Shopping Tips for Budget-Conscious Carry-Ons

Are you on a budget but still want to get a carry-on to travel light in?

If you want…

The lightest

The lighest carry-on is going to be a large Weekender ($108-$120) shoulder bag from LeSportSac, the folks who use the really lightweight ballistic nylon for their purses. Just be aware that their large model is technically a little too big as a carry-on, so if you stuff it to the gills, some airlines may balk. Their medium one ($98-$108) requires some discipline in not overpacking, but it’s a great size for carry-ons. A lot of women really like the fashionable fabrics, too.

The best rolling upright option

The typical rolling upright is often very close to being too big for a carry-on. There are a few that are short and squat instead of tall and kinda big.

The Travelsmith Ultra-Organized Rolling Carry-on Bag ($99.00).  Comes in a number of different colors and is small enough to meet all airline carry-on rules. Plus, it comes with a little matching tote bag for free.

Travelsmith sells an upgraded version that has spinning wheels, but it costs $139. They also sell a third-party brand from Travelon (the Underseater Carry-on) that is very similar, for $109, which also includes a matching tote bag. Other bag manufacturers like Eagle Creek sell similar baby rolling uprights, but beware; many of them are designed for commuting from work or school. When shopping for one of these, make sure they provide a close-up photo of the interrior. What you’re looking for is a couple of pockets and tie-down cinches, but mostly an open, cavernous area you can access easily. If it’s designed to hold a laptop and a lot of books or folders, they might include nonremovable partitions and dividers that will get in your way.

The best for your laptop

My suggestion is that you carry your laptop in a separate sleeve instead of buying its own laptop bag. I recommend Neoprene (wetsuit material) since they hug your laptop and don’t take much more room. You can easily slide these in and out of your carry-on. Some come with small carrying handles, and some with a pocket to hold your travel accessories (mouse, etc.). The biggest reason to get a sleeve is in case the airlines force you to check in your carry-on; you can slide the sleeve out and still take your laptop to your seat for security.

There are some “checkpoint-friendly” carry-ons with transparnt sleeves for your laptop, but unless the only travel you’re doing is business travel and you always carry your laptop, these are highly specialized and you pay a premium for it.

Part of traveling lightly is to leave your laptop at home. Consider taking an inexpensive netbook that fits in your purse (if you want to blog during your trip or download photos as you go), or if all you need to do is check your email, consider just your smartphone (like your iPhone). Most of us use our laptops to check our email and surf the web (and maybe play a few games), and you can do that easily these days with a smartphone. If you want something a little bigger than a smartphone, that lets you do some basic office tasks like writing documents or spreadsheets, consider getting an iPad. If you’re on a budget, consider sticking to your phone. No smartphone? Consider getting an iPod Touch. You can use the wi-fi feature and turn it into a smartphone. Many airports and coffee shops offer free wi-fi.

If you’re on a really tight budget and you have a very small laptop or a netbook, consider reusing a bubble-wrap padded envelope from FedEx.

The best “fashion-friendly”

First off, be careful what you pack. Avoid clothes that wrinkle easily and require dry cleaning. People using the bundle method (starting with small items and “gift wrapping” a layer at a time with a different garment so the most wrinkle-prone shirts and blouses can “hug” a big bundle can avoid the worst of the wrinkles.

If you have to travel with travel-unfriendly clothes, my best bet is the Skyroll ($149). It’s basically a garment bag that rolls up like a sushi roll (or Swiss cake roll) and snaps shut into a tidy little roll that you can then carry with a shoulder strap. It’s definitely a great carry-on for a business (or wrinkle-prone) wardrobe. Their Web site shows the bags to be out of stock with no indication when they’ll get more in; here’s to hoping they still make them.

The most versatile

Any of the convertible carry-on bags would fall in this category; any pack with handles, a shoulder strap, and hideaway backpack straps. The Rick Steves Classic Back Door Bag (for a bargain priced $79) fits this category. Imagine traveling with a child by yourself, and having both hands free! As convenient as those popular rolling uprights are, remember that they were originally invented by an airline pilot for his commutes through airports. If you use curbside taxi service and only walk through the airport, then the rolling uprights work really nicely. But if you do any sort of walking around (or taking the stairs), they start to get really cumbersome. And one of their biggest detractions is the amount of luggage space you give up for the wheel and scoping handlebar mechanism.

The most spacious

Is probably Rick Steves’ slightly more expensive Convertible Carry-On ($99)  is probably the best no-frills carry-on bag on the market. Although its dimensions are the maximum allowable like others, be aware, however, that when you loosen its gussets and fill it to capacity, it might be a bit too big to fit as a carry-on.

For the super-budget conscious

The Outdoor Products Essential Carry-on ($39.95). Long a staple at, where it was only $33, this bag was the go-to bag for people on an extremely tight budget. Although some reviewers swore that you could use it everyday for months (either for globe-trotting or for daily commuting), this bag isn’t quite as sturdy as some of the others listed here. But if you’re counting every penny, and need something for occasional travel, this was it. The bag holds up amazingly well, although some people have reported that the luggage strap can sometimes break. This is easily fixed by purchasing a more durable luggage strap.

Unfortunately, Campmor stopped selling this bag earlier this year. Fortunately, you can still find it at a couple of sites online, including the Great Outdoors Depot, where the link goes to. The price has gone up some; it’s now a hair under $40. But it’s still a great bargain.

The most ergonomic

The most ergonomic in my opinion is the Tom Bihn Tri-Star. Although the price, at $250, might be out of the reach for some folks on a very tight budget, the price is comparable to a lot of luggage items on the market, and this is truly a case of “you get what you pay for.” If you aren’t after the newest model bag every year and you want something that will last forever, this is the best designed bag I can recommend. It’s one of the few bags still made in the USA by a company based in Seattle. The bag is extremely well-constructed. The zippers won’t break, things stay in place, and everything feels really sturdy and ergonomic. Women who like to keep things organized will really like this bag because Tom Bihn offers little packable pouches and bags that all nestle into their carry-ons.

I have a closetful of travel bags, but in the past year, my husband has chosen the Tri-Star as the only bag he travels with. It’s a little hard to describe how this one differs from the other travel packs (like the ones from Rick Steves or Outdoor Products). Mostly, I think it’s that Tom Bihn’s products hold up really well. You will never find even a stitch out of place. Nothing sticks out to get snagged. Nothing pinches. Nothing tears or pokes. Once you’ve packed your bag, it’s like a wonderful little package and you know things aren’t going to come falling out.

It’s pricey, but worth it; if you’re looking for a bag you plan on being able to use for decades, this one is it.

Lani’s big tip

Avoid the rolling uprights! I’ve always said this, but I can’t emphasize this enough. Now that most airlines use checked luggage fees to make up for their lost revenue, passengers are countering it more than ever by taking everything on board with them. The problem is, many of these so-called carry-ons are quite large–certainly too large to fit under the seat–and full flights often mean a full overhead rack. If you’re one of the latter ones boarding, the flight attendant may insist on checking your carry-on for you! The first thing they look for are the large rolling uprights. Although you might still be asked to check in your carry-on at the last moment, if you pack a smaller bag without wheels, they might let you through… especially if your bag is small enough to place under the seat.

Although most of the bags mentioned here are designed to fit in the overhead, they are far easier to smoosh in place than a rolling upright with clunky wheels. The exception is the horizontal (short and squat) wheelies, which you might be able to stuff under the seat.

Lani’s emergency “Oh no, they want my carry-on!” tip

Take one of those little packable nylon shopping tote bags with you and keep it in an accessible pocket of your carry-on. If they ask that you check your bag in, quickly pull out your electronic gear, wallet, and medication to slip into your tote bag. And make sure you have a luggage tag on your carry-on for this purpose.


  1. I’d like to comment on a few things:

    1) The Outdoor Products Essential Carry-On is no longer in production. Once the current inventory is gone, it is gone.

    2) For the super budget conscious traveler, the Goodhope Convertible might be an alternative. It’s slightly smaller than the OPEC bag, weighs 2 lbs, but retails for $21.

    3) While the Rick Steves’ convertible is a good bag, there are better ones. I believe, in that price range. The L.L. Bean Quickload Travel Pack tops the list It’s about the same size as the Rick Steves bag, costs $99, is made of nylon instead of polyester and weighs less. It also comes with a shoulder strap while the Rick Steves bag doesn’t. If weight isn’t an issue, the Ebags Mother Lode TLS Weekender is probably the best thought out bag in the category. If bought during a sale the price could go below $70. It has a shoulder strap, is made of nylon, and has every extra you can think of. The downside is that it weighs nearly 1 1/2 pounds more than the L.L. Bean bag.

    4) No arguing with the Tom Bihn Tri-Star. A great bag. Well designed, the best quality of materials and workmanship, and “Made in the USA” is an extra added plus.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Frank. I suspected the Outdoor Products Essential Carry-On was a goner; thanks for confirming that. Anyone interesting in getting one should probably do it soon.

    I’d never heard of the Goodhope brand. They have quite a few products at at very competitive prices. I can’t vouch for the quality of their Convertible bag but I might have to take a look at it before I form any opinions.

    I’ve long enjoyed L.L.Bean (and for a while, they sold some really good lightweight travel luggage) but it’s great that they offer a travelpack again. I’ll have to take a look at that one, as well. Based on their product page, it looks the bag enjoys the same quality as all their other bags enjoy.

    The eBags Mother Lode TLS Weekender definitely looks like a jumbo contender, doesn’t it. The dimensions are a little iffy, though, especially if one stuffs it to the gills. eBags tends to have sales all the time, so it’s currently on sale for $71.99. eBags has a model with fewer bells and whistles called the Weekender eTech Convertible, which they have on sale for only $55.99. What a deal! The main difference between the two is that the Mother Lode has a built-in sleeve for sliding in a laptop.

    I’m a big Tom Bihn fan, not only because of their high-quality gear, but because they’ve embraced those things that keep them in touch with their audience. They not only have a Web site to sell their wares, but they also use it to communicate with their customers. They have an active bulletin board where they monitor and respond to queries, not to mention a presence on Facebook and regular Twitter messages.

    I think I may need to review those bags you recommend.

  3. To people just checking out this site, the Outdoor Products Essential Carry-on is currently being sold as the Campmor Essential Carry-on for $29.98 at the Campmor website.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *