Best Carry-on Luggage

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On this blog and also on the Amateur Traveler podcast, I have consistently been an advocate for traveling with carry-on luggage. It will save you money and luggage fees. It will save you time not waiting for your luggage at baggage claim or filling out forms for lost luggage. Traveling lighter also gives you more options to take local transportation.

When you’re traveling with carry-on luggage, a suitcase with wheels is a brilliant option. On one of my recent trips, the handle on my carry-on wheeled suitcase broke and I had to carry the suitcase through the airport. Nothing will more quickly make you an advocate for the canonization of the inventor of suitcases with wheels.

Level 8 - Vintage 20" Carry-on

Level 8 – Vintage 20″ Carry-on

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Hardshell / Soft-sided Suitcases

As we talk about suitcases, I will be using the term hardshell versus soft-sided. A hard shell sir suitcase is always the same size no matter what you pack in it. The outside of a hardshell suitcase will be a durable plastic or possibly aluminum. Over time the outside of a hard shell suitcase will get various nicks and scratches.

The outside of a soft-sided suitcase will be durable fabric. A soft-sided suitcase is more flexible and you may be able to pack one more thing in it, but sometimes packing that extra sweatshirt in the outside pocket will mean that the bag won’t fit in the overhead bin. Over time the outside of a soft-sided suitcase may get some tares and the corners will tend to get a bit frayed.

If you need to open up a hardshell suitcase you pretty much need to lay it down on the floor and open it up. With a soft-sided suitcase, you may be able to unzip it and stuff and one more thing while you were in the line for security. There’s no right or wrong answer with which type of suitcase is right for you.

What to Look For in a Wheeled Carry-On Suitcase

Not all carry-on suitcases are created equal. Years ago there was a sale on wheeled carry-on suitcases at our local Payless Drug Store. I picked up 4 bags for $19.95 each. I know know that buying a cheap bag is buying me a headache on a trip. We took those bags on trips around the world. They all broke as all wheeled carry-on luggage will eventually do. Suitcases never break in your closet. They break in cargo holds and in airports. They break when they are packed and when you are busy.

Suitcases break in very specific ways and if you know what to look for you can avoid some problems. There are 3 main points of failure for a wheeled carry-on bag: the wheels, the handle, and the latch/zipper.


There are two main types of wheeled bags. Some bags are two-wheeled bags and some are 4 wheeled bags. The wheels in a two-wheeled suitcase are less likely to break. A quality two-wheel bag will have wheels like in-line skates which are one piece of material (usually plastic) and are durable. 

PacSafe wheels

PacSafe wheels

The wheels on a 4-wheel spinner suitcase are one of its more vulnerable components. They will break or will break off. Take a good look at the quality of construction of the wheels. Do these look like they will survive rough handling by airport personnel and taxi drivers? The good news is that replacing a spinner wheel is one of the easiest repairs that can be done to a suitcase and it is usually worth the money to do so. But, if the spinner wheels look like the casters from Ikea and are just held onto the bottom of the suitcase with a couple of rivets, don’t buy it. Look for something more sturdy.

Level 8 - Textured Carry-On 20''

Level 8 – Textured Carry-On 20”

Four-wheel spinner suitcases do have a big advantage over the two-wheeled variety. It is easier to turn them sideways and wheel them down a crowded central aisle of an airplane. You do need to be careful though when you stop on an inclined surface as these bags will tend to roll away. 

Level 8



The thing that makes a roller bag work is that you can pull up the handle so that you don’t have to bend all the way down to your bag. It’s the best feature and the most likely feature of most bags to fail. There are two failure modes for your suitcase handles. The handle may get stuck in the up position in which case you won’t be able to bring it on the airplane and fit in the overhead bin. Or the handle may get stuck down in which case it will work fine on the plane but you may end up carrying it or trying some other awkward way to wheel it through an airport (one suggestion is if you get in that mode is to take off your belt and loop it through the handle of the suitcase to give you a way to control the bag).

My cheap suitcases that I bought at Payless had the handles on the outside of the bag as many first-generation wheeled suitcases did. Never buy a wheeled suitcase where the length of the extendable handle is visible on the outside of the suitcase. The handle on these bags will break more easily.

For all other bags, check the quality of the workmanship and look at what warranty options are available. A warranty will save you replacement costs… but will not save you headaches. Most bags are warenteed against defect, not against wear and tear.


The next likely thing to break on a suitcase is whatever keeps it closed. On some traditional hardshell suitcases, this is just a set of latches, but many newer hardshell suitcases and all soft-sided suitcases will have zippers. On a quality suitcase, you can see that this sipper is more substantial than on a dress. 

If your latches do break, you can close your bag with a luggage strap or a belt to get it home or get it wrapped in plastic at the airport. These components also might be worth replacing at a shop that does luggage repair.

Carry-on Luggage Sizes

What size bag will fit in the overhead bin vary somewhat across airlines but most US domestic airlines and major international airlines will handle a bag that is 21.5″ L x 14″ W x 9″ (See this handy chart of Airline Luggage requirements). The measurements 22″ L x 14″W x 9″ H are often used by luggage manufacturers as the nominal size for a carry-on. That is technically half an inch too large for Air Canada and Air France

Some budget airlines or regional airlines won’t take anything suitcase sized as a carry-on. Always check for your particular flights.


On the baggage claim carousel, almost all bags are black wheeled carry-on bags. Think about this when you buy a suitcase. You might want to get another color other than black. If you do buy a black bag think about tying some identifiable piece of cloth to the handle of the bag to make it easier to spot your bag. Even if you never intend to check your bag… sometimes you will have to.


Even before you pack your first pair of socks, the suitcase you pick will weigh something. All airlines will have a weight limit for checked luggage and most will have a limit for carry-on bags as well (chart of Airline Luggage requirements). The weight of your suitcase counts against those limits. So you are looking for something that is not too heavy but is still durable. The lightest bags will weigh around 7 pounds when empty. Special features like batteries will add additional weight.


Some suitcases have locks but if you are traveling in the USA, there is only one type of lock that you should have and that is a TSA-approved lock. These locks have a key so that the Transportation Security Agency can open your bag for inspection. If you don’t have a TSA-approved lock in the USA, don’t lock your suitcase when you fly.

Away - Carry-On


Suitcases with batteries built into them were first pioneered by Away and some of the newer luggage manufacturers. The idea was that most people can’t imagine trying to travel with a dead cell phone these days. Not only is this device your communicator but it might also be your entertainment on the plane, your navigator, and your boarding pass. Some modern carry-on suitcases have a battery built into the suitcase. You charge this larger battery before your trip and can use it to recharge your devices when you are within a cable length of your bag.

The TSA rules for these bags changed over the last couple of years. Because they have a battery, they cannot be checked luggage. So if you buy one of these bags in 2021, you need to make sure that the battery is removable. If you have to check your bag you will have to remove it and take it with you in the cabin.

Here are 6 different suitcases that I have tried. All of these suitcases were given to me to evaluate by the manufacturer, the opinions are my own. 

Luggage Manufacturer – Level 8

Level 8 is a newer manufacturer based out of New York City. They have been around since 2009. They carry a range of products including carry-on bags, larger bags, and backpacks. All of their suitcases are hardshell cases and all have wheels. Some of their cases are polycarbonate and some are an aluminum-magnesium alloy. 

Some of their bags have extra features like an external laptop pocket. or built-in batteries Each suitcase comes wrapped in a laundry clothes bag the size of the suitcase. 

Save 10% on Level 8 luggage with the code “amateurtraveler10”.

Level 8 packing cubes

Some of their bags also come with a nifty set of packing cubes to keep the inside of your suitcase organized. 


Level 8 Vintage Carry-on 20”

My wife picked the Level 8 Vintage Carry-on 20” as her favorite from the line of Level 8 bags. It has a decidedly feminine styling to it. The design is a throwback to the days of stewardesses and bouffant hairdos in a modern contemporary suitcase. She liked not just the styling but the weight. This suitcase is even lighter than the soft-sided suitcase she had been using.

The interior is fabric lined and is divided into two sections with two mesh zipper dividers. One divider has two smaller pockets. 


  • Style: polycarbonate hardshell
  • 4 spinner wheels
  • TSA approved combination lock
  • Capacity: 38 L
  • Weight: 6.8 lbs
  • Overall dimensions: 14.3”L x 8.6”W x 21.3”H
  • Colors: sea green, deep green, white, steel blue, and black

Level 8 Textured Carry-On 20”

I chose the classic Level 8 Textured Carry-On 20′‘. It is more squared off than the Vintage Carry-on, but that means it, in theory, can hold more things… even if only one more sock. 

The interior of the suitcase is fabric lined and is separated into two large zippered pockets with a could smaller pockets on the one divider.


  • Style: polycarbonate hardshell
  • 4 spinner wheels
  • TSA approved combination lock
  • Interior mesh pocket divider
  • Capacity: 38 L
  • Weight: 7.7 lbs
  • Overall dimensions: 14.6”L x 9.3”W x 21.5”H
  • Colors: gray, black, light blue, pink, green, and navy

Manufacturer – Away

Away made their name as one of the first makers of suitcases with a built-in battery to power your electronics, but not all of their suitcases currently have that feature. Pictured above, you will see one of their first-generation bags (black) with a built-in battery and a more recent suitcase without (gray).

All the Away suitcases are hardshell suitcases. Some of them are polycarbonate, and some of them are aluminum. All of the away bags also come inside their own Away branded laundry bag. It still makes me smile when I take it out of the box.

The Away Carry-On

Away has a variety of suitcases in various styles and sizes, but I still think their carry-on is their signature suitcase. The interior is fully lined and is divided into two main sections, with one zippered divider and one removable divider. There is also a smaller laundry clothes bag that snaps in on one side.


  • Style: polycarbonate hardshell
  • 4 spinner wheels
  • TSA approved combination lock
  • Interior mesh divider
  • Capacity: 39.8L
  • Weight: 8.1 lbs
  • Overall dimensions: 21.7″ x 13.7″ x 9″
  • Colors: back, navy, grayish blue, green, grey, pink

Manufacturer – PacSafe

PacSafe is a manufacturer of luggage as well as other travel products like backpacks, purses, and camera straps. PacSafe products are built with security features like metal mesh anti-slash features. The backpack I carry on the plane is a PacSafe backpack and the purse my wife takes on trips is also PacSafe. PacSafe suitcases are all soft-sided. 

PacSafe – Toursafe Lifestyle 21″

I have been sporting a PacSafe Toursafe Lifestyle 21″ suitcase around the world for a number of years. It worked great before the handle finally broke… they all break eventually. The exterior fabric is durable as are the zippers. The interior has one large section with pockets on both sides of the front flap.

The Toursafe may be discontinued.

  • Style: soft-sided
  • 2 wheel
  • Capacity: 39.8L
  • Weight: 8.16 Lbs
  • Overall dimensions: 14.2 x 9 x 21.7 inches

PacSafe – Venturesafe EXP21 Anti-Theft Wheeled Carry-On

My wife’s go-to bag for years was the Venturesafe EXP21 Anti-Theft Wheeled Carry-On. She does prefer a 4 wheeled bag but likes the flexibility of a soft-sided bag. Like the Toursafe above, this suitcase has one large section with additional pockets on both sides of the front flap. My wife’s bag was blue but it looks like black is the only color available at this time. 

  • Style: soft-sided
  • 2 wheel
  • Capacity: 41.5 L
  • Weight: 7.72 lb 
  • Overall dimensions: 20.1 x 13 x 7.9 in 
  • Colors: back


The tips above will help you choose a good suitcase, whether you buy from one of these 3 manufacturers or not. Choose wisely, pack light and watch out for hitchhikers in your luggage. 

Best Carry-on Luggage 2021 | What to look for in a Carry-on Suitcase #travel #carry-on #packing #suitcase #luggage 

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Chris Christensen

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast. He has been a travel creator since 2005 and has won awards including being named the "Best Independent Travel Journalist" by Travel+Leisure Magazine.

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