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More Factors when choosing Wheeled Carry On Luggage

How to make sense of all your different choices

A bag that seems simple on the outside can offer a wonderful variety of added features when you carefully inspect it.

Inside and outside pockets, included suit carriers, and many other things make today's best carry-on bags fully versatile.

.Part 2 of a 3 part series - click for Parts  One  Two  Three



In the first part of this series, we considered some obvious issues such as the size of different carry-on bags and the not so obvious implications of this, and the cost of bags and what they actually offer in the form of ultimate value.

In this second part, we look at more of the factors you need to consider when choosing luggage that best matches your requirements.

Bag Construction

What is the bag made out of?

Leather is expensive and heavy, and also is more prone to show wear and tear.  Leather is a curious contradiction - it can be both robustly long wearing, but is also fragile and prone to showing scratches and other signs of wear.

Leather is also ostentatious, and some people think baggage thieves are more likely to open and/or steal bags that look expensive.

Woven nylon or polyester is the most common material in use.  This can be very resilient and resists being punctured or scratched.  If described as 'microfiber' then it is made of thinner finer strands (usually polyester) than normal woven or 'ballistic' nylon (which is also used in Kevlar bulletproof vests).  It is usually water resistant rather than fully water proof.  Some manufacturers add a Teflon and/or water resistant coating to the material.

Is the bag a 'squishy' bag?  By this we mean is it possible to squeeze it into a tight space, or are the external dimensions fairly rigid and fixed, making it harder to squeeze it into a space that is just a tad too tight?

Solid sided bags can be very strong, but if/when they lose their strength, they then transition to being very weak, and are rarely seen on carry-on luggage.

How is the general shape of the suitcase formed?  Is it by a thin sheet of plastic material that is likely to soften and deform, or is it by a more solid and thicker type of material that will help the bag maintain its shape and provide a limited degree of protection for its contents?

Can the bag be readily repaired?  Look for screws, not rivets, holding the bag together as a good sign of it being able to be conveniently repaired.

Packing Aids

Few carry-ons comprise nothing more than an empty case with wheels and a handle.  Apart from the obvious - a divider between the upper and lower halves, and/or a couple of straps to fasten across the contents, here are some of the other things you might find inside (or outside) your bag.

Suit Carrier

Of course one of the standard fold-over-in-half suit carriers wouldn't fit inside a carry-on suitcase, so the designers got clever and designed a 'fold in thirds' type suitcarrier that you can fit inside your carry-on (usually within its folding lid part).  You'll probably only squeeze one suit inside the carrier, but it provides a convenient and easy way to fold and carry one suit.

Waterproof compartment

Some bags have a waterproof pouch - maybe small in size, maybe larger - into which you can put wet items.  Of course, don't leave them there for too long, or else they may go musty and mildewy.

This compartment can also be used to store items that may potentially leak.  Some sort of waterproof compartment is an essential item to have in your bag, either provided as part of the bag, or separately purchased.

Removable compartments

This is a nice feature - perhaps the bag includes a smaller bag that can be used for toiletries - you pack it in place in the carry-on for traveling, and then unsnap it and take it into the bathroom with you at the destination.

External pockets

Some bags have several external pockets, others have one or none.  External pockets can be convenient for putting frequently accessed items in, and if there are at least two, the small external pocket can be used to hold your tickets.

Some external pockets work so that when you put things in them, they expand out, making the overall bag dimensions larger.  Others work so they expand into the interior of the case, keeping the external dimensions the same and using up internal space instead.

You might prefer one style or the other, depending on how often you have size problems with your bag (or with all the things you're trying to squash into it!).


The bigger your bag, the heavier it will be (all other things being equal).

You might think that the weight of the bag is unimportant, because, after all, it is on wheels.  And to a certain extent, it is unavoidable that a well constructed robust bag will weigh more than a thin flimsy bag.

But, wheels or not, you'll still end up carrying the bag some of the time - perhaps up and down flights of stairs - and also when you try and lift it above your head and into the overhead storage bins on your flight.

There's another possible problem with the heavier weight bags.  Although domestic flights generally allow you up to 35-40 lbs for your carry-on piece (note that Hawaiian limits you to 25 lbs), international airlines are massively less generous.

Check what your weight allowance for carry-on items will be on airlines you're likely to fly, using our page that summarizes this information.  If you're considering flying Alitalia, Finnair, Malaysian or Varig, your weight limit is only 11lbs.  If you fly British Airways, Icelandair or Virgin, your weight limit is only 13lbs.  Most other airlines will limit you to between 15 - 22lbs.

It is not uncommon to find carry-on suitcases that weigh more than 11lbs empty, and even with a more generous 22lb allowance, if your suitcase already weighs more than half that weight, you're sure to go over your allowance and find yourself being forced to check the bag you'd hoped to carry onto the plane with you.

International airlines are more strict about enforcing these limits than the domestic airlines.  If they see a maximum sized carry-on, bulging at the seams, and you straining to carry it, they're very likely to insist on weighing it and then refuse to let you take it on board.

If you travel internationally a lot, you might want to have a lighter weight piece for these flights.

Note that if you're willing to retreat back to a simple duffle bag type carryon, these can be found weighing as little as 3lbs.

Fragile External Bits

Look at the outside of your bag, and ask yourself if any of the parts of it run the risk of being damaged by rough handling.  Are the wheels partially recessed/guarded, or do they stand well clear of the bag?

Are there any catches or other pieces that might get caught?

Nearly all zips these days are of the self-repairing kind (ie nylon rather than metal).  Check also that the zipper pulls are strongly made - when these break off, the zips can become impossible to use (especially if they have the self-locking feature that only releases when the pull handle is tugged).

Costco have a fascinating feature on their carry-on.  Replaceable zipper pulls - and they provide two replacement pulls with the bag.  This is a very desirable bonus.

Check for reinforcing around the corners so that the material won't wear through and the zips are protected.

Towing Handle Design

Look at the handle you'll use to pull the case behind you.

Is it solid, or does it wiggle from side to side?  If it already wiggles loosely in the store, it will only get worse as you use it, and the more it wiggles, the less stable your bag will be, so that it starts to get 'speed wobbles' as you pull it behind you.

How high does the handle go?  You want a handle that is long enough so you can have the bag sloped away from you on a comfortable angle as you walk along - what looks to be a high enough handle when the bag is stationary next to you is invariably too short when it is heavy and being pulled along.

I've measured handle heights ranging from 37" to 42".  For me (fairly tall) the shorter handle heights are too short for comfort.

Some bag handles have two positions, making them more convenient for all members of your family to use.

How is the handle at the top of the twin poles constructed and attached to the poles?  If this should break, all of a sudden, your bag ceases to be a towable wheeled bag and instead becomes a heavy bag you have to carry everywhere.

The handle should open easily with one hand, lock in place, and then retract back to a recessed position where it again locks in place and is protected from accidental opening and external damage.

Internal handle assemblies give you the most efficient use of the maximum amount of bag size.  External ones may be slightly more vulnerable to damage.

Some manufacturers (such as Travelpro with their Platinum 3 ProGrip handle) are now offering apparently more ergonomic designs for their towing handles.  If you find a regular cross-bar awkward to grasp then these other styles might be appealing to you.


Now you've looked at the top of the bag, have a look at the bottom - at its wheels.  Those two small wheels, and the axles they're mounted on, will end up carrying the entire weight of the bag and its contents.

If you 'cheat' and pull it down stairs or over curbs, the wheels will be subjected to strong impact forces, and if they are not very solidly made, they are likely to become the first thing that fails on your bag.  And, just like a broken handle, when you lose a wheel, your piece of luggage changes from something you can conveniently tow along behind you to something you'll have to carry.

A few manufacturers have easily repairable/replaceable wheels.  I always travel with a spare wheel for my large Delsey hardsided suitcase, so that should it ever fail again, I can quickly and conveniently replace the broken wheel in a couple of minutes.


This is a feature which you probably don't want to see on your bag.  Unless the locks are conspicuously labeled as being the new TSA compliant type (which the TSA have master keys for) you run the risk of having the TSA destroy your lock (and perhaps your bag too) if they choose to open it to check for explosives (should you check the bag).

If your carry-on comes with locks, we suggest you throw them away immediately and instead replace them with TSA compliant locks such as the SearchAlert combination locks.

We recommend using combination locks on your travels so that you don't have to worry about losing the keys.

Other Features

Here are some other features and issues to look for on bags.

Handles at Both Ends

Some bags have handles at both ends, to make it easier to shove the bag into and pull it out of a tightly packed overhead.

Feet on a Long Side Too

A few bags have feet on the long side opposite the side with the carry handle.  This is a small but nice extra convenience, so if you're hand carrying rather than wheeling the bag, when you put it down on wet/dirty ground, the bag is better protected.


Some bags are designed better than others for balance and are less likely to fall over when fully packed.

Note that when packing your bag, it is a good idea to put your heaviest items at what will be the bottom when it is standing on its legs, and your lightest items at what will be the top.  This makes the bag both more stable and also gives it a lighter perceived weight at the end of the handle.

Hook for briefcase

Some bags come with a sturdy strap and hook onto which you can hang a briefcase or other bag.

Name and Address Tag

Some bags have a built in holder as part of the outside of the case, into which you can place a card with your name and contact details.  Others include a regular style tag holder that loops around one of the bag's handles, and some bags provide neither.

Stair Sliders

Some bags have one or two reinforced 'runners' on their back.  When you're climbing a set of stairs, you can (if you choose) simply pull the bag up the stairs by the handle, with it sliding up the stairs on these runners.


Some bags can be expanded by unzipping a gusset, or by opening an internal expander.  This might make the bag go over the legal size limit, but worst case scenario is that you then check it rather than carry it on.

One bag tested expanded by a mere half inch - almost a waste of time.  But another expanded by 2" - providing a substantial 30% increase in packing space.

Two, four or six wheels

The typical roll-aboard suitcase has two wheels, at two of the sides of the wide dimension of the bag.  This is only just narrow enough to pull down the narrow aisle of a plane, and can sometimes be difficult to maneuver.

Some bags are available with four wheels on the bottom, enabling them to be propelled both with the wide side or the narrow side spanning the width.  This can be very helpful in narrow spaces such as onboard a plane.

A few bags even have six wheels - two for normal use, and four for pushing/pulling the bag in any direction at all.

Dual purpose convertible pack/bags

Some bags can do double duty as either a backpack or a roll-aboard.  This obviously appeals to some people, but makes little obvious sense, and would seem to result in an object that is both an overly heavy backpack and a weirdly shaped carry-on that ill uses the dimensional constraints available to it.

Combination carry bag/backpack and carry-on

A variation on the preceding type of bag is a bag that has both a traditional carry-on part and a second part which is either zipped on as part of the carry-on unit, or which can be unzipped and then used as a backpack.

Maybe you could use the backpack as a 'daypack' while traveling each day.  Or you can use it as another way to expand your total luggage capacity - start off with one piece, then, when you need more capacity, make it into two pieces that between them now hold considerably more things than before.


The shorter life, limited functionality, and probable inconvenience when a low priced bag fails all encourage one to consider buying an upgraded quality bag to start with.

Mid priced bags (around the $200 - $400 price range) seem to be best value for money.  More expensive bags seldom give appreciably more features or longer life, and less expensive bags often represent false economy.

Most bag manufacturers will not repair bags damaged by the airlines.  But Briggs & Riley have an unlimited lifetime warranty policy and will repair your bag, anytime, for any reason, with no questions asked.

Decide the size and weight limits you'll settle for, and remember that size measurements may not accurately reflect the true external dimensions of each suitcase.

Understand the full range of features that are variously offered by the different bag manufacturers and make your informed choice accordingly.

Read more in Parts 1 & 3

In Part 1 we explain what to consider when choosing carry-on luggage, including a discussion of cost, size and capacity.

In Part 3 we feature a range of comments from Travel Insider readers who report on their own experiences with carry-on luggage.


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Originally published 3 Sep 2004, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

Related Articles
List of Carry-on Bags Reviewed
Our Favorite Carry-on Bags
How to Choose a Carry-on Bag pt 1
How to choose a bag pt 2
Reader comments on their carry-on luggage experiences
Reviews pt 1 :  Briggs & Riley
Reviews pt 2 :  Heys USA
Reviews pt 3 :  High Sierra
Reviews pt 4 :  Samsonite
Reviews pt 5 :  Swany
Reviews pt 6 :  Travelpro
Reviews pt 7 :  Lower priced bags
Reviews pt 8 :  Unusual and specialty bags

See also

Series on larger checked bags - reviews, buyer guide, reader comments, etc

Other related topics

Domestic Airline Carry On Luggage Policies
International Airline Carry On Luggage Policies
Domestic Airline Checked Luggage Policies
Your Rights if your bags are delayed or lost
Luggage Locator review
Distinctive MyTag Luggage Tags
Luggage Transportation Services
Packing Tips


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