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Carry-on luggage: What you need to know

Man at airport with carry-on.As you comb through the safe travel deals available at the moment, you might have gotten the bug to get out of the proverbial dodge. That might mean new luggage, particularly the tried-and-true carry-on suitcase.

But a lot of carry-on luggage seems the same. As long as it fits in an overhead compartment, then it’s good to go, right?

Not so fast. Not all carry-on suitcases are created equal — far from it. And there are many different styles and varieties available at the click of a mouse. Who knows — the ideal carry-on for your situation may be hiding in “plane” sight (sorry).

Simplify your traveling life with the perfect travel companion. There are quite a few variables to consider, along with some of the top options available today.

Hard-side vs. soft-side

First things first. The exterior of your carry-on probably matters more than anything else, with a multitude of hard-side and soft-side carry-ons available. So, which one is right for you?


These carry-on bags are lighter and more flexible than their hard-shelled counterparts, making it easier to fit them into smaller spaces, such as an airplane’s overhead compartment. If you like to maximize storage, soft-side carry-ons are a good bet because of the outside compartments that come standard in a range of sizes and varieties with most models.

One of the most popular models is the SwissGear Sion Softside Luggage with Spinner Wheels.

Man with a hard side carry-on suitcase
Prostock Studio/Shutterstock


Hard-side luggage has the clear general benefit of being able to better protect items inside the luggage. If you want full peace of mind for those breakable items, hard-side luggage can make for an attractive insurance policy. They are also easier to clean than soft-side carry-ons.

One of the most popular budget models is the AmazonBasics Premium Hardside Spinner, which receives high marks for durability.


Although dimensions may vary slightly by airline, the basic domestic carry-on luggage size requirement is no more than 22 inches by 14 inches by 9 inches, including wheels and roller handle.

Of course, luggage manufacturers are well aware of these size restraints and develop their products accordingly. So, you should not have a major problem finding a carry-on bag that fits. Still, if you want to be on the safe side, be sure to confirm the dimensions, either online or with a phone call to the manufacturer or airline.

For international travel, requirements vary more and can be a bit smaller, at 21 inches tall or less.


The large majority of luggage, carry-ons included, come on wheels. Both soft-side and hard-side luggage options are available with two or four wheels.

Standard two-wheeled versions work for direct pulling or pushing and are generally viewed as a more affordable version. They are also durable and stand up well when you’re running to meet that gate, and they tend to be a bit more space-efficient than a four-wheeled case.

The four-wheeled version is substantially more maneuverable than the two-wheeled carry-on, as it allows for sideways movement among others and can be pushed alongside you rather than a few feet behind you.

The Delsey Paris Turenne Hardside Luggage with Spinner Wheels is a great hard-side spinner carry-on. If you travel internationally, its 21-inch height will help you avoid potential issues at the counter.

Woman with a backpack in an airport
Alena Ozerova/Shutterstock

Will a backpack work?

In a word, yes. It may not be the best option for your next work conference or grandpa’s prized mandolin, but a backpack can provide plenty of utility as a carry-on option.

Traveling with a backpack is convenient and hands-free. Plenty of models also come with wheels. And be sure to get something more on the durable side because a basic model for school children may not cut it under the wear and tear of air travel. The Peak Design Travel Line Backpack 45L is a great example.

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