Best Carry-On Bag For A Woman Who Travels Light

It had to happen. My beloved Bricks two-wheeler finally gave up its handle. It’s temporarily fixed but now, I’m on the prowl for the best carry-on bag for a woman.

Me in Venice, using my best carry-on bag for a woman
Me, before my carryon gave up the ghost…

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 reading. If you’d first like to know more about how to choose the best cabin luggage and what factors are involved, please click here. And if you want in-depth reviews of the top choices, you’ll find them here.

Best carry-on bag for a woman: Comparison chart

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.

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

You’ll have to decide whether you want wheels or not on your luggage (you’ll find some good arguments over on my wheeled luggage page) but you should be aware that not all wheeled bags are made the same: you’ll have to choose between two wheels (roller) or four (spinner), and this is actually a crucial choice. 

The pros and cons of a rolling case

Let’s look at the benefits of a small roller suitcase with two wheels:

  • It may have more inside space, as the wheels are tucked into the design. 
  • It may also be easier to control than a spinner. 
  • The wheels on a small roller bag are usually more sturdy as there’s less movement. 
  • They also tend to be fitted more closely, reducing stress on them.

Having only two wheels also means there’s less of a chance of losing or breaking a wheel – fewer wheels mean fewer chances of breakage.

The pros and cons of a spinner case

By contrast, a spinner gives you a smoother ride.

  • It allows you to move around the airport terminal smoothly, as four multi-directional wheels improve manoeuvrability. This means you need to pull it less, reducing muscle and joint strain. 
  • It stands up easily on its own.
  • Going around corners with a spinner is easier – fewer chances to trip anyone up.
  • That said, spinner luggage may be less sturdy and more likely to suffer damage, since the wheels move in different directions. 
  • A spinner will be more wobbly on an uneven surface.
  • On a hill, it will also tend to “spin” away downhill…
  • Also, a spinner’s wheels will count as part of its dimensions.

So which small travel suitcase with wheels is best? Roller or spinner?

In a nutshell, small rolling bags are not quite as easy to manoeuvre as spinner cases, but they are easier to control. You can rely on them to roll over all sorts of surfaces, but there is more risk of resulting stress to your joints and muscles when using this type. I can vouch for this on uneven pavement or cobblestones. A spinner on these surfaces is almost impossible to move along.

Think about the type of trips you take. If you mostly travel for business or city breaks, you’ll spend time in airports and a spinner will be great on those smooth shiny floors.

If you’re taking longer trips to different destinations, then a roller will be sturdier and last longer.

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

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.

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.

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 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.
  • Accessorize. 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!

Readers’ recommendations

I have a fabulous soft, wheeled Samsonite cabin bag – very light and loads of space. I once did a 3-week business trip around Egypt and Jordan with it – everyone else had huge bags! But I had the last laugh as mine never got lost … — Caroline H.

Because of major back issues (plus I’m 70 and tired of heavy luggage!) my orthopedic doctor recommended Rimowa Salsa Air: it’s light and has 4 wheels. — Fran M.R.

I’d go for the TravelPro softside, quite spacious and lightweight. — Rosemary N.

I’ve got an Antler soft carry-on. The reason I like it is because the zip opens around the top so it’s easy to find stuff in it – two zips at the front for my laptop, books, tickets and the like. Very handy! — Rhonda P.

— Originally published on 25 July 2018

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