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As a new wave of Covid infections hit the country due to the highly infectious Delta variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is advising unvaccinated people to avoid nonessential travel. However, the organization says it is safe to travel domestically if you are fully vaccinated — and if you have to travel soon or are planning to do so in the near future, you could be looking for carry-on luggage that won’t take up too much space or slow you down on your journeys. To help you find the right bag, we consulted with experts about what to look for in a carry-on and broke down the difference between hardside and softside suitcases. We also used their advice to round up some highly rated carry-on options on top of their recommendations.
What is carry-on luggage?
Unlike a checked bag or suitcase, a carry-on is meant to fit above your seat in an overhead bin or, occasionally, underneath the seat (depending on its size). Most airlines allow you to board for free with one personal item (like a purse or laptop bag) and one carry-on (whether that’s a suitcase, duffel or backpack) — some will charge for one of those and some for both.
Hardside versus softside carry-ons
Suitcases tend to fall into one of two categories: hardside (hard shell) and softside (soft shell). Longtime travel journalist Maggie Espinosa explained the main differences between the two:
- A hardside carry-on is usually made of a hard polycarbonate (a kind of plastic), which makes the shell easier to clean and more water-resistant. It’s typically more rigid, too — the sides of the suitcase are less likely to collapse when moved around or checked in.
- A softside carry-on typically comprises tightly woven or thicker polyester material (think nylon, canvas or even leather).These fabrics can be more lightweight. An interior frame gives this kind of suitcase its shape and sturdiness. Since a softside suitcase can be more flexible, it can cave in under pressure, whether due to overpacking or because it’s in close proximity to other luggage. Depending on the material used, this kind of carry-on might also be harder to clean than hardside luggage.
Choosing one over the other really depends on what you’re carrying, where you’re going and the length of your trip. Espinosa prefers hardside carry-ons when she plans on bringing back fragile souvenirs or other breakable items. But lighter softside carry-on bags could be a better option if you have other checked luggage you have to carry around an airport or train station, she said.
Any carry-on that can fit through the security checkpoint X-ray tunnel should fit the overhead bin on a plane.
What to consider when buying a carry-on
According to Cailin O’Neil, a travel blogger who says she has visited over 50 countries, you want to look for luggage that is waterproof, durable and lightweight. You can always check a suitcase’s weight when shopping online — usually you’ll find it underneath its dimensions. The less a carry-on weighs, O’Neil noted, the more you can take with you on a trip without being weighed down.
Materials aside, check out the zippers and wheels on a carry-on. A zipper should have larger teeth made from metal (not nylon or plastic) to lessen the chance of your suitcase busting open in transit, according to Espinosa. When it comes to wheels, you might be better off with a suitcase that equips four spinner wheels that can move in all directions to maneuver around the airport, O’Neil said.
Carry-on luggage to shop in 2021
Given the guidance from travel experts, we compiled a few top-rated hardside and softside carry-on luggage options to consider for your next trip. While some of the suitcases out there don’t meet the maximum dimensions allowed by most airlines, we made sure to only include ones that do.
Hardside carry-on suitcases
Away has two versions of its carry-on suitcase: Standard and Battery, which includes a removable lithium-ion battery that’s TSA-approved. Since the experts above recommended a lighter suitcase, let’s focus on the Standard, which weighs 7.1 pounds and whose dimensions fit within most airlines’ allowances: 21.7 inches by 13.7 inches by 9 inches. The suitcase features a polycarbonate hard shell and 360-degree spinner wheels Equipping a TSA-approved combination lock, the carry-on includes a hidden laundry bag to help separate dirty clothes. A popular pick, this carry-on earned a 4.9-star rating across more than 1,700 reviews. Away also carries a larger carry-on and softside carry-on suitcase that’s water-resistant.
While O’Neil isn’t partial to a brand, she said she usually buys from big brands like Samsonite that are well-known in the world of suitcases. The retailer even filters its offerings so you can easily sort through all of the suitcases that will fit in most overhead bins. This polypropylene suitcase, at 6.5 pounds, is relatively lightweight. It includes 360-degree spinner wheels that increase maneuverability and it’s expandable if you need more space. This carry-on, which has a 4.6-star average rating from more than 1,000 reviews, also comes with a TSA-compatible combination lock on the side (no keys required) to keep your belongings safe.
This suitcase might be a little more stylish than the hardside luggage you’re used to seeing — it’s inspired by vintage trunks. The 7.1-pound carry-on is made with polycarbonate and ABS (another kind of plastic). It’s designed to fit in most overhead bins at 20 inches by 14 inches by 9 inches (the Trnk is expandable up to 2 inches). Each corner of the suitcase is adorned with aluminum protectors and the carry-on features an adjustable height trolley, 360-degree spinner wheels and a TSA-accepted lock. An interior divider with pockets lives on one side of the suitcase with a removable interior accessory pocket in the other, along with compression straps to keep your belongings in place. This highly rated option has a 4.9-star average rating from over 50 Calpak reviewers.
You can completely customize this carry-on from ROAM — you get to choose the colors for the trim, front and back shells, as well as add a monogram for free. The 6.6-pound carry-on meets the maximum size restrictions for most airlines. It features a polycarbonate shell, an ergonomic and adjustable handle, a TSA-approved lock, a water-repellent zipper and rolling wheels. There’s an interior compression system that the brand says makes packing more efficient. The carry-on has an average 4.9-star rating over more than 100 reviews.
Softside carry-on suitcases
This 5.2-pound carry-on is designed to fit perfectly in an overhead bin at 22 inches by 14 inches by 9 inches. The suitcase is made from a water- and stain-resistant polyester fabric. The interior lining is meant to protect from moisture and its wheels can spin 360 degrees. Unlike other suitcases above, this carry-on includes handles on the side, bottom and top — the top handle can lock into two positions and features rubberized touch points meant to ease grabbing it on the go. You can expand this suitcase up to two inches if you need more room and you’ll find a full-size lid pocket inside, as well as a side accessory pocket and adjustable straps to keep your belongings in place.
A part of Samsonite’s eco-friendly collection, this carry-on has an interior lining made from 100 percent recycled water bottles and the outside is made from durable water-repellent nylon fabric. It’s 22 inches by 14 inches by 9 inches, just the right size to meet overhead requirements. The suitcase includes a toiletry kit for TSA approved 3-ounce liquids, so you can find them easily when going through a checkpoint. It features an ergonomic handle on top and a pull handle on the side of the suitcase, plus a retractable ID holder discreetly located under the top handle. Instead of a standard zipper, the suitcase has zipper pulls, which are meant to slide in and out easier. And once you’re ready to go to the airport, there are straps inside the suitcase that meet with a buckle in the center to help press belongings in place.
Victorinox, maker of Swiss army knives, also has its own line of luggage. This softside carry-on weighs 7.6 pounds and its dimensions fall just under airline limits at 21.7 inches by 13.8 inches by 9.1 inches. The carry-on is made from nylon and features two wheels — two features that can make a carry-on feel more lightweight, Espinosa told us. On the inside, you’ll find pockets on the lid and sides if you find yourself needing extra storage space.
Another option from Travelpro, this carry-on earned a 4.8-star average rating from over 800 Amazon reviews and fits most airline regulations with overall dimensions of 21.5 inches by 14 inches by 9 inches. It has a variety of traveler-friendly features, including a built-in USB port and exterior power bank pocket that lets you easily charge your phone and other electronics — although you’ll have to purchase a power bank separately. The exterior padded pocket fits laptops up to 15.6 inches, while the tip-resistant zippered expansion can increase space up to two inches. It also comes in multiple colors, including Black, Grey and Plum.
Carry-on sizes: American, Delta, Southwest and more
Neither the TSA nor the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have a set of specific size or dimensions for carry-ons you have to follow when flying. Instead, the TSA defers to airlines to see what will fit either above your seat or underneath the seat ahead of you.
An overstuffed, cluttered carry-on could mean a bag check since the officer conducting an X-ray screening won’t be able to clearly check the contents inside, a TSA spokesperson told us. Wondering whether your carry-on can actually be stowed away above your seat? Any carry-on that can fit through the security checkpoint X-ray tunnel should fit the overhead bin on a plane.
According to the FAA, most airlines have a maximum carry-on size of 45 linear inches (that’s the total if you add up the sum of dimensions: height, width and depth). Looking at the carry-on size standards across five of the biggest airlines, almost all of them allow for a carry-on as large as 22 inches by 14 inches by 9 inches (which equals the 45 linear inches the FAA mentioned). Below are the carry-on regulations for a few of the biggest airlines in the U.S.
- American Airlines allows passengers one carry-on, limited at 22 inches (length) by 14 inches (width) by 9 inches (height), including handles and wheels. If that carry-on is too big for the overhead bin, it might have to be checked in. Recently, the airline changed its carry-on policy for the Basic Economy class: Passengers can bring along one free carry-on.
- You can fly with one free carry-on through Delta Air Lines. A carry-on can’t be bigger than 22 inches by 14 inches by 9 inches including handles and wheels and should fit in an overhead bin as well. If your carry-on is too large or a full flight doesn’t have enough overhead space, a flight attendant might make you check your bags at the gate.
- All fares (except for Blue Basic fares) on JetBlue Airways are allowed a carry-on with the same size restrictions as above: 22 inches by 14 inches by 9 inches. If you book a Blue Basic fare, the airline’s lowest priced tier, you can’t bring a carry-on with you on the flight unless you pay an additional fee.
- Like the other airlines, Southwest Airlines lets each passenger bring one carry-on. Unlike the others, Southwest has different dimension restrictions: 24 inches (length) by 16 inches (width) by 10 inches (height). If you’re traveling with a pet, the carrier can be counted as either a personal item or a carry-on.
- For most United Airlines flights, you can bring on carry-on that’s limited to a maximum of 22 inches by 14 inches by 9 inches. If you’re flying with a Basic Economy ticket, you’re only allowed one personal item and no free carry-on. (For a full-sized carry-on, you’ll have to pay both a checked bag and handling fee).
What to consider when packing a carry-on — and other basic travel tips
Properly packing up a carry-on could mean the difference between a smooth or bumpy experience, including having to check your suitcase (airlines have different fees associated with this, adding cost to inconvenience) and a long wait time in a TSA screening line.
For carry-ons, the TSA allows you to bring a quart-sized bag of liquids, aerosols, gels and creams through a checkpoint. But you’ll want to make sure these items are travel-sized: less than 3.4 ounces per item. To make things easier on you, you should separate this bag from everything else in your carry-on. If you’re in doubt of what you’re packing, the TSA has a long list of prohibited items — bowling pins, box cutters, bows and arrows aren’t allowed to travel in carry-ons, among other things. Before heading to the airport, O’Neil said you should make sure to:
- Keep your essentials nearby, including medications, electronics and your wallet. If you have two carry-ons, you’ll want to save these essentials for the smaller suitcase, in case you’re forced to check in the bigger one.
- Bring bulkier items with you instead of packing them up. Think a sweater, jacket or pair of boots. Those might take too much space in a suitcase.
- Consider volunteering to check in your carry-on. Sometimes, gate agents will ask if anyone wants to volunteer to check in their carry-on in order to save space in overhead bins. This will usually be free — but it increases the risk of a lost bag, too.