Luggage can make or break a trip. You can learn this the hard way with broken zippers and cracked handles—or worse: non-existent warranties—or you can splurge a bit for a bag that’ll last forever. Contributing writer Dara Bramson tested various carry-on bags to find her favorites in specific categories.
In 2009, immersed in my backpacking days, I did my homework and wrote this piece; to this day, I still use the North Face pack inspired by that research. Nowadays, I occasionally disguise my backpack-loving, Birkenstock-wearing alter ego—and I’ve needed an upgrade from my well-worn two-wheeled carry-on. Plus, I was instantly converted when I tested four-wheeled bags, which seem to have almost completely replaced their two-wheeled predecessors. This year I tested various bags, rounding up my top carry-on luggage picks of 2015.
Best: Special Feature & Warranty
Briggs & Riley International Carry-On Expandable Wide Body Spinner
After testing the upright (two-wheeled) model and loving the expandable, functional interior but longing for the ease of rolling on four wheels, I can report that this model is a top-notch carry-on. Briggs & Riley’s patented CX™ Expansion-Compression Technology isn’t the standard expandable zipper. This feature expands the sides of the bag up to 34 percent from the interior, which enables compression to the original size. The attentive design includes a tri-fold garment folder, useful pockets, and an impressive lifetime warranty. 21”; 9 pounds; $519.
Best: Hard Case Design
Samsonite Inova 20” Spinner
Samsonite’s lightweight, affordable polycarbonate carry-on will make the transition from soft to hard case a smooth one. In addition to its sleek exterior look, the interior dividers make packing manageable with straps that promise to keep contents secure. Easy glide wheels and an international-friendly size—plus a built-in TSA lock—make it an attractive, practical hard case option with a limited lifetime warranty. 20”; 5.94 pounds; $229.99.
Best: Hard Case Design Splurge
Rimowa Topas Cabin Multiwheel®
Many hard cases have a plastic, crackable look; this Rimowa model couldn’t be further from that. This indestructible aluminum magnesium carry-on bag will make the most novice traveler look like MacGyver. It’s impressively light, easy to pack, and secure, with two built-in TSA combination locks. It’s also not cheap, but it’ll last you forever—or at least through the five-year warranty period. 21.7”; 9.7 pounds; $980.
Best: Sporty Upright
Burton Charter Roller Travel Bag
For those who want a carry-on with a bit of a sporty edge, Burton’s lightweight expandable bag is an affordable option. Best of all, two of its five color options are bluesign® Approved, adhering to strict standards that eliminate harmful chemicals from the manufacturing process. A custom handle, expandable feature, strategic pockets, and IXION wheels make its thoughtful design one to consider. 22”; 5.75 pounds; $164.95.
Best: Classic Carry-On
Tumi Alpha 2 International Expandable 4-Wheeled Carry-On
Tumi’s reputation as an upmarket brand is reflected in its prices. Yet each piece’s thoughtful design with multiple patented elements makes it clear why Tumi has gained a loyal following of customers who are willing to splurge. The Alpha 2 line was redesigned with a more durable frame and wheel system. From the time I was a high school kid working at a luggage store, I was a sucker for Tumi’s sleek, simple designs. A spacious interior with multiple pockets helps packing organization; the Tumi Tracer® will come in handy in the case of loss. The only downside, as compared to some other brands, is its one-year warranty. 22”; 10.7 pounds; $625.
Best: Carry-On Pack
REI Grand Tour Travel Pack
I’m still a huge fan of my North Face Terra 60, which was replaced in recent years by the slightly larger Terra 65, also a carry-on, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. But this year, I’m trying something new from REI, another brand I admire for its commitment to its members and the outdoors. This pack is designed for long treks with space to show for it; 85 liters of gear capacity between the main pack and the removable daypack. The adjustable strap and hipbelt help evenly distribute weight, with nine exterior pockets plus the main compartment. The Men’s pack is 66.5 liters without the daypack, which makes it (and its slightly smaller Women’s counterpart) a manageable, flexible carry-on for short and long trips. Most impressively, REI has a limited lifetime warranty and a 10 percent annual refund for members; join for a one-time fee of $20. 5.75 pounds; $189.
Best: Backpack Companion
LeSportsac Deluxe Everyday Bag
The best companion to a giant backpack on your back is a lightweight messenger bag. I learned this the hard way after a 2007 backpacking trip, during which I was sandwiched by a pack on my back and a belly-like backpack on my chest. Lesson learned. Today, this is a favorite bag for all occasions, but particularly as a backpacking companion. The adjustable strap lays flat on your shoulder, allowing the backpack to sit over it comfortably. In addition to a sizeable main zippered compartment, each size has zippered pockets, which are ideal for storing handy items safely. While gray or black is my color of choice, LeSportsac has dozens of colorful options. $82 and up.
Best: All Around
SwissGear 20” Carry-On Spinner
For most people, the best bags are the ones that look good, work properly, and don’t cost a fortune. My go-to brand for all that is still SwissGear, from the Swiss Army Knife maker. The lightweight, expandable 20” spinners are guaranteed to fit on any international flight and are designed to help organize packing with strategic pockets and a removable pouch for liquids. Including some of the best qualities of even the priciest bags, such as a telescopic handle and 360-degree wheels, SwissGear is still one of my favorites after many years. 20”; 7.7 pounds; $100.
Prices reflect manufacturer cost as of date of publication; check Amazon or local stores for discounts year-round.
For more information about luggage, check out:
- What to Consider Before Buying Hard or Soft Luggage
- The Best Luggage 2015
- How to Choose the Right Daypack for You
- Tips for Packing & Traveling With A Carry-On
By Dara Bramson for PeterGreenberg.com