There are two types of travelers in the world: those who travel exclusively with carry-on luggage, and everyone else.
There’s definitely a case for traveling carry-on only. Weekend trips, tight layovers, valuables you’d rather weren’t stolen by bag handlers, not to mention avoiding the anxious waiting in luggage reclaim to find out whether your bag has made the journey with you. That last bit is the most nerve-wracking part of traveling for me.
Having everything in a single bag or case just makes traveling much easier. You’re no longer constrained by your luggage when waiting to check into a new Airbnb, for example, or finding yourself having to take an expensive taxi from the airport because you can’t mange all your bags on the subway.
As ever, good gear makes all the difference. The best carry-on luggage is easy to lift and move even with heavy loads, flexible enough to accommodate different types of trip, and very durable. When you’ve only got one bag, you really need it not to break.
That’s why we’ve pulled together seven of our favorites (plus two close contenders) to come up with the best carry-on bags for every kind of digital nomad and frequent traveler right now.
- Style: Backpack
- Volume: 45 liters
- Dimensions: 22 x 14 x 9 inches/56 cm x 36 cm x 23 cm
- Weight: 3.9 lb/1.8 kg
- Style: Backpack
- Volume: 30 liters
- Dimensions: 19.5 x 13 x 10 inches/50 x 33 x 25 cm
- Weight: 2.8 lb/1.3 kg
- Style: Backpack
- Volume: 40 liters
- Dimensions: 21.3 x 13.8 x 9.1 inches/54 x 35 x 23 cm
- Weight: 3.2 lb/1.4 kg
- Style: Rolling suitcase
- Volume: 40/42 liters
- Dimensions: 21.5 x 14 x 9 inches/55 x 35 x 23 cm
- Weight: 6.5lb /2.9 kg
- Style: Hard suitcase
- Volume: 27 liters
- Dimensions: 21.9 x 13.9 x 8.9 inches/56 cm x 36 cm x 23 cm
- Weight: 9.9 lb/4.5 kg
- Style: Backpack
- Volume: 30 liters
- Dimensions: 21.3 x 10.6 x 8.3 inches/54 x 27 x 21 cm
- Weight: 2.9 lbs / 1.3 kg
- Style: Rolling suitcase
- Volume: 26 liters
- Dimensions: 17.5 x 14.5 x 8.5 inches/44 cm x 37 cm x 22 cm
- Weight: 5.5 lb/2.5 kg
Best for Digital Nomads: Tortuga Setout
Traveling as a digital nomad comes with a specific set of challenges. Carrying more technology than the average vacationer, you’ll likely spend months or years on the road rather than a few weeks. As a result, your luggage needs to be practical, comfortable on the move, and above all, reliable: broken straps, wheels, or zips cause major problems.
As full-time travelers ourselves, we’ve used a range of different luggage types and brands over the years. Some have been general-purpose bags, but we’ve had more success with backpacks specifically aimed at digital nomads, especially when it comes to carry-on.
Tortuga has been around for several years now, quietly turning out a small range of high-quality carry-on backpacks for digital nomads and other frequent travelers. While the Tortuga Outbreaker is the company’s premium model, it’s actually the mid-range Setout that’s our top pick, for a variety of reasons.
Like all Tortuga backpacks, the Setout opens up like a suitcase for faster, more efficient packing and unpacking. There backpack has three separate sections, each with a different purpose, and accessible by their own zip. All of the zips are high-quality lockable YKK versions.
The rear section (closest to your back) contains a padded laptop compartment that’ll hold anything up to a 17″ model, with a ~10″ tablet compartment in front of it. Having these at the back helps with protection, weight distribution, and security, so it’s a sensible decision.
The main middle section fully opens up to reveal a single rectangular compartment, ideal for use with packing cubes. Tortuga makes a set of three sized precisely for the Setout, although you can use your own (or none at all) if you prefer. Two mesh pockets on the other side are useful for dirty clothes or other stuff you want to keep separate.
The front section of the backpack opens up part-way, with pockets for storing smaller items like passports, Kindles, keys, and pens. There’s also room for larger items at the bottom of this section: maybe a lightweight jacket or pair of flip-flops.
There’s also a water bottle holder on one side, a small external pocket, and a couple of little pockets on the adjustable hip belt for coins or keys.
The straps are made from an injection-molded plastic that conforms to your body shape over time, and can be removed and stowed in the rear panel. That’s useful if you ever need to check the bag and don’t want the straps to get damaged.
It’s a very practical design, easy to pack and carry, and a high-quality piece of travel luggage. Although it’s quite similar to the Outbreaker model, we prefer the Setout for a couple of reasons. To start with, it’s noticeably cheaper (at least $100, sometimes more) without making major compromises.
You lose a few pockets, a degree of water resistance, and the ability to adjust the height for different torsos, but you get over a pound of weight reduction in the process. When you’re traveling carry-on, saving that extra 1.2 pounds makes a big difference.
Both the Outbreaker and the Setout are available in either 35 or 45L variants, but only the Setout has both men's and women's versions. The latter has a narrower fit, extra padding, and a different placement for the chest strap, making it the obvious pick of the two for female digital nomads.
Sensibly designed, well made, and very reasonably priced for what you get, the Tortgua Setout is easily our top carry-on luggage pick for digital nomads.Buy on Amazon
Best for Low-Cost Airlines: Osprey Porter 30
Osprey gear is beloved by backpackers all over the world, and for good reason. With solid materials, comfortable designs, lightweight construction, and a lifetime warranty to boot, what’s not to love?
Its Porter range ticks all the boxes: front-loading opening, stowaway hip belt, accessible compartments (including a top pocket for valuables or toiletries), reinforced back support, and a spacious main section.
Padded sidewalls keep the contents protected, especially on the back, where a hidden sleeve can fit laptops up to 15 inches. The backpack comes in several sizes, the smallest of which (30 liters) fits the carry-on limits of almost every airline including Ryanair. Yes, we’ve tried.
If you’re not flying with budget airlines with ridiculous bag size limits, you may want to consider the Farpoint 40 (below) instead: it gives more space and a couple of handy extra features at a similar price. When space is super-tight, though, the Porter is where it’s at.Buy on Amazon
Best for Backpackers: Osprey Farpoint 40
Looking for something slightly larger than the Porter? Osprey’s Farpoint 40 is very popular in the digital nomad community. It’s strong and sturdy, easy and comfortable to carry, with that same great Osprey warranty. The 40-litre capacity is enough for open-ended travel, yet still squeaks under the carry-on limits for most airlines.
If you do need to check the bag or stow it for a long-distance bus ride, the back panel with hip belt and harness system can easily be zipped away to prevent damage. The Farpoint has two compartments that can be locked together with a padlock, with the smaller one ideal for a laptop or tablet up to 15″ in size.
Inbuilt compression straps help keep everything organized while letting you squeeze in a couple of extra t-shirts. If you want to maximize your carry-on, this is the right choice. We’ve used it for trips ranging from a few days to six months around the world, and never once wished we had more room.Buy on Amazon
Best for Business Travelers: Dakine Carry-on Roller
Business travelers tend have a slightly different set of requirements to digital nomads and other long-term travelers. While they’re still looking for something easy to pack and move that will keep their laptops protected, it also needs to keep clothes unwrinkled and be discreet enough to look professional. Enter the Dakine.
Anything up to a 17″ laptop stays safe in a padded external pocket, while the split-level design keeps clothes organized and accessible. The case is within carry-on limits for most airlines, but unzipping a hidden panel adds 15 liters of space if you’re happy to check it in.
Dakine offers a limited lifetime warranty, giving peace of mind if you’re on the road all the time. Unlike many other luggage brands, the wheels are also fully replaceable. Since they’re often the first things to go on any roller suitcase, this is a great feature.Buy on Amazon
Best for Photographers: Pelican 1535 Air Case
Whether they check a bag or not, photographers are likely to need a quality carry-on on every trip. Expensive gear should never be carried as checked-in luggage if at all possible, and when your trip and career depend on it, doubly so. When you’re carrying thousands of dollars worth of delicate equipment, keeping it safe is super-important.
Hardshell cases are typically best for this, since they help protect against knocks, drops, and sharp objects as well as dust and water. Configurable foam dividers on the inside help keep everything from moving around, ideally adjustable for a wide variety of gear.
With all of this in mind, Pelican’s Air line is hard to beat. The company has been making high-end protective cases for years, and built from a proprietary polymer, this carry-on sized case is as tough as they come.
The padded interior ensures the contents are protected and can survive the rigors of travel far off the beaten track. An automatic purge valve keeps water and dust out while balancing air pressure, and there are retractable handles and ball-bearing wheels for easy maneuverability.Buy on Amazon
Best for Security: Pacsafe Venturesafe X30
Pacsafe is known for its focus on security, and its Venturesafe X30 backpack is no exception. From the inbuilt wire mesh that protects against cuts and slashes to the anchor strap, lockable zips, and RFID protection, this is the backpack you want if you’re worried about having your gear or identity stolen.
Unlike many carry-on sized backpacks, the pack comes with both chest and hip belts to better distribute weight and make the bag easier to carry. This also allows it to do double duty as a hiking daypack, helped out by the dual water bottle compartments and hydration sack support.
Several different pockets help keep everything organized, and the sleeve for the hydration sack is padded and can hold laptops up to 15″ as required. Another nice touch: the waist strap can be easily removed and tucked away as needed, so there’s less chance of it getting snagged or damaged on travel days.
Thanks to the wire mesh and other security features, it’s not the lightest 30-liter backpack we’ve come across, but it’s far from the heaviest. It’s also typically a bit more expensive than other carry-on backpacks, but if keeping your stuff safe is a priority, it’s hard to go past the Venturesafe X30.
Best Underseat Bag: Travelpro Maxlite Underseat
Ever been one of the last to board a plane, and been told your carry-on can’t come into the cabin with you because the overhead bins are full? I certainly have, and when I’m traveling with a bunch of electronics, it’s a real problem.
There’s an easy way to avoid this happening in the future: an underseat-sized suitcase. You’ve probably seen them around, as many flight attendants use them as their carry-on of choice.
It’s easy to see why: a bag you can keep underneath the seat in front of you, that you don’t have to lift up and down or fight to find overhead bin space for? What a winner.
The Travelpro Maxlite is an excellent example of this. At 26 liters it’s a small bag, but one that’s full of features. Compartments include a padded laptop sleeve, removable plastic pouch for toiletries or office supplies, and several external quick-access pockets.
It’s easy to travel with once you’re off the plane as well, thanks to the inline wheels and sturdy telescoping handle. The best aspect, of course, is having everything within arm’s reach throughout the flight, since the bag is designed to fit under the seat of most airlines.Buy on Amazon
We Also Considered
We also considered the following backpacks. They’re both good choices for certain types of digital nomad, but didn’t quite make our final list for various reasons.
The Minaal Carry-On 3.0 is a favorite with many location-independent travelers, albeit a pricey one. The base price is $349, and you’ll pay extra for a hip belt. That high cost just kept it off our main list of recommendations.
That said, for the money, you get a great piece of luggage, with excellent weight distribution and a practical, understated design. With the straps stowed away, it can comfortably be carried like a duffel bag or suitcase as well. The padded device compartment holds up to a 15” laptop.
We talked a little about the Tortuga Outbreaker earlier. The premium version of the Setout, it’s more rugged and comes with extra padding, pockets, and adjustability, but it’s also noticeably more expensive and doesn’t come in a female-specific variant.
If you’re particularly short or tall and need the height adjustment of the Outbreaker, expect to give your backpack an extremely hard time, or will regularly wear it in the rain, this is very much the model to go for. For the majority of travelers, though, we think the Setout is the better option.
Main image via Anne Worner, Tortuga Setout image via Tortuga, other product images via Amazon
Here’s the dilemma: 7 KG carry-on limit Air Asia, Indigo, SpiceJet, etc. A spiceJet check-in agent wasn’t going to let me board for 2 KG over. I had to leave a fantastic TravelPro tote at home because it was too heavy. And switch to my Ozone 18” wheelie (4 pounds).
With an array of photo/electronics which are uncheckable it’s getting trickier and trickier to get on a plane. I’ve had an agent force me to take off my Scottie vest and weigh it as part of carry-on.
Some good news: Indigo and China Southern assured me that “personal item” laptop doesn’t count as weight!? My seat mate brought a 15KG laptop bag stuffed for free. But it’s a crap shoot. Best bags don’t mean a thing if you’re forced to put it into your checked luggage.
I’m about to test my luck again with a pro rig: 5D Mk3 with a 28-300 lens-3KG by itself. I’m gonna try it on my shoulder.
Live from Kuala Lumpur.