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There are two types of travelers in the world: those who travel exclusively with carry-on luggage, and the rest of us.
Personally, I’m usually still a checked-bag type of nomad. I’m all for traveling light, don’t get me wrong, but relying exclusively on a carry-on is often more trouble than it’s worth. Lugging my bag all around the airport, packing tiny toiletries away in quart-size bags, fighting for space in the overhead bins: no, thanks.
That said, 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.
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.
We’ve found seven great carry-on bags that fit the bill for every kind of digital nomad and frequent traveler.
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 line 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 (we’ve tried).Buy on Amazon
Best for Backpackers: Osprey Farpoint 40
Looking for something slightly larger? 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.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 EXP45
Pacsafe is known for its focus on security, and the Venturesafe EXP45 backpack is no exception. There are five separate anti-theft mechanisms including an inbuilt locking cable, plus slashproof material in the straps and main compartment.
Note that the 45L Venturesafe uses every possible square inch of airline carry-on limits. If you’re flying on airlines with particularly strict requirements, you may get a few questions!
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. The main compartment also fully opens up, so you’ll be able to take advantage of all that extra space!
Several different pockets help keep everything organized, including an internal sleeve that holds laptops up to 15″. Another nice touch: the straps can be easily tucked away as needed, so there’s less chance of them getting snagged or damaged on travel days.Buy on Amazon
Best on a Budget: AmazonBasics Belltown Carry-On Suitcase
Traveling on a budget doesn’t mean you have to travel with crappy gear. Amazon knows this, and its AmazonBasics luggage line is aimed at those looking for mid-range cases at low-end prices.
This carry-on suitcase doesn’t have many bells and whistles, but focuses on the things that matter. The spinner case is solid yet lightweight, making it easy to maneuver and carry when the need arises (eg, every train station and cobbled street in Europe).
It’s available in a range of colors, with an expandable section to add extra capacity when you need it. The understated design won’t attract attention, which is exactly what we look for from our luggage.
In terms of size, don’t be fooled by the small exterior. With two front zippered sleeve pockets (which can fit a laptop), multiple compartments, and a spacious interior, you can still fit everything you need for a lengthy trip.
The cherry on top? An unbeatable price. If you’re not a backpack kind of traveler, this is the ideal way to get a reliable and useful piece of luggage when you’re on a strict budget.Buy on Amazon
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 is a favorite with many location-independent travelers, albeit a pricey one. The base price is $299, and you’ll pay extra for a shoulder sling or hip belt.
That said, for the money, you get a great piece of luggage, with excellent weight distribution and a practical, understated design. With the shoulder sling and 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.
The Tortuga Outbreaker Backpack costs about the same, and has a 45L capacity. It’s front-loading, so you can pack it like a suitcase while stowing your notebook in the 17” sleeve. If you’re like me, packing and unpacking loose items like passports and phone 146 times in every airport, you’ll especially enjoy the large, accessible hip pockets.
Given its wide dimensions and higher price, the Tortuga isn’t ideal for everyone, but it’s a good option for broader-shouldered travelers.
Feature image via Anne Worner