If you like to travel light, experts say you're better off with a nonwheeled carry-on. Wheels and handles eat up valuable packing space, and wheeled bags are frustrating and awkward to haul over stairs or cobblestones. Ditching the wheels can shave several pounds from your load.
The Red Oxx Air Boss (*Est. $225) is the ultimate one-bag carry-on, according to reviews. Red Oxx consulted with Doug Dyment, travel guru at OneBag.com, to design the bag; reviewers say the result is a soft, tailored bag that does it all. It's incredibly lightweight and rugged, and it fits effortlessly into the overhead bin. "I can easily pack enough clothing for three-to-six-day business trips and the bag remains relatively light," says a reviewer at PracticalHacks.com. You can slip a laptop computer into one of its well-designed compartments, too, but reviewers say that may make the load too heavy for some people. User reviews posted on the Red Oxx site indicate this bag is spacious, lightweight, durable and easy to stow. The Red Oxx "no bull" lifetime warranty covers any kind of damage.
Users' main complaint about the Air Boss is that its single shoulder strap puts a lot of weight on one shoulder. For this reason, some travelers prefer backpack-style carry-ons. One backpack that reviewers love is the Patagonia MLC (*Est. $160), which is short for "maximum legal carry-on" (although at 20.5 by 13.5 by 7 inches, it's actually a bit smaller than the maximum carry-on size for most airlines). Made from water-repellent recycled polyester, this bag has tuck-away backpack straps, as well as a shoulder strap and front and side handles. John Flinn, travel editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, raves about its "bombproof" construction and thoughtful features, such as rounded corners (which reduce abrasion) and an internal divider to separate clean and dirty clothes. This bag is also named as the runner-up in Outside magazine's 2012 review of the best luggage. Although we found only about 30 user reviews for this bag at Amazon.com and eBags.com, they are generally positive, praising the MLC's durability and compact, yet spacious, size. Users especially love the hidden backpack straps. Patagonia's "Ironclad" warranty is not as impressive as Red Oxx's, however. Although users can return any bag that "does not perform to (their) satisfaction," Patagonia cautions that they will have to pay "a reasonable charge" to repair any damage deemed to result from wear and tear.
The Tom Bihn brand, though pricey, is a favorite among the critics at OneBag.com and PracticalHacks.com. Tom Bihn bags are made of ballistic nylon with splash-proof YKK zippers (the gold standard for zipper brands), but their lifetime guarantee doesn't cover wear or damage. The Tom Bihn Aeronaut (*Est. $240) is the maximum carry-on size for most airlines; the Tom Bihn Western Flyer (*Est. $210) is similar but measures only 18 inches by 12 inches by 7 inches, so it will fit in the overhead bins of regional commuter jets. Both bags can be carried as suitcases, backpacks or duffels -- though the last option requires the addition of the Tom Bihn Absolute shoulder strap (*Est. $30).
A less expensive backpack that also gets good reviews is the eBags Weekender eTech Convertible (*Est. $60). Flinn recommends it as "an insanely good value," well organized and incredibly durable for its price. It meets carry-on size requirements and it weighs only about 3.6 pounds when empty. An large number of user reviews on the eBags.com website -- roughly 2,600 at the time of this report -- give the eBags Weekender eTech Convertible an overall rating of 4.6 stars out of 5, and 97 percent of users say they would buy it again. The bag's capacity, durability and value are all singled out for praise. There's a lifetime guarantee, but it applies only to defects in materials and workmanship.
Another budget pick is the Rick Steves Convertible Carry-on (*Est. $70), a model from the PBS travel host's own line of luggage. The Convertible Carry-on has hideaway backpack straps, top and side handles and compression straps inside to keep your stuff from shifting around. The San Francisco Chronicle's Flinn finds this model the easiest to pack of the five bags covered in his tests. It weighs in at just 3 pounds, but the bag's polyester fabric may not prove as sturdy as the nylon of the Red Oxx and Tom Bihn bags. Rick Steves' lifetime warranty covers materials and workmanship only, not damage.
Travelers who prefer wheels can use these nonrolling bags with a lightweight folding cart. These can tuck into your carry-on and weigh just a few pounds; your bag plus the cart will still weigh less than a wheeled carry-on. This can be an inexpensive solution if you have a carry-on bag you love, but can no longer handle its weight -- or if you sometimes have to carry heavy things in it. Doug Dyment at OneBag.com recommends the Going in Style Travel Folding Luggage Cart (*Est. $50), which weighs only 2.5 pounds but can hold up to 66 pounds. Users at Amazon.com give good ratings to both this cart and the Remin Concorde II (*Est. $95), which holds up to 220 pounds. However, the Concorde II is much heavier and much more expensive than the Going in Style cart.