We’ve tested 31 bags over the past three years, including 10 new models this year, and we’ve found that the Travelpro Platinum Magna 2 22″ Expandable Rollaboard Suiter is the best carry-on roller bag for most travelers. It easily packs five days’ worth of clothes into the maximum-allowed carry-on dimensions and offers many of the premium build-quality touches you’d expect from a $500 suitcase for about half that price.1 And its lifetime warranty covers airline damage—a rarity at any price.
The Platinum Magna 2 is the new replacement for last year’s pick, the original Platinum Magna, and it’s a very similar bag overall (if you find the older version significantly cheaper, you should get that one). The Magna 2 is better balanced and less prone to tipping, and it has a sleeker, higher-end aesthetic. A new built-in garment folder with a removable folding board (similar to the one in our Briggs & Riley upgrade pick) increases the bag’s overall packing flexibility but doesn’t protect a suit from creases quite as well as the removable garment bag in the old version.2 But if your main priority is keeping your dress clothes in great shape, we have a pick for that below. As with last year’s model, the Magna 2’s handle hardware takes up more interior space than we’d like, and a smaller-than-average skid plate along the bottom edge leaves it vulnerable to getting nicked on stairs and curbs if you’re not careful. But this is a high-quality bag that can hold a lot, and those trade-offs probably won’t be too noticeable unless you’re a frequent flyer who travels tens of thousands of miles a year.
The Platinum Magna 2 is also available in a 21-inch spinner configuration if you’re willing to give up about 190 cubic inches of practical storage (about the size of a rolled-up sweatshirt), smooth rolling over rougher surfaces, and long-term wheel durability in exchange for more flexible maneuverability (you can push instead of pulling or dragging, if you prefer). Pretty much all the suitcases we tested are available in a spinner version, but the Platinum Magna 2’s spinner stood out because of its MagnaTrac wheels, which can magnetically “lock” into a forward position, making it much easier to direct. The Magna 2 spinner also has a removable garment bag instead of a built-in one.
Last year our top pick sold out frequently. And if that happens again, the very similar Travelpro Crew 10 22″ Suiter is your next best choice. The two bags are nearly identical, and both get excellent reviews. We prefer the Platinum Magna 2 series over the Crew 10 because it has a better warranty (the Crew 10 warranty doesn’t cover airline damage), and because Travelpro builds it a bit better with stronger components. But if you can’t find our top pick or are looking for something easier on your budget, the Crew 10 has the same high-quality wheels and zippers, and built-in garment folder, as the Magna 2 series. Inside, however, its compression straps are thin and lack the wide panels found inside the Platinum Magna 2 or Briggs & Riley Baseline compression systems. As with its big brother, you can also find a slightly smaller, 21-inch spinner version with MagnaTrac wheels and a removable garment bag.
If you identify as a frequent flyer and you’re willing to invest in a higher-quality product for your home away from home, we recommend the Briggs & Riley Baseline International (U121CXW). Briggs & Riley’s reputation for reliability and durability is unmatched, and the bag provides extra features that frequent travelers—like Wirecutter founder Brian Lam, who has traveled with this bag for more than 80,000 miles—will appreciate. Every detail, from the zippers to the wheels to the wrinkle-resistant suit compartment, is made to as high a quality as you’ll find anywhere. The built-in garment folder, similar to the one in the Travelpro, will help to keep shirts and pants wrinkle-free if you pack them properly. The unique ratcheting compression system gives you more usable space—an extra outfit’s worth—than any other bag of comparable size. If things go awry, user-replaceable parts and a network of repair centers located around the world make quick fixes easy, and the reliable lifetime warranty covers repairs for airline damage. This bag is also available in a spinner version that trades 98 cubic inches of space (about the same as a rolled-up shirt) and wheel durability for better maneuverability—though it lacks the locking wheels of the Travelpro spinner models.
We have only minor reservations about the Baseline International. Some pockets felt too small to be useful, its undersized wheels didn’t always roll smoothly, and the exterior handrail tubes may protect the bag when going over an edge but expose the handrail system to potential damage. And the easily retractable handle collapses with the push of a button—which can make things easier in cramped quarters—but feels a bit loose when fully extended and still requires some gentle guidance to close after being completely extended. We’d prefer a more sturdy-feeling handle.
“Smart” luggage is a relatively recent invention, and though there’s no strict definition, we can loosely describe it as a suitcase with a built-in USB battery pack, luggage scale, and some kind of tracking system. Among the four popular models we tested, the Raden A22 is the best choice if you want something off the shelf. It had the most internal packing space and we like that you can easily remove the battery to recycle it once it’s time to upgrade (although the Bluetooth module, chipset, and wiring are permanently attached). But we don’t think that most people need a dedicated piece of smart luggage just yet. Instead, we recommend adding a few pieces of gear to your existing bag or one of our other carry-on picks. You’ll get more storage and more features for less money. For example, none of the smart luggage we tested came with a suiter or garment folder, which are very basic packing amenities you’d expect a good suitcase to have. The app is also only iOS for now—but an Android version is coming by the end of this year.
Table of contents
- Why you should trust us
- Our pick for most people
- Flaws but not dealbreakers
- Upgrade for frequent travelers
- Upgrade for dress clothes
- What about smart luggage?
- What to look forward to
- How we picked
- Why no hard-shell luggage?
- How we tested
- The competition
Why you should trust us
More than 130 hours of research, interviews with numerous experts, and testing went into making these picks. We even went through independent trials with professional flight attendants and high-mileage flyers at Virgin America’s training center in a model cabin of an Airbus A320 as part of our test procedures. On top of that, we’ve carried many of the bags on our travels throughout the years.
In the three years we’ve been covering this category, the products have evolved—and so has our thinking about what kind of luggage is best for most people. Based on what’s available, and what different types of travelers need, we think the following bags are the best investment you can make.
Our pick for most people
For the majority of travelers who fly 25,000 miles or less per year, the Travelpro Platinum Magna 2 22″ Expandable Rollaboard Suiter simply offers the best balance of features, durability, and price, yet still offering some things you won’t find in other bags under $300, such as durable sealed-bearing wheels and a fantastic lifetime warranty that covers repairs (or replacement, at the company’s discretion, even in the case of airline damage). It holds about five days’ worth of clothes, which should be plenty for a carry-on-sized bag. Though we prefer two-wheeled designs and think the extra 190 cubic inches of internal storage (about the size of a rolled-up sweatshirt) offered in the standard version is worth the money3, the Platinum Magna 2 is also available in a four-wheeled spinner configuration if you value upright handling over better wheel durability.
The exterior is made of a hard-wearing nylon fabric, a key feature of all the bags we’ve tested. Hard-shell bags with a carbon-fiber exterior are supposed to be lighter than fabric bags of the same size. But the weight you save (for example, 7.2 pounds versus 9.0 pounds) isn’t worth the lost versatility. Fabric bags like the Platinum Magna 2 can have expansion zippers. Or you can compress them to fit in a crowded bin. They also have exterior pockets for quick access to small items. With the Platinum Magna 2, you get two pockets: a flat one suited for documents and boarding passes, and an accordion-style one that provides extra storage for miscellaneous small items.
The aluminum handle extends to three different heights (38 inches, 40 inches, and 42½ inches), and it comes with a hook-and-loop system for attaching your second carry-on bag. The 3-by-1-inch wheels aren’t the biggest wheels we tested, but they move freely; this bag has little drag and none of the annoying wheel chatter you experience when you roll less well-constructed bags around, like the Timbuk2 Copilot. The wheel bearings are sealed, which extends the life of the wheels because dirt and grime can’t enter and break down the components as quickly. (Incidentally, four-wheel or “spinner” bags add not only extra wheels but also 360-degree rotational bearings, which are almost never sealed.) Conveniently, if for whatever reason your wheels do break, you can easily swap them out yourself with Travelpro’s provided replacements.
Travelpro uses YKK zippers throughout its bag, which is a big mark of quality in our opinion. As Doug Dyment, the luggage savant behind OneBag.com, explains: “If you have a zipper that is difficult to open or close, or that opens of its own accord, or comes off track easily, it’s a good bet that it’s not a YKK.”
We knocked last year’s model, the original Platinum Magna, down a little for being poorly balanced and easy to tip when full. Those issues seem to be fixed with this model. We did note that out of all the suitcases we tested, the Platinum Magna 2’s support feet were the closest to its wheels. But we didn’t encounter any tipping issues, so we aren’t overly concerned by the peculiar placement.
It weighs 8.4 pounds empty, an average-to-light weight among carry-ons (Travelpro claims 7.7 pounds), so it’s a pleasant surprise when you open the bag to find a relatively cavernous 1,850-cubic-inch interior (2,200 cubic inches when expanded). It’s on the lighter side of most of the bags we tested, especially when compared with the discontinued 11-pound Kirkland Signature Upright 21.5″ Carry-On, which used to be our budget pick. Weight shouldn’t be your primary concern, though, because all the bags we tested felt about equally heavy once fully packed. Internally, 1,850 cubic inches of unexpanded packing space is pretty good, if you consider that for any carry-on piece of luggage you have a total theoretical space limit of 2,772 (22 by 14 by 9) cubic inches. It’s similar to the eBags TLS Mother Lode’s 2,000 cubic inches (2,450 expanded cubic inches) that we measured but without all the straps and extra hardware that make that bag so difficult to use. The important thing is that in our tests the Platinum Magna 2 swallowed up five days’ worth of clothes with no problem and had a good deal of room to spare—and that was without our resorting to the expansion zipper, which gives an additional 2 inches of partial depth, or roughly (we had difficulty calculating because of its peculiar wedge shape) about another 100 cubic inches. Fair warning, though: Using that zipper makes you more likely to get gate-checked.
The tie-down straps are made of two broad nets that you can cinch down. They do a great job of compressing things without creasing clothes, which was a problem we encountered in some of the other bags we tested, including the Travelpro Crew 10 model.
The most notable interior feature is the large suit compartment with a trifold garment folder built into it. You lay a suit or dress across the panels, fold them into themselves, and zip up the compartment. It’s wide enough that a suit doesn’t feel cramped, and it includes hanger straps (which fit everything, even larger plastic hangers) to keep things from shifting around too much. It comes with a removable folding board that has ¾-inch-diameter foam rolls in it to help prevent creases along the packed clothes’ fold lines. You leave this piece in when you’re traveling with a suit or dress. When you aren’t travelling with fancy clothes, you can take the whole apparatus apart and use it as luggage dividers in the main bag itself. Then the suit/dress compartment becomes an extra packing cube. A garment bag can’t do that—it’s good for storing a dress or suit and not much else.
Overall, we think the versatility of the garment-folder design wins out over the single-purpose garment bag, which is why higher-end brands like Briggs & Riley have been championing these for years now. But after a few weeks of packing both, we will concede that putting a suit into a suit bag when vertical, so that it’s hanging correctly before folding, is much easier than carefully folding a suit into a garment folder when it’s lying horizontally on a flat surface. A garment bag is, as you might expect, almost identical to what a suit comes in when you buy it from a store, except for suitcases the garment bag is usually designed to be a bit smaller and often has a thin amount of padding where you’re expected to fold it to mitigate creasing. You put the suit inside, fold up the garment bag, and then stuff the bundle into a separate garment compartment, which is usually located in the lid of the luggage. Getting a wrinkle-free fold is super easy. It’s also super easy to buy a separate garment bag and add it into the mix if that’s what you prefer.
Beyond that, the Platinum Magna 2’s internal organization system is about average. It will be familiar to anyone who has used a suitcase before, which means there’s no learning curve for optimizing the storage capacity. One long mesh pocket sits on one of the bag’s sides, and a smaller plastic bag sits on the other side for toiletries. Previous versions of this bag came with a TSA luggage lock, though now Travelpro requires you to mail in for one if you want it, which we weren’t excited to do.
Though the Platinum Magna 2 is a new bag, we’ve been testing the original Platinum Magna (our previous pick, which uses the same materials and has a nearly identical layout) for a year now, and we’ve been loving it. Wirecutter creative director Grant Kindrick has used it for three trips and has been exceptionally impressed with its overall solid build quality. “It does everything you’d expect from a suitcase, but exceeds at the things other bags seem to fail at, in one way or another. I’ve had no wobbly wheels, sticky zippers, or tears so far,” Grant said. “And the handle extension just works—not so for the competition I’ve used in the past.” Though three trips isn’t that many, Wirecutter editor Michael Zhao had already put 10,000 miles on the Platinum Magna by the time Grant received the bag. “It just works. I usually prefer backpacks, and I still do,” Michael said, “but after spending some time with this one, I’ve realized that’s mostly the result of the poor quality of every roller bag I’ve used in the past. I can definitely see why this is worth paying $200-plus for versus the $100 bags my parents settled for on family vacations as a kid.” We should note that after his second trip, Michael ended up needing to retighten one of the screws that secures the side handle to keep it from falling off. But it has held together great since then.
Should anything go wrong, you can take advantage of Travelpro’s generous warranty, user-serviceable parts, and multiple repair centers. To get repair service, you can either drop the bag off at a repair center or ship the bag to Travelpro (at your cost; the company will cover return shipping). Keep in mind that the warranty doesn’t cover purely cosmetic wear, and remember to tread carefully on stairs.
Who else likes this bag? Finding trustworthy expert reviews of suitcases, especially new ones, isn’t easy, but we dug up a few for the previous Platinum Magna model. “This 22-inch carry-on bag was all I needed for my eleven-day Toronto trip,” says travel writer Bruce Murray, who noted that he had to do some laundry halfway through the trip. “The quality is top notch and has luxury/upscale touches.”
Flaws but not dealbreakers
Though the Platinum Magna 2 rolled pretty well in general, we were a bit concerned when dragging it up stairs. Compared with some of the other bags we tested, this Travelpro model has notably light crash protection. The Platinum Magna 2 doesn’t have long plastic “bumper” strips that run most of the way up the length of the bag, which will result in curbs and stair corners catching on its nylon back. That said, it still seems like a strong bag, and Travelpro’s warranty should help you breathe easier.
Inside the bag, the rails and wheel housings occupy a whole bunch of space, and the curved handle takes up more space than it should. We estimated a loss of 66 cubic inches, though we should emphasize that this isn’t an exact figure.
We also disliked the secondary bag holder, which you’re supposed to use for attaching a second, smaller bag such as a backpack or duffel, or a personal item, to the rolling bag. Usually the holder is a loop or clip built into a bag or included as an attachment. Travelpro’s version of this accessory is an unwieldy metal hook, which doesn’t pack away well when not in use and is almost certainly not going to be in your bag when you need it. In comparison, our former budget pick (the Kirkland Signature Upright Carry-On) had a built in latch for this purpose that was easy to use and took up no room at all in our tests.
If the Platinum Magna 2 is sold out, we recommend the Travelpro Crew 10 22″ Suiter (also available in a spinner design). It’s virtually the same bag as the Platinum Magna 2 at a lower price, but a few key differences give the Platinum Magna 2 the edge. The biggest difference between the Crew 10 and the more expensive Platinum Magna 2 series is that the latter comes with Travelpro’s “Worry Free Warranty,” which covers you not just for defects in materials or workmanship, but against airline damage too, for the life of the bag. The only other company we’ve seen with this extensive a warranty is Briggs & Riley, whose bags start in the $350 range. But if you don’t think you need the extra warranty coverage against airline damage, or the slightly better construction of the Platinum Magna 2, you can pick up the Crew 10 for about $50 to $70 less, which makes this bag a great choice if you’re on a budget.
The Crew 10 also has a weaker internal frame that feels less supportive than that on the Platinum Magna 2. That means it has more weak points where a hard drop on a corner could potentially jab into your bag. The wheels spin less freely, and some other small details are lacking, such as the Platinum Magna 2’s secondary bag hook, but the Crew 10 is still a good deal despite the small price hike.
Upgrade for frequent travelers
If you fly more than 25,000 miles per year, it’s worthwhile to invest in luggage that goes beyond merely being sturdy and improves your overall travel experience. The Briggs & Riley Baseline International (U121CXW) is that kind of bag. It costs notably more than our main pick, but after using all of these bags side by side, we can see what a difference that extra money buys: The Briggs & Riley garment folder is among the roomiest we’ve tested, the compression system is superior to anything else we’ve seen, and the bag has a huge amount of interior space—more than all the others in this guide. That’s why we’ve been recommending it since we first covered this topic two years ago.
It’s also available in a spinner version, which we tested in 2015 and found to perform just as admirably as its two-wheeled cousin. Internally, the spinner was nearly the same, though the two-wheel model offered a bit more usable space according to our measurements: about 98 cubic inches more, or three rolled-up pairs of socks. That’s better than the difference we estimated between the two models of the Travelpro Platinum Magna 2. Overall, though, we preferred Travelpro’s spinner designs, especially their locking magnetic wheels, which made the bags easier to push along in a straight line. And we still strongly recommend two-wheeled bags over spinner models.3
The most ingenious part of the Baseline International bag is its expansion and compression system. Pull upward on two plastic handles inside the bag, and you can extend its depth a full 2½ inches. Load the bag as full as you need to, and zip it closed without putting stress on the zippers. Then, you simply push down on the bag, which compresses it back down again, and a latch mechanism keeps it nicely in place. Unlike other expansion systems, which are either open or closed, this one locks in at variable degrees of expansion or compression. It’s totally unique and extremely satisfying to use.
Another significant difference: The tracks for the handles are on the outside of the bag, which makes the inside back wall almost completely flat. This design makes packing easier because you have no crevices to work around. And in our tests, after packing 10 bags trying to figure out strategies for each nook and cranny, packing on a broad flat surface felt like a luxury. Any space lost is unnoticeable. This bag also has a touch more width than other carry-ons, which gives you more options for how to lay out your stuff. According to our measurements, the bag, unexpanded, has roughly 1,900 cubic inches of storage (and that accounts for the space occupied by the wheel wells and such). Fully expanded, it can stow a whopping 2,585 cubic inches—it’s 37 percent bigger than the Travelpro Platinum Magna 2. All of these features add up to a carry-on that you can pack more into, more easily, than any other bag.
The garment folder is similar to Travelpro’s, and that’s a good thing. It loads easily and has an anchor point for hangers. It’s a trifold system, and each of the folds has a bit of padding that helps to keep a suit from pinching onto itself and creasing, though much of that depends on how well you pack. You could easily fit a week’s worth of clothes in the Baseline International, including some puffy gear for colder weather. A wide, wrinkle-free tie-down system completes the package.
On the outside, the Baseline International is pretty unremarkable. It’s similar to every black suitcase we’ve seen. There’s nothing eye-grabbing about the bag, which is good if you’re trying to avoid being gate-checked (or having it stolen). The materials feel extremely solid. Its outer fabric is made of a nylon material that seems to be of a tighter weave than that used on the other bags we’ve tested. We also noticed a robust feel to the zippers, which are a self-repairing type made by YKK. Its external pockets, as with all the bags we tested, are nothing to write home about, but they do strike a nice balance between protecting and compressing small items (a shaving/sewing kit, say) without showing much extra bulk.
The Briggs & Riley bag handles quite well, too. A well-balanced bag, it’s shorter and wider than the other models we tested, which makes it less prone to tipping. It isn’t quite as tip resistant as the heavier, now discontinued Kirkland Signature Upright, but it’s a close second in a much tighter package.
The Baseline International also comes with a lifetime warranty that covers any damage to the “functional aspects” of the bag, even if caused by an airline (like Travelpro, Briggs & Riley does not cover cosmetic wear or cleaning). Although Briggs & Riley handles warranty-covered repairs at no extra cost, it does require you to pay (again, like Travelpro) to ship the bag to the company to carry out any repairs; it will ship your bag back to you for free. Or you can drop off the bag at one of the many repair centers. Briggs & Riley emphasizes that returning your bag to you in its original condition, even after repairs, is not always possible. Thankfully, Briggs & Riley bags are built to be easily serviceable, and if you wish, you can order the parts you need and replace them yourself at home.
One last long-term testing note: Wirecutter founder Brian Lam has carried this bag on roughly 80,000 miles of travel over the past year. After considering all the bags in our test, and logging an additional 40,000 miles with a similarly priced bag by Tumi, he’s convinced that this model is the best for anyone who’s constantly on the move. “I love this bag. It carries so much,” said Brian. “Sometimes I check it. Sometimes I carry it. It always fits.”
What’s not so great? Despite the plastic shielding, the exposed rails on the exterior could use some more protection. While dragging the bag up stairs, we definitely felt more scraping than we’d like. And at first glance, the handle feels notably loose and shaky for a component on a $500 bag. But we spoke to Briggs & Riley representatives about the company’s designs, and they explained that this is a deliberate choice: The looser tolerances allow for the handle to retract by itself when you click its button, without your having to force it down. This design could save you some hassle in tight quarters, such as the aisle of an airplane. We noticed, however, that even with this feature the handle still required gentle guiding to close when fully extended. Given the trade-off, we’d prefer a more sturdy-feeling handle than one that feels loose. However, the Baseline International handle has held up solidly over two years now with no jams.
We also wish that Briggs & Riley had used wheels with a slightly bigger diameter; the Baseline International’s wheels measure 2¾ inches as compared with the 3-inch wheels on both the Travelpro and LAT_56 bags we tested. The difference may not seem like much, but we think that an extra quarter inch could help improve the bag’s overall rolling and handling on certain surfaces. It felt rougher on concrete than both the Travelpro and LAT_56 bags. But it doesn’t move poorly by any means; Briggs & Riley uses fully sealed bearings in its wheels, so they should roll smoothly for a long time.
Another thing to consider: This bag is 16 inches wide, which makes it the widest bag we tested. If you’re flying on a narrow-bodied shuttle plane with small aisles (between 12 and 15 inches), you may have some trouble avoiding bumping it on seats as you go.
Note, too, that 16 inches is outside what many airlines explicitly allow for width. United, for example, has a maximum width of 14 inches. That said, width is the one dimension you can get away with cheating on. When you lay the bag in the overhead bin, the extra 2 inches won’t cause it to hit the top or back, or keep it from closing; it just steals a couple of extra inches from your fellow passengers’ bags. The extra space makes a big difference in the bag’s capacity, and if you fly often enough, it may be worth the gamble. Brian Lam has never been caught with his, despite many thousands of miles of travel.
For anyone more inclined to play by the rules, we recommend the Briggs & Riley Baseline Domestic (U122CX). This bag has all the same awesome features as the International (including that great expansion system), but it’s only 14 inches wide. You don’t lose too much capacity, though, because the bag gets taller. Briggs & Riley claims it’s just 21 inches, but when we measured it, we found that it’s closer to 23 inches. This isn’t ideal, because the additional length may make the bag more prone to be flagged on international trips—some airlines won’t allow anything over 22 inches for any one side—but again, it’s very rare that they would measure this.
Ultimately, we think the wider Baseline International (U121CXW) is easier to pack and more versatile, but they’re both excellent bags, and you can’t go wrong either way. Just consider the trade-offs.
Upgrade for dress clothes
The LAT_56 RW_01 Road Warrior is designed around the singular goal of keeping dress clothes in sharp condition, and it excels at that task. But it holds only enough clothes for one or two days—it’s great for a short business trip or a weekend wedding and not much else.
The bag’s suit compartment comes with its own removable garment bag, with a contained fold board, a built-in rigid foam hanger with skirt-clip adapters, and pockets for your socks and underwear. It was hands-down the most thorough and easy-to-use suiter we tested. Typically, we favor bags that let you pack your stuff the way you want, but this design is so well executed that it made us forget about packing cubes.
The bag features 3-inch inline-skate wheels made of polyurethane, which seemed to glide across every surface we tested. It also comes with 6 inches of plastic curb protection, so it was plenty protected going over edges. Its handle was the smoothest and strongest we held, and everything is protected beneath water-resistant zipper liners—they aren’t YKK, but they do operate smoothly.
LAT_56 also gave its Road Warrior bag the most comfortable top handle we’ve tested. Its large diameter and soft cushioning made it the easiest to carry over long distances without complaint. However, the side of the bag has no handle (a huge oversight in our eyes), so maneuvering the bag into an upright position could be a pain.
Lacking the expanding capabilities of all our other picks, the Road Warrior has the shallowest depth of any bag we tested, which makes it light (a little less than 7 pounds), maneuverable, and just the right amount of bag for a quick trip with nothing extra. It is 16 inches wide, however, so it’s susceptible to the same aisle-bumping problems that our other wide model, the Briggs & Riley, runs into.
The LAT_56 bag is not perfect, though. Occasionally the bag trips over its own sometimes overdesigned aspects. For instance, the telescoping handle zips away into a separate compartment when not in use, which looks fancy but in reality creates an annoying cover of fabric for the handle to snag on every time you want to get it out. Also, its protective outer shell looks like a cross between a turtle shell and a sheet of bubble wrap and seems, from just dragging a fingernail across it, to mark incredibly easily. Such marks may add character over time, or the surface may start to look ragged; we can’t be sure without further long-term testing.
Despite these flaws, Caleigh Waldman, one of this year’s testers, commented that if she had to pick any bag for a weekend wedding trip, this would be the one, for its well-thought-out wardrobe protection, easy maneuverability, and compact design.
What about smart luggage?
The “smart” bag revolution has arrived, but so far we’re underwhelmed. This year we tested suitcases from top-tier smart-luggage brands Bluesmart, Raden, Barracuda, and Away. Though some of the technological features available are admittedly enticing, such as location tracking and built-in scales, our overall conclusion is that these bags try to do too much to solve simple issues and offer too few of the basics necessary to be excellent pieces of luggage.
If you want most of the advantages of smart luggage, we think you’re still better off buying one of our top picks and organizing your own smart-luggage kit, which gives you the best of both worlds: a high-quality soft-sided suitcase and accompanying suiter and most of the technological benefits of smart luggage. All without having to compromise too much of your available packing space or organizational features.
A do-it-yourself kit won’t re-create an integrated luggage scale, USB ports built into the frame of your bag, or a single, unified app to manage everything. If you want these features, then we think that the Raden A22 is your best overall choice. Though not as feature-packed as the Bluesmart, the Raden simplifies the “smart” enhancements of its competitors, instead focusing on the few features that will actually help a frequent flyer. There are no app-controlled smart locks, GPS/cell tower location tracking, or dedicated laptop compartments on the A22 or the larger A28. But you do get Bluetooth proximity tracking, an easily removable USB battery pack, and a luggage scale built into the handle. This keeps costs down so it doesn’t feel like you’re paying a premium for smart features you may or may not use. It’s more like you bought a nice $300 suitcase that happens to have some convenient smart features.
Above all else, we like the Raden A22 because it’s a decent bag in its own right. It is a hard-shell case, which has its drawbacks, but otherwise comes well equipped for a $300 bag. The A22 has a cavernous interior; comfortable, sturdy retractable handle; and a smooth-rolling set of durable, Japanese-made wheels that held up admirably to heavy abuse. It shares these features with the checked-luggage-size A28, which we loaded with a week of clothes for two, and dragged through the streets and subway station stairs of New York City. Though the exterior picked up plenty of cosmetic nicks along the way—and even more during the flight itself—the retractable handle and wheels operated as smoothly as ever throughout the trip. One stiff push sends it gliding several yards across short-pile airport carpet or linoleum. We would have liked a bit more internal organization and a garment folder, like what you’d find on our top pick Travelpro. But we did appreciate that Raden didn’t follow Bluesmart’s overly organized design, which adds a laptop sleeve and gadget organizers that eat into your packing space, and would be more conveniently packed away in a personal item anyway.
When it comes to smart features, we appreciate Raden’s more subtle, opt-in approach to the “do everything for everyone” strategy that Barracuda and Bluesmart take. In fact, Raden’s suitcases are actually less capable overall compared with its competitors’, but the features they did include work better. For example, the Radens come with a 7,800 mAh (28 Wh) battery compared to the Bluesmart’s 10,400 mAh (37 Wh) battery, but the Raden’s battery is removable for easy recharging and replacing, whereas the Bluesmart’s is built in. This also means you can recycle it when it dies, which means less electronic waste down the road. And where the Bluesmart has an app-connected, proximity-sensitive Bluetooth lock, the Radens use a simple, built-in TSA-approved lock like you’d find on any other suitcase. They both work, but Raden’s approach is far simpler and cheaper—also there’s no risk of locking yourself out if you have a dead phone.
Though the battery is nice, it’s not really any more convenient than carrying around your own USB battery pack in your personal item—which you’d actually be able to use during a flight. The scale built into the handle is a different story. You can get an accurate USB rechargeable luggage scale for under $20, but it can’t match the seamless experience of picking up a suitcase by the built-in handle and getting the exact weight on your phone screen. It feels almost magical the first time you do it. To use this feature, you open the Raden app, tap on “Weight,” allow a couple seconds for the scale to calibrate, and then lift the suitcase by the top handle to get an accurate weight within seconds. If you take the time to enter your flight information, the Raden app will even tell you your airline’s weight limits so you can adjust accordingly if you need to. This is less of a concern for carry-on, but it’s very convenient for checked bags, which tend to brush against the weight limit more often than not.
As for location tracking, Raden relies on Bluetooth, similar to Tile, and Bluesmart combines Bluetooth with both 3G cellular and GPS tracking similar to the system used by a LugLoc device (which you can buy bundled with the Barracuda). It’s hard to say if one approach is better than the other. If you just want to know that your bag is loading onto a carousel or if someone is walking away with it, a Bluetooth connection is probably adequate and less battery intensive. But if your bag fails to arrive at the correct airport, the GPS approach will give the airline a head start on recovery efforts. Raden’s Bluetooth tracking can also work for this, but only if someone else with the Raden app happens to walk near your luggage with the app open, which isn’t very likely because it’s still a new product with a limited user base. In our testing, both systems were about as accurate—and as frustrating—as you might expect. You can get in the ballpark, but said ballpark can be the size of a literal ballpark if you are indoors in a crowded terminal. One thing to note: Currently, using a Tile device is more likely to get you results than using Raden’s network. Though Raden bags will ping other Raden bags when they’re nearby one another—an admittedly rare occurrence for a new product—Tile devices have access to the entire Tile network of locators, which number in the low millions at this point.4
Should anything go wrong, the A22 comes with a five-year warranty, which isn’t as long as our top picks’ lifetime warranty, but is three years longer than the warranty backing up the more expensive Bluesmart. The app also has live chat support built into it that responds within minutes. Unfortunately, the app is only iOS for now, but Raden says to expect an Android app by the end of 2016.
What to look forward to
There’s no doubt that larger luggage manufacturers are watching to see how people respond to smart luggage, and I suspect that many more pieces of smart luggage will come out over the next few years. It’s possible that someday someone will design a bag that combines all the advantages of our top picks with electronic components that are easy to upgrade and recycle, without compromising available packing space or weight. We just haven’t seen it yet. We’re also interested in both Trunkster and Planet Traveler’s new smart-luggage designs, but haven’t seen enough reviews yet to know if they warrant further investigation.
Costco has discontinued the Kirkland Signature Upright 21.5″ Carry-On, which had been our budget pick. As a replacement, the company has released the Kirkland Signature Softside Spinner 22″ Carry-On, and we’ve called that model in for testing. At first glance, the new model seems like an improvement. We haven’t seen any complaints about the handle, which was a big issue with the Upright, and the Softside Spinner is reportedly as light as our main picks at about 8 pounds. But some commenters on the Costco site say the new carry-on is much smaller than the old one and lacks its impressive amount of internal space. Others have had issues with the four-wheel spinning design, including one commenter who says that the wheels on his carry-on snapped off when he dropped the bag. We’ll look out for all of these problems once we actually have a bag, and we’ll include our findings in the next version of this guide.
How we picked
We found hundreds of roller carry-on bags out there—and that was even after we excluded models that didn’t meet our basic criteria. So we called up experts to help us narrow the field. Among them were:
- Bonnie Raynes, the Frugal Travel Lawyer, blogger member of First2Board
- Larry Olmsted, travel gear reviewer and writer for Forbes, The A Position, and USA Today
- Elaine Tannous, flight attendant for Virgin America
- Mark Davis, senior designer at Eagle Creek
- Victor Sanz, senior design director at Tumi
- Scott Applebee, vice president of marketing at Travelpro
- Richard Krulik, CEO of Briggs & Riley
- Sean Harris, former flight attendant at Virgin America, now in Virgin’s corporate communications department
- Kate Siber, writer and reviewer for Outside
- Stephanie Pearson, writer for Outside and National Geographic
We asked them what they use personally for traveling, what features they find vital, and what separates the junk from the quality bags they’ve used. Conversations with these experts helped us understand things such as the function behind nylon and polyester, the difference in wheel bearing designs, why alloys in telescoping handles matter, and more. With the collected intelligence from these reviewers, builders, and professional travelers, we zeroed in on some top brands.
Besides the suggestions from our experts, we researched editorial and user reviews of luggage, making sure to include popular brands like Samsonite and Tumi as well as esoteric names like Filson and Hideo Wakamatsu. In addition to the expert interviews, we spoke with assorted salespeople, brand engineers, and media-relations folks to make sure we found the best models from each brand.
Why no hard-shell luggage?
Other than the smart-luggage models (which are only available in hard-shell configurations), we made the conscious decision not to test or recommend any hard-sided luggage. Though increasingly popular, we don’t think a hard-sided case is as beneficial as a soft-sided design for any luggage. No doubt we see the appeal of a rigid suitcase for protecting stuff you plan to check, but all our experts agreed that the benefits of soft-sided luggage—exterior pockets, more packing space, and better organizational features—are too important to pass up in a carry-on bag.
The issues for hard-sided luggage begin with their clamshell design. Instead of a single compartment accessed by a single main zipper, hard-sided cases split in half, leaving two individual compartments, each with its own internal zippers and mesh linings to keep things in place; this means more bits to break or tear. Because rounded corners are needed to maintain structural integrity, there is less overall interior packing space. And none of the hard-sided pieces we tested came with a built-in suiter, a necessity for most frequent business travelers. Bluesmart uses most of one side of its design for a satisfyingly plush external pocket that can carry a laptop, a tablet, and few other gadgets for easy access. That pocket, however, only includes a single USB charge point, and some reviewers found it difficult to use once the other half of the bag was fully packed.
The other issue with hard-sided luggage is that it simply doesn’t age well. The Wirecutter’s senior editor Michael Zhao recently took a weeklong cross-country trip with a matte black Raden A28 checked bag and it came back showing more wear than our soft-sided picks have accumulated in over a year of long-term testing. Popular Mechanics’s Darren Orf had even worse results using a glossy black Raden A22 as a carry-on. Though he did enjoy using the luggage, the second picture in the article shows just how easily a hard-sided piece of luggage bears its scars. We know that patina is in vogue these days and that every scrape and nick tells a story, but the overall effect here is more “wear and tear” than “aesthetically aged.”
How we tested
We’ve been researching and testing carry-on luggage for years. Here’s how we put each new bag through its paces.
For this year’s testing, once we’d narrowed our search down to 10 bags, we called each in from the manufacturer (or, in some cases, purchased them from retail stores). Once we had them all on hand, we weighed and measured each of the bags to see if they matched the companies’ claims. Surprisingly, almost none of them did. Most bags were bigger and heavier than their makers claimed them to be, which is troubling. Not only did we measure the external dimensions of the bag, but we also measured the internal dimensions, so that we could see which bag ultimately gives you the most usable packing space for the bag’s overall size. This procedure wasn’t as straightforward as it sounds, though, because bags aren’t perfectly rectangular inside—the wheel wells and handle tracks encroach on the interior space. We measured these components and subtracted each from the total volume as accurately as we could.
From there, we analyzed the bags and put every data point into a spreadsheet that ended up being roughly the size of a football field. In addition to the measurements, we looked at features. Did the wheels have sealed bearings? How big were the wheels? How many pockets did the bag have? How good were the pockets? Was the garment bag big enough, or would it crumple finery? How many stages did the handle extend to? How comprehensive was the warranty? How user-repairable was the bag? We asked all of that and more.
We also tried to look at less-quantifiable factors. For example, subjectively, did this bag appear bulkier and more likely to get a person gate-checked? Was it a good-looking bag, or an eyesore? How much protection was on the outside (typically in the form of plastic bumpers to prevent fabric abrasions)? How usable were the external pockets, really? What, if any, extras were included?
Then it was time to load them down and beat them up. We decided that carry-on bags should be capable of carrying enough clothes to last you five days with room to spare for miscellaneous necessities. Two testers, one male and one female, each packed the bags individually as if they were going to the same wedding. Below you can see the two packing lists.5 What we included isn’t representative of a family traveling or a couple splitting a bag, but we did design this test load to err on the side of bulky, and we hope it will give you a clear idea of how much of your own stuff these bags could hold.
We looked at how each bag loaded. Was there an easy way to keep smaller items (such as socks and underwear) organized? Did it have compression straps that would keep things in place? Were the straps thick enough to avoid adding creases to the clothes? Just how much would the bag compress? How much room was left over? Once fully loaded, would the bag tip over easily?
Then it was time to see how each bag actually worked. We extended and retracted the handles on each one many times over many days, and felt for sticking points. We checked the smoothness of the zippers when they were under stress from being fully loaded. And then we wheeled each loaded bag around the neighborhood on the exact same route, looking at how smoothly each bag rolled, how well it handled broken sidewalks, uneven pavement, grass, bricks, dirt, and curbs. We also dragged them up and down two flights of concrete stairs, noting how easy this task was and how much damage the bags sustained. For our finalists, we repeated the torture test along a second, even rougher route.
This testing, which led to our current selections, took place in the fall of 2015. But we’ve been at luggage research for a long time, and we should mention a test process we completed in late 2013 and 2014 that helped inform our current thinking about carry-on luggage.
In 2013, we conducted our original tests for this guide at Virgin America’s training facility, using a replica airplane cabin—a huge cutout of an Airbus A320 (similar to a Boeing B737) complete with first-class seating, food carts, and overhead bins. Six flight attendants and two extremely high-mileage travelers joined in the tests. Our testers completed brand-agnostic evaluations of materials and design, performed timed trials maneuvering the bags through an airport and into an overhead bin, and completed surveys about what details and features are essential to an excellent carry-on bag.
We tested the Kirkland Signature Upright 21.5” Carry-On for a previous version of this guide and liked it—so much so that we included it as our budget pick. It was a bit heavier and clunkier than our more expensive picks, and we had a lot of trouble using the handle, but we appreciated the greater internal volume those trade-offs allowed. Unfortunately, Costco has discontinued this two-wheeled model, but it is now selling the similar Kirkland Signature Softside Spinner 22” Carry-On in its place. We’ve included the new model in our What to look forward to section, but we are not currently recommending it as a replacement budget pick.
Barracuda’s flagship product is a collapsible, modular suitcase that has a built-in tray table. It’s not “smart” out of the box, but you can add a battery, scale, and luggage locator so you pay only for the features you actually want. It’s a cool concept, but unfortunately the collapsible design, the flimsiness of the tray table built into the handle, and the overall complexity of the bag itself made for an underwhelming experience. We’d pass on this one for now.
Bluesmart is the originator of the smart-luggage concept and the company makes an impressively built piece of luggage that comes close to living up to its $450 price tag. However, its design is more a hybrid between a backpack or shoulder bag and a piece of carry-on luggage. The majority of the front of the bag is taken up by a laptop compartment and organization features for chargers and cables. This front panel should certainly make security more enjoyable to navigate, but only if you’re not stopped for other reasons. As The Next Web found out the hard way, a bunch of wires leading from a big battery securely attached to the liner of a suitcase looks a lot like a textbook example of what you shouldn’t let people bring on a plane. Kidding aside, we think that role is better filled by a smaller, separate bag that you can use as your personal item for easier access. We also don’t like that the laptop panel comes at the expense of lots of packing space. If you like the idea of traveling with just a carry-on suitcase and no personal item, it’s worth taking a look at, but most people would be better off with the Raden, or by making their own.
The Away bag is simply a hard-case piece of luggage with a battery in it. Of which, okay. But you can also buy our top-pick suitcase, which is a far better bag overall, for the same price and add a $20 battery yourself. Better yet, you can easily replace that battery when you need to, without having to take apart your luggage to do so.
We like eBags’ packing cubes, and the company’s wheelless carry-on bag is a good budget buy, but the TLS Mother Lode was easy to dismiss right away. Its wheels chattered over every surface except deep carpet. Flanking it are four outside buckle straps that block the zipper, so you can forget about getting in and out of the bag quickly. Additionally the bag has two fiberglass rods that you’re meant to install yourself before the bag is structurally sound. And it has no garment bag.
Costing just over $50 at the time we tried it, this bag is the cheapest model we’ve ever tested. But we’d be surprised if it held up for more than a few trips, as the bag quickly showed signs of wear in our tests. The front zipper had separated teeth after the first use. The wheels felt as if they were going to come off when riding over concrete. The bag was poorly balanced. The handle was prone to catching in its tube. If it’s all your budget can allow, this bag will get you from point A to point B. But if you can step up to our budget pick, you’ll get a lot more for your money.
We had high hopes for this one because Timbuk2 has a great reputation for making backpacks and messenger bags. The balance on this bag was decent, and it stood up well unloaded or loaded. The wheels still had that cheap-ball-bearing rhythmic chatter to them. However, the biggest problem with this bag was the abundance of zippers and internal compartments. Opening the bag reveals two mesh compartments that you then have to open in turn just to begin packing. It was a tedious process, and not one we would want to repeat every leg of a trip.
This bag is $370 as of this writing, and we don’t know what it offers that makes it any better than the less-expensive Travelpro Crew 10. In our tests, the Werks’s complicated packing system with separate clips and dividers wasn’t much fun to figure out and was even less fun to pack around. Each reading of the instructions only confused us more. In the end, a room full of engineers appears to have really enjoyed overthinking this one.
The Tumi Alpha 2 International was our pick for the best carry-on when we originally published this guide in late 2013. Our founder and CEO, Brian Lam, bought this bag and put roughly 40,000 miles on it last year with some satisfaction and a number of gripes. One major problem was that the capacity just wasn’t there. When measured, it lacked nearly 200 cubic inches in comparison with this year’s top pick, despite the fact that the two bags’ spec sheets list the same external dimensions.
The other major flaw is a dealbreaker too: These Tumi bags have no ground clearance at all. That might be fine if you use your bag only on the ultrasmooth floors of an airport, but wheel them around outside, and they bottom out like crazy. This problem is only exacerbated by the fact that that these Tumi models have no plastic crash plate. And at about $645 for the Continental and $595 for the International as of this writing, these bags simply cost too much. You can spend less and get more with any of our top picks.
This bag has the best ratio of internal capacity to linear inches. It rolls smoothly, its materials feel strong, and at about $250 as of this writing, it’s pretty reasonably priced. However, the bag’s zipper cuts its depth in half, so when you open it, you’re faced with two equally deep sides; as a result, you need more space to open your bag up, and packing anything that’s bigger than one of the halves is impossible. Couple that design with weak compression straps, and it’s a pretty underwhelming bag for that much money.
This bag, priced about $250 currently, gives you the option to roll it or strap it on. It’s light (just 7 pounds), and, hey, it has an attachable daypack. Unfortunately, it suffers from a number of problems. It has a fair amount of space inside (3,478 cubic inches), and it’s priced competitively, but it has no suiter, and no good way to keep your clothes wrinkle-free. This bag also seems like it’s more for the adventure crowd, but it may just be trying to please too many types of people and making too many compromises all around.
This stylish bag is $250, but though Incase makes decent laptop sleeves, it’s hard to see how an exterior made of 60 percent cotton, 30 percent polyester, and 10 percent thermoplastic rubber will be as tough as a dense woven nylon. We’d skip this choice and put the money into something that’s built to last.
Another variation on the two-wheeled Alpha 2, this $695 bag is wide so it can accommodate a suit. Such wide designs are a pain to get down an airplane aisle, though, and some folding know-how can make adding a suit to a regular suitcase easy. All hotels offer an iron if you ask for one.
This series, which is made to be lightweight, has classic styling that looks both cosmopolitan and vaguely army-surplus. The angling at the top that makes the rollers look slightly like duffel bags ends up cutting out storage space, which the company’s Baseline design doesn’t do.
You’ll find nice touches like a top pocket for liquids, thick polyurethane wheels, and an ultralight 4.4-pound weight, but the interior architecture of this $230 bag loses precious cargo space to features like the curved bottom connecting the wheels. It also has a backpacker aesthetic that makes it look as if you’re heading to a youth hostel, not a board meeting.
This $330 bag is another backpack/roller hybrid that sacrifices packing space for versatility. It’s so compact that it doesn’t fill the packing space permitted for a carry-on—you could spend less on our top pick and have a bigger and nearly as versatile bag that still makes extra space available when you need it.
One senior engineer we spoke to over the phone recommended this model because the bag has a solid polycarbonate rear plate that protects the handle, particularly when it’s retracted. This bag also has exterior compression straps, interior compression wings that help keep clothes from getting wrinkled, and quick-access exterior pockets. However, a few inconveniently placed buckles disqualified this $300 bag. Specifically, when our testers rolled it down the training facility’s aisle, the buckles were just the right height to catch on the armrests of the aisle seats. And in the slalom course, one tester noted that it lacked balance: “If running, this bag will go all over the place.”
This $395 bag’s trick is having a bolt-on second backpack, which we wouldn’t use in tandem—our ideal setup is a shoulder laptop bag for in-flight use and a rigid carry-on for clothes, toiletries, and the like. On its own, the roller has no exterior pockets, and the rear polycarbonate shell means the handle interferes with the interior space.
We like the handles placed on this $280 bag’s bottom and the handle that collapses flush into the back of the bag, but this model and the Tarmac 22 have slightly soft exteriors compared with the rigid shells on competing models. The main issue is the same as with other Eagle Creek offerings: The straps are inconveniently placed and clip on plane armrests when you’re going down the aisle.
This $250 bag is another backpack/carry-on hybrid that sacrifices storage space for versatility.
Unlike most of the other bags in our test, this $350 bag opens like a clam, similar to the L.L.Bean bag, with the zipper cutting along the middle of the side walls. Most of the bags we tested unzip so that only the top opens, allowing you the full depth of the bag to stack your belongings inside along the walls. The clamshell design, in contrast, makes this bag difficult to close if you’re trying to use it to its full capacity—it just isn’t as easy to use as the basic opening style of our picks.
This is a cool-looking $180 bag, but the tarpaulin exterior is more of a novelty than a functional feature to us. Customer reviews also indicate that these bags have questionable durability.