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You’d think testing and reviewing travel bags is easy, right? Well, it might be if you do it in a mammoth, expertly appointed industrial space outside the city or a fancy testing lab overlooking 5th Avenue. For us mortals, though – who do it the old-fashioned way, like packing them in a pinch and rushing to the airport, dragging them through the unapologetic cobblestones of Europe under the scorching sun, all while trying to find that perfect light, background, and angle to photograph them under the disapproving stares of passersby – things rarely go smoothly and hardly ever go as planned. But, you see, that’s the adventure of it all. We do this, so you don’t have to. And, we kinda like it.
This past year, for instance, we’ve been busy testing our way through a mountain of old and new suitcases, backpacks, and duffels, trying to find the best carry-on luggage to buy for 2023. After evaluating over 30 pieces based on a combination of style, performance, and functionality, here are the 6 that made the cut.
Monos Carry-On Pro
- Best for: City breaks, weekend trips, business travel, frequent flyers, those traveling with a laptop
- Best feature: The front pocket
- Dimensions: 22″ × 14″ × 9″ (55.8 x 35.5 x 22.8 cm)
- Material: Aerospace-grade German polycarbonate
- Weight: 7.8 lb (3.53 kg)
- Volume: 36 L
- The best deal right now: Up to 25% off with code BIRTHDAY
The Monos Carry-On Pro is one of the best cabin suitcases we’ve tried. I’ve taken it with me on pretty much every trip since I’ve had it, either as my sole carrier for short city breaks throughout Europe or as an added carry-on bag on longer vacations. It has become a permanent fixture on my travels and the one that I always compare other bags in the same category to. And speaking of comparison, apparently, Monos vs Away is a thing.
In my experience using both brands for years, Vancouver-based luggage manufacturer Monos is far superior in nearly all departments. While their hardshell polycarbonate suitcases – in this case, the pocketed carry-ons – share many similar features, the Monos Carry-On Pro rolls smoother, feels sturdier, looks sleeker, and offers smarter storage than its competitor.
My favorite feature is the built-in front compartment, which, unlike that of its competitors, is made from the same durable polycarbonate as the rest of the bag’s exterior and comes in very handy for protecting, organizing, and quickly accessing my laptop, phone, and documents on the go.
The suitcase’s build quality is beautiful, as is the simple, minimalist aesthetic, and the 360° Hinomoto wheels perform like a dream on a variety of surfaces. The interior is one of the best I’ve ever packed my clothes in, featuring various compartments and extra anti-microbial bags for organizing all my stuff, plus an effective compression system that allowed me to fit four days’ worth of summer essentials easily.
I have the Carry-On Pro in matte white and not only are scuffs less noticeable than on darker colorways, but the bag looks great, pairs with most outfits, and is easy to clean (most marks will miraculously come off with the provided eraser).
I find Monos’ attention to detail a notch or two above the competition – the YKK zippers are color coordinated to match the bag’s exterior; the interior is wrapped in a luxurious, waterproof fabric that’s also anti-microbial, and the telescopic handle is constructed from high-grade aluminum and features an underneath release button for a more ergonomic experience. While these small details may not seem like a big deal, for me, they do make every trip feel like first class.
- Thoughtful internal organization
- Great heavy-duty handle
- Chic, minimalist look
- Top-quality materials throughout
- Will not fit in all overhead bins
- According to several internet reviews, darker shades are more likely to show scuffs
Peak Design Travel Backpack 30L
- Best for: One-bag travel, flying with your camera gear
- Best feature: The well-thought-out design
- Dimensions: Standard: 20.9″ × 13.4″ × 7″ (53 × 34 × 18 cm) | Expanded: 20.9″ × 13.4″ × 7.9″ (53 × 34 × 20 cm)
- Material: Weatherproof 100% recycled nylon canvas
- Weight: 3.17 lb (1.44 kg)
- Volume: 27 L Standard | 33 L Expanded
As much as I love wheeled carry-ons, there are times when bringing them along just isn’t a good idea. Take our last trip to Lisbon for example – because our accommodation was right in the heart of the Alfama, and parking in the area is quite tricky, we had to walk with our luggage up several hills covered in uneven cobblestones. For these occasions and many others, nothing beats using a backpack as a carry-on.
My go-to pick is currently the Peak Design Travel Backpack 30L, a scaled-down version of their iconic 45L Travel Backpack which we have used for a few years now and still love (although it’s quite big and heavy for smaller body sizes). This one, on the other side, is the perfect size to fit everything I need for a 3-day trip without having to check any luggage. More than that, it’s a beautifully engineered piece of gear laden with innovative features – think stowable shoulder straps, a full clamshell opening for easy packing, and countless organizational pockets.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve used the pack as both a personal item and a cabin bag on low-cost airlines like Vueling and Ryanair. What’s really fascinating, however, is the fact that it also works great as an everyday carry for work, touring a new destination, and even photo shoots around town. Though advertised as a 30L backpack, it actually expands from 27L to 33L to give you extra space when you need it and keep things minimal when you don’t.
Besides the clever, functional design and rugged construction, one of the things that make PD backpacks stand out is the fantastic shoulder strap system, and this one is a joy to carry with its well-padded shoulder straps that swing around their rivets easily and stow away neatly under magnetic flaps. Equally important for me is the 30L’s sleek, minimalist profile, without any visible zippers and loose straps dangling around, as well as the structured, cushioned sides that help protect my valuables when traveling.
All in all, the new 30L version is everything I want in a carry-on backpack – rugged, expandable, versatile, and very good-looking. I have the pack in Midnight, and while it looks really sleek, dirt and dust are more visible than on the lighter Sage fabric on the 45L, which even after years of use, doesn’t show any wear and tear. Nevertheless, the exterior is generally easy to clean with a damp washcloth.
- Expands from daypack to carry-on bag
- Meets international carry-on size requirements
- Rugged construction
- Tons of organizational features keep your belongings organized and easily accessible
- Separate laptop/tablet compartment
- Multiple carry options
- Some of the best-designed shoulder straps of all the backpacks we’ve tried
- It only fits Peak Design camera cube when fully expanded
- Lacks the side and front access found on the 45L
- Black & Midnight fabrics show dust and dirt easier
Solgaard Carry-On Closet Large
- Best for: Up to 7-day trips
- Best feature: The removable shelving system
- Dimensions: 22.4″ × 14.6″ × 9.6″ (57 × 37 × 24 cm)
- Material: Polycarbonate with aluminum frame
- Weight: 8.1 lb / 9 lb with shelf (3.7 kg / 4.1 kg with shelf)
- Volume: 46 L
- The best deal right now: 10% off with code SPRINGTRAVEL10
One of the things I dislike most on a trip is having to unpack and repack my bags every time I change locations. That’s why when Solgaard sent me the Carry-On Closet Large for review, I was beyond excited. I knew the bag’s main selling point is the retractable shelving system, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that there’s much more to it than that.
Constructed from unbreakable polycarbonate, with a lightweight aluminum frame, frictionless 360-degree wheels, and a TSA-approved lock, this rugged suitcase is sure to keep your belongings safe and secure en route. Moreover, the waterproof, scratch-resistant shell comes with reinforced corners and opens/closes with 2 metal latches instead of a zipper. All these features add to the bag’s durability and security, but also to its weight.
Solgaard’s patented built-in shelving system makes the suitcase easy to pack, organize, and unpack your belongings. This removable “closet” comes with 6 expandable mesh shelves where I was able to place T-shirts, dresses, undergarments, and toiletries for a week in France, plus a compression strap that held everything in place. Once arrived in the hotel room, I found it really easy to pull the shelves out and hang them on the clothing rack.
I’ve only used the Carry-On Closet Large with the shelving unit, but the case is just as effective without it thanks to its practical butterfly design with two spacious main compartments, a compression feature with mesh zip pockets, and a drawstring bag for shoes or dirty laundry.
Last but not least, the bag is made from 229 plastic bottles that have been recovered from the ocean, and comes with smart details like a USB charging port, a TSA-approved, three-digit combination lock, and a comfortably soft grip handle.
- Rugged and durable construction
- Sustainably made
- Clever features
- May be too large for international overhead bins
- On the heavier side
- Doesn’t include a battery for the charging port
LEVEL8 Gibraltar Full Aluminum Carry-On 20”
- Best for: Frequent travelers, air business trips
- Best feature: The smooth, ultra-quiet 360° wheels
- Dimensions: 22” × 15” × 8.5” (55.88 × 38.1 × 21.59 cm)
- Material: Aerospace-grade aluminum magnesium alloy
- Weight: 10.14 lb / 4,6 kg
- Volume: 36 L
- The best deal right now: 10% off using the code ST10
When I first got my hands on the LEVEL8 Gibraltar Aluminum a few months back, I had my doubts about how well an aluminum suitcase nearly three-quarters the price of its competitors would feel and perform, but I was pleasantly surprised. Not only is the construction sturdy and strong, but the matte, minimalist design looks striking. The aircraft-grade aluminum-magnesium alloy already means the bag is significantly robust, but the crash-proof metal corner guards and zipperless locking-latch design take protecting your belongings to a whole new level.
We’re also digging the meticulous design details that have gone into this brushed metal carry-on, from the smooth, slow-release handles to the rubber-coated dual-bearing wheels. And while on the subject, I can probably say that this sleek cabin suitcase has some of the quietest, smoothest, most durable wheels of all the rolling carry-on bags we’ve tested, allowing effortless maneuverability in all directions even when fully loaded.
The four-stage telescopic handle is pleasantly sturdy and feels comfortable to hold, and there’s also a side handle that makes it easy to pick it up horizontally or lift it in and out of overhead bins. The interior fabric is not as luxurious as I would have expected, but the unique removable dividers make packing easy and intuitive. I wish I’d seen a more elaborate compression system, but the complimentary 4-piece packing cube set makes up for it somehow. Also, the brand claims that their removable dividers design with ZERO obstructions maximizes storage capacity, and I tend to believe them since my aluminum carry-on was able to hold about five days’ worth of clothes on an earlier trip to Romania.
- Sleek, professional look
- Extremely durable
- Backed by a lifetime warranty
- The zipperless locking-latch design provides safety and easy access
- Heavier than your polycarbonate suitcase
- It will inevitably earn scratches, dings, and dents over the years
Bellroy Lite Duffel
- Best for: Impromptu overnight or weekend trips, whether you get there by plane, car, or train
- Best feature: The light weight
- Dimensions: 10.62” × 17.71” × 8.84” (27 × 45 × 25 cm)
- Material: Recycled diamond-patterned ripstop
- Weight: 1.32 lb (600 g)
- Volume: 30 L
You know a bag is truly worth it when you carry it on repeat, no matter the destination. One of those pieces for me is the Bellroy Lite Duffel. It miraculously packs a weekend’s worth of clothes (plus a pair of shoes, a large toiletry bag, and my Dyson airwrap styler) into a stylish, little package that’s comfortable on my shoulder, easy to lift into overhead bins, and also folds down for storage when I’m not using it.
I’ve always been a fan of Bellroy’s clever design and materials, and this multi-functional baby is yet another triumph. Made with a special water-resistant ripstop fabric created from recycled plastic, it’s oh-so lightweight but impressively strong.
The first thing I noticed about the Lite Duffel, besides the lack of weight, of course, was how the soft, flexible shell managed to retain its structure, even when empty – a quality I would not have expected to find in a bag that you can roll or fold up into your luggage. But I guess that’s what good design does, it makes the impossible possible. That means that the bag will look equally good whether you just throw your gym gear in or fill it to the brim with a weekend’s worth of essentials.
And speaking of design brilliance, I am impressed with how much I could fit into this small duffel, plus how easy it was to wear. The full-length zipper opens from both ends for ultra-wide, unobstructed access to contents, while its classic barrel shape and padded shoulder strap make it a breeze to haul around.
And then there’s the organizational layout – tons of internal slip pockets and a quick-access zip compartment on the front make it easy to access and keep an accounting of all those tiny bits of gear. If that’s not enough, you can always combine it with packing cubes.
Long story short, the Bellroy Lite Duffel is the type of bag I’d be most inclined to take on road trips, although I can’t see why it wouldn’t be excellent as a carry-on bag for the airplane.
- Stylish, lightweight, and durable
- Surprising organization for a duffel bag
- Can be folded into luggage when not in use
- The shoulder strap could use some more padding
- There’s no laptop/tablet sleeve
- It’s not a suitcase
Béis The Carry-On Roller
- Best for: Overpackers on weekend getaways, minimalists on up to a week-long trips
- Best feature: The cushioned handle
- Dimensions: 22.83″ × 15.75″ × 9.84″ (58 × 40 × 25 cm)
- Material: 100% Virgin polycarbonate
- Weight: 8.36 lb (3.79 kg)
- Volume: 49 – 61 L
I purchased the Béis Carry-On Roller in Beige a couple of weeks ago, and while I haven’t had the chance to take it on a flight yet, I did manage to test its functionality, weight, storage, and comfort indoors and on several trips around town, as well.
Featuring a matte polycarbonate body detailed with bold gradient stripes, color-coordinated zippers, and spinner Hinomoto wheels, this bag is both chic and durable. I wouldn’t say the quality is on par with the other (pricier) suitcases on this list, but it does have some cool bells and whistles that make it stand out – namely, a built-in weight-limit indicator that turns red if you’re over the 50-pound restriction, a retractable bag attach strap, a zippered expansion feature, and my favorite handle: with a soft cushioned handlebar for comfort.
With an almost 50-liter capacity (without expansion), the case is quite big. That is both a good and bad thing – good because you can really fit a lot of stuff inside, and bad because it might not be accepted as carry-on luggage by all airlines. This being said, the suitcase is perfect for overpackers or those headed on longer trips. It also has an impressively well-organized interior where you’ll find multiple zippered pockets, a pair of compression straps, drawstring bags for dirty shoes and clothes, and a detachable divider. This makes packing and locating items a breeze. However, the zippers don’t seem as robust and don’t run as smoothly as I would have expected.
Even with some minor drawbacks, the Béis Carry-On Roller is a great piece of carry-on luggage with many clever features and good looks to match.
- Chic, durable exterior
- Generous capacity
- Lots of unique features
- Practical, well-organized interior
- Expands up to 2” for extra packing space
- Exceeds most European carry-on size limits
- Handle felt a little loose during our tests
- Interior zippers are not the greatest