How To Choose The Best Carry-On Luggage

Rejected and Retired Suitcases

I spend a lot of time with my luggage. I average 40-50 trips and 100,000 miles a year. I hate shopping for luggage, though. I’d putting off buying a new bag for a long time, as in years, until I was left with no working luggage when the handle died on my vintage Swiss Army black roller. Before that, the airlines forcibly grounded my Bluesmart smart bag for an unremovable lithium battery, and I had to retire my grey Samsonite bag after the wheels got wonky — the rubber wore off and the wheels splayed out after 2½ years of trundling it across New Orleans sidewalks.

With my next trip looming, I was finally forced to shop for a new suitcase. But what to buy? I started with a survey of fellow travelers. Actually, it was more like stalking; I eyeballed every piece of luggage that passed by me for two weeks. Then I wandered through the basement luggage departments of a couple of Macy’s, opening bags and waving off clerks. After all that, I gave into my OCD and built this prioritized carry-on luggage shopping evaluation criteria:

  1. It has to fit into my carrier’s carry-on sizer. Now that may seem a bit of a “duh”, but there is some ambiguity; the approved height of a carry-on bag varies by airline between 19 and 22-inches. If I want to play it safe, I’d go for a 20-inch bag, but then I also want to maximize my carry-on space. Most US carriers accept a 22-inch bag and that’s mostly what I fly. So for my main bag, I go for maximum packing volume and choose a 22-inch bag.
  2. And my carrier’s weight limit (if they have one). Many European carriers have a size and a weight limit. Back in episode #121, I talked about the baggage strip tease I had to do at the Wow Air desk in Reykjavik to make their 7 kg/15 lbs carry-on weight limit. My 22-inch bag is 7 lbs, taking up almost half of the weight allowance. So last month, after booking some flights in and out of Riga, Latvia on AirBaltic, I bought a much lighter 20-inch bag
  3. It needs to be black. As I said in my Ruthless Packing Tips post, black not only makes you look thinner, it makes your bag look thinner to gate agents scanning for bag-sizer bait. Black also doesn’t show stains. My grey Samsonite bag, after 3-4 months of my travel schedule, started to look a lot less non-black. Smudges from grease on overhead bin hinges, muck from taxi trunks, muddy water from New Orleans gutters, spilled coffee…. It’s why I can’t have nice luggage.
  4. Two wheels, not four. This is more of a personal preference. My Bluesmart was a 4-wheel spinner and my wife swears by hers, but because the 4 wheels have to extend from the bottom of the bag, spinners sacrifice packing space for agility. Also, I find 4-wheelers have a tendency to wander off — rolling away down ramps or on uneven floors. I go for the 2-wheeler, and with the biggest wheels I can find to make it an easier, smoother pull. I was surprised how much this limited my selection. Spinners definitely rule.
  5. The inside of the suitcase has to be plain and empty. No clever collection of zipped compartments, or built-in suit hangers, or ratcheting clothes dividers; just a wide open box that I’m free to structure how I want for each trip. I was surprised how this also limited my selection. Indeed, in the end, I couldn’t find just a plain box, and settled for a bag where I could detach the suit hanger and clothes divider and stash them in the back of a closet somewhere, never to be seen again.
  6. Buy on-line. A recent study of 32,672 luggage price showed that you can save an average of $110/39% buying on-line. Walmart and Target’s on-line stores had the highest discounts. And while Amazon was in 10th place for average discount (in the 40% range), it was tops with the greatest variety — over 12,000 luggage items.

So what did I buy? For my main bag, I bought a black Victorinox Werks Traveler 5.0 22-inch 2-wheeler. Victorinox is what used to be Swiss Army; I figured if my last bag survived 10 years of hard mileage, that said something for durability. However, Victorinox has moved to a new model year, to Werks 6.0, which doesn’t appear to have a 22-inch or a 2-wheel option. If you’re OK with spinners, the Werks 5.0 22-inch spinner is still available on Amazon. My 2-wheeler is a solid bag; highly recommended.

For my European budget travel, and for 2-day trips where I don’t need all the space of the Victorinox, I landed on the the TravelPro Maxlite 5. It fit the AirBaltic dimensions, it’s one of the lighter bags I saw at 5.4 lbs, and my daughter has had a good run with her TravelPro bag. Mine has worked well on two trips — hopscotching through the Baltics and then a quick trip down to Charlottesville, VA. Another solid bag that’s highly recommended.

Note: None of these suggestions are paid endorsements. This post contains links to Amazon where I can earn a small commission from qualifying purchases.