Pack for a week, it’ll last you a year. And if you can get it all into a carry-on, even better.
A frequent flier, I have long been an advocate of hand luggage as a way to save money in an industry seemingly dedicated to nickel and diming its customer base at every opportunity while raking in record profits. Free carry-on is one of the few perks American fliers can, for now, still enjoy (more on that later). But as this is in no way a secret, and with more and more people opting for only using carry-on, the question now arises: What makes a good carry-on?
Let’s cover the basics first. The maximum dimensions of carry-on luggage are — usually — 22 x 14 x 9 inches (including wheels and handles) but these restrictions aren’t written in stone. American and Delta follow them, but Southwest Airlines allows 24 x 16 x 10 inches and British Air permits 22 x 18 x 10 inches. As anyone who has sat on luggage to close it, a few inches here or there means the world. But there is also the matter of weight; which averages to around 40 lbs, but can go up to 51. In other words, research your carriers because what carry-on you buy depends on what carrier you fly.
“As new planes, buses, and trains come out with new designs, that means changes to the size of overhead bins,” says Moses Berger, Founder and CEO of on-line boutique luggage seller PORTMANTOS. “In most instances those overheads are smaller than in the past which mean more restrictions on what you can bring aboard.”
This is a big reason for the different sizes of the same line of luggage. Standards vary so widely that PORTMANTOS drew up a handy infographic matching the ideal brand with the overhead bins of a particular airline. But with things shrinking, manufactures of all sorts must get creative with that other sticking point: capacity.
“I would say capacity is the most important thing for luggage designers to consider,” Berger continues. “Since so many people prefer to not check luggage when they can avoid it, there is a high demand to fit more in a carry-on item.”
There is not one traveler alive who has not wrestled with getting the maximum amount of clothes, toiletries, and whatever else into the minimum amount of space AND be under the weight limit. Oregami Luggage features ingenious fold-out trays that make organizing your travelware easier. The upcoming Converge line from high-end designer Eagle Creek includes the Weekend Bag (20.25 x 14 x 8.25 in.), whose interior garment sleeve and individual “compression cubes,” basically luggage within luggage, squeezes your wardrobe down into manageable squares you can fit, puzzle-like, in the luggage.
“First we identify what problems arise while traveling, and making simple design solutions to meet those needs or solve those problems,” says Eagle Creek rep Alli Noland. “Size restrictions are limiting for carry-ons, so we strive to maximize packing space within those regulations. Other factors taken into consideration are durability and weight, organization, and finally style.”
But that’s not the end of this, because your carry-on isn’t the only thing you allowed to bring into an airline’s cabin: your carry-on and your “personal item.” The latter is a huge spectrum of items, from a purse to a child’s travel seat, but like hand luggage, size and weight are issues. United Airlines defines a personal item as “a shoulder bag, backpack, laptop bag or other small item” and is 9 x 10 x 17 inches. But tellingly, for a photo, they have a picture of a backpack.
Ever since pilot Robert Plath threw on some wheels to a suitcase in 1987, the heaviest “carry-ons” are now comfortably rolling at our sides. That does not mean we aren’t carrying something else;I have long been an advocate of backpacks. And if you are in a long security check line, or simply milling around the gate because all the seats have been taken, a poorly-designed backpack can be murder.
“A bag should be able to carry a lot, yet be ‘good’ for your body by being designed ergonomically,” saysMargery Gaffin, Executive VP of Ameribag, a company that bills its single-strapped backpacks as healthy as they are practical. One product has the most straightforward of names: The Healthy Back Pack.
“With the zipper tucked against the body, it can easily be pulled around to the front for easy access while wearing and further security” Gaffin adds. “More importantly, it affords superb comfort as it molds to the shape of your body.”
I’ve seen several travelers with backpacks that seemingly extend out to the point of giving the wearer something of a humpback look, and are deadly if they turn around too quickly. Moreover, a backpack can indeed be so big as to no longer count as a “personal item” (remember that 9 x 10 x 17 inches rule). In other words, when it comes backpacks-as-carry-ons, capacity may not be so important as is size and ease of wear since it will be the carry-on you actually carry. It may also end up being the “stuff bag” you take once your reach your destination. Seen through this lens, check out manufacturers whose goods are “sporty” or “outdoorsy.” Ameribag, Patagonia, or The North Face all fit the bill.
But all this may be for naught; even the days of free carry-on may be limited. In a move that was roundly condemned up and down the spectrum, United, America’s third largest carried, began charging to use the overhead bins as part of its new “Basic Economy” fare. Low-cost carriers Allegiant Air, Spirit Airlines, and Frontier Airlines already charge for hand-luggage as part of their lower-priced tickets, and it is only a matter of time before CEOs of other carriers get greedy.
Until that point, you have every right to save as much of your travel budget for travel and not luggage fees. Carry-on remains one of the easiest ways.