I’m a travel editor who flies a lot (in 2019, I flew 46 times), and I try my best to only travel with carry-on. But every airline has different size dimensions, making going carry-on only a frequent minefield — no matter how many times I check my suitcase size, I still feel a frisson of fear when I spot the airport bag-size-checking cages. And now on many airlines, including EasyJet, WizzAir, Norwegian, and Ryanair, you have to pay for the privilege of using the overhead lockers too. Otherwise all you get is an itsy-bitsy under-the-seat bag — the weeniest of which belongs to Norwegian, with specs of 30 by 20 by 38 cm. As well as an extra layer of cost, it’s created a new approach to size rules: If you are happy to take a bag, rather than a suitcase, you can fudge some of the dimensions (whereas being a scant centimetre oversize on a suitcase can see you having to pay to check it into the hold). As long as a “personal item” bag fits under the seat in front of you, it’s good to go, so squishiness is a massive factor.
Even in the face of airport chaos and cancellations — plus some passport-renewal complications — air travel is still making its comeback. To help you navigate both the cabin-bag rules and what may be an unfamiliar return to packing, I asked nine frequent flyers to share their top carry-on bags and cross-checked each one against the four major budget airlines’ size guidelines. The result includes every type of bag that you can call a “personal item” (that will still fit enough for a solid weekend or even week away), as well as some bags that can go in the overhead locker if you want to pay extra, but still fly carry-on.
The best overall carry-on bag
Dancer and event planner Katherine Squires recommended this backpack, which fits each one of our main four airlines’ under-seat size requirements at 36 by 25 by 3 cm. Even Norwegian. This small but perfectly formed backpack is seriously handy, says Squires, who’s often hopping on and off flights for shows and events. “You can completely open the front flap,” she says, “so if you’re looking for something at the bottom you don’t have to pull everything out.” It also has a super secure padded back pocket and “a removable pad you can use as a seat if you end up sitting on the floor in the airport.”
The best carry-on duffel bag
Food-focused travel blogger Maddy George would “100,000 percent recommend” this durable bag from the North Face. She’s taken it on loads of trips and it’s “still in excellent condition.” Being a duffel bag, it has “loads of space” (50 litres) to stuff all your bits into but is still “super easy to carry as you can wear it on your back” thanks to detachable shoulder straps. It’s also water repellent and made from “good, thick material that’s somehow still lightweight.” It’s too big for under the seat, but can be used as an overhead cabin bag — though watch out for its two 32.5-cm length and width dimensions, which will put it over a few budget airlines’ sizes without squish room.
The best carry-on backpacks
“I do love a rucksack as under-the-seat luggage,” says Tate. This Patagonia backpack is Tate’s choice. It’s “super comfortable” and fits 35 litres’ worth of stuff in. It’s also especially good for anyone into beach holidays, rainy hikes, or water sports, as it’s made from an ultra-waterproof material and has an outer mesh pocket so you can keep wet clothes separate from the things you want to keep dry. Don’t be stressed by its 76-cm length — much of that is the roll-top closure — and the fabric is flexible enough that the bag can be pressed down to the size you need, making this a viable under-seat option for all four budget airlines with some clever packing.
This bag fits the easyJet under-seat size rules perfectly at 45 by 36 by 20 cm, but not WizzAir, Ryanair, or Norwegian (though multiple websites selling it claim that it can fit on Wizz Air). Maria Roa, who runs a visual diary of her travels online, bought it specifically to fit the new stricter luggage rules and hasn’t had any issues with fitting it under airline seats yet. “It’s comfortable to wear,” she says and she loves the “position and number of zips and pockets.” It’s got an organiser pocket, a quick access front pocket for travel documents, as well as larger compartments to keep things like toiletries separate.
Travel blogger Shannon Slater-Johnson has had this backpack from Osprey for five years and has taken it on two trips travelling around south east Asia: “It still looks almost brand new.” One of Osprey’s smallest travel packs, you can take it as an overhead carry-on bag for most airlines, bar Ryanair. “It’s perfect for both quick weekend trips and longer trips where you’ll be moving around a lot and a suitcase just isn’t practical,” says Slater-Johnson.
“It opens like a suitcase giving you easy access to all of your things, has loads of pockets, including a laptop compartment, and is really comfortable to wear thanks to padded straps.” They also now have a women’s version of the backpack, which wasn’t around when Slater-Johnson first purchased her bag, “but it’s the exact same thing, just designed especially for women in terms of fit and support.”
Though the dimensions of this bag are 47 by 34 by 23 cm, putting it over all our main four airline’s under-seat sizes, it can be heavily squished to fit, says travel blogger Christina Patel: “I just put a few items of clothes in there and my laptop too if I need to do any work.” She’s used it on multiple Ryanair trips where she’s only been allowed an under-seat bag. Handily, the bag also has a security-friendly, lay-flat tech compartment that lets your iPad and laptop go through the scanner without having to take them out.
Student Clare Cooke is freshly back from extensive backpacking adventures around southeast Asia, all done with an Osprey travel pack in tow. The full backpack isn’t quite small enough at 64 by 35 by 31 cm for carry-on, which is what Cooke needed — “I was away for months and had all my liquids and worldly possessions with me” — but has a detachable 13-litre “daypack” she uses as an under-seat carry-on that fits all four airlines under-seat size specs. As well as its two-in-one use, the bag has a padded laptop sleeve, a handy compression system to squeeze your stuff down, and a scratch-free pocket to keep your sunglasses in.
This is another bag that falls afoul of “personal item” restrictions on just one measurement — its 49cm length is one to watch for if you’re putting it under a seat. But otherwise, it’s a fantastic bag to travel with. “It’s lightweight, durable, well-stitched, water-resistant,” enthuses Roa, who uses it as both a daily work bag and for her travels. It has a built-in battery, so you can juice your phone while on the go and is “super safe with a password lock and double metal zippers” so you don’t have to worry about pickpockets getting in.
The best weekender carry-on bags
“I’m all about that carry-on life,” says Alice Tate, head of PR & comms at the Hoxton Hotels group and owner of the Flash Anthology travel website, “even for long haul”. Her go-to bag? The Away Everywhere bag. “I squeezed two and a half weeks in India under the seat in front with this. It comes on holidays, work trips, overnighters in the countryside, you name it.” It’s water-resistant, comes in stylish but dirt-friendly colours, and has a trolley sleeve so you can pop it on top of a suitcase should you also be bringing a wheelie suitcase with you. It also has a 15-inch laptop compartment and a separate section for shoes, “which encourages me to pack my running trainers.” Alas, it is a scant few centimetres too big for Ryanair’s under-seat restrictions (and more than a few over Norwegian’s), so if you’re travelling with either airline be sure to leave room in the bag to squish it smaller.
“My Matt and Nat bags are all really spacious,” says Jessica Prupas, an editor at Ink Global, a travel-media company. “It’s a fantastic brand for people who don’t want to buy leather.” Every bag from the brand is made from a “really nice and hardy” vegan leather. The interior linings are also made from 100 percent recycled water bottles. Better yet, they’re “reasonably priced relative to the amount of wear you’ll get out of it,” she says. Prupas has had her Abbilg weekender bag for years and years “and it’s still in really good shape.” It’s 43 by 34 by 18 cm, so will fit easyJet’s under-seat specs, but may be a squeeze for Ryanair, WizzAir, and Norwegian, given it’s made from a sturdier, less squishable material.
If you are happy to pay extra for a larger overhead cabin bag, Prupas also recommends the Andro weekender bag from Matt and Nat. “This style is so stylish and fits all airline’s overhead carry-on specifications,” she says, with the bag coming in at 50 by 29 by 25 cm. It also has a removable shoulder strap to make it easier to carry.
The best overhead carry-ons
“I love the retro style of this case,” says Roa. “It’s just really smart but lots of space and pockets make it so practical for a long weekend break.” It’s got a strong plastic outer shell and reinforced corner protectors, so it can take a lot of bumps, and has four dual spinner wheels so it’s really manoeuvrable. Most importantly, it’s 55 by 35 by 20 cm, making it a perfect fit for pretty much every airline’s overhead cabin bag requirements — including Ryanair.
Squires swears by Away’s Carry-On suitcase if she’s “going away for a longer trip rather than just an overnight stay or weekend.” You’ll likely have seen it across Instagram, as it’s very much the influencer case of choice — and has everything you’d expect and more. “It’s got a really tough waterproof outer, so all my stuff stays totally protected (important if I’m travelling with makeup and costumes!),” she says, “plus a compression system to clamp down my clothes” and a hidden laundry bag to keep used items separate. “It also has a built-in USB charger you can pop out and carry with you if you need.” The case fits WizzAir, Norwegian, and easyJet’s overhead cabin size, but not Ryanair’s.
Telegraph travel writer Emma Featherstone loves this blue carry-on from Eastpak, a brand that “was so cool back when I was a teen.” With “noughties fashion back in style,” the bags are once again a desirable travel companion. Plus the “light, colourful, collapsible” cases can take everything you need for a full trip while still fitting into an overhead locker. “I can easily drag it around airports and through cobbled city streets, then stow it away under my bed when I’m home,” she says. Note: The bag is three centimetres over Ryanair’s depth spec on overhead bags, so it may not be allowed.
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