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Women on the Road

Best Carry-on Bag for a Woman Who Travels Light

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It had to happen. My beloved Bricks two-wheeler finally gave up its handle. It's temporarily fixed but I travel so much I depend on a good carry-on - so it's time to shop. And upgrade.

For me, traveling light is the key to traveling well.

You can move freely, you’re not stuck checking bags or waiting for the carousel to spit yours out. Nor will you need help to lug around multiple bags or find a trolly to stack them all up.

And your luggage won't get lost! None of that "Sorry, your bag is in Lima, Peru". You'll be grasping it in your tight hands all the way and your eye will be on that overhead compartment. No one will even walk by without earning your suspicious glance.

This makes finding the best carry on bag for a woman incredibly important in this frequent traveler's life.

I can easily live out of a carry-on for 4-6 weeks, more if I have to. Of course this won't work on hiking excursions to remote places but if you're going to a city or a well-traveled destination, do yourself a favor and don't overpack. You can buy almost anything you forget, so choose travel luggage and cabin bags you can bring into the plane with you.

If you want a quick bird's eye view of my best recommendations, keep readingIf you'd first like to know more about how to choose the best cabin luggage and what factors are involved, please click hereAnd if you want in-depth reviews of the top choices, you'll find them here.

Carry-on comparison chart

NOTE: Links will take you to your local Amazon shop in the US CA UK DE IT ES FR. If the item is not available in your shop, you will be redirected to amazon.com.

Name

Image

Weight

Size

Details

Price

9.3 lbs / 4.2 kg

20.2 x 14.2 x 9.5" / 51.3 x 36 x 21.4 cm

Comes in Champagne or chocolate. Made of polycarbonate

$$

6.8 lbs / 3 kg

22.0 x 15.0 x 9.5" / 55.88 x 38.1 x 24.13 cm

Black, orange, blue, pink, red, silver, teal. Polycarbonate

$$

9.7 lbs / 4.39 kg

21.75 x 15.75 x 7.9" / 55.24 x 40 x 20 cm

Black, ballistic nylon.

$$$

7 lbs / 3.17 kg

21.5 x 15.5 x 7.75" / 54.6 x 39.4 x 19.68 cm

Black, ballistic nylon.

$$

5.73 lbs / 2.59 kg

22.8 x 10.24 x 12.5" / 57.9 x 25 x 31.75 cm

Black, distressed brown, reddish brown. Genuine leather.

$$

1.56 lbs / 0.7 kg

18 x 12 x 7.8/ 45.72 x 30.48 x 19.8 cm

Black, navy, grey, red, camo and grey/white mix. Water-resistant polyester

$

2.31 lbs / 1.05 kg

20.1 x 13.4 x 9.8" / 51 x 34 x 24.89 cm

Made of 600D polyester/ PVC and comes in more than a dozen colors.

$

4.38 lbs / 1.98 kg

21 x 14 x 9" / 53.34 x 35.56 x 22.86 cm

Comes in olive and rainforest green. Made of 210-denier ripstop nylon/600-denier packcloth

$$

How to choose the best hand luggage for your travels

Consider these factors.

The airline
If you’re flying economy on a budget airline, you may only be allowed one personal item - anything beyond that and you'll have to pay.

Airlines are becoming ever stricter about the size of those carry-ons and won't hesitate to force you to put it in the hold - at a price - if you didn't read the dimensions on the airline’s website.

Some airlines also restrict weight as well as size, so ideally you'll want a lightweight carry-on suitcase. And finally, some airlines offer different tiers of economy, each with their own baggage allowances. Complicated!

Type of trip
Are you traveling for business? Or on holiday? Is this a luxury cruise or a casual urban affair? I’d love to say there’s one bag for every type of trip, but each travel genre has different needs. For example you may want sleek leather personalized luggage with a padded laptop sleeve for business in Dubai, and a colorful wheelie for a tropical vacation.

Length of trip
For a weekend away, you may get away with a small hand luggage backpack that could almost pass as your personal item, but if you’re going for a few weeks, you’ll probably want something that tests the limits of carry-on size.

Destination
You’ll also need to consider where you're headed. It’s a lot easier to pick a bag that will go from airport to taxi to hotel room than one that needs to be packed and repacked each every night for two weeks, dragged across medieval cobblestones or hoisted onto buses.  Headed somewhere remote? A well-fitted backpack will make dirt roads a breeze.

Your health/strength/stamina
You may have chosen to travel with a backpack - great for maneuvering stairs and crowded buses - but they can be heavy once packed. If you're traveling solo, do yourself a favor and choose a lightweight cabin bag you can lift on your own (or be prepared to rely on the kindness of strangers again and again).

Weather
Where and when do you usually travel? The tropics? Northern latitudes in winter? Each trip is different but if you happen to have a pattern to your travels, consider it when choosing your bag. Backpacks with removable raincovers or hard case cabinluggage made of plastic are much better in rainy conditions. Snow on the horizon? Consider what it’s like to roll a bag over snow banks and ice (not fun).

Security
One can never be too careful when securing items during travel. Pickpockets are plentiful in nearly every urban environment, and you don’t want to lose your passport and all your cash. Finding weekend luggage with slash proof material, locking zippers and RFID-blocking technology can give you peace of mind.

Cost
You can get a decent bag without spending a fortune, but there are also luxury brands like Tumi and Rimowa that make pricey bags out of amazingly durable fabric with lifetime guarantees. It's not hard to find affordable carry on luggage, but if you want to spend more, you can.

Style
Sleek? Bold? Rugged? Muted? Get a bag that matches you. This is entirely up to you, but just because you're enamored of fluorescent fuschia for your upcoming summer holiday doesn't mean you'll want to cart that bag away under the eyes of your business colleagues.

Image

Weight

9.3 lbs / 4.2 kg

Size

20.2 x 14.2 x 9.5" / 51.3 x 36 x 21.4 cm

Details

Comes in Champagne or chocolate. Made of polycarbonate

Price

$$


Image

Weight

6.8 lbs / 3 kg

Size

22.0 x 15.0 x 9.5” / 55.88 x 38.1 x 24.13 cm

Details

Black, orange, blue, pink, red, silver, teal. Polycarbonate

Price

$$


Image

Weight

9.7 lbs / 4.39 kg

Size

21.75 x 15.75 x 7.9" / 55.24 x 40 x 20 cm

Details

Black, ballistic nylon.

Price

$$$


Image

Weight

7 lbs / 3.17 kg

Size

21.5 x 15.5 x 7.75" / 54.6 x 39.4 x 19.68 cm

Details

Black, ballistic nylon.

Price

$$


Image

Weight

5.73 lbs / 2.59 kg

Size

22.8 x 10.24 x 12.5” / 57.9 x 25 x 31.75 cm

Details

Black, distressed brown, reddish brown. Genuine leather.

Price

$$


Image

Weight

1.56 lbs / 0.7 kg

Size

18 x 12 x 7.8” / 45.72 x 30.48 x 19.8 cm

Details

Black, navy, grey, red, camo and grey/white mix. Water-resistant polyester

Price

$


Image

Weight

2.31 lbs / 1.05 kg

Size

20.1 x 13.4 x 9.8” / 51 x 34 x 24.89 cm

Details

Made of 600D polyester/ PVC and comes in more than a dozen colors.

Price

$


Image

Weight

4.38 lbs / 1.98 kg

Size

21 x 14 x 9" / 53.34 x 35.56 x 22.86 cm

Details

Comes in olive and rainforest green. Made of 210-denier ripstop nylon/600-denier packcloth

Price

$$

Hand luggage with wheels or without?

Like it or not, when choosing travel luggage and cabin bags, one of your first considerations will be whether to go with rolling luggage. The answer may seem obvious, but there are reasons for and against.

Arguments in favor of getting wheels

  • If you have a bad back, a carry-on luggage backpack is only going to exacerbate the problem even if you pick one with an amazing suspension system - so wheels it is.
  • So much more manoeuvrable! Airports are vast, and if you’re running to catch a connecting flight you may like sprinting unencumbered by a pack or a suitcase with no wheels.
  • You'll be able to get a larger and heavier bag, since you can wheel it around rather than carry it.
  • If you’re a business or luxury traveller, you'll want something sleek and stylish, perhaps a designer ladies cabin bag or luxury luggage that is as sturdy and practical as it is beautiful. Since these may not be the lightest, wheels would be helpful.

Arguments against wheels

  • Even the flimsiest wheeled cabin luggage will be heavier than a backpack, adding extra weight when you lift it into the overhead bin or tipping the scales and forcing you to pay overweight charges.
  • Additionally, wheels cut into your external hand baggage allowance size. You may lose an inch or two to the wheels - and if you’re only packing in a carry-on (something I highly recommend), every inch counts. 
  • Cobblestone streets. Stairs. Crowds. All enemies of wheelie bags, everywhere!
  • Few small wheeled cabin bags  are designed for rough terrain, forcing you to pick the bag up by the side handle (and if you purchased it to alleviate back problems, you’d probably be better off with a well-made backpack). Plus, the wheels make noise on uneven ground - just try sneaking out of a Tuscan village at dawn without making any noise. And then there's that  quaint B&B in Scotland with three flights of narrow stairs and no elevators. In a crowd, pulling a suitcase behind you may result in tripping fellow travellers and locals.
  • Wheels break, usually as you're running to catch a tight connecting flight. Ask me about the time I squeaked through Zurich airport and had to spend over $200 buying a roller I didn’t want and shifting the entire contents of my bag on the floor of the shop….
  • Many airlines take away your carry-on at boarding, if the plane is full. There's a consensus out there that wheelies are the first to be chosen...

Whatever the reasons, in the end, the Great Wheel Debate comes down to personal preference. You like them, or you hate 'em. 

Two wheels or four? Which makes the best wheeled luggage?

If you do like wheels, your next hurdle is deciding how many wheels you’d like: the standard 2-wheel cabin luggage you’re probably accustomed to, or the more modern 4-wheel carry on suitcases, also known as “spinners.”

Spinners have become incredibly popular because they’re comfortable to move, stand upright without any help, and you can easily pile baggage on top of a larger spinner (such as your handbag or personal item) without fear of it tipping. Plus, 4-wheel hand luggage suitcases can negotiate narrow corners with ease (keeping you out everyone's way in crowds). Most are hard-sided, which helps protect against rain and rough handling. They’re also “in” right now, so if you care about looking up-to-date, then a spinner is a good pick.

So why would you ever want standard two wheel carry-on luggage?

Well, more wheels mean more chances of one breaking. Plus, if you’re on a slight incline and let go of your bag, your spinner carry on luggage may start...spinning...away from you. Because two-wheeled baggage has been the norm for decades, even the most popular luggage brands still offer great two-wheelers. I just spent a month in Eastern Europe with a two-wheeled bag, and although the telescopic handle just broke (unrelated to the number of wheels), it served me well on the journey and could have continued doing so for years.

Hard or soft carry-on luggage?

Now that you’ve decided on how many wheels you’d like on your cabin baggage suitcase, it’s time to decide on which material you prefer. Here are some of the most popular.

Soft luggage can come in all kinds of fabric, from classics like leather and canvas to “newer” fabrics, like ballistic nylon (originally designed for military use to protect against stray shrapnel), cordura (an incredibly tough nylon fabric designed for outdoor/military use), and various polyester combinations in different weights. If durability is important to you (and it should be), make sure your small hand luggage suitcase or messenger bag is made from a tough fabric that can withstand the abuse of prolonged travel. The popular and pricey brand, Tumi (see the review below), uses ballistic nylon for their soft-sided bags.

Plastic has rapidly replaced the hard cardboard and wood of suitcases of the past. When it first made an appearance, the new hard case hand luggage was known for cracking and scratching, but materials technology has since improved. One version is ABS, a cheap and heavy material that is not as durable as its even newer and improved cousin, polycarbonate. Polycarbonate makes the best wheeled carry on luggage: it will cost you more initially, but its flexibility helps resist the dings and cracks of impact,

I recommend choosing a polycarbonate bag, even if it has a higher price tag. You could consider compromising on a blended bag (part polycarbonate, part ABS), but I wouldn't waste my money on a 100% ABS bag.

You also have the choice of aluminium bags, which are the heaviest of the hard-sided bags and which for this reason I'm not featuring here. You may feel differently...

Here are some advantages and disadvantages of these hard-sided suitcases.

Pros of using hard cases

  • As a rule, hard-sided cabin suitcases help protect their contents from rough baggage handlers. If you’re bringing home a fragile treasure or travelling with a lot of expensive electronics, you may like that feature.
  • It’s very easy to over-stuff a soft-sided bag so that it no longer fits the carry-on dimensions. A hard-shell bag, on the other hand, doesn’t change shape: if it fits in the box, it’ll still fit in the box after it’s stuffed (just look for lightweight cabin luggage if your airline of choice has weight restrictions).
  • The plastic sides are better for keeping out rain or snow. Few bags promise to be weather-tight, but the sheer fact that rain isn’t falling directly onto fabric makes a hard-sided bag more water-resistant than just about any fabric bag, with the exception of some hiking backpacks.
  • Additionally, it’s much easier to wipe down a muddy hard plastic suitcase than it is to find a washing machine for your duffel or backpack. If you do get caught on dusty streets or in inclement weather, it’ll be easier to clean your luggage.

Disadvantages of hard cases

  • You don’t get any easily-accessible pockets, which are typically a “must” in a carry-on bag. While hard-sided pieces are great to check, they’re less convenient when you need to dig out your laptop and toiletries for security. If you can fit those things into your personal item, then a hard-sided bag would still be a good choice.
  • While it’s not always true anymore with the invention of lighter and yet sturdier plastic materials, hard-sided luggage is often heavier than its soft-shelled counterparts. Truly lightweight travel luggage is usually soft-sided.
  • One size. You can’t really “squish” a hard-sided bag into a tight spot, and depending on the airline, that may mean your bag doesn’t fit in the overhead bin.
  • Dents, dings and scratches are far more visible with hard-shell carry-ons. If you bought the bag because it was sleek and shiny, you’ll be disappointed after it gets beat up by travels. Again, polycarbonate is designed to withstand a lot of that, but it’s not scratch-proof.

In-depth reviews of my 8 top cabin luggage choices

Best international carry on luggage with wheels

Review: Delsey Luggage Chatelet Hard+ 21 Inch Carry on 4 Wheel Spinner

For those who long for the good old days of vintage suitcases, this modern rolling carry on luggage will take you back a ways. The bag, made from textured 100% polycarbonate, comes in either chocolate or champagne colors with faux leather accents that look the part.

If you’ve ever taken a rolling bag on the subway, you might appreciate the brake system that allows you to lock the front two wheels. Annoyed by the sound of rattling wheels? This “double spinner” (a caster on each corner of the bag with two wheels, for eight wheels total) has super quiet wheels that won’t make a ruckus in the airport - although cobblestone streets might be another story.  

The recessed TSA-approved lock means you can keep your contents safe without losing a lock to security staff. Each half of the bag has its own compression straps and zip-over liners to keep everything in place. You even get a hanger for those nicer items you don’t want to wrinkle.

Unfortunately, at 9.3 lbs EMPTY, this is a heavy bag - a backpack of the same size would save you nearly 5 pounds! And keep in mind that the champagne color is susceptible to dirt and grime, so if you’re buying the bag for the looks, make sure you don't have to check it. The 21-inch bag is just a bit over 22 inches, wheels included, and should fit in most overhead bins, making it a cabin approved luggage size.

If you use compression or packing cubes, you can store a surprising amount of stuff in this carry-on, and since it doesn’t expand, you can’t make the bag “too big” (too heavy, on the other hand, is entirely plausible).

Pros
Stylish
Perfect carry-on size
Internal compression straps
Zippered compartments
Collapsible hanger included
Locking wheels
Silent double-spinner wheels
100% polycarbonate
Integrated TSA-approved lock
Two stylish color choices
Beautiful vintage design

Cons
Very heavy
Champagne color attracts dirt

Review: Samsonite Omni PC Hardside Spinner 20, Caribbean Blue

Samsonite hand luggage already has a reputation for being reasonably priced and durable, and this 20-inch hard sided bag is no exception.

Typical of Samsonite, the case is resistant to scratches because of its micro-diamond textured polycarbonate, and it comes in a number of rich colors. Do try one of them - I heartily discourage purchasing black luggage because it’s too easy to lose - the deep teal looks like a wonderful choice for hiding dirt and still standing out in a mass of bags.

The integrated TSA-approved lock is a nice bonus, and if you need the extra space because you purchased too many souvenirs, the bag is a good example of expandable carry on luggage. Just be warned that the expansion may prohibit the bag from qualifying as a carry-on. Because of the carry-on dimensions, you should be able to put it in the overhead compartment without trouble, but there’s no side or top handle (other than the telescoping one), which makes lifting it over your head a bit more difficult. 

This carryon rolls on four 360 wheels. When you open it, you’ll find one side has a full zipper interior and the other side has compression straps to keep your things in place. It weighs 6.8 lbs, which is fairly normal for hard-sided luggage. Unfortunately some users have complained the wheels don't hold up over time, a frequent complaint with many rolling bags.

All around, this is a sturdy bag that will traverse the airport with ease, making it some of the best 4 wheel carry on luggage you can buy.

Pros
Scratch-resistant
Perfect carry-on size
Internal compression straps
Zippered compartments
Great color choices
100% polycarbonate
Integrated TSA-approved lock
Expandable
Reasonable weight

Cons
Complaints about wheel durability
No side or top handle

ReviewTumi Alpha 2 International 4 Wheel Slim Carry-On

There’s nothing worse than buying a bag and having it fit on countless US airlines, only to discover your discount Ryanair flight overseas will charge you $100 for the same bag because it’s too big. You should always check the requirements with the airport, but this Tumi international carry on luggage is designed to fit European planes and their strict policies.

For those who aren’t interested in polycarbonate bags, this soft carry on luggage still features four easily-maneuverable spinner wheels. I love that the telescoping handle on this one stops at three different heights so it feels right whatever your height or circumstances.

If you happen to need business carry on luggage, the Tumi features a removable suiter for your work clothes (or if you simply prefer unwrinkled clothing!) The compression straps inside are wide and mesh, so unlike thinner straps, they really hold your clothing and items in place.

The interior is well-organized with side pockets for small items like scarves, nylons and underwear. You also get two exterior pockets (one deep, one shallower) for smaller items like toiletries and your boarding pass and passport. There’s no specific laptop sleeve, though, so you’ll likely need to tuck that into your personal item or purse.

Besides the telescoping handle, you’ll also find a handle on the top and bottom of the bag to make it easier to fit into the overhead compartment. The entire bag is crafted from Tumi’s signature ballistic nylon, and there are rubber bumper guards on the four corners to help the bag take a beating. The biggest drawback? It only comes in black, which is the color of everyone else’s suitcase. I've loved the Tumi line for years but... the price.

Pros
Removable suiter for business clothing
Perfect carry-on size
Wide mesh compression straps
Zippered compartments (external and internal)
Designated boarding pass and passport pockets
Telescoping handle stops at three heights
Stylish
Luggage tag included
✔ Two exterior handles
✔ Ballistic nylon
Covered under TUMI warranty

Cons
Expensive
Only comes in black

ReviewTravelpro Crew 11 20" International Rollaboard Carry-on with USB port

Travelpro is the brand of choice for many US-based cabin crews, and they make some of the best cabin luggage at reasonable prices. While they have a number of 4-wheel options, if you're still keen on 2 wheel cabin luggage, this international rollaboard has big sturdy wheels to make gliding over cobblestone much easier.

The exterior is ballistic nylon with a Duraguard coating that helps water bead right off of the bag and keeps stains and scratches at bay. This 2-wheel carry on luggage  has an amazing warranty: Travelpro will cover airline carrier damage for the life of the bag so long as you register it.

There’s a side and top handle to help with the overhead bin, and the handy USB port allows you to charge your phone no matter where you are. The telescoping handle stops at three heights so even the shortest or tallest of us can comfortably roll it.

Inside the bag you’ll find one zippered compartment and a second one with stretchy straps to hold down clothing. There’s a sleeve for a 15-inch laptop, as well as external pockets into which you can tuck travel documents, toiletries and chargers. Unfortunately, yes, it only comes in black.

Pros
Zippered compartments (external and internal)
Telescoping handle stops at three heights
Stylish
✔ Ballistic nylon
Duraguard coating resists water
✔ USB charging port
✔ Warranty covers airline damage
✔ Laptop sleeve

Cons
May be too wide for some airlines
Only comes in black

The satchel/messenger bag: lightest carry on luggage

If you’ve decided against wheels, there are plenty of other choices for bag styles -  a satchel or messenger bag, a duffel or even a backpack.

A satchel or messenger bag typically has a long strap that goes over one shoulder and across your chest. These are for ultralight packers who could just about pack for their entire weekend trip in a personal item. I recently tried out a wonderful messenger bag called the Timbuk2 Classic on my Eastern European trip and I've reviewed it on my travel handbags page.

If you’re looking for weekend luggage in classy leather, you’ll find a number of satchel-style bags. Canvas is another popular messenger bag fabric if you’re going for a more casual look.

The biggest downside of this type of women’s carry on luggage is the weight factor. Even if you switch the bag from shoulder to shoulder, you may end up with a sore neck.

Consider instead the possibility of taking a backpack - I've looked at a number of these below.

Duffels and totes: airline cabin bags

Duffels and totes are the grown up versions of messenger bags. Typically much larger than their purse-sized counterparts, you can fit a carry-on-amount of stuff into a duffel. They often feature an over-the-shoulder strap as well as smaller side handles, and while some can be large enough to need to be checked, several models won’t exceed your cabin baggage allowance. 

While I often think of gym bag when I hear the word “duffel,” they do come in all kinds of colors, patterns and fabrics. Once again, though, they can be a pain to travel with, putting tons of weight on your travel-worn shoulders. I can’t think of a time when a backpack with a good hip belt wouldn’t work just as well (and spare your shoulders), but in case you're sold on a duffel, here's one that's highly rated.

ReviewPolare 23'' Duffle Full Grain Leather Weekender Travel Duffel

Even if I wouldn’t travel with a duffel myself, I must admit this bag is beautiful and looks the part for a business or glamorous trip. Get it in sleek black, a distressed dark brown, or a shiny rust, all in leather. There’s a dedicated pocket for laptops up to 15.6 inches, an adjustable slightly-padded shoulder strap for crossbody-carry, and two handles for holding it by your side. It even has a luggage tag, just in case you wanted one.

If you were looking for lightweight carry on luggage, though, this sturdy bag simply isn’t it; owners say it’s pretty heavy, but that it speaks to the bag’s durability and quality. The main compartment is roomy, with plenty of space for packing cubes and toiletries. It has no exterior pockets, however, which may be an inconvenience depending on how you like to pack. There’s a zippered pocket inside, as well as some pen pockets.

What this will get you are compliments on your vintage leather airline cabin baggage. It looks more expensive than it is.

Pros
Gorgeous
Large laptop pocket
Adjustable strap
Padded shoulder strap
Additional top handles
Genuine leather
Roomy interior pocket
Luggage tag included

Cons
No exterior pockets
Heavy
No anti-theft features

Hand luggage backpacks for any trip

If you’re going to go sans-wheels (which I rarely do these days), then I'd opt for a travel backpack. Two shoulder straps distribute the weight evenly, and if you choose a bag that doubles for hiking, it should have a hip belt and sternum strap to help shift weight from your neck to your hips.

I have an entire page on choosing the best backpacks for travel, but most are designed for long hikes or rural trips, and only a couple will fit as a carry on. Here I chose some bags that could do double duty, or are well-designed for an urban excursion.

ReviewMATEIN Business Travel Backpack

This one's for the techie, the business traveler or anyone looking for a sleek and understated backpack with lots of organizational features. You get three distinct pockets that open almost all the way to make it easy to reach whatever’s hiding in the bottom.

The largest compartment has a padded sleeve for laptops up to 15.6 inches, plus a smaller sleeve for a tablet and room for clothes. In the middle you get a mesh pocket for smaller items, and the front pocket is great for cords, pens and your phone (there are more small pockets to keep those organized). You also get two mesh exterior pockets for an umbrella or water bottle.

I especially love that this is IT cabin baggage with an external USB port so you can charge your phone anywhere without needing to sit on the airport floor near an outlet (keep in mind you’ll need to buy the external battery separately).

If for some reason you’re also bringing hand luggage with wheels, this bag has a luggage strap so you can securely fasten it to the handle of your carry-on.

The only anti-theft feature is a pocket on the back of the bag (against your back) where you could keep your phone or passport away from grabby hands, and zippers on the main compartment that can be locked. I wish it had a hip belt, but the shoulder straps and back panel have plenty of padding to help ease the load on your shoulders.

Because of the bag’s size, you could even pass it off as a personal item and bring another bag as your actual carry-on (or just pack light and fit everything in here). The inexpensive price tag makes it a steal.

Pros
Inexpensive
Great organizational pockets
Padded shoulder straps and back panel
USB charging port
Luggage strap for securing to other bags
Lightweight
Locking zippers
Water-resistant fabric (not designed for downpours)

Cons
No hip belt
Limited anti-theft features
Smaller than most carry-ons

ReviewHynes Eagle Travel Backpack 40L

If you’re looking to take advantage of every bit of your cabin baggage allowance, this Hynes Eagle backpack is designed as a cabin-approved luggage size and can fit 40L of stuff, which is more than enough for most trips.

If you get stuck checking it at the gate, you’ll love the zip-up shoulder straps so nothing gets damaged by baggage handlers (plus you can carry it by the top or side handle instead).

You can also buy this in a number of colors and patterns in case black and grey are too plain for you. The middle pocket has a padded sleeve for your 15.6 inch laptop and a separate one for your tablet, while the main compartment can fit plenty of packing cubes and has a large mesh pocket for underwear. There’s also a smaller front pocket for your phone, toiletries quart-size bag, or other smaller items.

Exterior compression straps help keep everything in place, and the zippered beverage pocket is ideal for that summer water bottle. At 2.31 lbs it’s not the lightest luggage you can purchase, but it’s incredibly roomy - just be careful not to overfill it or it may be too large to count as a carry-on. Check the dimensions of the bag with a ruler after packing it, and if anything is bulging, you may have to leave some items behind. You do get a sternum strap, but no hip belt to help shift weight, making this a good bag for the airport and urban travel, but not great for any hiking.

Pros
40L capacity
Perfect carry-on size
Large laptop sleeve
Exterior compression straps
Sternum straps
Padded shoulder straps
Straps can be zipped up for transit
Top and side handles
Many color choices
Decent organizational pockets
Locking zippers

Cons
No hip belt
Limited anti-theft features
Easily overpacked if you're not careful

ReviewOsprey Fairview 40L Travel Backpack

Here’s the backpack for the traveler who will be moving in and out of city hostels and taking day hikes or biking out of town. While it won’t look out of place in an airport or on the bus, it also won’t raise eyebrows on a moderate trail.

The padded shoulder straps and back panel, along with the generous hip belt (designed specifically for women’s hips), reasonably distribute weight in a way the other two backpacks on this list cannot.

Your only color choices are an olive green and rainforest teal, but neither stand out too much. Like the Hynes backpack above, you can stow the shoulder straps and hip belt behind a zippered flap and use the bag like a cabin suitcase or duffel (this is important because those straps can get caught in doors, conveyor belts, transport vehicles, or be ripped off by airport machinery).

I love that this bag opens like a suitcase to allow easy access to the main compartment, and the lockable zippers mean you can keep your belongings safe. Inside the middle pocket you’ll find a padded laptop sleeve, and the small front pocket is great for a snack, headphones or other small items you'll need during your flight. There are two external mesh pockets, theoretically designed for water bottles. But you’ll struggle to fit anything into them if the pack is on the fuller side.

Front compression straps help you to keep the bag trim, and there are two more sets of compression straps in the main compartment to keep contents from shifting out of place. It comes in two sizes to accommodate different torso heights: the XS/S and the S/M. Like with most soft airline cabin bags, you can certainly overpack this so it doesn’t meet carry-on standards either in size or weight (and watch out, some airlines DO weigh your carry-ons: looking at you, Norwegian Air), so be cautious about how much you fill it.

Pros
40L capacity
Useful on the trail and in the city
External and internal compression straps
Sternum straps
Straps can be zipped up for transit
Padded shoulder straps
Padded hip-belt
Integrated TSA-approved lock
Expandable
Reasonable weight
Top and side handles
Lockable zippers
Large laptop sleeve

Cons
Mesh pockets useless when bag is full
Limited color choices
Can be easily overpacked if you're not careful

Carry-on packing tips

It's all very well to have the perfectly exquisite carry-on bag, but how are you going to get that mountain of clothes and gear into it?

This is by no means exhaustive, but these ideas that might help you pack more than you thought.

  • Choose the right bag (but isn't that what we've been doing all this time?) I mean choose the right-sized bag, the one that fulfils the airline's upper limit. Don't give them an inch! If you're allowed an extra personal item, like a purse or computer bag, check that size too - and bring along the biggest one you can get away with. Use it for your heaviest gear because (usually) it won't count towards your weight limit.
  • Compartmentalize. Pack like with like, underwear with underwear. I use packing cubes or compression bags, depending on the weight restrictions of my particular airline that day. But you can use Ziplock bags just as easily (and more cheaply).
  • If you don't want to use cubes, at least roll up your clothes. It will help with wrinkling, but also takes up less space (because rolling = compression).
  • Fill the gaps. There are usually plenty of those - in your bag's corners, inside your shoes, between the internal frame. Be creative.
  • Wear your biggest, bulkiest and heaviest clothes on the plane. Hiking boots? Check! Jacket? Check! Remember, you don't have to keep them ON for the entire journey, just the getting on and off. Carry a pair of Nufoot ballet flats (or other foldable ballerinas) in your pocket.
  • Stuff your pockets. That's right. You have no idea how much stuff you can put in those pockets, and I have yet to see someone being forced to check their Scottevest (I love love love mine and haven't traveled without it in ages).
  • Everything must match. I'm serious. With those weight and size limitations, you can't afford to bring along your beloved red polka-dot dress unless you can wear a dozen different ways with the rest of what you've packed.
  • Accesorize. I was recently on a month-long work trip and took carryon luggage only. My basic pants and tops all matched, but most important, I looked different every day: scarves, wraps, funky jewelry - anything that draws attention from those grey and black tops and bottoms.

And finally - but you know this - don't forget to check your airline for size specs!