Now that we live in the UK, we fly somewhere in Europe nearly every weekend. All that getting on and off airplanes, vying for overhead bin space, and adjusting to ever-changing airline luggage restrictions have forced us to thoroughly evaluate the way we travel. For most trips, we don’t take carry on luggage, anymore. Instead, we use a carry on backpack.
There are many benefits to using a carry on backpack, rather than a typical suitcase. One of the biggest benefits is the flexibility it offers.
- I have yet to meet a carry-on backpack that can’t be squished into a luggage sizer for any airline.
- No one has ever asked me to check my carry-on backpack at the gate because the flight was full.
- The bag can always be placed under the seat if you happen to get on the plane last and there’s no more room in the overhead.
- It’s no problem carrying my backpack over cobblestone streets.
If those are not enough reasons to switch to a carry-on backpack, I have a million more for you…. In any case, if you’ve made it to this post you’ve likely already decided to use a carry-on backpack and now you’re just looking for the right one.
You’re in the right hands. We’ve used dozens of different carry-on backpacks over the years. Through all this practical road testing, we’ve found a few backpacks that are perfect as carry-on luggage. All of the recommendations we give fit within the airline regulations and will all fit in the baggage sizer.
The only issue you need to be aware of is that sometimes the airlines will weigh your backpack, and if it exceeds the weight restrictions, you’ll end up paying for it. If you plan to buy a large carry-on backpack, like a 44 liter, you need to be careful not to overfill it. We’ve found that the best size tends to be around 35 liters. It can be filled to the max without exceeding weight limits (unless you pack it full of rocks.
Best Carry On Backpack Quick List
In case you don’t have a lot of time to read all of the reviews below and you’re just looking for a list of the top carry on backpacks, we’ve put together a quick-pick list for you. Everyone’s needs vary, but you should be able to find a backpack in this list that suits your needs. To read our full review for each backpack, scroll down.
Another good option that isn’t included on the list is the Cabin Zero travel backpack. Read our full review of this 44L backpack.
What to Look For: Best Carry On Backpack Essentials
- It should have thick, padded straps to make sure it’s comfortable, even when it’s packed full.
- It should have a sturdy back plate for structure, so it won’t compromise your posture.
- It should at least have sternum straps to take some of the weight off of your shoulders. A waist strap is also nice to have.
- It should have proper ventilation, which comes in the form of breathable material, and an open air design in the back plate.
- You want a backpack that has useful compartments that make organization simple, not more tedious. more pockets aren’t always better.
- It should be easy to get things in and out, so the main compartment needs to open as far as possible. If you carry a laptop, you should look for a backpack with a separate computer pocket (preferably one that can be reached without opening the main compartment.
High-Quality Material and good workmanship
- Most backpacks aren’t fully waterproof, but it’s good to look for one that’s at least water resistant, or has water-tight zippers, in case you’re caught in the rain.
- A strong, sturdy material goes a long way when you’ve packed a backpack full and are carrying it around a lot. The first things to go are often the handles and zippers.
- Most backpacks aren’t going to have lockable zippers, but there are a few now that do. If you can’t find one that does, at least look for one that can be locked with your own mini padlock or caribiner.
- In case your bag gets lost in transit, it’s always a good idea to have theft ID tags attached to the bag.
A good warranty
- If you’re lucky enough to find a bag that comes with a full lifetime warranty – take it! And make sure you keep the necessary paperwork so you can get a replacement. This alone can save you the trouble of having to find and purchase a new bag every couple of years.
Size / Measurements
- The backpack obviously needs to fit the airline requirements for all airlines, so you’re never left with a problem on your hands.
- The right size will vary depending on the length of trip you’re taking and your ability to pack light. I am able to pack for a 5-7 day trip in a 33L backpack. Most people would likely need a 40L backpack for 5-10 days. A weekend-only trip can easily be packed in a 33L.
- Keep weight and size in mind. A 40L backpack is actually quite large or a smaller framed person. You may want the space, but you won’t want to carry that much bulk and weight.
Do You Need a Mens or Women’s Backpack?
Manufacturers have started making backpacks that are specifically designed for men or for women, which can lead to a better fit and more comfort, however I’ve found that it’s not quite as easy as you might think. The major differences of a woman’s pack vs men’s backpack is a smaller torso range, shoulder straps that are shorter and narrower, and wider hip belts. Design is also typically a bit more stylish for women, and rugged for men. Not that we’re stereotyping or anything. Okay, we are.
Really the only way to determine if these specifications work for is to try them on. Some women may find that a men’s pack is more comfortable, depending on their size and build. We’ve found a fairly universal option for both men and women, but if your build varies from what might be considered average, you probably want to try a few backpacks and see.
Carry-on Travel Backpack Reviews
We are really loving the Cabin Max’s bags. It’s a flight-approved carry on backpack that is guaranteed to fit in the overhead bin, and with compression straps on the sides, you can compact it down quite a bit to make it fit the space. This carry on backpack has 44L of space and it’s mostly all available in one large compartment, so you can easily fit packing cubes inside. Two large eBags packing cubes can be stacked inside this bag, with space left over. Even if you don’t use cubes, you can fit more than you would believe in here.
It’s not all just one big space, though. There are 3 main zipped compartments, which includes 2 zipped internal compartments and a front organizer pocket with lots of little spaces and sections to keep it all organized. There’s an additional quick-access pocket on the front. It doesn’t have locking or waterproof zippers. But it does have a 3-year guarantee.
The bag is made with a water resistant material in case you get stuck in the rain. It has adjustable, padded shoulder straps and side (adjustment/compression) straps. The back is padded, but doesn’t have a sturdy plated back that would definitely make it easier to carry long distances.
The bag comes in 30 different colors!
I find the Hynes 38L backpack to be a good medium ground between the larger 40 or 44L backpacks and the smaller 33L packs. I often find that the 33 is slightly too small and the 40 is too big. So this one is the goldilocks of backpacks. Like many of the larger backpacks, this one opens like a suitcase so it’s very easy to pack, especially if you’re using packing cubes. You can easily fit a 3-piece packing cube set, fully loaded, into this case.
It has a top handle and a side handle, plus padded, airmesh straps that stowaway at the back of the pack, so it can be carried as a backpack, a duffle bag, or as a suitcase, depending on your needs. As a backpack, the straps are adjustable and padded. There’s also a sternum strap for added comfort. The approximate dimensions are 13 x 7.9 x 19.7 inches, so it will easily fit within all airline restrictions. The bag alone weighs just 1.72 lb.
It has a large, spacious interior compartment that comes with compression straps to lock down your stuff and make more space. There’s also a large outer pocket for larger items and a small front pocket that is useful for stowing small stuff, like passports and cell phone. There aren’t a lot of extra features on this backpack. And one thing we don’t love is that there isn’t firm structure to the back.
This 40L backpack is a great choice for a 7-10 day trip. It’s a carry-on size for airlines, so it won’t need to be checked, even on smaller and European airlines, where the specifications are tighter. Just make sure to weigh it before traveling, because the space allows for more weight than the allowable limit.
Not only does the Kelty Redwing provide a great fit, it has outstanding comfort features that are built specifically for women. The shoulder straps and hip belt were built to fit a woman’s body and provide great padding to help with comfort when carrying this large of a bag. It can easily fit up to 20 pounds, so when carrying it for long amounts of time you need to make sure the straps are properly adjusted to disperse the weight.
The padded hip belt works wonders for transferring the weight off your shoulders and the airflow back panel provides ventilation as well as adequate padding. The pack also has a sternum belt and side compression straps. When not in use, you can remove the hip belt.
The backpack has a large center compartment, which has a u-shaped zipper that extends down the sides of the pack, making it very easy to load. There is a laptop compartment that doubles as a hydration pack compartment. While this compartment is perfect size for a hydration pack, it will only fit a slim 15″ laptop. The side compartments are also handy for storing items in that you need quick and easy access to and they are large enough to hold a rain jacket or packable day pack. They have a pass-through slot behind them to hold larger items like walking poles or umbrella. The zippered front pocket provides organization for travel books, Kindle, Tablet, pens, etc.
If the 40L size doesn’t work for you, check out other Kelty Backpacks sizes. There are quite a few options.
The eBags Mother Lode backpack is one of my favorite backpack on this list because it has so many more features then the others. However it also has the price tag to go with it. If you’re looking for a cheap base model, this isn’t it. This is the Cadillac of bags. It’s called the Mother Lode because of its enormous capacity. When fully expanded, the bag has a capacity of around 54 liters, which is one of the biggest on our list. However, if you expand it all the way, it may not pass the airline restrictions for some budget airlines. It measures 22″ x 14″ x 9″, and when packed full can weight up to 30 pounds. For this reason, we actually prefer the Mother Lode Junior, which 19.5″tall.
As mentioned, there is a capacity extender that adds 10% additional space. Because of the size of the bag, it really needs a more sturdy back panel to make carrying less of a burden. When it’s packed full, it can feel very heavy, even with the padded straps and sternum strap. There is a waist strap as well. We feel the back of the bag just needs a bit more structure.
The main feature of this bag are the large internal capacity that comes with an internal divider and compression straps, plus a mesh pocket and extra zip pouch that snaps in. It has a fairly large exterior pocket with lots of organizers built in, plus a quick access pocket at the top for smaller things. There is a pull-out water bottle sleeve. Best of all, there is a dedicated laptop pocket at the back that can fit laptops up to 11.75 x 17.5. The bag comes with a limited lifetime warranty against defects in materials and workmanship.
The Enterprise backpack is the smallest on our list, but it’s my preferred backpack. We’ve been using this backpack for over 8 years and it’s held up through everything we’ve put it through. It remains the most comfortable to carry, and even if you stuff it completely full it isn’t too heavy to carry or too bulky to fit under the seat on the plane or in the overhead.
The size is 33 liters, which might not be big enough for longer trips, but it has plenty of space for up to a 7-day trip if you pack light. There is a large main compartment, with a padded laptop sleeve in the back and a hideaway pocket in the front. There’s a smaller compartment on the front that includes two zippered pouches and a separate internal pouch, so you can keep all your items separate and safely stowed away. On the front face of the bag are two vertical zippered compartments. Each can hold a Kindle and/or tablet. There are large stretchy water bottle holders on both sides of the bag.
The best part about this bag is the sturdy back panel. None of the other bags we’ve mentioned here have a back panel, but the Enterprise has a very sturdy, though flexible framesheet that not only keep the back firm, but also provides airflow along the spine. You won’t believe how much easier this bag is to carry because of that framesheet. It makes a huge difference. It also has padded, adjustable straps, an adjustable sternum strap and a waist strap. The backpack’s two handles (on top and side) are heavy duty and comfortable to grip, even when the bag is full.
One thing to note, this bag often goes out of stock and may be difficult to find, so if you see it on offer, I recommend not waiting to buy it.
Now you’ve got six fantastic carry on backpack options to choose from. We hope you’ve found the perfect backpack for you on this list. These have been our favorite workhorse backpacks for quite a while now and we think you’ll love them too. If you have a recommendation that you don’t see on the list, let us know and we’ll check it out!
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Laura Lynch is the creator and writer of Savored Journeys, an avid world traveler and lover of great food and wine. She has been a travel writer for over 20 years and has visited 70+ countries.