All airlines have size restrictions for carry-on bags. These are posted on their websites; usually, the size limit is 21 or 22 inches. A few airlines will allow a bag as long as 24 inches, although that's rare. Where the problem sets in is when your flight is not operated by the airline you booked through, but by one of their so-called "regional partners." It's estimated that slightly more than 50 percent of all passenger flights are now operated by regional airlines, and that number is expected to grow. These planes tend to be smaller, sometimes much smaller, than full-sized jets, and the corresponding cabin space is smaller too -- meaning those 21- and 22-inch bags no longer fit in the overhead compartment.
This section focuses on smaller, 19-inch and 20-inch bags and duffels that will fit into the overhead bins of any commercial plane -- including those of regional airlines. If you need something larger, see our discussion of the best spinner and rolling luggage elsewhere in this report for our recommendations for 21- and 22-inch bags. If you love a set of matched luggage, see our discussion of luggage sets, which includes a suitcase that your kids will love too.
The Delsey Luggage Helium 19-inch Carry-On Trolley Case (Est. $225) will never have to be gate-checked on any but the teeniest commuter plane. It's a hard shell case that Delsey says can hold four shirts, three pairs of pants, a coat, two pairs of shoes, and a toiletry bag. Of course, that's just a suggestion, but users say it really can hold enough clothes and toiletries for a 4- or 5-day trip. These comments are from experienced light packers though, someone who may need more than two pairs of shoes or have to take dress clothing like suits will need a bigger bag.
This 19-inch Delsey carry-on has a nice selection of organizational options, including a full-sized compartment and a smaller, lid compartment. Both compartments have X-style compression systems, and the smaller lid compartment includes a full zip cover. The main compartment also has a smaller zip pocket. But what has users really excited about this Delsey carry-on is the front storage that you can use for a laptop or boarding documents or those little bottles of liquids that you have to pull out to go through security -- the vast majority of hard shell bags don't have an outer compartment. This one is padded to protect your tablet or laptop, too. It has a TSA-approved lock that will keep all your valuables safe.
The telescoping handle on the Delsey Helium 19-inch carry-on has three locking positions, one more than most suitcases. It has helper handles on the top and side to make it easier to lift, and it weighs only 5.1 pounds when empty. It comes in black, grey, gingerbread, lime, peony and purple. Owners are delighted with the brighter colors, saying that they really make a stylish statement. One thing: we did see some durability complaints with this bag, although not many. In tests, the handle stuck and the wheels seemed "wonky," and a few users also expressed their feelings that the handle and wheels felt flimsy. However, we saw no specific complaints of breakage.
If you prefer a soft-side bag, Briggs & Riley make quality suitcases that last for years and the company offers a lifetime guarantee with very few restrictions. This makes its BRX Explore 19 Upright (Est. $225) a logical runner up in this category. Experts and owners say this 19-inch carry-on fits in even small overhead bins, and is a very sturdy bag with great usability features. It's not nearly as attractive as the Delsey, with a more rugged appearance that's almost backpack-like, and it only comes in amber and slate, but it holds a good number of items -- from one to four days' worth, depending upon the traveler.
Like the Delsey, the Briggs & Riley 19-inch carry-on has a large main compartment with compression panels, which users say does a better job compressing garments while keeping them wrinkle-free than straps. The lid compartment has a zippered cover. It also has an outside pocket for boarding passes, but it does not have padded storage for a laptop. The telescoping handle and inline wheels get good reviews for sturdiness and durability.
Many people like using duffel bags as carry-ons because their unstructured oblong shape and soft sides make them easy to carry disparate-sized items and to smoosh them into almost any overhead compartment. Still, you need to be cognizant of the fact that on regional jets, a larger duffel of 22 inches might still need to be gate-checked.
However, the A. Saks 20-inch Expandable Rolling Trolley Duffel (Est. $80) is small enough that you won't have to worry about space on most commercial planes, including regional jets. Owners say they can pack enough into this duffel for five days and that it's lightweight and very sturdy. The interior is basically just an open compartment; there are two small exterior pockets and that's it as far as organization. Several reviewers recommend using packing cubes if better interior organization is desired. It has inline wheels and a fully retractable telescoping handle in addition to the traditional two duffel-carry handles.
If you prefer a more traditional duffel bag without wheels, the L.L.Bean Adventure Duffle (Est. $35 to $65) is a very popular option. It comes in small (18 inches), medium (23 inches), large (30 inches) and extra-large (34 inches). Only the small is suitable to be used as a carry-on in general, but the unstructured nature of the bag and the external compression straps may enable the medium to be carried on in the right circumstances, at least on larger planes. Still these are tough, durable, popular duffels that come with a lifetime guarantee that owners say is hassle-free. All have traditional duffel handles as well as a shoulder strap. There is a single interior storage space and one side pocket.
Elsewhere in this report:
Best Reviewed Luggage: The six best luggage choices, as identified by professional tests, expert reviews, user reviews, and our own analysis.
Best Spinner and Rolling Luggage: Spinner luggage, with wheels that swivel 360 degrees, and roller luggage, with sturdy, fixed, inline wheels are the most popular option for travelers. Most of our Best Reviewed will fit in an overhead bin, too.
Best Luggage Sets: Stylish and with a lot of packing options, luggage sets give you a lot of bang for the buck. We found a few good choices for grown-ups, and even some cute picks for children.
Lightweight Luggage: Manufacturers will call just about anything "lightweight," but what does that really mean? We discuss the tradeoffs and tricks of lightweight luggage.
Buying Guide: Want to avoid buyer's remorse tomorrow morning? Our Buying Guide will help you decide which suitcase you need, and tell you what to look for in the best luggage.
Our Sources: Links to the expert and user reviews we used to select the best luggage, along with our assessment of each reviewer's expertise, credibility and helpfulness.