Open the storage cupboard in my house and it’s stacked with luggage. As someone who’s a frequent flyer, I’ve gathered a lot of suitcases over the years and I now seem to have one for every kind of trip. From lightweight carry on to hard shell luggage, to soft travel packs that squeeze into airline overhead bins, in this article I’ll share the best carry on luggage for every trip. I don’t have a lot of recommendations because I don’t think you need them.
If you’re not sure about switching to carry on, I’ve listed the pros and cons below. I’ve also got a handy link for the cabin luggage requirements for all major airlines. You might also like my article: How to Travel Light: 25 Quick Swaps for Packing Light.
Best for European Budget Airline Carry On – Samsonite Ascentra
This is currently my go-to small carry on luggage. At first, I couldn’t make up my mind up about this suitcase. It’s super lightweight, incredibly roomy, has great pockets, a TSA-compliant lock, and looks smart. However, the handle isn’t a smooth glide and the lining of the external pocket has a very small opening relative to the size of the space. For the price, I was initially disappointed.
Still, I can’t get over how light it is and how much I can pack into it. And, the biggest features is that it complies with the ridiculous carry on luggage size requirements of both Ryanair and Easyjet for European travel. Both airlines are some of the strictest I’ve seen for size so I generally think that if I can use this Samsonite carry on for those airlines, I can use it for all of them. Since buying this suitcase over 6 years ago, I’ve dragged it to many countries and while it is looking pretty battered, it’s still going strong and remains my favourite carry-on.
Samsonite has updated the style a bit since I bought my suitcase. It was a B-Lite back then but is now known as a Airea. The equivalent in the USA is the Ascentra.
Dimensions: 55x40x20cm (22x14x9in) | Weight: 1.8kg (6.99lb)
Best expandable carry on luggage – Samsonite Solyte DLX Expandable
This is my second go-to carry on. I tend to take it on longer trips that aren’t just weekend city breaks or winter trips. In fact, if I go on a very long trip – for several weeks or even when I’m playing digital nomad for months and years at a time – this is the luggage I take. The reason I have this in addition to my other Samsonite is the expanding capacity. Just a few extra centimetres/inch allows me to squeeze in just that bit more.
I tend to pack this as carry-on one way. Then either use it as checked luggage on the way back (if I have bought liquids like olive oil or wine). Or, if I’m flying with one of the airlines that have slightly larger carry on allowances, like British Airways, and I don’t have liquid souvenirs, I can still use it as carry on. In short, this is a lightweight, carry on suitcase that gives me just that bit of extra flexibility.
Dimensions: 55x40x20/23cm (22x14x9.5/10.5in) | Weight: 1.9kg (7.1lb)
Most hardwearing soft-shell carry on – Antler Prestwick Cabin
Before I bought my Samsonite carry on luggage, above, I was a big fan of Antler – I still am, and as soon as my Samsonite gives way, I’m going back to this British brand that I love. The only reason I opted for the Samsonite in the first place was literally down to what was available in the store when I went shopping. While I’ve come to love my current carry on, it can’t compete with Antler. I’d dragged my trusty 12-year-old Antler carry on all over the place until one day the zip finally gave up. Funnily enough, my brother applied a little tender loving care and the zip is now fixed. The Antler is still doing its job a further 7 years later. That’s a 20+ year life-span. My point, if you’re looking to invest in one good quality piece of carry on luggage, I don’t think you can choose better than an Antler.
It’s a little heavier and a little smaller than my Samsonite but it’s water-resistant (a great feature for a soft-shell case) and cheaper than Samsonite. I’m afraid Antler doesn’t ship outside the USA but you may be able to find one in a local retailer or elsewhere online.
Dimensions: 55x35x20cm (22xx13.8×10.5in) | Weight: 2.23kg (4.9lb)
Best hard-shell carry luggage on that looks stylish – Level8 Textured Carry On
This next case is definitely available in both the USA and UK and is one of the best suitcases for style. Level 8 does a range of suitcases from checked luggage to business cases to hardside carry on. They also have some lovely 2 piece carry on luggage sets if you want a matching pair.
I really, really, really wanted the Vintage collection carry on because my luggage buying has always been very practical, and is it really too much to want cute carry on luggage? But unfortunately practicality won out yet again as I opted for the Textured Carry On which fits with those annoying European airline requirements. While it isn’t quite small enough for Ryanair’s minuscule size restrictions, it fits very nicely for Easyjet (and you may want to risk it for Ryanair because has anyone actually ever had their cabin-sized luggage measured at the gate?).
The Level 8 is hard shell and has a TSA-compliant lock, which is perfect if you worry about your case getting bashed around or raided. It does make the case a bit heavier, so you might need to be careful with budget airlines that have strict carry-on weight requirements. However, the handle makes up for the weight as I finally have a suitcase where the handle doesn’t catch like my Samsonite does. And it wheels oh so smoothly.
Inside, the Level 8 has great compartment mesh dividers to help with packing, which means I can save a bit of space by disposing of my packing cubes. It’s a new case and I am a little nervous about the quality of the zip which seems to catch on the corners. That said, I don’t have good form with zips (see how I broke my Antler zip yet my brother managed to fix it), so don’t necessarily take my word for the zip quality.
If you’re looking for a hard carry on that you’ll be proud to wheel through the airport, go for Level8. I’d say this case is perfect if you travel a lot for business. If you don’t fly with the nasty budget airlines, opt for the Vintage version because it really is a thing of beauty.
Dimensions: 55x42x24cm (21.5×16.6×9.3in) | Weight: 4.8kg (10.6lb)
Best carry on backpack – Kathmandu Lighthaul, 38 Litre
If you travel light and want something you can sling on your back while your travel from place to place, rather than rolling carryon luggage, a carry on backpack is the perfect solution. And the Kathmandu Lighthaul 38 litre is my suggestion. Technically, it’s a travel pack – it opens like a suitcase and you can zip away the backpack straps, which makes it ideal for stowing in a cabin. It’s also a small enough size that it complies with most airline cabin-luggage dimensions. And, for those where it doesn’t quite fit the rules (Ryanaiar, looking at you), just slightly under-fill it and, thanks to the backpack material and compression straps, it will squash down to fit.
As well as the roomy interior, with no rigid luggage handles taking up space, there’s an easy-access section for your laptop and a spacious top section for other items you might want to easily grab; in my case – snacks. Bonus: you can fit the backpack strap to function as a holdall-style bag. Overall, it’s one smart looking carry on backpack.
Dimensions: 57x33x25cm (22.4x13x9.9in) | Weight: 1.42kg (3.1lb)
Kathmandu Lighthaul, 38 litre (available in the USA, UK, Australia and New Zealand)
Carry on versus checked luggage
Considering shifting from checked luggage to carry on but not quite sure? Here’s my quick run through of the pros and cons of travelling with carry on versus checked luggage. You can read how I downsized from checked luggage to carry on.
Pros of carry on luggage
- No extra fees to pay for checking baggage when you fly.
- No long queue to check your bag.
- No painful wait to collect your bag when you arrive.
- No risk of lost luggage.
- Cabin-luggage offers the most freedom of any bag – you can fit it almost anywhere (lockers, on buses).
- You can walk around for hours wearing a carry on backpack, making it easy to visit places en route to your destination.
Cons of carry on luggage
- You’re stuck with the travel sized toiletries – expensive, environmentally unfriendly pack sizes, quick to run out, urgh. Of course, you can buy when you arrive, but you’ll end up abandoning most of what you buy.
- If you pack something that’s not allowed in checked-luggage, you’ll forfeit it at security (yes, I once accidentally tried to pack a Swiss Army Knife in carry on – “I need it for the cork screw” didn’t work).
- It’s harder to pack for winter trips – you need to switch to some technical (lightweight but packs small) items. Here are my winter packing tips).
- You’ll might end up having to do laundry – with limited space for things like underwear and swimwear, you might end up having to wash on the go.
- You have to wheel it through packed airports and still risk having it ‘checked at the gate’ if there is no room when you get onboard.
- It can be more stressful – worrying about weights and sizes and liquid volumes. Checking luggage removes the stress.
Tips for buying carry on luggage
- Do your size research before you buy – find the exact dimensions of the strictest airlines you’ll travel with, write them down and make sure your bag is within those dimensions. Online research on official websites can make comparison easier as most list which airlines their cases comply with.
- If you travel a lot, spend as much money as you can to get the highest quality you can – I’ve seen suitcase handles snap and wheels roll down the road. Buying a replacement at your destination can lead to an expensive and poor choice of replacement.
- If you travel rarely, a cheap carry on suitcase might do but you might also be better trying to find a good quality brand second hand online. The quality brands were built to last.
- Look for bags with well-designed pouches and pockets so you don’t have to unzip your entire case if you want to grab something mid-flight.
- When checking for quality, pull the handles, look at the seams, drag your potential purchase around a bit and make sure your zips are YKK or feel high quality.
- Check the weight of the case empty – a lightweight frame is going to make all the difference when you’re packing a large amount of stuff. It can make the difference between putting your back out or not when you swing it into the overhead bin. If you’re nervous about weight, you can buy your own luggage scales – I have a set and use them when I’m packing heavy.
- Get the smallest suitcase you can – it’s tempting to think “the bigger the better”, however, the bigger the case, the heavier it will be because most people fill what they have to the brim.
Carry on luggage size requirements – all airlines
Is it me or do the carry on luggage rules seem to change every time you book a flight? Especially for low-cost and budget airlines. If you’re trying to buy one piece of carry on luggage that will fit all of the requirements, it’s good to know what they are. Of course, this doesn’t future-proof your purchase. However, cabin sizes have become reasonably standardised over the last few years and if you do go for a case that fits the strictest sizes, you can be pretty confident they will fit the requirements of the airlines that have more generous baggage requirements (often the flagship carriers). Here’s a great resource if you want an up to date list of carry on luggage sizes which includes sizes as well as weight restrictions for most (all?) of the airlines around the world.
That’s my guide to the best carry on luggage for every trip. Do you have any other suggestions? Leave a comment below.
- How to Travel Light: 25 Quick Swaps for Packing Light
- The Best Travel Backpacks – Tried & Tested
- The Only Packing List Template You’ll Ever Need
- 15 Travel Essentials – What To Take Onboard
- Safari Packing List – Just the Essentials
- What Are the Best Shoes for Travelling?
- What Is The Best Mosquito Repellent?
- The 10 Travel Gadgets I Wouldn’t Travel Without
- The Art of Packing Light
- The 10 Travel Essentials I Wouldn’t Travel Without
- Trekking Kit – 10 Essentials for Every Long Hike
- Travel Insurance: Don’t Get Screwed by the Small Print
- 40 Best Gifts for Travellers
- How Much Does it Cost to Travel?
Level8 case was gifted in exchange for an honest review.