July 25, 2021

Best Carry On Luggage Buyer Guide

The First Class Travel Guide

When you pack for a trip, do you generally try to fit everything you need in a carry-on bag?  Many people do.  Some like to know with absolute certainty that their bag will arrive at their destination at the same time they do.  While others just don’t have time to wait for a checked bag to make it around the luggage carousel after the flight.  Of course, if you are going on a short trip, a carry-on could be all you really need.

Whatever your reason for choosing to take one, there are a few things you need to know before heading to the airport for your next flight.  We prepared a detailed carry on luggage buyer guide to highlight these key considerations.  Finally we will highlight the best carry on luggage options for each major product category.

Luggage Dimensions for Domestic Airlines

The first thing to consider when choosing a carry-on bag for your trip is whether the airlines will accept it or not.  Unfortunately, the major domestic airlines don’t all follow the exact same restrictions.

Domestic airlines have slightly different policies when it comes to what they will allow as carry-on luggage.  Occasionally these policies can change so it is always a good idea to check your airline’s restrictions prior to traveling.  We included a direct link to each airline’s carry on policy below.

Currently, the carry on luggage size restrictions (length x width x height) on the larger US airlines are as follows:

  • Alaska Airlines – 24” x 17” x 10”.  Alaskan does not list any linear or weight restrictions.
  • American Airlines – 22” x 14” x 9”.  American does not list any linear or weight restrictions.
  • Delta Airlines – 22” x 14” x 9”. Delta also has a linear restriction of 45”.
  • Frontier Airlines – 24” x 16” x 10”. Frontier also restricts the weight to a maximum of 35 pounds.
  • JetBlue Airlines – 22” x 14” x 9”. JetBlue does not list any linear or weight restrictions.
  • Southwest Airlines – 24” x 16” x 10”. Southwest does not list a linear or weight restriction.
  • Spirit Airlines – 22” x 18” x 10”. Spirit does not list linear or weight restrictions.
  • United Airlines – 22” x 14” x 9”. United does not list a linear or weight restrictions.

So, while the restrictions are all very similar among the big airlines, there are some slight differences.  And you can bet the airline will not make an exception if your bag doesn’t adhere to its requirements.

That means that depending on the size of your luggage, you may be able to easily take it on a Southwest flight, but have it turned away at Delta.

The good news is that carry-on bags come in various shapes, sizes, colors, and styles.  So, you should be able to find one that is well-suited for your needs.

Quality Brands

The market for carry on luggage includes hundreds of individual brands ranging from large multi national corporations to small independent luggage brands.  Luggage brands we have reviewed include include the following:

Hardside Vs. Softside?

Most carry-on luggage comes with either a hardside or softside exterior.  What does this mean?

Hardside Luggage

Hardside carry-on luggage looks just like it sounds.  It is hard on the outside.  This hard, outer shell is usually made from a durable, high-tech plastic such as polycarbonate or ABS.  And it is generally lightweight.

Typically, these bags split in the middle when opened, allowing you to pack about the same amount on either side.  Just make sure you have enough surface space to set them down on because they will take up room when you are packing or unpacking.

Hardside bags do have interior straps and middle dividers so that your belongings stay neatly on one side of the bag or the other while in transit. You can also find ones with organizational pockets and other features to help you keep track of your smaller items.

Another feature of hardside carry-on bags is that they are very secure.  Many of them come with TSA approved integrated locks. And since they are hard, your clothing and other items won’t get crushed if someone else tries to cram a bag into the overhead compartment next to yours.

Many hardside carry-on bags are expandable.  This is a great feature if you fly different airlines because you can grow it or shrink it a few inches depending on the airline limitations. An expandable hardside is also good if you want to bring some souvenirs home from your trip. Keep in mind, though, the airline restrictions. So, if you expand it, you may also have to check it.

Softside Luggage

Softside carry-on bags are the alternative to hardside luggage. What is a softside bag? It is a piece of luggage that has an exterior made from fabric. So, its exterior is soft and pliable. These bags are usually made from durable, lightweight fabrics such as ballistic, cordura, or ripstop nylon.

Most softside luggage is designed with multiple compartments inside and one or more exterior pockets. So, you can easily separate electronics, clothes, shoes, delicates, and other personal belongings.

Softside bags open and close with a zipper, and many of the new ones now have the TSA approved integrated locks. Usually, these bags open from one side and all your belongings are on the other. So, you do not need as much space for this bag as you do a hardside when you are packing.

Like their hardside counterparts, you can find many softside carry-ons that are expandable. So again, if you want to bring home souvenirs, or take advantage of the extra two inches of width that Frontier allows over United, go with an expandable bag.

The upside (or downside) to a softside bag is the fact that its exterior is soft. This is good if you want a bag that is flexible. Especially if you are one of the people who will do whatever it takes to fit your bag into the overhead compartment. Softside luggage is also easier to store than a hardside.

However, because the exterior is soft, anything that could break inside your bag is left vulnerable with a softside carry-on bag.

Four Wheels vs. Two Wheels

Another factor to consider when deciding on a carry-on bag is the wheel count. While this may not seem like a big deal, remember, you don’t check these bags. Since you are wheeling it along with you through the airport terminal, good wheels are important to consider when choosing a carry-on.

Four Wheel Luggage

A piece of four-wheeled luggage, also known as a “spinner”, makes it easy to navigate airports, hotels, and anywhere else you may need to go. And when you board the plane, your four-wheeled carry-on can easily swivel down the airplane aisle.

Because spinners glide so smoothly and effortlessly, they are ideal for anyone who suffers from joint pain since they do not put pressure on your wrists and elbows. And since they are easy on your body, four-wheeled luggage also works well for anyone who travels frequently.

Now, as good as this all sounds, there are some disadvantages to four-wheeled carry-ons. The first one pertains to dimension sizes. Most spinner suitcases have wheels that stick out. And if you aren’t careful, this can impact whether you can carry it onto the plane or not. How so? When you place your suitcase in the airline’s baggage sizer, even the wheels are counted as part of the dimensions. If your wheels stick out and cause your bag to exceed the limit, you’ll have to check it.

The wheels on a spinner can also wear out causing the piece of luggage to feel imbalanced. And because they have four wheels, they can keep moving on trains or airport shuttles, even though you want them to stop.

So, if you go with a four-wheeled carry-on, carefully examine its wheels. Are they made of a durable material?  Can you lock two of them down for more stability when you don’t need all four in use? And finally, what impact do the wheels have on the overall dimensions of the bag?

Two Wheel Luggage

Two-wheeled luggage is another carry-on option. If you choose a two-wheeled bag, the top benefit is that you can maximize your packing capacity. Since the wheels are tucked in more on this style of luggage, they do not take up valuable inches of space in the dimensions of your bag. This means you can pack a little bit more than you could with a four-wheeled bag.

Another benefit of the wheels on this type of carry-on is that they are less susceptible to damage. Since they are in the case cradling on these suitcases, they are more protected than the wheels on a spinner.

The downside of a two-wheeled carry-on is mobility. Two-wheeled bags must be drug behind you in a straight line. They cannot move from side to side or stand upright while you are walking. So, you are very limited in how you can transport them. This can be burdensome if you are trying to carry multiple things at once. And over time, it can wear on your body’s joints, especially if you travel often.

Which type of carry-on you choose really depends on your personal preferences. If you travel frequently and want a piece of luggage that is easy to maneuver through the airports and on the plane, then your best bet is a four-wheeled bag. If you need to utilize every last inch of packing space of your carry-on bag, then you probably should go with a two-wheeled bag.

Carry On Suitcase

We selected the Samsonite as our favorite carry on suitcase based on its lightweight design, easy to transport four wheel design, and high quality brand reputation.

For a premium, high quality carry on suitcase, we really like the Briggs & Riley Carry On.

Options for Women

We selected the Delsey Helium Aero 25 based on the following factors:

  • Lightweight, hardside design.
  • Easy to transport with the 4 spinner wheels.
  • Built-in TSA approved lock.
  • Fresh modern, design.

Compare the Best Rolling Briefcases for Women.

Garment Bag

For a carry on garment bag, we selected the Samsonite Luggage Lift.  Hauling around suits and jackets through the airport is heavier than you might think, especially when carrying it for long periods of time.  I strongly prefer a garment bag with a wheeled option for that reason.

If you need a premium option, we like the Briggs & Riley Baseline Luggage Baseline Domestic Carry-On Expandable Upright.

You can also learn about the Best Wheeled Garment Bags.

Under Seat Carry On

We chose the Samsonite Underseater based on the following factors:

  • High quality option.
  • Thoughtful design with multiple storage pockets for easy access items.
  • Easy to transport with push button, locking handle, and two wheels.

Also see our guide for the Best Underseat Carry On Luggage.


The best thing about the Scansmart laptop backpack is the innovative smart scan feature.  This alone makes for a high quality option based on how much time and aggravation it saves you.  Just unzip the quick access laptop compartment for a quick and painless scan at the TSA checkpoint.  Other notable features include padded, secure space for a laptop and tablet as well as plenty of extra storage space.

A higher quality, business travel backpack option would be the Briggs & Riley Cargo Backpack.

Available Options Under $100

Swissgear offers a really nice carry on option for less than 100.  This carry on includes the following features:

  • 4 Spinner wheels.
  • Locking, telescopic handle.
  • Optional 2 inches of expandable space.
  • Good, high quality brand name.

Note: The First Class Travel Guide is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

About First Class Travel Guide 127 Articles
Travel enthusiast that spent years flying in the back of planes and staying at cheaper hotels in order to save a little money. After learning how to leverage airline and hotel loyalty programs, I've developed an interest in luxury travel and write about my experiences with it.

2 Comments on Best Carry On Luggage Buyer Guide

  1. The carry-on luggage dimensions for American Airlines have a mistake. The last dimension should read 9″ rather than 19″.

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