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How to Find the Best Carry-On Suitcase
Broken or cumbersome luggage is one of the quickest ways to disrupt the best-laid travel plans. You don’t need to spend a fortune to find a carry-on that’s great, but you do need to know what to look for and what you really need. At Wirecutter, I’ve tested hundreds of bags for travel, and these are the questions I ask and the details I consider when evaluating any type of luggage.
First, though, a note about cost: You should expect to spend at least $225. Plenty of luggage is less expensive than that, but most of it is plagued with problems. I’ve come across wobbly and misaligned wheels, zippers of questionable quality and strength, extendable handles so brittle and stiff that they could only charitably be described as arthritic, and suitcases so poorly balanced that they would not stay upright without constant support.
At Wirecutter, we suggest soft-sided luggage for most people. In our research, we’ve found that frequent travelers appreciate the multiple external pockets found on most soft-sided bags. If you tend to travel with a suit, you should also consider that most soft-sided luggage is designed with a suiter built into the lid—a feature noticeably missing from most hard-sided suitcases I’ve tested. And mile for mile, the nylon fabric used in soft-sided luggage shows less wear and tear than the pliable polycarbonate shells of hard-sided luggage.
However, hard-sided luggage does look great. Polycarbonate can be molded in an endless variety of colors or prints, which soft-sided luggage can’t replicate in thread. Wheeling around a minimalist shell of a suitcase is undeniably comforting—everything you are traveling with is packed away in a single wheeled brick. The restriction of the design and the absence of exterior distractions such as pockets makes it impossible to overpack, something a lot of our readers say they appreciate.
Another reason hard-sided luggage might be appealing is the protection its pliable shell provides its contents against sharp, direct impact. According to our testing and numerous interviews with luggage designers, though, hard-sided luggage is not, in fact, stronger—unless you’re talking about very expensive metal cases—or more durable than soft-sided luggage.
If you want hard-sided, we recommend the Away Carry-On, a great-looking and relatively resilient piece of hard-sided luggage with top-of-the-line components, including YKK zippers and wheels as smooth-rolling as any we’ve tested.
The details you should look at
A suitcase, though relatively simple, is made up of a few critical components. When you’re shopping for luggage, here are the things you should consider and, if possible, try with your own hands:
Lifetime warranty: One of the best ways to judge the quality of a piece of luggage is to see if its manufacturer stands behind its work. Good warranties protect against anything that makes your luggage unusable. The best, like the Briggs & Riley warranty, expressly offer repair and replacement programs, which protect against airline damage regardless of whether you lodge a formal claim with the airline.
Zipper: In most cases, the first thing to wear out on your luggage through regular use is the zipper. It also happens to be the easiest component to check at a glance. YKK, the Japanese zipper manufacturer, is widely considered to make the best zippers in the world—it turns out nearly 7 billion zippers, or half the zippers produced on Earth, in a year. Though some luggage companies use custom zippers from other brands, which are often excellent, a “YKK” stamped on the tongue of a zipper on any piece of luggage is a good indication of high quality.
Wheels: Unlike zippers, wheels are rarely marked by the manufacturer. The best way to test wheels yourself is to roll the suitcase across as many surfaces as possible, especially carpet. If wheels are going to get squirrely, it will most likely happen on carpeting. On any surface, the wheels should roll smoothly without dragging or chattering beneath your hand. If you’re especially concerned about durability, bear in mind that luggage with two larger wheels almost always lasts longer than luggage with four spinners. However, a four-wheeled suitcase is a luxury when you’re negotiating tight airplane aisles and crowded airports.
Extendable handle: The handle of your luggage is very important, but most of the engineering —shape, reinforcement, and metallurgy—happens inside the aluminum tubing, where you can’t see it. In my conversations with luggage designers over the years, most have described a sweet spot in the feel of a handle. The entire handle shouldn’t twist too much when fully extended, but the tubes themselves should feel just a touch loose at the joints where they meet, which helps them avoid jamming against one another.
What about ultralight luggage?
Most carry-on suitcases weigh between 7 and 9 pounds. We have seen brands shave off anywhere from 2 to 5 pounds when designing so-called ultralight luggage. Though this type of luggage is undeniably lighter, it often sacrifices the rigidity and durability of more typical designs. It’s a compromise, but not one I recommend making.
The surest way to save weight when you travel is to pack less. And the easiest way to pack less is to travel with smaller pieces of luggage. The more room you have, the more likely you are to try to fit that one more thing you think you might need.
Do you need a carry-on at all?
Possibly not. Many people choose to forgo carry-on suitcases entirely—sometimes by choice, sometimes because they’re flying Basic Economy—and instead travel with just a smaller item. (Wirecutter has recommendations for both backpacks and underseat personal items.) Though these small bags restrict the amount you can pack, you may find that the less you carry with you, the more you actually enjoy traveling.