For me, choosing the right carry-on bag is an important part of travel planning. The luggage you bring should match the travel you plan on doing. The wrong luggage choice can put a damper on your journey. Knowing how to choose your carry-on luggage will help to ensure enjoyable travel. There are many considerations when choosing a bag. First you need to have an idea of what is going into it.
When To Choose Your Carry-On Luggage
Do you select your bag first, or do you determine what is going inside prior to choosing it? It is the old chicken and egg adage.
In this case, the answer is, “It depends”. You need to have a general idea of the contents you plan on packing. Place your main items that you plan on putting into your bag, in a “staging area”. This helps to narrow down which piece of carry-on luggage to choose.
There are three considerations; If you have breakables, the amount of stuff you need to fit into the bag, and determining how many bags you will have onboard.
Determine the Contents of Your Carry-On
If your carry-on items are fragile, such as a gift, souvenir, or equipment, it may limit the luggage you can choose to use. For example, some bags offer padding for computers, camera equipment, or electronics. Therefore, what you are placing inside may determine the container.
Also, the shape of the bag may be specific to what you are packing. There are some standard shaped bags for the protection of certain items, such as camera lenses. If this is important to you, then your options may be narrowed.
Going 100% Carry-On
If you plan on going one hundred percent carry-on, you are usually entitled to one or two bags. The size, shape, and functionality of the luggage you choose, may then be dependent on the content of them. How the two bags work together will be important, as will how you divide the content between them.
If it is a short trip, you may be able to get your inflight essentials into a relatively small carry-on bag. Pack a change of clothes, toiletries, and shoes. Or even a slightly larger bag will accommodate these items and still be able to come onboard. However, when you pack for a much longer trip, two pieces of luggage may be necessary, in order to go a hundred percent carry-on.
This is when evaluating the contents really helps in bag choice. Once you have decided on your bags, you will need to divide the contents. Your bag choice is important for organization.
If you have a second larger carry-on, you can put only your inflight essentials in your personal item. Everything else, including your medications and documents that you won’t need until arrival, can go in your larger luggage, since both pieces will be in your possession at all times.
One of the bags should have an easily reachable area in order to access your inflight essentials. This could be in the form of outside pockets or a bag where things are packed more horizontally versus stacked.
The last thing I want are two hardshell zip around bags with no outer compartments. Then, I’m literally unpacking my suitcase in the aisle mid flight, in order to get to my medication, hand sanitizer, and head set.
In Flight Travel Essentials
The size of your carry-on luggage will in part be determined by its contents. While airlines have carry-on luggage restrictions, there is still a variety of bag sizes and shapes to choose from. For example, I find that my upright 15″ bag on wheels is one of my favorite choices. The way it is designed seems to allow me maximum space combined with organization.
There are times when I just bring a large purse. You can easily go with a smaller size piece of carry-on luggage if you are only bringing the inflight essentials on board.
How Travel Plans Affect Your Choice of Carry-On Luggage
Length of flight
There are some things that I definitely want with me on every flight, such as hygiene items and headphones. However, if I know my flight is relatively short, the basics may be enough. In this case, I may choose a purse or smaller bag that is less hassle to have on board. Another option is to choose the bag that will be most useful at your destination, even if it is mostly empty in flight.
If I am on a long haul flight, there are usually additional “must haves” that I want on board. Sometimes I even want pajama or sweat pants so that I do not sleep in my arrival clothes. Generally, on longer flights, I pack some food, or know that I may be carrying souvenirs on the return trip. Therefore, I may choose a more spacious bag, even if it is not full.
Where You Are Seated
If you are seated in the coach class cabin, there is often insufficient space for carry-on luggage. Therefore, your only option may be to place your bag under the seat in front of you. If your bag is full of items that cannot be gate checked, such as medication and electronic equipment, you will need to be prepared to stow your bag under the seat.
Often, if you are seated in the very first row of a cabin, or an emergency exit seat, there will not be a seat in front of you. In these special seats, it may be illegal to place your bag on the floor for take off and landing.
Usually there is a designated space for you if you are seated in a business or first class cabin. This is not always guaranteed, so consider this when choosing and packing your carry-on luggage.
Carry-On Versus Checked Baggage
The number of carry-ons you plan on bringing onboard will have an effect on which bags you select. The main reason to have multiple carry-ons is if you do not plan on checking any bags. Another reason is to transport many electronics or things that cannot be checked. If you pack in two carry-ons, it eliminates any fear of delayed, lost, or stolen luggage. It also affords you the opportunity to proceed right to customs or the exit. Eliminating checked luggage avoids the wait for bags to be unloaded.
Having two bags inflight will affect the type of luggage you select. While you are in the airport, you will be lugging both of them. Choose to have both bags on wheels or one with the ability to stack on the other. If this setup is too heavy, or more than you can handle, then try a back pack and wheeled bag combination.
If you are checking luggage, perhaps you are not as concerned about lugging two bags at once. You’d only need to survive carrying both as far as the checked baggage counter. While this would alleviate the issue of being burdened with two bags within the airport, you will still need to consider if you can manage both bags in unison upon arrival.
Airline Carry-on Baggage Regulations
These days, each commercial airline has its own set of rules as to what is permitted for each traveler to carry-on. The carry-on rules vary based on where you are seated, the country you are departing from, if you belong to the airline’s frequent flier program or credit card, and the airline you choose to fly.
Most airlines allow one piece of luggage of specific dimensions that will fit in the overhead compartment. In addition, they usually permit one personal item, such as a purse, briefcase, small backpack, or garment bag.
It is extremely important that you read the policy for the air carrier you plan on flying. This way, you will not be forced to check something that you are uncomfortable having out of your possession. You can plan accordingly. Note that when you purchase a bag, the tag usually indicates whether it fits in overheads or under a seat.
Type of Travel
Are You Staying Put Upon Arrival?
In order to choose the right carry-on bag, you need to consider the type of trip you have planned. Large, heavy, and cumbersome baggage may not be a problem if you go straight to your accommodation upon arrival at your destination, and stay there. However, your ability to carry your bags if you plan on moving around a great deal is an important factor.
Picture yourself waking up on day one of your journey. Will you unpack your luggage and get organized in your room? If so, then a vertically packed bag, or any shape that will hold all its contents is probably fine. But if you are moving locations daily, or are not in a position to unpack, a horizontal packed bag is easier. In this case, you want to easily grab what you need, without having to disturb the entirety. You will also want a visual of the contents.
The size and type of carry-on bags you choose is important if your rental car has limited trunk space. Things to consider are if you will be getting on and off trains, or walking distances or stairs. Even if you are staying put, the wrong luggage can be difficult to manage.
A great example is Venice, Italy. Unless your accommodation happens to have a private boat dock, you will be trekking with your luggage through narrow alleys and up and down the bridges’ steps. I prefer a backpack and wheeled suitcase combination when in Venice. Wearing one bag, it is fairly easy to lift the other on stairs, but pulling two bags is extremely challenging.
Will the Carry On Bag Remain Packed At Your Destination?
The type of carry-on luggage you choose may be different depending on its use upon arrival. Will the bag stay packed during your trip? If so, organization is extra important because you will be pulling items out as needed, and then placing them back into the bag.
In this case, you may want luggage with outer pockets and many divisions. You also may want a bag where packing is more horizontal. These carry-ons tend to unzip all the way, revealing each item more easily in a side by side fashion.
A backpack may be a more difficult choice in this scenario, as items are generally stacked vertically. Therefore if you want something on the bottom, you would need to pull everything out.
Are you planning on unpacking the bag and using it for another purpose during your travels? If so, then simply fitting everything, may be the most important function. Once you arrive, you will be unpacking anyway.
Carry-On Luggage Functionality
Does your carry-on bag need to double for another use upon arrival? For example, are you hiking? If so, a backpack may be a great carry-on choice. Will you be going to the beach? An over the shoulder tote bag may be useful. Is your carry-on also your camera bag when roaming the streets? Perhaps you need a padded bag, something where you can pull the camera out easily? A specialty carry-on could be a good choice. Will you be using this bag to transport your laptop to cafes or meetings? If so, are the straps strong and is it comfortable to carry?
These questions help to narrow down the type of carry-on luggage that is right for you on your specific trip. Having the perfect bag will contribute to enjoyable, hassle free travel.
Is There A Fashion Image Requirement?
Is this a business trip? If so, you may want your carry-on to be a brief case or computer bag. Are you checking in to a Fancy Hotel? Then you may care more about designer labels and fashion forward styles. Are you attending an event? You may need to carry a garment bag for your dress or suit, in order to prevent them from wrinkling.
Things to Consider When Buying A Carry-On
As an avid traveler, purchasing quality luggage of all types is worth the investment. For a one time traveler, this may not matter as much. However, for the everyday jet setter, quality counts.
The last thing a traveler wants is to be off the beaten trail and have their backpack tear, or arriving in Paris with a broken off wheel. Luggage is part of your equipment as a traveler. You should always be able to trust in your equipment.
Does the Bag Have A Warranty
Be sure the brand you purchase has not just a warranty, but a good one. Some household named brands offer a warranty, but when you report an issue, they are challenging. I have found with several warranties, it is difficult to get a resolution on my issue. Read the fine print and do your research. Read reviews.
Vertical Versus Horizontal Packing
This is packing terminology that I personally use to describe how I pack and visualize things in my bag. I see this as being directly related to the functionality. Horizontal refers to a bag where things are laid out side by side rather than stacked, and usually opens from the top. Vertical is a bag in which items are packed stacked, one on top of another. So, you need to take things out to get to what is below them.
Type and Quantity of Wheels
Most roller bags come with either two or four wheels. The four wheel bag is easy to pull completely upright and helps to alleviate the weight. It is also conducive to rest a second bag on top. The two wheel bag seems to allow for more packing space. It depends on your priorities.
I tend to like bags with high quality inline skate wheels. Cheap wheels tend to chip or break off.
Type of Handle And Zipper
Most pull bags have a telescopic handle. They usually come in a U or T shaped handle. Some people say the T shaped handles are easier to grip, but I personally have not found a big difference.
Again, it comes down to quality. A cheap bag may have a cheap handle. Eventually, pulling it up and down will break it. I have had a handle get stuck up in the airport, which was not fun, as you cannot bring it on the plane that way.
Check the quality of the zipper. Having your zipper fail just sucks. Look for sturdy teeth and quality material.
Weight Versus Strength
A heavy bag does not necessarily mean it is sturdier. However, a very light bag may not have the durability. A lightweight bag is nice for obvious reasons, but it is important to find a balance.
Hard Shell Verses Soft Shell
To me, the advantage of the hardshell case is wear and tear. The soft case generally offers outer pockets, while the hard likely does not. Since this is a carry-on and will not be so beat up by the airline, I prefer the soft with outer pockets.
Do you want an expandable bag? I do like this feature. While you typically cannot expand your bag as a carry-on because it will likely not meet the airline regulation, it can still be useful. For example, I may use my bag as a carry-on when I begin my travel, but if I do accumulate purchases during my travel, I have the option to expand my bag and check it.
Carry-On Bag Features
I like a carry-on that has outer pockets. I also look for inner pockets or dividers to help me organize. Some bags offer a mesh pouch inside for laundry or a plastic pouch in case your toiletries leak. Features are personal preference.
Professional Versus Consumer Quality Bags
While there is luggage sold to the general public that is quality, it tends to be expensive and intermittent. A tip for the everyday jet setter is that some common brands make two sets of their luggage. One set is for the everyday consumer, and the other for industry professionals. Obviously pilots and flight attendants travel constantly and require luggage with high durability. If you google around online, you can often find the professional quality bags.
Types of Carry-On Luggage Bags
Rolling and Top Loading
What I call a horizontal pack, these carry-on bags are some of my favorites. They often have many pockets both in and outside. I find these very easy to organize my belongings. A good one should have a strap in back that allows it to attach to the telescopic handle of another pull bag. For me, that is a make or break feature.
Rolling and Side Loading
This bag is, and opens like a regular suit case, around the length. The zipper goes all the way around on three sides. In order to open this bag, you need to lie it down. The two popular types differ in how they open. In one style, the zipper divides the luggage in half, so the suitcase opens flat. In the other type, the zipper sits on the top fifth of the suitcase so that the lid is more of a flap. These come in both the hard and soft shell variety.
These bags tend to be awkward in my opinion. They serve a purpose for a business trip or special event, like a destination wedding. Garment bags keeps clothing such as dresses and suits on hangers and wrinkle free. Some are able to fold or roll. Others offer room for jewelry or dress shoes. Onboard, you often need to ask a flight attendant to hang it in their closet. If this is not an option, it can be laid in an overhead.
Handheld and Over The Shoulder Bags
Duffle bags are oval or tubular with two handles stitched around the bag that meet at the top. They usually have a zipper across the top. Duffles straps are handheld. Some have wheels, but I find them to be heavy and pointless.
A Canvas Tote is generally square or trapezoidal. It has two handles that meet in loops at the top. These can be very strong, and hold a large amount. They are handheld or sometimes can go over one shoulder. Both the duffle and tote are nice because they are foldable and packable. Because they are simple, depending on the size, they tend to be spacious. The downside is they can be quite heavy when filled. An option is placing them on your wheeled bag to alleviate the weight. Some totes do not zip closed. I only recommend a bag that securely closes, as things can fall out or be stolen.
Briefcases, Computer Bags, or Purses are obviously based mostly on your preference. Remember, anything you use for travel should be strong and able to withstand a reasonable amount of wear and tear.
My absolute favorite are these purses created and owned by flight attendants who put their travel experience into the bags. I have quite a few and I use them constantly. They always seem knew. I load mine with a DSLR camera, lens, and regular purse stuff when I head out for a day of sightseeing. They are so strong and durable. I recently bought one for my close friend who is living abroad. She had not heard of them and loves hers. These purses seriously rock!
The biggest advantage to a backpack is the ability to distribute the weight and go hands free. Most back packs offer a vertical pack, so you usually need to dig through for items on the bottom as contents are stacked.
It is very important to use a quality backpack that distributes weight evenly and has adjustable straps. If not, you can injure your shoulders, neck, or back.
Backpacks vary in popular features such as bottle holders, anti theft material, and the ability to attach to bicycles. Some have multiple pockets, or lots of tabs and strings that make it convenient to strap items to the outside.
For more information, see my article, How To Choose The Best Travel Backpack