Whether you're traveling with just one bag or supplementing your checked luggage, nothing defines a travel experience like your choice of carry-on luggage.
For those who are comfortable toting a carry-on by hand, convertible, backpack-style bags are tops in popularity. If you go by the manufacturers' specifications, the best-reviewed, convertible Patagonia MLC (Est. $159) offers a healthy 2,746 cubic inches of carrying capacity, compared to the 2,340 of our runner up, the Red Oxx Sky Train (Est. $255) . However, volume estimates of soft-sided luggage are notoriously fickle.
When it comes down to actual use, the Sky Train expands so much that it might not fit into a plane's overhead compartment. The Patagonia MLC, by comparison, stretches to the maximum allowed size instead of past it, drawing nothing but raves for its ability to slide into any overhead compartment when fully packed, even on European or African airlines.
Still, both of these soft-side carry-ons have more in common than not. They both have stow-away backpack straps, a shoulder strap -- or Euro-style suitcase handles -- two on the Red Oxx Sky Train and one on the Patagonia MLC. The MLC's shoulder strap is split in the middle so you can "pin" it over the suitcase handle, keeping the strap from dragging on the ground.
When it comes to durability, the Sky Train's 1000D Cordura nylon construction and mil-spec metal hardware may have a slight edge over the Patagonia MLC's 1200D 100 percent recycled polyester. But the MLC is significantly lighter (2 pounds, 15 ounces to the Sky Train's 4 pounds) and still tough enough to take a beating.
Both carry-ons sport a main compartment that opens flat like a clamshell for easy load-in. The Red Oxx Sky Train comes with interior compression straps, whereas the Patagonia MLC has a laptop sleeve that doubles as a compression pocket; several reviewers at eBags.com say they prefer the compression pocket. Both bags also have exterior zip pockets for quick access to necessities like your passport or wallet, and reviewers like the Patagonia MLC's floating internal divider for separating clean clothes from dirty. Finally, both bags are also backed by lifetime warranties, although the Patagonia MLC's warranty doesn't cover damage due to everyday wear and tear.
If you're prone to going through zippers, you might prefer the Sky Train for its notoriously overbuilt #10 YKK self-locking zippers and no-questions-asked lifetime warranty. The Sky Train also trumps the MLC in terms of color, offering 12 options to the Patagonia MLC's modest three. Those considerations aside, however, we still choose the Patagonia MLC as the best-reviewed carry-on for its mix of light weight -- more than a pound less than the Sky Train; its ability to fit into most overhead bins even when packed to the gills; its weather-resistant polyurethane and proprietary "Deluge" DWR coatings; good value (almost $100 less than the Sky Train); and a sporty, casual look that reviewers say does equally well for business and leisure travel.
If you're not that interested in backpack straps, the Red Oxx Air Boss works as an over-the-shoulder or suitcase-style bag. It's well-organized with three large main compartments, internal tie-downs, two outside zipper pockets and an outside sleeve pocket. And, of course, it comes with the characteristic Red Oxx overbuilt construction and unconditional lifetime warranty.
Another high-end convertible carry-on, the Tom Bihn Aeronaut , draws praise for its solid Dyneema/rip-stop nylon construction, splash-proof YKK zippers, and light weight (about 3 pounds). The Aeronaut sports removable backpack straps; take them off and you can carry it as a suitcase, or purchase an add-on shoulder strap (Est. $30). You can also purchase an optional waist strap or sternum strap with integrated emergency whistle (Est. $5 each). On the downside, its lifetime warranty doesn't cover everyday wear and tear or accidental damage.
If all of the aforementioned carry-ons are too expensive for you, the eBags Mother Lode TLS Weekender Convertible (Est. $80 to $90) offers many of the same features; it also comes in an eTech version (Est. $80). Both pack like suitcases, with one a spacious main compartment aided by secondary flat-zips and mesh organizers; both have external compression straps to help keep the load under control. Carry options range from stowable backpack straps to a single suitcase/duffel handle, but there is no over-the-shoulder strap. Mother Lode convertibles also have dividers inside the main compartment, making it easier to organize your belongings. Weights range from a featherlight 2 pounds, 12 ounces for the eTech version to 3 pounds, 15 ounces for the larger Mother Lode version.
The Rick Steves Convertible Carry-On also converts into a backpack (a shoulder strap is optional -- Est. $12). The Rick Steves Convertible weighs 3 pounds and draws praise for its excellent organization, but we found a few complaints about its comfort and durability.
You might notice one item that's conspicuously absent on all three of the top carry-ons: wheels. Not only do wheels add extra weight and take up space, they can become a hindrance on cobblestone roads and other rough surfaces. Wheeled bags are, however, handy for travelers who can't or won't carry a bag on their shoulders or back or who will be walking on relatively smooth, flat surfaces.
Notable wheeled models include the Briggs & Riley Explore Upright (Est. $280 to $300) , which comes in 19- and 22-inch versions (plus a 25-inch version that wouldn't typically be a carry-on) and has an exterior-mounted handle to preserve interior packing space; it also docks with a backpack version for easy checking through. The Travelpro Crew 9 22-inch Expandable Rollaboard Suiter (Est. $270) is an update of the popular Crew 8, which had some issues with durability -- long-time users say Travelpro's quality has degraded over the years -- but the Crew 9 was nonetheless highly maneuverable and well-organized.
The Eagle Creek Tarmac 22 is lightweight and expandable with "knobby" wheels that handle rugged terrain very well, but it lacks the many internal organizers that reviewers so loved in its predecessor.
If you prefer a hard-sided carry-on with wheels, Rockland's inexpensive 20-inch polycarbonate carry-on luggage (Est. $65) offers good protection and comes in a wide range of colors and patterns that guarantees you'll never have trouble picking your bag out of a crowd.