The perfect carry-on bag……
……does it exist?
Or is the Bigfoot of business travel, sometimes spotted at a distance but never verified up close?
Well – to be fair this is a loaded question.
The most important factor in the equation is:
What are your specific needs?
The importance of each varies from person to person…….
…..but assuming that you're a business traveler like me I can at least give you the tools to make a smart luggage buying decision.
The goal of this article is to help you buy the perfect carry-on piece of luggage.
A sturdy workhorse that looks good, performs under pressure, and lasts longer than most the items you carry inside it!
Carry-On Size Basics: The Right Fit
We're talking air travel specifically here, so the perfect carry-on has to fit in an overhead compartment.
More importantly, it has to make it through whatever kind of measuring tape, cage, eyeball estimate, or other tool the people at the ticket counter use to determine whether your luggage needs to be checked or not.
Different airlines post different maximums, but 22″ x 14″ x 9″ will currently meet all the major North American carriers' standards. This is always subject to change! Check the airline's latest updates before you travel. They get stingier with space allowances all the time.
That means your perfect carry-on needs to measure no more than 22″ x 14″ x 9″ after it's packed. A rectangular bag that fills those measurements when it's empty has no room for expansion, and so can't be overpacked at all.
That's not necessarily a bad thing — overpacking to the point that the bag bulges is hard on the seams and zippers — but it is something to keep in mind. If your carryon bag is flexible enough to expand when packed, and you plan on packing it to capacity, it needs to be slightly smaller than the 22″ x 14″ x 9″ maximum.
Carrying Comfort For Your Carry-On
You're going to be lugging this thing around airports all the time. Getting it from one place to another should be as hassle-free as possible.
A couple of features we've found that make for low-stress luggage:
â€¢ 360-degree rotational wheel mounts. Seriously, this makes a huge difference. If the wheels are locked into a single angle the bag starts to tip any time you change direction. Swivel-mounted wheels save a lot of stopping, starting, and painful wrist-torqueing.
â€¢ Long telescoping handles. Tall guys especially need to find a bag with handles that come all the way up to waist-height. Any lower than that and you're stooping to pull it, which is going to turn into a nasty backache during your flight.
â€¢ Dual carrying handles. One on the top of the bag, opposite the wheels, and one on one of the long sides so that it can be carried suitcase-style. Gives you more options, plus the two points of contact make it easy to sling into overhead racks and car trunks.
â€¢ Cushioned handles. All of 'em. Padded with a nice, thick, extra wrapping, not just a single strap of ballistic nylon. Seriously. Trust us.
There's also a case to be made for backpack-style straps, either hidden behind a zippered panel or fully detachable and packable, but we won't insist on them.
It's a gimmick; if it's a gimmick that works for you, go for it. Other guys hate the idea of wearing a backpack (especially a backpack that has dirty wheels built into its base), and that's fine too.
Access to Travel Items
Remember when carry-on luggage theoretically just held the books and snacks and things you were going to use while you traveled?
Yeah, us neither, but that was the original point of those overhead racks, back in the days when a generous checked luggage allotment was included in your ticket price. Nowadays people are using their carry-ons for as much of their luggage as they can fit, but they still need some space for their in-flight items, too.
Some compartments and extras you'd definitely want from the ultimate carry-on bag:
Water bottle pouch. On the outside; wide enough for at least a 20 oz. bottle.
Magazine/document pouch. Flat, thin enough that you won't be tempted to put anything seriously three-dimensional in there, and zippered or velcroed so you don't have to worry about an explosion of papers while you're swinging the bag around.
Padded electronics pouch. You want it on the outside of the bag, but look for one with reinforced knife-proof fabric and two zipper pulls (so that you can padlock when you're not using your devices).
Travel umbrella clip or pouch. Necessary? No. Nice? Very. The last thing you want to do when you get caught in the rain with your luggage is open the bag up to dig your umbrella out.
External gear strap. A basic ballistic nylon strap that buckles up near the telescoping handles is fantastic for laying a jacket or other small item on top of the bag, buckling it in place, and forgetting about it until you need it. You can also carabineer items to one of these.
Beyond those, external pouches in general are nice to have — look for ones big enough for books, for bags of snacks, and so on. Your goal is to never have to open the main luggage compartment between your doorstep and wherever you're unpacking your clothes.
The most basic carry-on suitcases are nothing more than hollow boxes, maybe with a couple external zipper pouches on the outside of the bag. You throw everything into one compartment and hope for the best.
Can a bag do better?
We like to think so. At the very least, a zippered divider splitting the space in half makes for a nice dirty/clean clothes separation. But why stop there?
Here are some nifty bag organization innovations we've seen:
Shoe pouch. A loose interior flap long enough to hold most of a pair of shoes, with the soles/heels flat against the back wall of the suitcase. If you're not packing a spare pair of shoes, it's soft cloth, so it just lies flat — or you can stuff it with other items. Your call.
Built-in shaving kit. They always fit so much more neatly than a separate version. Bonus points if it clips or zips into place. Extra-bonus points if it can then unfold over a hotel bathroom door or towel hook.
Removable laundry bag. A fully-zippered interior pouch that can be removed entirely. Throw your laundry in there, then pull that one bag out and take it to the laundromat when needed, all without disturbing your other clothes. Neat, right?
Clear document window. Perfect for your packing list, travel contacts, or other important information. A packing list printed right onto the fabric is good too, though it's less customizable.
As long as we're dreaming of perfection, why not put a few more innovation on the wishlist? None of these are essentials, but they'd all be awesome to have in transit:
Built-in battery/charger. A small, rechargeable battery with power and USB ports. Strap it to the inside of the padded electronics pouch and you've got a winner — no more frantic searches for an airport outlet.
Expandable bellows. Folded strips of fabric on one or both sides of the zippered openings that expand when the zipper is under pressure. Helps save wear-and-tear on the zipper if you're stuffing the bag to its limits, expanding its lifespan and reducing the possibility of a luggage-spilling zipper break during travel.
Hidden compartments. You're not going to get anything seriously James Bond unless you shop from highly specialized companies, but a disguised document pouch with a small lock is a nice place to keep things like passports and cash.
Compression straps. External straps and buckles that don't have slack for extra items, but are instead designed to hug the bag tight, compressing the sides. Perfect for chronic overpackers.
Air vents. Either mesh panels or small holes with hardened edges work; both allow the bag to be compressed after zipping up and help luggage breathe in transit so that your clothes don't get a musty smell.
We wouldn't call any of these make-or-break additions, but they're sure nice to have (especially the battery pack — seriously, that extra bit of juice can make a big difference when outlets are scarce).
But Does It Exist?
Good luck finding a bag that has every single one of those features. That, my friend, is still Bigfoot territory, at least for now.
But you can get pretty close.
GeniusPack makes the “Genius Packer 22″ Carry-On,” which incorporates a lot of the most-desired features from this list, including the sealed laundry bag and the built-in battery pack. I have been using this piece of carry-on luggage for 8 months, have used it on a half dozen trips, and love it!
Looking for more tips on classic men's style and grooming?