Essential Packing Checklists - Travel with Carry On Suitcase Types

Finding the Perfect Carry-On Suitcase

When it comes to packing, everyone worries about what to bring and having enough space. However, the biggest influence on what we bring is the bag we’ll bring it in. Varying in size, features, and style, we no longer have just one carry on to choose from. With pluses and minuses to each, we figure it’s time to review and make sure we’re making the best choice.

The Classic: Soft case Roller

The most ubiquitous of carry ons: the standard 2-wheeled soft case roller. Ranging in price from budget to luxury, there’s too many options to handle for this staple. However, there’s a few key features we can’t live without when choosing:

  • Sturdy: A good handle can save the day; nothing worse than hitting a curb and ending up with a handle-less suitcase. Also, make sure the wheels are solid enough to make it down gritty city streets without getting stuck every step of the way.
  • Expandable: one of the best features of this option is the extra wiggle room you can get. We recommend never leaving home on the “expanded setting.” That way your return trip with less efficiently packed items plus a few souvenirs are guaranteed to fit.
  • Balanced: the best options don’t fall over with the expandable pocket in use. The worst ones, well they seem to be laying down on the job.

Overall, pros for this suitcase include (most often) reliably meeting carry on requirements and a no muss no fuss approach to travel. I personally had my college set (bonus perk: matching sets!) for over 10 years before it was retired. I’m a bit old for that to be still in production, but a similar set lives on here. Cons? Well sometimes the weight of pulling your life in a bag can be a workout, plus maybe a bit boring.

The New Kid: 4-Wheeled Roller

You can’t seem to walk through an airport without seeing these bags everywhere. The only question is why didn’t we think of it earlier? Most often, we find this suitcase in a hard shell variety, which is great for protecting all your gear from the bumps and bruises of travel. The shiny veneer also provides a new opportunity for customization, with lots of color and pattern options available. The four wheels mean all the weight is on the bag, and you only have to give it a nudge to get around.

Downsides? The hard shell means the bag is less forgiving when you just barely overpacked. Don’t expect to fit just a few extra things in any time soon. Also, the hard shape means you might have to be a bad traveler and put your bag in an overhead sideways rather than wheels first *gasp!* Last, is it just me or do those wheels seem to glide perfectly over the polished floors of an airport… but absolutely no where else?

Style for All: Duffel bag

Duffel bags are great for one main reason: versatility. They come in all shapes, sizes, and styles, so you can find an option that works for just a night or even a week away. Whether you’re more boho or business, there’s an option to go with your look. Plus, the soft shell means you can also fold them up for more compact storage. This one even comes with it’s own storage pouch meaning you can always bring it along as an overflow back for when you can’t seem to control yourself with all those cute souvenirs. Another perk: the soft shell and malleable shape means you can always manage to find that one last overhead bin spot while all those suckers with wheels get checked at the gate. You’ll also love those carrying straps when everyone else is struggling with stairs, cobblestones, and all the other obstacles along the way.

However… especially for those longer trips, carrying your world on a single shoulder can be a pain. Literally. That stuff can get heavy and with just one pressure point, you may find yourself switching arms to maintain circulation. And while I haven’t personally experienced failure, a soft, unstructured shell and single weight bearing point means wear and tear will catch up with you more quickly than other options.

Adventurer’s Sidekick: Backpack

Classically not a carry on, but the backpack is returning with more travel and cabin friendly sizes to remind us of the convenience of those youthful backpacking days without mandating a single outfit for the week. With a compartment for everything, backpacks are a great way to travel with a single bag but still stay organized. They also provide the best balance of convenience and comfort, still avoiding those cobblestones like a duffel, but a bit kinder to our circulatory systems.

The most obvious downside sadly remains: capacity. If we really want a week in a single bag, electronics and all, we might need to get creative in packing. Backpacks are still meant for a few days at most, but there are a few larger capacity options out there so don’t give up if this carry-on is up your alley.

Zombie Children: Hybrid Options

Now, no one likes to be put in a box, carry-on suitcases included. Lots of options cross traditional boundaries are worth a closer look.

The wheeled duffel is the most common of our hybrid options. These guys give up the soft shell underside to include a traditional roller handle and wheels. Great for those heavier duffles so you’re not stuck losing an arm, but still manages to fit in most of those awkward overhead bin spots. Sadly, when using the carrying straps the handle “spine” might bruise your hip a bit, but nothing some extra padding or creative packing can’t solve. Designers and outdoors-y companies alike make several options, so form and function can live together in this suitcase.

Next, wheeled backpacks are a common site on ergonomically conscious playgrounds, but they also have a place in overhead bins. They often come with a larger capacity than traditional backpacks, which makes the attached wheels especially useful. However, once you hit those cobblestones, just hide those handles and pop it on your back to continue on. Hopefully there’s some padding though so you don’t get metal bars digging into your spine.

In the opposite direction, there are now traditional two wheeled rollers with backpack straps hidden away. The straps are in a backpacking style allowing for more weight without breaking your back, so you shouldn’t lose capacity as you would with regular carry-on backpacks. This hybrid option assumes you want a traditional roller more often than not, so be prepared for the backpacks features to only take a cameo role and eat up some space otherwise. This happens to be my suitcase of choice, relying on a discontinued REI model, but Osprey still makes one very similar.


As with most things these days, travelers are inundated with choices. There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong, but definitely strong personal preferences. If you haven’t found your perfect fit yet, go ahead and try a few new options to get to that Goldilocks suitcase. Once you find something that fits just right, you’ll never look back.

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