Choosing the right carry-on bag
More than size matters when buying carry-on luggage.
The New York Times
Northwest travel guides
The Samsonite roll-aboard bag I’ve been using for 15 years announced its retirement this spring, when a wheel tread ripped on a cobblestone street in Belfast. I coaxed it through the rest of the trip with duct tape and taxi rides, but it was clearly time to find a new carry-on — not a simple task, I quickly discovered.
“Short of luggage that packs itself, there’s been a lot of innovation in the travel goods industry,” said Michele Marini Pittenger, president of the Travel Goods Association. “It’s not enough to put a bag on wheels and put a handle on it. Now the industry is really trying to help travelers on their journey.”
Indeed. Searching for a carry-on that would fit in most overhead compartments but could handle a 10-day trip, I was surprised by the number of bags available, their price range (from about $150 to over $500) — and by all the features I wasn’t sure I would ever need. After spending weeks researching carry-ons, I have come to the conclusion that there is no one-size-fits-all bag. However, there are some factors that all shoppers should consider if they’re in the market for a wheeled carry-on that lets you avoid checking a bag.
SIZE, AND SIZERS
Most airlines in the United States, including American, Delta and United, allow carry-on bags that are no more than 22 inches long, 14 inches wide and 9 inches high. Southwest and JetBlue accept a more generous 24 inches by 16 inches by 10 inches, and JetBlue even adds a couple more inches for cabin bags flying on its Airbus A320 planes. Although these size limits aren’t always strictly enforced, you’re taking a chance if you buy a carry-on that doesn’t fit inside the metal sizers that sit near many boarding gates. Some luggage manufacturers sell 20-inch bags marketed as “international wide-body” carry-ons — like Samsonite’s Silhouette Sphere 20-inch Widebody Spinner ($230) or the Victorinox Mobilizer 20X Extra-Capacity Carry-On ($380, currently on sale for $304). But these bags are often 16 inches wide so they may not pass muster with meticulous gate agents.
When you’re shopping, make sure the dimensions listed include the wheels and any parts that protrude from the bag. Airline employees do count wheels and handles when they’re deciding if a carry-on meets size restrictions.
EXPANSION AND COMPRESSION
One way luggage manufacturers are addressing size issues is through expansion and compression features that let travelers squeeze more into a bag. For instance, Briggs & Riley’s Baseline collection includes plastic brackets inside the bag that you can pull up before you start packing, expanding its height. After you’ve filled the bag, you press the top down and the brackets close, returning the bag to its original size. The Baseline collection features various bag sizes, including a 7.7-inch by 14-inch by 21-inch Expandable Upright Carry On for $469.
“It allows you to keep your clothes from wrinkling and get a lot more in a bag,” said Richard Krulik, chief executive of Briggs & Riley, which is also known for maximizing space by putting its carry-on handle on the outside of the bag.
Other manufacturers, including Tumi and Samsonite, sell carry-ons with a zipper around the outside that can unzip to add a couple of inches to the depth of the bag. There are even wheeled bags that flatten for easier storage, like the foldable carry-ons made by Biaggi, which collapse to half of their original size. Biaggi’s Contempo 22-inch Foldable Spinner Carry-on sells for $230, with discounts for some colors.
ROLLERS VS. SPINNERS
Four-wheeled bags called “spinners” have been around for a while, and they certainly have their fans.
“The spinners roll upright, so there’s no weight on your arm,” said Amy DiLisio, a spokeswoman for Samsonite, which mostly sells spinners these days. With four wheels instead of two, spinners have “360-degree mobility,” DiLisio said, meaning you can push them down an aircraft aisle without tipping a two-wheeled bag at an angle and pulling it in a straight line.
But spinner wheels extend outside the packing compartment (rollers typically have two recessed wheels), so they take space away from clothing, which is why they’re often marketed as 21 inches long. Many travelers (including me) prefer the two-wheeled design for faster sprints between gates. “If you’re traveling across long expanses in airports, in some ways two wheels are still better if you’re pulling the bag,” said Scott Applebee, vice president of marketing for Travelpro.
HARD-SIDED VS. SOFT
Another factor that divides travelers into two camps is the hard- versus soft-sided question, which may have less to do with functionality than fashion.
“Hard-sided luggage is back, and it’s back in a big way,” Pittenger said. “It’s back in color, it’s back in style, it’s back in every color and pattern you can imagine.”
While hard-sided luggage used to be heavier than bags made from ballistic nylon and other fabrics, manufacturers have developed more lightweight options, like Rimowa’s Salsa Air 22-inch polycarbonate carry-on, which weighs 4.2 pounds and is available in colors like Ice Blue and Inca Gold ($475).
But hard-sided luggage is still more prone to dings and scratches than soft-sided luggage and has less flexibility if you’re prone to overpacking.
Luggage manufacturers are creating more “gadget-friendly travel goods,” Pittenger said, with exterior pockets — often padded — for tablets and laptops. I like having two outside pockets: a smaller top pocket for easy access to a boarding pass and a larger lower pocket for a magazine, a design Samsonite still embraces.
But with the proliferation of outside pockets big enough for a laptop, I’ve seen customer reviews complaining about bags tipping over, so check the feedback for the style you’re considering — and don’t overfill these outer compartments.
Interior pockets designed for different uses are another big trend. Samsonite’s Silhouette Sphere 21-inch Spinner ($230) includes a zippered “WetPak” pocket for damp items, a mesh interior pocket and a removable trifold suiter to keep suits and dresses from wrinkling. Peter Cobb, co-founder of eBags.com, said the site’s top-selling carry-on, the Mother Lode TLS Mini ($180), has multiple interior compartments, and a “shelf” that can be adjusted with Velcro to keep shoes separate.
LIMITED VS. LIFETIME WARRANTIES
As I discovered in Belfast, it can really be a problem if your rolling bag develops the equivalent of a flat tire far from home. Many luggage companies offer some kind of warranty to fix things like broken wheels and zippers, but there are often exceptions for “carelessness caused by an airline” (Travelpro) or “normal wear and tear” (Samsonite).
If a warranty matters to you, check how long it lasts (a lifetime versus, say, 10 years), whether you have to do some of the repairs yourself (like replacing wheels) and where you have to send the bag (usually an authorized repair center). You’ll generally pay more for a bag that comes with a less-restricted warranty, like Briggs & Riley’s lifetime guarantee, which does cover wear and tear and airline damage.
“We have no fine print,” Krulik said. “We don’t ask for a receipt, we don’t ask if you’re the first owner, we don’t ask where you bought the bag.”
Finally, consider your travel style and frequency before you decide how much to spend — like whether you drag your bag up and down subway and train station stairways or simply wheel it from a hotel entrance to the trunk of a cab.
“For the person who travels once or twice a year, do they need to spend a lot on an upright carry-on? No, they do not,” Pittenger said. “You can get great luggage at every price point, but it really comes down to what kind of travel you do and how important brand names are to you.”