What's the optimum carry-on rolling bag size?
July 17, 2013 8:40 PM   Subscribe

On a recent trip from the US to Canada, my girlfriend's carry-on rolling bag was taken away from her on some flights, while mine was not. Strangely, they were picky on the A320 flight, but not the flight on the smaller Dash-8 propeller-driven plane. So, what's the optimal size for a carry-on rolling bag?

My theory is that my bag "looked smaller", even though it was really about the same size. On the other hand, I did have kind of a hard time fitting it into the bin on one flight; I had to fit it lengthwise, which seemed inefficient.

I have tried non-rolling backpack style carry-ons, but it sure is nice to let all that weight roll along on the ground instead of lugging it on my back. I think a backpack is a non-starter with my girlfriend anyway.
posted by overleaf to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total)
It's pretty easy to find the measurements for airline approved carry-on bags and then look at the specs of carry-on bags for sale.

The smallest I saw when I just googled airline restrictions was Air France, at 21" x 13" x 9". So just stay below that and you should be good.

The airlines also all have those "if it fits, it flies" boxes at check-in if you're unsure if your particular bag is good to go for that particular airline, as it is currently packed.

One thing to note is that a lot of rolling bags have zip-out extenders and external pockets that can expand the size of the bag beyond what is typically allowed. If your pockets are stuffed and you've crammed everything in and unzipped the extender, your bag is going to be too big, not "look" too big.

Re backpacks, in my experience it's actually harder to find a regulation carry-on size backpack than it is a rolling suitcase. I have one, and I had to read a lot of backpack specs before I finally found one that would work. And even then, when packed to capacity, it's too big.
posted by Sara C. at 8:46 PM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't know if there is an optimal size. I have had the same bag allowed and taken away on the same airline on different legs of the same flight.

I think it's dependent upon the employee's own mood, er, judgement.
posted by michellenoel at 8:48 PM on July 17, 2013

Another factor that could affect things could be whether a bag is hard-sided or soft-sided - a soft-sided bag, like a duffel bag, could be more easily squished into the "right" shape to fit in a plane's above-head storage. The industry standard is that a bag that's a total of 45 linear inches (i.e., the length plus the width plus the height should equal 45) is "carryon," but while a 22 x 10 x 13 bag and a 24 x 11 x 10 bag may both be 45 linear inches, a plane with an above-head storage area that's only 22 inches would have a problem with the 24-inch-tall bag. But if you can sort of squish your 24-inch bag to fit in the 22-inch space, you may luck out.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:59 PM on July 17, 2013

I think it's dependent upon the employee's own mood, er, judgement.

Yes. There is a fair amount of randomness to it. I fly a lot, and honestly I rarely see them take bags from people unless it's either egregiously too big, or they get on the plane late and all the bins are full. Maybe it's just the routes or airlines I fly, but I don't seem them proactively taking away many bags that seem borderline in fitting until the end of boarding. In fact, in my opinion, they're generally not strict enough about this. It's a pain in the butt for the rest of us when you bring a bag that's too big on board, because you're either going to monopolize more of the bin space than you should, or you're going to delay everyone trying to get on the plane after you while you try to cram it in (or both)...
posted by primethyme at 9:03 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I find that either a classic soft-sided 22" roller or a Patagonia lightweight duffel are my go-to carryon bags, depending on my purposes. The latter is minimal and obviously has no rolling apparatus, but the straps are designed to be 'backpacked' which I prefer for quickly moving through an airport.

The rounder appearance of your Osprey v. your gf's with its piping and feet might have been the factor. But it's hard to say— echoing Sara C and primethyme, there's not a lot of specificity to when carryons are gate-checked, but bags that look overstuffed definitely have a higher incidence. Especially when an infrequent traveler doesn't know how to swiftly stow the bag and take a seat.

In any case I try to put items that absolutely must be with me, like earplugs, eyemask, Kindle, etc in my 'personal item' in case a gate check situation arises. Then there's no worry.
posted by a halcyon day at 9:16 PM on July 17, 2013

Dash8 flights on QANTAS restrict carry-on to 19x13x9 inches, weight no more than 7kg. I've found that a soft bag is less likely to be taken away than a hard bag.

I think it's actually the weight that they are concerned about - the overhead lockers would have a weight loading. I always try to carry my bag as if it's light as a feather (shoulders back, walking briskly) when I'm approaching the aircraft. I figure the aircrew make a split second judgement about whether to take away your bag, and would be making that on the basis of how your bag appears compared to your body (heavy/light, big/small).
posted by girlgenius at 9:21 PM on July 17, 2013

I carry a Red Oxx Air Boss. I've had it Bombadiers, Dash 8s, Casas, etc. No one ever complains about the size, I've never had it taken away, and I can easily pack a week's worth of clothes if I only need one pair of shoes. I can't speak highly enough of it, because it truly changed the way I travel. Checked bags are a thing of the past now.
posted by conradjones at 9:35 PM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I actually have an Air Boss and it nearly killed me on a trip to Europe because I packed it completely full and the strap practically severed my arm after walking around Amsterdam with it. I suppose it's my own damn fault for bringing Too Much Stuff. But it is very squishy.

I'm thinking that the bag size one down from "maximum allowable carry-on" is the next place to go. Sadly, you just can't take as much stuff in a smaller bag! Perhaps I need to radically downsize.
posted by overleaf at 10:03 PM on July 17, 2013

Look for anything that's advertised to fit on Ryan Air -- for example. They have ridiculous size requirements and are notorious hard-asses about it, so if it works for them it should work for almost anyone.
posted by empath at 10:37 PM on July 17, 2013

I was going to say what empath said: if it fits Ryanair's requirements, it meets the most parsimonious allowances in the airline industry. Your girlfriend's bag appears to be fractionally over those requirements in at least one dimension, and is expandable - was it expanded? Optionally, it may have been overweight - 10kg is about 22lbs. Optionally, they may just have been assholes.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:22 AM on July 18, 2013

I actually have an Air Boss and it nearly killed me on a trip to Europe because I packed it completely full and the strap practically severed my arm after walking around Amsterdam with it.

Ah, then maybe it was too heavy. That also affects things sometimes.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:32 AM on July 18, 2013

What bags to eject is really something that is more or less at the discretion of the gate agent. When you are boarding around halfway through the boarding process or later, you greatly increase the chances that they scrutinize and reject your carry-on. If you are on a smaller regional plane, like a Dash-8, they will be more aggressive about bouncing bags. In many airlines, bags that are well within their stated guidelines are too big to fit in the overhead bins of the smaller Canadaair or Dash aircraft and they will reject bags that are several inches under their posted size limits. Pointing out that your bag will fit into the sizer or is under the official limitation is virtually never a successful strategy. My only bag that always, always fits in the overhead bins no matter how small the plane is 18x14x9. It is that last 9" dimension that is the killer, and overstuffing the bag results in a failure to be able to cram it into the bin on CRJ-200s or Dash-8s. I'm actually pretty much totally baffled by the idea that your girlfriend got a full size carry-on onto a Dash. Basically every airline in North America would ask you to gate check any 20"+ rollaboard most of the time.

Because airlines now punish anyone financially who pre-checks bags, more and more flights are stuffed to the gills with carry-on luggage and many gate agents are just conditioned to proactively start gate checking bags later in the boarding process because they know that almost every flight will end up with a handful of bags that have to be checked and it is easier for everyone if they just pull the bags before you even get on the plane. If you carry your bag instead of roll it and move briskly and check in as early as you can, all of these things reduce the liklihood that they will pick you.
posted by Lame_username at 12:26 PM on July 18, 2013

I have the Eastpak Transfer S (now called the Transverz) which always fits in the airline test cage (I haven't tried Ryanair though). It fits perfectly in the overhead bin and holds enough clothes to let me travel for two weeks. (Disclaimer: I am really low maintenance, so take mostly casual clothes and I usually visit places that have a drugstore close by.)
posted by essexjan at 1:14 PM on July 18, 2013

Best answer: Not a specific recommendation, but on the routes I fly regularly, bags are almost always taken away upon boarding for seemingly about 50% of the plane. I have thus far avoided it using the following strategies: A) When it's really important your bag not be taken, do not take a wheelie bag, they are always targets. A squarish shoulder duffle is the best bet, backpacks are not so good because they're bulky and oddly shaped. B) soft sided wheelies are less likely to be taken C) do not overpack the wheelie bag, and don't be carrying a bunch of other stuff with it - look as streamlined and competent as possible D) as a last resort pull the wheelie bag on the opposite side of you from the gate agent and lurk behind a large or totally incompetent group to obscure the bag, while continuing to look as competent and nice as possible - the agents will be relieved to have someone to wave through and not try and take your bag (this is an actual thing that has worked for me in the past). And, for the record, once I've gotten my bag on these flights, there has never once been an issue with the overhead bin space... I think they're just trying to do a pre-emptive strike or something.
posted by annie o at 9:55 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

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