How to Choose a the Right Carry On

Laura Lopuch

Do a quick Google search on “carry on bag” and you’re confronted with 6.2 million results.

How can you possibly find the right carry on for you with all those results to muck through?

It’s even harder when you’re not *exactly* sure what constitutes a good carry on to begin with.

Not to worry. There are only seven considerations when choosing the right carry on:

  1. Know what you like in a carry on
  2. Carry on size
  3. Opens like a suitcase
  4. Appropriate internal organization
  5. Laptop or tablet sleeve
  6. Proper ergonomics
  7. Made by real travelers

Compare carry on travel backpacks that meet all the criteria, here.

Know What You Like in a Carry On

Do you like to stash your quart zized liquids bag in a large outer zippered pocket versus the main compartment?

Prefer to be super-duper organized, or do you like your bag 75% (or less) organized? Packing for two people in one carry on? Do you need to be able to carry a little more? Or do you prefer to carry a bit less?

When you know what you need your carry on to do, picking a bag to accomplish that goal is easier. So, first, you need to figure out what you like in a carry on. 

For example, if you want to put your quart bag in a zippered pocket on the outside of your bag, look for a carry on with a pocket large enough to do that.

Or, if the sight of a messy bag sparks a nervous breakdown, get a carry on bag that incorporates effectinve internal organization, splitting up that enormous empty cavern inside your carry on into manageable compartments.

Don’t know what you like in a carry on?

Not to worry. Sometimes it’s hard to know until you’ve taken a few bags out on the road. And, if we’re being honest, carry on luggage is not one size fits all.

So, don’t be afraid to experiment a little. Play the carry on field. Take a few for a spin. Pinpoint what drives you crazy enough to meltdown into Hulk… and what’s just cutely annoying.

Carry On Size

For a carry on to actually be, you know, carried on, it must fall within airline size requirements.

While this seems obvious, you’d be surprised how many larger-than-carry-on bags claim to be carry ons.

For the record: you need a carry on that is smaller than, or equal to 22” x 14” x 9”.

Double-check the size measurements of that carry on you’re eyeing. Make sure it’s smaller than, or equal to, 22” x 14” x 9”. And double check your airline size requirements too; particularly if you’re flying a budget airline that may well have smaller than standard carry on size allowances.

Opens Like a Suitcase

A suitcase — with its clamshell opening — is genius. Unzip that bad boy and survey your worldly goods in one quick glance. Pick out the exact item you need in ten seconds flat.

Hiking-style backpacks with a drawstring top opening — and only one exit — are not meant for the kinds of trips most people take. They are a packing nightmare, and inevitably, that one missing sock or phone charger is all the way at the bottom of the bag, necessitating a complete emptying of the bag. Ugh.

Choose a carry on combines the best of both worlds.

I’m talking about the mobility that a travel backpack offers — that option to go off-roading, skip the long lines at escalators in favor of the empty stairs, hop onto a departing Venetian taxi boat — with the ease of packing found in a suitcase.

For most people, we believe that a travel backpack is the best option.

Appropriate Internal Organization

I’ve traveled with at least 10 different bags. Not all on the same trip, you nut, but different bags on various trips.

Some might call me a bagaholic. My father-in-law would call me a kindred spirit. 

After all those trips and bags, what I’ve concluded is that, my carry on’s main compartment should have at least two zippered pockets. If not, packing cubes become necessary.

Without those two zippered pockets, by day two of a trip, the main compartment looks like a frat house after a three-week party. Nobody knows if that’s a sock, underwear, or beer bong. Too hard to tell. Might as well bomb the entire thing and start from scratch.

Know your packing style. Know the kind of trip you are taking, and choose your bag accordingly. Perhaps you need something that’s obsessivly organized, like the Outbreaker. Maybe you want something with a little more flexibility, like the Setout. 

Laptop or Tablet Sleeve

Even if you’re not a digital nomad, I’m betting you travel with your laptop or tablet.

Perhaps it’s for business, pleasure, or just passing time on long flights. Heck, I travel with my laptop 99% of the time, even on “just for fun” trips.

If that’s you, make sure your carry on has a laptop or tablet sleeve. Bonus points if that sleeve is lined with fleece and has a way to secure your laptop or tablet in the sleeve.

Double bonus points if the sleeve’s compartment unzips to lie flat. So you fly through security checkpoints without needing to take your laptop or tablet completely out of your carry on.

Proper Ergonomics

When you’re looking for a great carry on, pick one with proper ergonomics. Your body will thank you.

If you’re buying a carry on travel backpack, consider the following:

  • Padded shoulder straps: with thick generous padding
  • If it’s a full-size carry on backpack, it needs a hip belt with width larger than 3”
  • If it has a hip belt, aim for one with zippered pockets on it
  • Padded back panel
  • Padded hip belt

A travel backpack can weigh 25-35 lbs when fully packed. Or, if you’re a super-dense packer like moi, your carry on feels like a baby mammoth. Lugging that weight on your back is great for building bones (more stress equals more bone growth), but it’s not so great when you’re trekking a mile to your Airbnb or hotel. Or, when you’re running after the last bus into the city. Not to mention hoofing it around the airport, seeking out a new flight because yours just was canceled.

That’s when you want a carry on travel backpack designed with your comfort in mind. To ease the weight off your back, so to speak.


Made by Real Travelers

Lastly, investigate the company you’re buying from and who runs it. 

Because the really stellar carry ons are made by real travelers looking to solve a problem they encountered. Those people will understand you, and your needs, better.

That’s why Tortuga was started: to solve a problem. To make your travel easier, better, more enjoyable.


There are only seven considerations in choosing a good carry on:

  1. Know what you like in a carry on
  2. Carry on size
  3. Opens like a suitcase
  4. Appropriate internal organization
  5. Laptop or tablet sleeve
  6. Proper ergonomics
  7. Made by real travelers

Find a carry on that hits all seven, and you’ve found your perfect carry on.


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