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.
That is why this section focuses on smaller, 17- to 19-inch bags that will fit into the overhead bins of any commercial plane -- including those of regional airlines. We also cover duffels that will fit in a small overhead bin in our separate section on the best duffel bags. 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; they include a wide variety of sizes.
The Samsonite Luggage Silhouette Sphere Spinner Boarding Bag (Est. $170 and up) will never have to be gate-checked on any but the teeniest commuter plane. At only 17 inches high 14 inches wide and 7.5 inches deep, it's a big suitcase in a very petite package. In spite if it's small size, reviewers say it holds enough clothes and other "stuff" for about a four day trip. It's a bit on the heavy side for a bag of this size -- 7.3 pounds -- but we saw no specific complaints about it being unwieldy or difficult to lift and carry.
Experts love the Samsonite Sphere's spherical wheels and ergonomic handle design, which they say is sturdy and makes it easy to pull this suitcase along, even over long distances. It does not have a wide array of packing options, not unusual in a bag this small, just a large main compartment and a removable organizer. However, we only saw complaints from the most obsessively organized travelers; most don't mind having a bag they can customize with their own packing accessories or preferences.
The star of this little bag is definitely the dedicated laptop compartment on the front of the Sphere. We saw mixed input about how large of a laptop it holds, however. The manufacturer claims the compartment holds up to a 15.6 inch laptop, but expert and user feedback indicates that things can be a tight -- or impossible -- fit with a laptop that large. If you have a laptop that's 15 inches or larger, we suggest you personally test it in this bag rather than just taking the manufacturers word for it. Take packing into account as well; if you overstuff the bag it may contribute to the fit issue. The Samsonite Silhouette Sphere Spinner comes in several colors and sizes.
Some frequent fliers prefer a hard shell suitcase, which may hold up better to the rigors of travel. If so, the Delsey Luggage Helium Aero International Expandable Spinner Trolley (Est. $155) is a standout choice. It's small enough to fit in most overhead compartments, yet Delsey says it will 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 will need more than two pairs of shoes or has to take dress clothing will probably 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. We did see some durability complaints with this bag, more than for the Samsonite Sphere line, although not many. In one professional test, 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.
Briggs & Riley is a well-respected company that makes quality suitcases that last for years and the company offers a lifetime guarantee with very few restrictions. This makes its Explore Commuter Expandable Upright (Est. $300) 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 black and green, but it holds a good number of items -- from two 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. It also has a plethora of other organizational options, including a front laptop compartment. This bag also provides options for attaching it to other Briggs & Riley bags, making it easier to transport two or more bags at a time. These bags tend to be pricier than comparable suitcases, but they're also extremely well made, have excellent organizational options, and come with Briggs & Riley's famous "Simple As That" guarantee, which covers all but cosmetic damage, including damage caused by the airline.
Elsewhere in this report: