, Delsey Shadow 3.0 21, and Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic could accommodate all the items without having to expand the bag. The Travelpro Maxlite 4 22 and Travelpro Platinum Magna 2 both came close but had to be expanded to fit everything.
Will it fit? We tested each model with the same set of clothes to see how much they could accommodate.
It's important to remember here that a smaller internal capacity is not necessarily a bad thing. If you are a light packer or often travel to warm places (where bulky clothes aren't required), then a small bag might be perfect for you. Additionally, many individuals still travel with a checked bag, so using a smaller bag as your carry-on can be a great option. On the other hand, if you're a heavy packer, you may find yourself sitting on top of your bag wrestling with your zipper unless you purchase a spacious one.
Considering that most airlines now charge fees for checked bags, being able to pack for a week in a carry-on is certainly a nice option.
We also tested seven pieces that were expandable, providing an additional 1 to 2 inches of width and 5-10 L of space. Even though you would probably have to check the bags once they are expanded, it's nice to have the option to go on a vacation shopping spree and not worry about how you'll transport your items home.
The Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic has a unique internal expansion system. The sides of the bag can be expanded over two inches to fit extra gear, and then the top can be pushed back down to compress it all in and still remain within the carry-on dimensions.
Throughout this review, we tested bags with some serious bells and whistles. From pocket configuration to telescoping handle height, we checked out and tested the functionality of each bag's special features. We were also careful to consider the question "How much is too much?" We were surprised to find ourselves drawn to some of the most basic bags that we reviewed. For example, our Best Buy winner, the SwissGear Meyrin, doesn't have much in the way of extras, but what it does have is very handy, like a removable wet bag for toiletries, different zipper tabs for the main zipper and the expandable one, and lockable tabs for the main compartment.
The bags with the most liked features were, not surprisingly, our Editors' Choice and Top Pick winners. The Eagle Creek Tarmac AWD comes with a host of cool features, like a strap to secure your coat or neck pillow, and lots of slots for organization, among others.
We liked the removable wetbag in the SwissGear Meyrin, which is classier than travelling with a Ziplock bag, and easy to quickly remove from your bag when going through security. The Delsey Shadow 3.0 and Travelpro Platinum Magna 2 have an internal plasticized pocket which serves the same function (namely preventing your clothes from getting ruined by a shampoo blowout), but you still have to pack your toiletries in a separate bag to go through security, which kind of defeats the purpose.
The Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic's compression straps are almost the same width as the bag, so your belongings stay secure, and the handle tubes are on the outside of the bag, providing a flat interior packing surface (no funny ridges and wasted space to deal with). There's also a built-in garment bag with a tri-folding suiter, and part of it can unzip and detach if you prefer to use the space for something else.
The tri-folding suiter in the Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic is a great way to keep your business or wedding attire neatly pressed and stowed away from the rest of your items.
We also really liked the features on the Samsonite Inova 20, including the integrated TSA lock and the ability to separate the two sides of the bag with a zippered divider, which provides useful separation for dirty and clean clothes.
Considering that a piece of carry-on luggage can cost several hundred dollars (or more) you want to be sure to buy a durable piece that will last for years, particularly if you're a frequent flyer. Although we only tested these bags for a few months, we were able to draw some important conclusions about each one's durability and construction, particularly from the bags that had defects out of the box or after only one flight. We also aggregated two years' worth of test results into this review, so some of the durability issues we experienced last year (say with sticking handles or denting frames), we mention again this time.
According to a Rita Moore, a 26-year veteran flight attendant (see our Ask An Expert interview), the main areas where carry-on luggage wears out are the handles and zippers, so we paid close attention to them. We also examined and researched the material that each bag was made of, as well as the wheels and also the corners of the bags, which is another high-wear area.
Part of the telescoping arm on the Delsey was getting stuck in the housing (on right) preventing us from completely extending the handle. While it seems to be improving with use, we were dismayed that a brand new bag would have this issue.
Of the carry-on luggage models that we tested, two had handle issues right out of the box. Both the Delsey Shadow 3.0 21 and SwissGear Meyrin had issues with the telescoping tubes sticking in the housing. In particular, we had to shake the Delsey hard to get the handle out completely. Those handles were also somewhat rattly, particularly when compared to the more sturdily designed handles of The North Face Rolling Thunder 22 and the Eagle Creek Tarmac. We also experienced denting on the Travelpro Maxlite 4 22 and the Travelpro Platinum Magna 22 after checking them in for only one flight.
The Maxlite was dented after checking it in. This sort of damage is not covered under the lifetime warranty.
The material that a bag is made from will affect the durability as well. The Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic is made from ballistic nylon and scored high in this metric. It won't stop a bullet from going through your bag, but it will resist scratches and dirt, and it was the only bag to come through our review process without a scratch on it. One reason travelers prefer to use carry-on luggage over checked bags is that you tend to be easier on your gear than airport employees, as according to one baggage handler, they never "do anything with finesse." Carrying your bags on a plane also avoids them being carted over belts, in carts, and in and out of holds on planes, though they will get scratched and dirty eventually.
Of all the bags that we tested, the least durable ones - in our opinion - were the Rockland Melbourne 20, the Delsey Shadow 3.0, and the SwissGear Meyrin. Not surprisingly, these were also the least expensive models in this review. The most durable seemed to be the Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic, The North Face Rolling Thunder 22, and the Eagle Creek Tarmac AWD. Not surprisingly either, these are some of the more expensive models available. While a high price doesn't always guarantee durability, as with the Travelpro Platinum Magna 2 and its dented frame, there is often a close correlation.
The SwissGear Meyrin took a ride down the escalator by itself, resulting in permanent damage to the telescoping handle. "User error" incidents like this one are covered by some, but not all, warranties.
A final note on Durability is the warranty that may, or may not, come with your bag. All of the bags that we tested came with some warranty, though most of them are limited to manufacturing defects and do not cover damage caused by an airline carrier or normal wear and tear. So if one of your spinning wheels pops off, it would most likely be deemed wear and tear and not covered. Briggs and Riley and Eagle Creek offer excellent warranties and say they'll cover any repairs that need to be made to a bag, for life and for free, whether the damage is caused by you, the airline, or a defect. This is important "fine print" to consider, as we found out first hand during our testing process when we accidentally damaged the SwissGear Meyrin. It slid down an escalator (whoops!), permanently damaging the telescoping handle. (Note — it was already sticking before the accident, but now is very difficult to extend.) While we doubt that any of the bags that we tested would have fared much better in the same fall, if it had happened to a bag with a better warranty we could have gotten it repaired or replaced. On the other hand, bags with that kind of warranty come with a hefty price tag ($339 for the Tarmac and $500 for the Baseline) compared to the $120 SwissGear Meyrin, which only warranties against manufacturer defects. Long story short, if you are hard on your gear or occasionally clumsy (like us!), then a model with a no-questions-asked warranty is a sound investment.
Online carry-on luggage reviews are full of (mostly) awful warranty stories. When researching a bag, look at the reviews that speak to an owner's customer service and warranty experience to see if the brand that you are considering has a good track record when it comes to repairs.
Whether you opt for convertible, wheeled, or non-wheeled models, you will have to lift your bag multiple times over the course of your travel day: into the trunk, onto the security x-ray belt, and, of course, into the overhead bin. So, obviously, the lighter your bag is to begin with, the lighter it will be once you pack it full of all your stuff. We got out our digital scale and measured the weight of each piece in this review. It was no surprise that some manufacturers understated the weight of their bags, so the weights we mention here are all ones we've measured on our calibrated scale.
One of the lightest bags that we tested was the Osprey Ozone Wheeled 22. We were pleasantly surprised to feel how light the Ozone was (4 lbs 10 oz), particularly compared to the Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic (9 lbs 3 oz), which is twice as heavy. There is a tradeoff here though, as the Ozone is made with thin 200D material that won't hold up as well in the long term as the thick ballistic nylon used in the Baseline. Other lightweight bags include the Samsonite Inova 20 (6 lbs 7 oz) and the Travelpro Maxlite 4 22 (6 lbs 5 oz). On the heavier end were the Travelpro Platinum Magna 2 (8 lbs 4 oz) and the Delsey Shadow 3.0 21 (8 lbs 9 oz). One thing to keep in mind is that the weight of a bag is more noticeable in models that you drag behind you vs. ones that you push alongside.
As our final testing criterion, we took style into consideration. Although this is not a category that everyone feels strongly about, many people fly for more formal occasions like weddings or business meetings and some want a bag that reflects the purpose of their trip. As with any accessory, a carry-on provides the user with a certain look, be it techy or sophisticated or nondescript. This category is certainly more subjective than the others, so keep in mind that just because our review editors were not a fan of a certain look does not mean that it's not the right bag for you.
We reviewed several bags that looked very professional, including the Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic and the Travelpro Platinum Magna 2. These bags are classic, plain and also somewhat luxurious looking. You wouldn't be embarrassed by this bag if you had to take it to a meeting with a potential client. Some bags looked more techy or outdoorsy, like The North Face Rolling Thunder 22 and the Osprey Ozone Wheeled 22. Those bags could easily fly one weekend and be used to go camping the next. Our Editors' Choice winner, the Eagle Creek Tarmac, also has a more relaxed styling but can pass for a business bag particularly if purchase in black. We liked the sleek look of the Samsonite Inova 20 but found the Travelpro Maxlite 4 22 to be a little bit nondescript. Finally, there was the Rockland Melbourne 20, which is also plain but comes in over 25 different eye-popping color choices.
These bags are fairly plain, and look like every other bag out there. While there are some models that can help you express your unique style, many brands continue to make these basic models because they do serve a purpose.
The Travelpro Platinum Magna 2 (left) and Briggs and Riley Baseline Domestic (right) are both classic bags that would look great in any professional setting.
Trying to find a bag that fits all your travel needs can be frustrating, particularly if you want something more formal for business that can double up as a cute "vacation" bag. Our best advice is to pick the style that you like the most, and the one that you won't get sick of looking at after a year or two.
With a seemingly endless array of options when it comes to carry-on luggage, narrowing down the field and finding the right one for you can be a challenging task. Whether you're purchasing with a specific need or destination in mind, or want to be under a certain price point, there are many good options out there for everyone. Just be sure to take a critical eye to a bag before you purchase it, and make sure it is sturdily made with quality materials. It's better for the planet (and your wallet!) to buy one well-made expensive bag that lasts for 20 years rather than a cheap one that you end up replacing every year.