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How to pick the perfect carry-on luggage

Hardshell or soft shell? Two wheels or four? We break down all the best options in carry-on suitcases that are complaint with Canadian airline regulations.
 Andriy Onufriyenko Royalty-free Getty Images luggage
The only surefire way to prevent lost luggage is to stick with a carry-on whenever possible.

With horror stories of lost luggage and travel headaches (cancelled and rerouted flights, overbooking, crew shortages and endless airport lineups), taking the guesswork out of one of the most stressful parts of the journey — waiting for a suitcase to appear on the carousel — can help ease travel anxiety.

But with full flights comes a big question: will my carry-on make it onto the plane?

One way to protect against having it checked at the gate is to ensure it is the correct size.

What size is carry-on compliant for airlines in Canada?

Air Canada and WestJet allow the same size for carry-on luggage: 21.5" (height), 9" (depth) and 15.5" (width). This includes handles and wheels.

Suitcases must be able to fit in the carry-on bin upon request. And the more full a flight is, the more likely airline staff will check carry-on bag dimensions at the gate to avoid having too many bags and not enough overhead bin space. Airlines are stringent with these dimensions, and extenders will likely get a bag checked at the gate.

A major frustration in shopping for a carry-on is that most do not fit these size restrictions, and they are either too small (meaning a traveller will miss out on getting the maximum amount of space) or they are slightly oversized (sometimes by as little as half an inch).

All sizes are noted in the product reviews below.

What is considered a "personal item" on an airplane?

Personal items are not meant to be an extra piece of carry-on luggage but a small bag that will fit under the seat (think a purse or laptop bag).

The maximum dimensions for this are 13" (height), 6" (depth) and 17" (width). This includes any duty-free or airport purchases.

What are the pros and cons of using a hardshell suitcase?

Pros:  

  • Most have four wheels
  • A more rigid shell equals more protection of items
  • The hard case helps avoid overpacking and creating an "oversize" lump in the front
  • It comes in cooler-looking designs and finishes than soft cases

Cons:

  • Unlikely to have front or side pockets
  • Not flexible
  • Dings and scratches more easily than cloth
  • More rigid (so could be harder to store in a small space)

What are the pros and cons of using a soft shell suitcase?

Pros:

  • Depending on need, it can come in two- or four-wheel options
  • Can include front pockets for chargers/documents
  • Cloth can be spot-cleaned

Cons:

  • Easy to stuff and overpack
  • Fabric can rip/wear out easily
  • Rain, a spilled coffee or other liquids can soak through and stain it

The best carry-on suitcases available in Canada

Briggs & Riley Baseline Essential Carry-on Spinner

Briggs & Riley

Who it's ideal for: Frequent fliers and those who want a quality piece that will last.

Why we're endorsing it: Briggs & Riley name came up frequently in Reddit's "buy it for life" group, with frequent fliers raving about the durability, lifetime warranty and design.

Where it could use improvements: It is ½ inch over the height restriction for Canadian airlines. It's a higher price point than most other brands.

Size/weight/dimensions: 22” (height), 9” (depth) and 14” (width).

Price (subject to change): $699 US directly through the Briggs & Riley website (duty and shipping charges apply) or $859 through Canadian Luggage Depot.

Eagle Creek Adult ORV Wheeled Duffel

Eagle Creek carry on

Who it's ideal for: Travellers who want a piece of luggage with lots of compartments and protection.

Why we're endorsing it: This is for people who prize organization: there are internal and external compartments to separate clean/dirty clothing, padded electronic pockets and multiple straps.

Where it could use improvements: This is a two-wheeler.

Size/weight/dimensions: 21.5” (height), 8.25” (depth) and 14” (width).

Price (subject to change): $359 at Amazon.

Samsonite Freeform

Samsonite Freeform

Who it's ideal for: In searching for the mythical Samsonite Fiero (sold out all over Canada), we came across the sleek, highly-rated Samsonite Freeform.

Why we're endorsing it: Brand trust, 5-star user reviews, 360-degree wheel spin.

Where it could use improvements: This is one inch over the 9" depth dimension.

Size/weight/dimensions: 21.25" (height), 10” (depth) and 5.25" (width).

Price (subject to change): $196.95 (on sale) at Amazon.

Travelers Club Expandable Carry-on

Travelers club

Who it's ideal for: Anyone who wants a bright carry-on that doesn't break the bank.

Why we're endorsing it: Excellent user reviews, relatively inexpensive, sturdy handle and wheels.

Where it could use improvements: Finish can scratch.

Size/weight/dimensions: 20" (height), 8" (depth) and 13" (length).

Price (subject to change): $65.92 at Amazon.

Osprey Adult Ozone Carry-on

Osprey luggage

Who it's ideal for: The traveller who wants durability and flexibility.

Why we're endorsing it: Hard underside, multiple pocket compartments, and the duffel shape gives a touch of flexibility when needing a bit more space.

Where it could use improvements: It is a smidge over the depth dimension of Canadian airlines.

Size/weight/dimensions: 21.7” (height), 9.1” (depth) and 14.2” (width).

Price (subject to change): $299.99 at Amazon.

Travelpro Maxlite 5 Softside Lightweight Expandable Luggage

Traveller luggage

Who it's ideal for: Anyone who wants a dependable, no-fuss piece of carry-on luggage.

Why we're endorsing it: Brand trust, expandable options, four wheels, weighs less than 6 pounds.

Where it could use improvements: Slightly differs from Canadian carry-on dimensions.

Size/weight/dimensions: 21.75” (height), 7.75” (depth) and 15.75” (width).

Price (subject to change): $159.99 on Amazon.

U.S. Traveler Rio Rugged Expandable Carry-on Luggage Set

US Traveler

Who it's ideal for: Anyone who has been envious of the professional-looking carry-on combo that flight attendants and pilots wheel through the airport.

Why we're endorsing it: This matching set is an efficient and organized way to pack a carry-on and personal item without juggling two bags. Expandable sections, durable wheels and tote straps. There are multiple colour options for those who aren't into basic black.

Where it could use improvements: The personal item bag is slightly over the Canadian airline dimensions.

Size/weight/dimensions: Tote bag: 10" (height), 6"(depth) and 14" (width). Carry-on: 21"(height), 7.5" (depth) and 13.5" (width).

Price (subject to change): $79.76 at Amazon.

For a full selection of Endorsed picks for travel (including a luggage scale, packing cubes and security-friendly toiletry bags), check out our Amazon Storefront.