Once upon a time, I proudly toted everything I owned around the world in a carry-on bag. (Here was my carry-on packing list). Since then, I’ve reverted back to checked luggage for a variety of reasons, which I’ll outline here.
I’m not the only one either; while traveling with carry-on luggage was a huge trend over the last decade or so, it’s shifting again. Here are the pros and cons of checked vs. carry-on luggage, along with some criteria to help you make the best decision for your own travel needs.
NOTE: My luggage suggestions in this post have not been influenced in any way; I have purchased all luggage on my own (unless I mention otherwise, in one case), and any luggage suggestions that I have not owned personally have been road-tested and endorsed by friends and colleagues.
If you click any of the luggage links in this post, I will earn a small commission for your subsequent purchase; your own price is not affected, and I thank you in advance for supporting The Professional Hobo this way.
THE CASE FOR CARRY-ON LUGGAGE
Oh, to gallivant around the world without a care, and just a light bag that never leaves your side. To enjoy the freedom of being able to handle anything your travels throw at you, without the weight of the world (or at least, a checked bag) holding you back.
Here are some of the benefits of traveling with carry-on luggage:
It’s Stress Free. No more worries about whether your checked bag made it on the same plane as you; it’s a sure thing.
Faster Airport Arrivals. You’re golden once you’ve cleared customs and immigration. I once clocked 15 minutes from the plane landing in a new country to my walking out of the terminal.
Moving Around Isn’t a Hassle. Changing accommodation/location frequently? Walking your stuff a little further than you thought? Navigating a cobblestone street? No problemo. Packing up is easy (since there’s not much to pack, after-all), and your carry-on luggage is light enough that you can carry it over rough terrain/stairs/etc with ease, even if it doesn’t have backpack straps.
I did two standalone trips with carry-on luggage only, before ditching my checked luggage for good: I spent three months sailing the Caribbean, living on five boats spanning three countries. To do so with a 20kg checked bag would have been a nightmare. The other was a sponsored trip through Europe where I traipsed through eight countries in three weeks; traveling at that pace would have been miserable with a lot of stuff in tow.
Packing is Simple. Even if your carry-on luggage is chock-a-block, there’s still just not that much to pack. Hence, the process is quicker and easier.
You’ll Save on Checked Luggage Fees. With airlines separating out more and more fees (like meals, seat selections, and bags), you can save a few bucks by not having to pay for a checked bag.
Best Scenarios for Carry-On Luggage
You’re Going Somewhere Warm. Hot, preferably. The lighter your clothing requirements, the more packing options you have.
Fixed-Length (Short) Trips. I’ve packed for trips as long as three months with carry-on luggage only. Having said that, I’d suggest the ideal carry-on trip length would be one month or less.
It’s a Busy Trip. The more you have to pack up and move from one destination to another, the better you’ll appreciate traveling light.
Best Carry-On Luggage Types
With increasingly stringent airline carry-on luggage restrictions, the lighter your bags, the better. Here are some specific luggage types and suggestions:
I prefer wheeled luggage in general; I’m spared of back pain, wear-and-tear on my clothing (from hauling on and off a backpack all the time), and call me vain, but I simply prefer the image of rolling luggage vs. backpacks. While some people might argue that wheeled luggage is impractical over rough terrain (like cobblestone or dirt roads), being carry-on sized, it’s light enough to carry by the side handles when necessary.
Wheeled Carry-On Luggage Suggestions
My own carry-on travels have been made pleasurable by the Pacsafe Toursafe AT21 Anti-Theft Wheeled Carry-On, which I absolutely adore to this day. It’s lightweight, has all kinds of awesome security features, and has super sturdy wheels for rolling all over the place. Although I no longer travel full-time with carry-on luggage only, my Pacsafe is safely stashed away somewhere I can pick it up should I have the occasion to leave my checked bag behind for a spell.
I’m not a backpack girl for many reasons (which I outline here). But if you’re going to travel with a backpack, a carry-on backpack makes the most sense. They’re generally the most lightweight form of luggage you can find, allowing you to allocate the most weight and space for your stuff. Aim for a 40 litre (or so) backpack, which will give you the most space while adhering to (most) carry-on luggage rules.
Carry-On Backpack Suggestions
The Osprey Porter 46 is the largest carry-on backpack you’ll likely find at 46L. Osprey makes solid luggage and is particularly adept in the backpack department.
For something a little smaller, and massively popular amongst my carry-on travel colleagues, check out the Osprey Farpoint 40 Travel Backpack. People love it for its versatility, organizational features, and harness comfort (with multiple sizes to choose from, depending on your own size/stature).
Personally, I love Pacsafe, and would consider the Pacsafe Venturesafe EXP45 Anti-Theft Carry-On Travel Backpack for its security features (like slashproof material and tamperproof lockable zips), its light weight, and great amount of space. It also has a front pocket with lots of organization power, and Pacsafe’s signature locking cord so you can lock the bag to a secure fixture.
And, new to this list as of June 2019, is the Knack Pack expandable backpack. What makes it a super-cool carry-on backpack is that it is expandable – the idea being that there’s plenty of space while you’re in transit with all your stuff. The magic happens when you arrive and unpack your things; the Knack Pack zips down and becomes a day bag. This is part of the “One Bag Travel” movement, which I will be writing about in more detail in the coming months.
Knack Pack sent me their Large Expandable Pack for free to try out. At its smallest it’s 22 litres and can fit under the seat in front of you in airplanes. Fully expanded, it’s 37 litres and measures 21.5″ x 14″ x 9.5″ – which fits most carry-on guidelines. It’s made of water-resistant material and has about a gazillion organizational features.
My biggest complaint might be somebody else’s complement; that there’s too many pockets and slots and zippered sections. The first few times I used it I kept forgetting where I stashed stuff! Also, without lockable zippers, I won’t keep anything of value in the front pockets presumably made for things like cards, keys, and passports – with the pack on my back it would be waaaay too easy for somebody to unzip and take my stuff without my noticing. But as a woman that’s not a huge issue anyway, because I don’t ever leave home without my purse (into which such things go).
For a day pack, the large size is…well, large. Although 22 litres is a good size for a daypack, because of the dimensions, it feels large on my small(ish) frame. In some ways, I might prefer their Medium Expandable Pack, which expands from 17 litres to 31 litres. I think the Medium pack would be ideal for short trips and one bag travel adventures. That said, I used the Large pack for a week-long trip, and it’s a good size.
Carry-On Wheeled Backpack Suggestions
I adore wheeled backpacks and have traveled with a few different ones over the years. (See also: Wheeled Backpacks: Why They’re the Best, and Tips for Buying One).
But I would generally shy away from wheeled backpacks of the carry-on ilk, simply because the combination of both wheels and straps comes at a cost of weight and space, which is vital when traveling ultralight.
Having said that, Osprey has (in my opinion) the best carry-on wheeled backpack on the market with the Osprey Packs Meridian 60L/22″ Wheeled Luggage; it’s 60L in total because it features a detachable daypack. You can stow the main pack in the overhead compartment while flying, and keep the daypack (with items like your electronics) at your feet. While in transit, your daypack attaches smartly to the main bag so you don’t have to look like a dork walking around with one pack on your front and one on your back!
CARRY-ON LUGGAGE: THE DARK SIDE
While carry-on travelers sing the praises of ultralight travel (almost evangelically so – I know, I used to be one of them), it also has many drawbacks, some of which might be insurmountable depending on your travel style or trip at hand. Let the carry on vs checked bag debate begin.
Your Wardrobe Will be Extremely Limited. You won’t have an outfit for any occasion; and will likely be perpetually over-dressed or under-dressed. Buying clothes at each destination to suit the circumstances/climate (and getting rid of them before you leave) can be expensive and impractical.
Winter? Forget It. My carry-on packing list got me through three seasons (barely); the sheer bulk of my very limited selection of cool weather clothing made it difficult. Packing for winter climates as well would have been impossible.
Constant Hand Washing. With a limited wardrobe, be prepared to wash your clothes in the bathroom sink all the time. This can get tricky if you’re moving around often and your stuff doesn’t dry easily overnight. If you’re staying in communal quarters, good luck finding somewhere to modestly dry your undies.
You Might Have to Check it Anyway. General airline carry-on luggage dimensions are 22 x 14 x 9 inches (roughly 55 x 35 x 23 cm), but some airlines are much smaller. Other airlines are stingy on weight, some allowing carry-on luggage to be only 5 kg (11 lbs)!
And don’t think the airlines will let it slip if you’re a hair over in weight or size. I recently took a flight where the check-in agents didn’t check the size or weight of anybody’s carry-on luggage if they were checking a bag, but they meticulously weighed and sized up all the bags for people flying with carry-on luggage only. I watched a couple forced to check their carry-on luggage, frantically pulling out their laptops and other items inappropriate for the cargo hold, and having to carry it all in a plastic shopping bag for the rest of their trip. And for this inconvenience, they also had to pay (top price no less) to check their bags at the last minute.
There May Not be Room in the Overhead Bins. Depending on when you board, and how many other people have bulky carry-on luggage, you might be out of luck. Sometimes the gate attendants will nail you before you even board; if too many people have carry-on luggage only (which is common on domestic flights), they’ll go around the waiting room and tag your bag to be checked at the gate, whether you like it or not.
You Might Still Have to Pay. Some airlines are getting cheeky and not only charging for carry-on luggage, but charging even more than for checked luggage. They’re doing a great job of capitalizing on the popularity of carry-on travel.
Long Layovers Suck. Although carry-on luggage is a delight compared to schlepping checked luggage around outside of the airport, toting your carry-on bags around the airport before your flight and during long layovers is not fun. One ill-fated nine hour layover in a poorly laid out airport gave me back pain for a week.
Souvenirs? Think Again. While limiting the things you can buy might be great for tight budgets, sometimes you really want that special something to commemorate your travels. You’ll be outta luck unless you’re prepared to throw something out to make room. Which, to be honest, is also a bit wasteful.
THE CASE FOR CHECKED LUGGAGE
Taking into account the dark side of carry-on travel as outlined above already creates most of my case for traveling with checked luggage. It ultimately depends on you, your travel style, and trip requirements. Here are some general benefits of checked luggage:
No Stress at Check-In. When I traveled with carry-on luggage, I always worried that the check-in agent would deem my bag too big or too heavy. Once, when flying with Ryan Air in Europe, in the middle of a horrendous heat wave no less, I had to wear all my heaviest clothes and hiking shoes for an agonizing flight, and without a reliable scale I still wasn’t sure I was within the weight limit. With increasingly stringent carry-on restrictions, stress at check-in will only increase with time.
Bring What You Want. You don’t have to pack your checked bag to the seams; simply having the option to pack whatever you want and/or to get a few extras along the way makes your trip more civilized, and less an exercise in stingy discipline.
As a full-time traveler, this is the biggest reason I’ve reverted to checked luggage from my former carry-on days. While I was in Asia renting apartments with kitchenettes, I carried a small espresso maker with me to make my morning routine a delight. When I was in South America doing shaman-things, I had space for all my shamanic accoutrements. I also like to have specialized nutritional supplements, which take up space. So no matter where I go, I have room in my luggage for a few extras (adding either comfort or aesthetic value) that make each place I visit feel a bit more like home. (And for a professionally homeless person, this has great value over the long run).
Packing is Easier. Although heaving my 18kg checked luggage up a flight of stairs isn’t exactly pleasurable, at least I don’t have to worry about playing tetris while packing a maxed out carry-on bag. I can use all the organizational packing tools I wish without worrying about the extra bit of space or weight they take up. This makes packing and unpacking (something you do a lot on the road) a dream.
Lost Luggage is on the Decrease. While it only takes one incident to make you reconsider ever checking your bag again, stats indicate that the chances your bag will be misplaced have drastically reduced. According to SITA Baggage Reports, cases of lost luggage are down 70% over the last 10 years, despite global passenger volumes being at record highs.
Best Scenarios for Travel With Checked Luggage
You Travel Full-Time. If everything you own has to fit into your luggage, going with carry-on will involve sacrificing either comfort, style, or versatility (or a bit of all three). Why bother? If travel is your lifestyle, consider just that: it’s your life.
You’re Traveling Through Multiple Climates, Including/Especially Winter. Taking a winter trip alone practically necessitates checked luggage; going from snow to beaches requires even more luggage space.
You Want to Get Souvenirs. If you’re taking a trip of fixed duration and want to bring back some gifts or souvenirs, you’ll have the space with checked luggage. Alternately, you can bring an extra bag to check full of goodies on the way home.
You Travel With a Lot of Electronics. Would you check your laptop or expensive camera? Probably not. Digital nomads in particular are renowned for their electronic requirements; photographers have it the worst with multiple cameras and lenses, and even drones. In these cases, traveling with just carry-on is near to impossible. (See also: Electronic Travel Gear – Travel Experts Reveal What’s in Their Bags)
You’re a Gear Head. If you participate in any kind of specialized sport or activity requiring “gear”, you’d better bring along a checked bag. Some types of gear aren’t even allowable on-board.
Best Types of Checked Bags
While some travelers swear by their giant backpacks, I don’t. So by the process of elimination, I won’t recommend any here. (I speak from experience; click here to see the various backpacks I initially started traveling full-time with, and why I don’t think they make sense).
Okay, then. On with the various checked luggage types I do recommend:
The wheeled backpack is the best of both worlds, and was the first form of luggage I actually enjoyed traveling with. However beware: you won’t want to take it hiking in the countryside. Think of a wheeled backpack as rolling luggage that you can put on your back when you need to. You can reduce the discomfort of using straps by getting a model with a padded hip belt, and pay attention to the construction of the bottom part of the pack, so it doesn’t dig into your back/hips.
Checked Wheeled Backpack Suggestions
If you’re on a budget, check out the High Sierra AT3 Drop-Bottom Wheeled Duffle with backpack straps. This is the newest generation of the wheeled backpack I first started out with, and for the price I loved it. However on this particular model, the straps are pretty flimsy and there’s no hip belt so you won’t want to take it far on your back. And at 32 inches, it’s a bit of a beast.
For something considerably more solid, check out the Osprey Sojourn Wheeled Luggage (25-Inch/60L). I also owned this model and loved it. It’s really spacious, lightweight, and well-made. It has zip away backpack straps and a proper waist belt, and very sturdy wheels. It’s a great lightweight wheeled backpack, but you get what you pay for: it’s pricey.
What I loved most about the wheeled backpack I started traveling with (that has since been discontinued by High Sierra) was that it had a detachable daypack. Most of the time I rolled the bag and wore the daypack, but I always had the option of rolling the whole thing; and when I needed to strap it all to my back, the ability to attach the daypack was invaluable.
For a wheeled backpack with detachable daypack, check out the Osprey Meridian 75L/28IN Wheeled Pack. Downside: no hip belt, which will make carrying it longer distances more difficult. Also, reviews indicate the daypack is pretty small.
Personally, I now travel with checked rolling luggage. Ever since my shamanic escapades, and having a home base that I thought was “for good” in Peru, I now insist on having a few extras that mean my checked bag weighs in at 18-19kg. (Remember, that’s pretty much everything I own).
It’s a little too heavy to wear on my back, so I compensate with indestructible wheels that I can abuse over gravel, dirt roads and cobblestones. But more often than not, if I have any choice in the matter, I minimize actual travel time with my luggage in tow, and will pay extra to travel from door-to-door with it. I have a packable large daypack for shorter/side trips.
(See also: What and How to Pack for Long-Term Travel, with a Video of What I Look For in Luggage, How I Pack, and What I Pack)
Checked Rolling Luggage Suggestions
I currently travel with the Eagle Creek Gear Warrior 29”. At 76L, it’s big, but even when I pack it pretty full, the weight rarely exceeds 20kg). That’s because it’s soft-sided, high-tech, and lightweight. (Click here to learn why I prefer soft-sided luggage). And because it’s soft-sided, I don’t have to pack it to capacity to keep everything from bouncing around inside; the handy compression straps on the outside keep everything together. I watched a friend of mine with the exact same luggage pack it with about half as much stuff (he planned to fill the bag with other things along the way) and the compression straps worked wonders. You wouldn’t be able to do that with hard-sided luggage.
And I can vouch for the wheels; if gravel roads and mountainous terrain in Ecuador wasn’t enough for it, in India I hauled it 4 km (4 km!) on a crappy dirt road (not one of my happiest moments), and it’s still going strong.
However, unless you need to travel with a whole lot of stuff (or want the flexibility to), I would probably recommend Eagle Creek’s little brother: the Eagle Creek Gear Warrior 26″. It’s 65L, but expandable to 70L (awesome!), and it stands a bit shorter and fatter than the Gear Warrior. While the 29” bag looks huge because of its height, the 26” blends in a bit more.
I do adore Pacsafe (I’ve owned a few Pacsafe items in addition to their carry-on rolling luggage), so for checked rolling luggage, I can also suggest the Pacsafe Toursafe 29 Anti-Theft Wheeled Luggage. It’s almost identical to their carry-on model, but a lot bigger – at 96L. Honestly it’s too big for my liking; it’s the same 29″ as my Eagle Creek luggage, but super fat. Even so, it’s super lightweight, has all kinds of great security features, the side and top handles are bomb-proof, and the wheels are just as – if not more – sturdy as the Eagle Creek wheels.
Why Not Spinners or Hard Shell?
You may have noticed that I don’t recommend any spinner or hard shell luggage here. Perhaps I should; but it doesn’t jive for me.
While spinner wheels have the advantage of making rolling your luggage around easier and takes the strain/weight off your arm, the spinners become awkward as soon as the floor isn’t smooth or flat. The wheels also take up valuable luggage space and weight, and they just don’t feel as sturdy to me.
As for hard shell luggage, advocates say that it helps to protect your stuff. Problem is, the only way hard shell luggage protects your stuff is if the luggage is completely full. Otherwise, everything bounces around within the luggage at even greater risk of damage. With soft-sided luggage, if your bag isn’t full, the compression straps will ensure everything is held together securely. Soft-sided luggage is also (arguably) lighter in weight.
Don’t Forget This Crucial Luggage Accessory
Whether traveling with checked or carry-on luggage, I insist on having a packable daypack that I can take on mountain adventures, or grocery-shopping missions alike. Here are my criteria:
- Waterproof (or at least water resistant)
- Comfortable straps
- Ultralight and easy to pack into my luggage
- Sturdy material on the bottom for durability and use
- One or two drink pockets on the outside
My (since discontinued) packable daypack of choice for years was the Outdoor Research DryComp Summit Sack; at 36L, it was waterproof, practically indestructible, large enough to pack for three months of carry-on only travel when I lived on boats in the Caribbean, and sturdy enough to withstand multiple week-long camping trips in the Andes of Peru.
As an alternate, I’ve been road-testing the Free Spirit 30L Adventure Backpack by Gobi Gear, which satisfies all the criteria above, and has the additional benefit of some very cool organizational features (which is a real downside to the Outdoor Research bags, which are dark and cavernous). I’ve used this backpack in multiple scenarios; it’s sturdy and stylish: my kind of bag. Click here to see it in action!
I love writing about this stuff. Evidence:
Lastly, take a look at what I pack, and how, here! (Click here to watch on YouTube)