We’ve spent over 300 hours researching and testing luggage over the past three years to find the best bags for traveling the world. But the best piece of luggage for a business trip isn’t necessarily the best one for a family vacation. And it definitely isn’t ideal for a multiweek trip across Southeast Asia.
This post was done in partnership with Wirecutter, a buyer’s guide to the best technology. This is a condensed piece that draws on several of our guides; you can find links to our full guides in the discussions below.
Generally speaking, the fewer pieces of luggage you bring, the easier it will be to do the actual traveling. And if you can fit everything into a carry-on, all the better. (No more landing in San Jose, California, only to find that your bags are in San Jose, Costa Rica.) With that in mind, these recommendations assume that you will try to carry only one main bag (with an additional personal item), and that you will be good about not overpacking “just in case.” While there are exceptions, this flowchart should lead you to the luggage you need, and our recommendations will carry you (or rather, your stuff) from there.
Small and convenient: Rolling carry-on
Travelpro Platinum Magna 2 22″ Expandable Rollaboard Suiter
Rolling carry-on bags are by far the most popular bags among American travelers, and this should be no surprise to anyone who’s ever looked up how much it costs to check a bag these days. These bags are well-suited for almost any trip that involves staying in one place for the majority of your time. They can hold about a week’s worth of clothes and come with a garment bag or built-in suiter for protecting formalwear (so they’re great for weddings and business trips). If you’re willing to do laundry regularly, you could conveniently travel just about anywhere for any amount of time with one of these—as long as you don’t have to move around a ton. Though their wheels are great for getting to and from the airport and navigating the terminal, they struggle on anything much rougher than a smooth sidewalk. Even asphalt can give them issues—let alone dirt roads or cobblestones.
We’ve tested 31 carry-on 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 rolling carry-on for most travelers. It easily packs five days’ worth of clothes into the maximum-allowed carry-on dimensions (21 by 14 by 9 inches) and offers many of the premium build-quality touches you’d expect from a $500 suitcase for about half that price. And its lifetime warranty covers airline damage—a rarity at any price. But if you’d prefer something cheaper or are willing to pay for a more deluxe traveling experience, we have picks for those in our review of the best carry-on luggage.
Small but roomy: Non-rolling carry-on
Tom Bihn Aeronaut 45
If you plan on going off the beaten track, or if you don’t plan on staying in one place for more than a couple nights at a time, you’ll appreciate the mobility afforded by a non-rolling carry-on. This way, you don’t have to worry about if you can easily roll over the terrain between you and your destination—just put it on your back or over your shoulder and go wherever your feet may carry you. The other advantage these bags have over a rolling carry-on is that they don’t have a frame or wheels that take up valuable internal packing space. They’re also way easier to squeeze into a crowded overhead bin, making them basically gate-check-proof in that regard. Yes, they can get heavy when full, but the best of these backpack-duffel hybrids have comfortable straps that can make them tolerable to carry for up to a mile. However, because they don’t have a frame, they aren’t great for hiking from one end of town to the other.
After testing seven top-rated contenders over the past two years, our top pick for non-rolling carry-on luggage is Tom Bihn’s Aeronaut 45 (with the Absolute Shoulder Strap add-on). Its 45-liter capacity—divided horizontally across three compartments (a main in the middle straddled by two smaller ones)—easily handles a week’s worth of clothes and gear with room to spare. And ergonomically shaped backpack and shoulder-bag straps make it comfortable to carry however you prefer to. But overall, what sets the Aeronaut apart from other bags of this type is the attention paid to the small details. The most obvious difference is the material: 1,050-denier ballistic nylon has a sheen that Cordura and polyester can’t match. It’s thick yet supple—almost leatherlike—whereas the other bags we tested felt more like giant school backpacks. It was also the only bag we looked at that had no exterior structural seams, which means you won’t accidentally wear through a stitch if you take a spill on a rough surface. On the off chance that something goes wrong, this bag is covered by a lifetime warranty. If you want something more affordable, or if you want to know more about why we like the Aeronaut, you can read the full review in our guide to the best travel gear.
Big and Portable: Our travel backpack picks
For men and tall women: Osprey Farpoint 55 M/L. For short to average-height women: REI Grand Tour 80
If you like the portability of a non-rolling carry-on bag, but want something with a bit of extra space for your photo equipment, dive mask and fins, or other special equipment that isn’t so carry-on friendly, a travel backpack is the way to go. These are designed to pack like luggage, but carry like a hiking backpack—complete with suspension frame. As such, a reasonably healthy adult can walk miles on end with a fully loaded pack while experiencing minimal discomfort. The best ones will also include a detachable daypack so you don’t have to sport the goofy “big pack on back, small pack on front” look as you travel between destinations, and you can leave the main section at your hotel while using the daypack for exploring. These are ideal for extended trips off the beaten path and are popular among the hostel-hopping crowd. Most of these packs will not meet carry-on regulations; however, they may fit in overhead bins. That said, they’re designed with a zip-on cover that can conceal the straps for safekeeping if you need to check it at the gate.
After spending over two years traveling the world via dozens of planes, trains, cars, and boats, plus testing 11 packs on the backs of five men and five women ranging from 5 feet 2 inches to 6 feet 2 inches tall, we’ve found the best travel backpacks for most nomads: Men (and tall women) will love the Osprey Farpoint 55 M/L and shorter to average-height women will like the highly adjustable REI Grand Tour 80. Both of these bags are big and supportive enough to comfortably carry everything you need to travel across Australia, yet small enough to be manageable navigating the narrow streets of Florence. They have great removable daypacks, are comfortable for the long walks between a train station and a hotel/hostel, are well-made, and fit a wide range of body sizes. The other packs we looked at may have excelled in one or two categories, but did poorly in others. Our two picks did the best across the board. You can read more about why we like them and get advice on alternatives in our full review of the best travel backpacks.
Big and convenient: Our rolling checked luggage pick
Travelpro Platinum Magna 2 29″ Expandable Spinner Suiter
If you are packing a ton of gear and/or outfits—especially if you have formalwear—nothing beats a big suitcase with wheels and a sturdy frame. These types of bags are big enough to pack at least two weeks’ worth of clothes for one person and are a great way to pack an entire family’s clothes into one bag. However, they are very heavy and are easy to overpack because of how big they are. Stay under airline weight limits by weighing them with a luggage scale (typically airlines will charge more for bags weighing more than 50 pounds or 22 kilograms).
We’re still putting the finishing touches on our checked-luggage reviews, but our pick is going to be the Travelpro Platinum Magna 2 29″ Expandable Spinner Suiter for the same reasons we picked is little sibling as the best carry-on roller bag. This 29″ bag is made of a hard-wearing ballistic nylon that’s both sleek and durable. It looks and feels like a bag that costs a lot more than it actually does. It’s also surprisingly nimble thanks to a comfortable, height-adjustable handle and magnetically locking MagnaTrac wheels that make it noticeably easier to navigate—especially when loaded with 50 pounds of stuff. It easily packs two weeks’ worth of clothes into the maximum-allowed checked-bag dimensions for most airlines, looks and feels fantastic, and offers a lifetime warranty against airline damage. We plan to publish our full review with upgrade and budget picks soon.
These picks may have been updated. To see the current recommendations, please read Wirecutter’s guides.