We revised this guide in September 2021 to reflect updated testing on 25 new carry-on suitcases. Our top pick has been changed to Target's Open Story Hardside Carry-On. Other new additions to this article include models from Travelpro, Delsey, Arlo Skye, Calpak and Vera Bradley. Recent tests were led by Good Housekeeping Institute Textiles Product Analyst Emma Seymour.
It’s no secret that checking your luggage can be a pain: Not only do the airlines charge you exorbitant fees, but you have to spend the extra time picking it up from baggage claim and stressing that your suitcase might get lost. So investing in the perfect carry-on bag that can hold your entire load and is easy to carry through the airport seems like a no-brainer. Even if you're traveling by road or train, having a compact case that's durable and easy to tote can make your trip a whole lot easier.
The Good Housekeeping Institute Textiles Lab evaluates popular carry-on luggage from top brands like Travelpro, Samsonite and Away by measuring each bag's size and weight, reviewing how much each can hold with a standard load, and evaluating the durability through tests like abrasion resistance, scratch resistance, water resistance and drop testing using specialized lab equipment. We also receive feedback from dozens of consumer testers, who we ask to use the loaded luggage in an obstacle course to get feedback on things like comfort, ease of use and how smooth it feels to wheel around. In the past few years, our fiber scientists have tested dozens of carry-on suitcases ranging from $50 to $700, and reviewed thousands of data points before choosing these best-performing recommendations that will hold everything you need whether you're flying or road-tripping.
What is considered carry-on luggage?
The most important thing to consider in a carry-on bag is its dimensions. Each airline has its own size restrictions, but the most common is 22 x 14 x 9 inches. Keep in mind that this includes the handles and wheels, so be careful that you’re not just measuring the case itself.
You can find more tips on how to shop for carry-on luggage — including how to decide between hardside or softside (spoiler alert: it's a matter of personal preference) — along with more information about how we tested and why you should trust us at the end of this article. But first, here are the best carry-on bags to buy in 2021:
- Held up to repeated drops in Lab durability tests
- Easy manuverability
- Spacious packing compartments
- Surface showed slight marks in scratch tests
- A few testers struggled with the telescopic handle
With both the highest score and one of the lowest price points among our winners, this sleek yet functional style proves you don't have to spend a fortune to get a great case. Its durable 100% polycarbonate shell is lightweight, but GH experts were blown away by the fact that it withstood drop after drop without dents or damage. Plus its spacious compartment held our entire sample load in Lab packing tests. On top of that, in our obstacle course, consumer testers found the loaded case easy to maneuver as they swerved it around cones, rolled it over a variety of surfaces and lifted it onto a table. They also gave it high apperance scores for its "cute, modern" look.
The case comes in four colors as well as a larger checked size, and includes a built-in USB port, a laundry bag to keep dirty clothes separate and generously sized zippered pockets inside for easy packing.
Listed size: 21.5" x 14" x 9.75"
- Good value for money
- Spacious interior
- Solid wheel performance and maneuverability
- Scratched more easily in our tests
- Some testers said the telescopic handle wasn't as sturdy
It's hard to find quality carry-ons under $100, but Amazon's hardside spinner delivers. Besides having over 25,000 verified reviews and an average 4.7-star rating, it also wowed both our experts and consumer testers with its spacious compartments and smooth wheel performance in our tests.
We do want to note that this bag uses ABS plastic, which keeps the cost down but isn't as durable as polycarbonate. It showed some marks in our scratch tests, though it avoided dents fairly well in our durability drop tests. It also held an impressive amount during our packing evaluations.
Listed size: 22" x 14.9" x 10"
- Durable nylon fabric and water-resistant zippers
- Spacious interior
- Includes pockets and removable bags for organization
- Heavier than other styles
- Some testers complained about difficulty of steering
Ideal for frequent flyers who are rough on their bags, Travelpro's luxe model is made using strong nylon fabric that comes in seven shades with leather accents and sturdy chrome zippers. This softside suitcase stood out in evaluations for its impressive durability and convenient packing features. For starters, its nylon exterior aced both our abrasion and drop tests with no signs of wear. Plus, the zippers kept contents dry in our water resistance test.
Not only that, it fit every item in our packing test with room to spare and our Lab pros said the organizational compartments made loading it a breeze. It comes with a garment bag for suits or dresses, a TSA-approved case for liquids and an outer pocket with a USB port. Plus its handle adjusts to four different heights. Some testers thought it looked old-fashioned and said they had less control when it was on four wheels, but liked that it glided well tilted back on two wheels.
Listed size: 23.5" x 14.5" x 9"
- Weighs 5.7 lbs when empty yet held our entire load
- Plenty of packing space
- Easy-to-clean lining
- Zippers weren't as easy to open and close in packing tests
- Users gave lower scores for the telescopic handle's sturdiness
No more struggling to lift your luggage up to trunks, counters or overhead bins. This softside style from Delsey is made with polyester fabric and has a no-frills interior that's roomy without feeling heavy. It weighed less than any other carry-on suitcase in our tests, yet still held our entire packing load. This impressive carry-on held up well to durability tests despite its weight. Inside, you'll find one main compartment with straps to keep items in place, plus smaller zippered pockets on both the inside and outside.
It's unique in that it has a removable lining that's machine washable. Though it has few packing compartments, no USB port, the zippers required effort to use and the handle didn't feel as sturdy as others, our experts appreciated its easy-access external sections, and testers agreed: "I love the pockets," one raved. It got lower scores for maneuverability, but testers gave it overall good scores during use.
Listed size: 21.75" x 13.75" x 9.75"
- Smooth wheel performance
- Comfortable handles
- Top-rated for ease of packing and lifting
- Didn't resist scratches as well as others in Lab tests
- No built-in USB port for charging devices
Fashion meets function with this sleek carry-on from Calpak. Not only is this rose gold case sleek in appearance, but it also had high scores from our tester panel on its smooth wheel performance, sturdy handle and easy maneuverability when rolling it through our obstacle course. They said its padded handles felt comfortable to lift, pull and use for steering, and they also loved its design — nearly every tester said they wanted to keep it for themselves! They raved about its "eye-catching design," "smooth wheels" and "sturdy handle" after pushing and pulling it during evaluations.
Its smooth wheels glide effortlessly even when it's loaded, and its hard outer shell, a polycarbonate and ABS plastic composite, keeps it light (but also makes it less scratch resistant than 100% polycarbonate). Still, it held up to our drop test without denting and impressed our experts with its roomy interior that was easy to pack. The interior has a combination of zippered storage, elastic pockets and compression straps to help you stay organized.
Listed size: 22" x 14" x 9"
- Convenient front compartment
- Easy to pack a large load
- Maneuvered well in tests
- Testers said handle isn't as comfortable as other bags
Jam-packed with features, this convenient carry-on has a laptop sleeve in the front so you can access it without opening your entire suitcase, plus it comes with a removable battery for charging devices on the go. Our pros found the various zippers to be easy to open and close, and they were able to pack our entire load with room to spare in its spacious interior.
On top of that, it didn't show any signs of wear in our drop tests and earned high scores for its smooth wheels and maneuverability. The main callout for this one is its telescopic handle: Some testers gave it low scores for comfort and sturdiness.
Listed size: 23" x 15" x 10.3"
- Lightweight and spacious
- Personalization options available
- Can return after 100-day trial period
- Handle could be sturdier
This trendy bag lives up to the hype: The hardside polycarbonate is even lighter than fabric suitcases and the inside is surprisingly spacious. It has convenient packing features, like a hidden laundry bag for dirty clothes and a compression strap to maximize the space.
It comes in plenty of colors so there's something for everyone, and the company offers a 100-day trial period so you can return it even after it's been used. You can choose whether to buy it with or without a removable battery, or opt for the softside expandable version that lets you pack even more in.
Listed size: 21.7" x 13.7" x 9"
- Eye-catching design options
- Held up well in durability tests
- Good maneuverability
- A few testers said handle wasn't as sturdy as others
Available in both solid colors and fun prints, this carry-on is ideal for anyone that sees luggage as a fashion accessory. But don't be fooled by its pretty appearance: this durable case is tough, proving itself to be a top-performer in our drop, scratch and water resistance tests.
It was also smooth to roll and easy to maneuver in our consumer obstacle course test, surprising our panel with how well it performed. On top of that, our pros appreciated its lightweight design and spacious capacity.
Listed size: 22" x 14" x 10"
- Fits under airline seats
- Smooth maneuverability
- Durable nylon fabric
- Not as spacious as a full-size carry-on
If you're always worried about nabbing enough overhead space while flying, this underseat carry-on is small enough to count as your personal item and outperformed other underseat cases in our review. It maneuvered well in our tests, was incredibly spacious for its size and has convenient compartments, including a laptop sleeve.
Besides its compact size and good mobility, it's also made with durable nylon fabric that didn't show any signs of wear after our extensive abrasion tests, so you can expect it to hold up through years of use.
Listed size: 17.75" x 14" x 8"
- Lightweight with high capacity
- Scratch-resistant polycarbonate
- Genuine leather details
- Very expensive
If you're willing to splurge, this high quality Italian suitcase is certainly worth it. It was a top performer in our review with high scores from both Lab and consumer testers. It also has luxe leather accents that make the polycarbonate shell look super chic.
In particular, this case stood out for being incredibly lightweight, ultra durable and super spacious (it fit our entire test load with room to spare!). In fact, it held up to scratch tests better than most other hardside luggage in our evaluations.
Listed size: 21" x 14" x 8"
- Spacious compartments
- Hands-free carrying
- Not as much packing space as a regular carry-on
This hands-free travel backpack isn't your average carry-on: It has multiple compartments to keep you organized, a zippered pocket against your back to keep valuables safe, and features extra padding and water-resistant material so you can take it wherever you go.
It's also a bestseller on Amazon with over 46,000 verified reviews and an average 4.8-star rating. In fact, some users call it their "best purchase ever." Another bonus: the price is much lower than regular luggage.
Listed size: 18" x 12" x 7.8"
- Transforms for versatile carrying options
- Durable and spacious
- No wheels
This bag was designed for adventure trips, but our pros love it for regular travel, too. It has removable straps that can be worn three ways — including a backpack for when you need to be hands-free — and it's incredibly lightweight and spacious, especially because it doesn't have the wheel and handle mechanisms found in most carry-ons.
It's made of a durable and water-repellent polyester fabric with foam padding to protect the contents inside. And as an added bonus, it compresses into a zippered pouch for easy storage when you're not using it.
Listed size: 22" x 12.5" x 9"
We've had top performers (and poor performers) in both categories, but each material has its own advantages that can help you make a decision when you shop. Here's what to keep in mind for each:
✔️ Hardside Luggage: These cases have been gaining steam in the market because they're protective, good-looking and surprisingly lightweight. But not all hard shell materials are the same:
- Polycarbonate: This is the most popular hardside option because it's lighter than metals (like aluminum) yet more durable than plastic. It has high impact resistance — i.e. it's durable against drops — but it has a lower scratch resistance, though sometimes a special coating can be applied to prevent scuffs.
- ABS: Most low-cost hardside luggage is made of this plastic material. It's more affordable and more lightweight than polycarbonate, but it's less durable and more prone to scratches.
- Polycarbonate/ABS Composites: You can also find suitcases that combine these materials, typically using ABS plastic underneath with a polycarbonate coating. This blend gives you some benefits of both, but still isn't as durable as 100% polycarbonate.
✔️ Softside Luggage: Fabric-based luggage is often easier to stuff into tight spaces and fill with more things. It also doesn't show scratches, though certain fabrics can abrade more easily over time so you still need to shop with care:
- Nylon: This synthetic fiber is the most common material in soft fabric cases. It's durable and can withstand abrasion, making it ideal for frequent flyers who are rough on their bags.
- Polyester: This one's also a synthetic fiber, but it's typically less expensive and more lightweight than nylon. The downside is that it's also less durable, though we've seen some polyester suitcases with good abrasion resistance.
Besides checking airline dimensions and deciding between the materials, here are other tips to keep in mind when picking out your luggage:
- Wheels: We recommend checking for four 360° wheels, as these consistently have the top maneuverability scores in our tests. If you're deciding between two and four wheels, here are the main differences to keep in mind: Four wheels give you the flexibility to push or pull and move it in all directions, yet you can still tilt it back and use it like two-wheeled luggage if you prefer. Two wheels only roll when you tilt the luggage, and you can only pull it back and forth instead of side to side. There's also luggage with no wheels, meaning it needs to be carried.
- Telescopic handle: Check how easy it is to open and close, whether it's adjustable to different heights, and how comfortable it is to grip. Some handles even have extra padding for comfort. It may not seem like a big deal when the luggage is empty as you shop, but having a comfortable and sturdy handle makes a big difference once the case is filled with heavy contents. Also be sure to use care when opening and closing the handle; constant jerking can lead to damage over time.
- Side handles: If you're going to be lifting and lowering the luggage from high surfaces, make sure there are top and side handles that are easy to grip.
- Compartments: Consider whether you prefer a large open space that can hold a big load or smaller compartments that help keep you organized. Carry-on interiors can vary greatly between different models and there are plenty of options to choose from depending on your needs. You can also opt for one with exterior pockets if you need easy access to essentials when you're traveling.
- Zippers: This may not be top of mind when you shop, but it's important to consider both water resistance and how easy they are to open and close. Some zippers can be very finicky, so make sure to check before you commit to using it. And if you have water on hand, try placing a drop on the zipper to see if it seeps through or beads up.
- Weight: A lightweight carry-on case should weigh under eight pounds when empty.
- Charging capabilities: Some styles come with USB ports where you can add a battery to charge devices on the go, and some even come with a battery included. Just make sure the battery meets FAA and TSA regulations.
- Return policy: Before you buy, check if there's an any-reason return option or a trial period so you can get a refund if you're worried about the purchase commitment, especially when shopping online.
Our textile pros spend months reviewing luggage using standardized test methods and state-of-the-art lab equipment, then set up an obstacle course for users to try them out. Here's how we rate the luggage in our evaluations:
- Size and weight: Each piece of luggage is weighed when empty because we've found the online specs aren't always accurate. We then put the luggage in a 22" x 14"x 9" area to see if it complies with these dimension restrictions.
- Packing capabilities: Our analysts pack each piece of luggage using a standard load with real items like clothing, shoes, toiletries and more. In this process we rate the ease of opening and closing the zippers, ease of accessing the compartments, and how much of our load actually fits inside. We also make note of the important specifications, like the wheels, telescopic handle and any extra features. When the bag is fully packed, we practice rolling it over different surfaces and lifting it on and off countertops to get a feel of the handles.
- Drop durability: Each carry-on is filled with a standard weight and loaded onto our drop tester, which releases the luggage from a three-foot height. The test is repeated in various directions, with damages and imperfections noted and scored throughout.
- Abrasion resistance: Swatches of fabric are cut from softside luggage and loaded into our abrasion machine (see photo), which rubs the fabric over an abrasive material 15,000 times before being graded for signs of wear.
- Scratch resistance: A wire is dragged over the hardside luggage material, then analysts visually assess scuffs and marks left behind.
- Water resistance: The amount of water that seeps through the zippers is measured by weighing absorbent materials before and after it catches the liquid.
- Consumer tests: Each carry-on case is filled with weight to mimic a real load, and a standard course is set up to cover a variety of surfaces and obstacles like going through twists and turns, lifting over curbs, transitioning to different flooring and more. Consumer testers then rate the luggage on factors like ease of using the handles, comfort when pulling, sturdiness, wheel performance and maneuverability, among other subjective aspects to get thorough feedback.