The Carry-On Guide: The Luggage

I love packing. Honestly, it’s one of my favorite things to do (it’s probably why I actually enjoy moving). Moving on… One of the important parts of packing is knowing what your packing your stuff into. So when you’re traveling carry-on only, the most important thing to do is pick the type of luggage you'll be using. This post will show you the pros and cons of the wide variety in the carry-on game and the best trips for each type.I love packing. Honestly, it’s one of my favorite things to do (it’s probably why I actually enjoy moving). Moving on… One of the important parts of packing is knowing what your packing your stuff into. So when you’re traveling carry-on only, the most important thing to do is pick the type of luggage you’ll be using. This post will show you the pros and cons of the wide variety in the carry-on game and the best trips for each type and is part 2 of the Carry-On Guide. Make sure you also read part 1, The Prep to see what you need before you start packing.

The Duffel Bag

I didn’t have much appreciation for this bag until recently but let me tell you, it can come in pretty handy. The beauty of the duffel bag starts with the fact that you can find them in really small sizes and they’ll still hold quite a bit of stuff. I carried all of my clothes on my trip to Colorado in a duffel that fit Frontier’s tiny restrictions.

Pros: They’re malleable which means they’ll pretty easily fit your stuff and still be able to contort into that overhead or seat front storage space. They’re also light weight so you won’t have to take it into account when packing.

Cons: There aren’t interior pockets which makes organizing harder. The lack of pockets also make it a rough place to put your laptop or any other important electronics. There also isn’t a lot of shoulder support when you’re holding them, so it’s easy to get tired.

Verdict: They’re great for shorter trips where you can have another personal item to hold your laptops and other valuable stuff.

The Hard-Plastic Roller

I can honestly I have no travel experience with these. But, with some research, they do definitely have their purpose.

Pros: Amazing protection for all your gear. If you’re packing a lot of really delicate or fragile equipment this should be your go to. They also have some pretty standard storage options which equates to more organization (yay!). The 4 wheel design is pretty great when you’re trying to get through airports quickly which is a bonus.

Cons: The hard plastic shell means it’s going to be a bit harder to get into that overhead or under seat storage. The rolling aspect of luggage isn’t always great, especially when you’re in a crowded place. They take up a lot space and their harder to get upstairs.

Verdict: They’re great for trips where you’re not going to be doing too much walking to get to your destination or when you’re not going to do too much shopping. If you need to pack camera equipment or other important tech, this should be your go to. Otherwise, you’re probably better off with a different choice.

The Soft Roller

I probably have the most experience with this type of luggage. It’s one that I have a deep affinity for but also see a large number of personal flaws with, simply from my own experience.

Pros: These have lots of storage and pockets, even the smallest that I’ve seen. They’re malleable enough that they can fit into any storage area pretty easily. Again, the 4-wheel design helps get through airports pretty quickly. They offer fairly medium protection.

Cons: They don’t have a padded laptop section which makes it a bit of a challenge to pack a lot of things. They’re not the most durable, the cloth has a tendency to fray after a number of uses. Again, rolling is an inconvenience when you’re in packed places and they’re difficult to get up the stairs. The expandable storage pockets have a tendency to not be in suitable places which makes some of the pockets ineffective.

Verdict: It’s a good compromise between the duffel and the hard-shell. They easily accommodate many shopping trips while still being malleable enough for a plane ride. However, the wheels do have a tendency to fall apart pretty quickly and absolutely will not do on anything that isn’t a smooth surface.

The Top-Loading Backpack

Of the backpack luggage, I am the least familiar with this. But again, research has provided me with quite a bit of insight.

Pros: They’re malleable without giving up too much protection. They are amongst the lightest of the luggage types which makes them great when you’re carrying a lot of stuff. Padded straps makes carrying more comfortable than your typical school backpack which means less back and shoulder pain for you.

Cons: It’s difficult to reach anything at the bottom of the bag. Seriously, can you imagine trying to get to get your shoes or jeans you packed at the bottom of your bag? It’d be a nightmare! Furthermore, too many top loading backpacks are rather long which makes them inconvenient for carry-on travel. And worst of all, too many top loaders have drawstrings to close them which makes them less secure.

Verdict: If you’re going on a casual trip – aka no hiking – then stay away from these. They’ll give you more of a headache than they’re worth. If you are going on a hiking trip, I highly recommend checking out REI’s post on how to choose a daypack.

The Panel-Loading Backpack

This is my new go-to, my new love. Seriously, traveling with a backpack is the most convenient way I’ve found to travel. Especially because even when I traveled with a soft roller suitcase, I found myself carrying a smaller backpack for day trips anyway.

Pros: They’re malleable without sacrificing too much protection. Every travel backpack I’ve encountered has a designated, padded laptop pocket, which means there’s one less thing to worry about. There’s also a lot of shoulder padding on any good backpack which means you can carry it around for hours without feeling too much strain. Because they don’t roll, you can get through airports even faster and they’re easy to run with if there’s a sudden gate change. They’re versatile: you can often use travel backpacks as every day backpacks and get even more out of your bag. Most importantly, there is a crap ton of storage in well designed, effective places.

Cons: You are carrying everything you own on your back. It does get exhausting sometimes. Rezipping the panel can often be a pain if you’re not using packing cubes (which I don’t). The bottom of travel backpacks aren’t reinforced enough, they would last even longer if they were made from a stronger material.

Verdict: Clearly this is my current favorite. They’re great for any length trips because they’re so easy to pack and carry. They also hold a bunch of stuff without feeling uncomfortably heavy although they do have a tendency to widen in odd ways to accommodate the amount of stuff. As long as you don’t have shoulder or back problems, this is the one that I would recommend for carry-on travel.


Those are my opinions on the various luggage options available. Again, clearly my favorite is the backpack followed pretty closely by the soft sided roller specifically for carry-on packing.

Do you have a favorite type of carry-on? What about specific recommendations for any of the categories?