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Travel tips

A comprehensive carry-on luggage guide

Mar 08, 2022 by The Go Ahead Tours Team

For many, 2022 will be the year when travel dreams and bucket list trips become reality. Some of you might be going on your first big vacation, while others might be making their great return to travel after a two-year break. Whatever’s inspiring your adventures this year, now’s a great time to review an important part of traveling: your carry-on luggage.

From picking the right bag for your trip to determining the carry-on luggage size for the airline you’re flying with, preparing the perfect suitcase brings you one step closer to your dream trip. Check out our comprehensive carry-on luggage guide for most U.S. carriers, and get excited to get ready for your next unforgettable adventure!

carry-on luggage size guidelines

What size luggage can you carry on a plane?

This is one of the most popular travel questions. And to start, it’s best to point out that luggage policies, from carry-on size guidelines to weight restrictions, can vary depending on which airline you’re flying with and where you’re traveling—flights originating in the U.S. often have different restrictions than flights originating in Europe and other parts of the world, for example.

The luggage size guide below offers general rules shared by many of the world’s most popular airlines, but there are exceptions; it’s always best to refer to your preferred carriers’ websites for the official luggage size that they will allow.

  • Size: From airline to airline, you may see a difference by an inch or two when it comes to carry-on size limits. But a quick look at the websites of some of the world’s leading U.S. carriers reveals that there is a somewhat standard carry-on luggage size: 22” x 14” x 9”. Keep in mind that suitcase dimensions include all parts of your luggage—that means the wheels and handles attached to the bag.
  • Weight: Normally, carry-on luggage requirements do not include weight restrictions for U.S. carriers; you just need to be able to physically lift your bag into the plane’s overhead compartment. Keep in mind that the rule may be different on flights in other parts of the world!
  • Number of carry-ons you can bring: If you’re flying business or first class, you might be allowed extra pieces of carry-on luggage, whereas travelers in the economy cabin are usually only allotted one. And these days, with the recent introduction of basic economy or economy light, you may not even be allowed to bring carry-on luggage at all. But that’s not something you have to worry about when you book flights with us thanks to our in with the world’s best airlines! We always make sure that our travelers can take to the sky in style with a piece of carry-on luggage in tow.
  • Connecting flight restrictions: For trips that include air transfers between two different airlines, it’s important to be extra prepared about how their carry-on size policies might differ. Often, suitcase dimensions allowed on the larger aircraft won’t be honored on a connecting regional flight. On a recent trip to southern Spain, traveler Chadner had to pay extra to gate-check his carry-on luggage. “Crossing the Atlantic, I flew on a huge jet that allowed the typical carry-on size,” he said. “Unfortunately for me, the connecting regional flight used a smaller plane that couldn’t accommodate the size of my suitcase.”
  • Small aircraft restrictions: Island hopping in Hawaii, touring safari lodges deep in the African bush, and visiting other remote locales could require flying on very small aircrafts. In these cases, your luggage will be weighed to meet safety standards. Take it from Go Ahead staffer Brittany, who had to take a smaller plane between Melbourne and Cairns during a trip to Australia and New Zealand. She was required to lighten her carry-on suitcase for the flight. “I basically had to wear a lot of the clothes I packed to meet the carry-on weight requirement,” she said.

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a traveler pulling carry-on across the airport tarmac, with the sun setting in the background.

How to pick carry-on luggage

The perfect carry-on luggage is as important to your travels as the sturdy pair of walking shoes that will help you conquer Rome’s cobblestone streets, or the high-tech camera that seamlessly captures once-in-a-lifetime safari moments. Here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind when you’re shopping for your next carry-on bag.

  • Only bring what you’re physically comfortable traveling with. While our tours include porterage at all hotels—which means you won’t have to lug your larger, checked luggage up hotel stairs!—remember that you’ll usually be the one who takes care of your carry-on luggage. That’s especially true in airports, where you may want to explore the duty free stores. Would you prefer something you can roll along? Or would a backpack offer easier mobility?
  • Consider where you’re traveling. A lightweight duffle is ideal for a safari, where hard-shell suitcases aren’t allowed. But if you’re planning on stocking up on ceramics while in Spain and Portugal, you may want the protection that same hard-shell suitcase provides. See more African safari packing tips →
  • Look at what it’s going to be like where you’re going. If you’re spending a few days in rainy London, you may prefer waterproof luggage that can keep your belongings dry. Or if you’re traveling through a few European cities with lots of cobblestones, you’ll want to make sure your luggage has sturdy wheels that can smoothly roll over those streets.
  • Look ahead to what you’ll be doing in your destination. If you’re planning to fill all your free time clothes shopping in Paris, go for a soft-shell suitcase. “I often travel with my soft-sided carry-on luggage to places where there’s especially fantastic shopping,” traveler Chadner said. “The material usually stretches so you can really stuff extra souvenirs in there.”
  • Stick to your style! It might sound like an impractical piece of advice, but just like everything else in travel, you should select a piece of luggage that suits your personal taste and style. If you fancy something sleek for a trip to Scandinavia, take a minimalist leather weekender. But your dream trip discovering the charming villages of the Amalfi Coast might be better complemented with a brightly colored, wheeled suitcase. The best piece of luggage is one you love.

a carry-on luggage unzipped, open on the floor with some contents spilling out

What to pack in your carry-on luggage

Once you’ve picked out the carry-on luggage that best suits you and your trip, it’s time to start strategizing what to pack, which can be a fun way to get excited for your trip. If you’re planning on traveling only with a carry-on, then you’ll have to bring everything you need. Even if you’re going to check a larger piece of luggage, it always helps to keep the following essentials with you on a flight, because a well-organized carry-on can make traveling so much easier.

  • If you take any daily medication, it’s best to keep it close rather than packing it in your checked luggage. You’ll thank your lucky stars that you have this essential in your carry-on if your checked bags gets delayed or lost. Travel tip: Be sure you have enough medication for each day of your adventure, plus a little extra in case any travel delays pop up.
  • A travel wallet for your passport and documents can help you avoid those moments of panic when you’re standing in front of the immigration officer and you can’t seem to find your passport or boarding pass. Don’t forget to include a pen for filling out landing forms. Get more tips in our carry-on packing guide → 
  • Traveler Chadner doesn’t go anywhere without a toiletry bag filled with TSA-approved moisturizing products like lip balms and face mask sheets. “Airplanes can be awfully dry,” he said. “A flight is actually a great time for a hydrating face mask—you put it on, you read for 10 minutes, and then you’re set. It might look weird, but you’ll feel great!” See more wellness travel essentials → 
  • Pack an extra change of clothing in case you run into issues with your checked luggage. Don’t forget that a scarf will keep you warm, but it can also be bundled into a pillow.
  • Your tech gadgets and their matching chargers will keep you entertained for hours. And for added comfort, noise-canceling headphones are a great investment, especially if you’re a frequent traveler. “My Bose headphones were pricey, but I’ve used them for six years, so I’ve definitely gotten my money’s worth,” said Go Ahead staffer Sarah.
  • An eco-friendly water bottle is a must. “I fill mine up at the airport before boarding,” traveler Chadner said. “You never know how long you’ll have to wait for on-board service during a flight.” And they’re pretty easy to refill while on the road, especially in Europe where tap water is top-notch. Cities in Switzerland, for instance, are packed with historic water fountains. Check out more eco-friendly travel essentials →
  • Traveling with jewelry and other valuable accessories requires a little bit of extra care. You don’t want your dainty necklaces and rings to get tangled up. A jewelry bag is great for keeping your favorite items separated and secured. Read our DIY guide to traveling with jewelry →
  • In addition to that toiletry bag, you may want to pack a separate kit of first-aid essentials that includes anti-bacterial wipes, face coverings, Band-Aids, and hand sanitizer. Read our hacks for making a DIY first aid kit →

Ready to go? Check out our tours, and tell us your top carry-on packing tips on our Facebook page!

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About the author | The Go Ahead Tours Team
We’re a team of passionate travel experts, dedicated to helping people explore the world. From inspiring stories to tips for an amazing trip, the topics we cover are all about getting you out there and making discoveries.

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