When Kim Orlando, founder of TravelingMom.com, was traveling with her three kids this summer, every leg of her trip cost $100 more than she had planned–$25 for each checked bag. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Carrying on luggage is possible, even when you’re traveling with kids. The key is to pack light and buy the best carry-on bags.


We went in search of the best carry-on bag by asking luggage manufacturers to send us the carry-on that would hold enough to allow families to avoid checked baggage fees, but still be light and manageable enough for a child to pull it through the airport.

Six Bags Tested

Six companies responded to our request. We tested the:
Delsey Helium Breeze 2.0 Carry-On Bag ($240)
Eagle Creek Hovercraft Upright 22 ($250)
Travelpro’s WalkAbout Lite 3 ($320)
Briggs & Riley Transcend 21-inch Carry-On Expandable Upright ($299)
Brookstone 21-inch Dash ($119.95)
Athalon Fusion 22-inch Wheeling Carry-On Duffle with Zip-Off Top ($150)

I packed each with what I consider standard supplies for a three-day trip: one pair of jeans, one dress, one skirt, three tops, unmentionables, an extra pair of shoes, night shirt, swimsuit and cover-up and toiletries. Five of the six bags accommodated the gear easily. It fit inside the Dash as well, but it took a little work.

To see whether the packed bags would be light enough and maneuverable enough for child to pull them around, we enlisted Charlotte Pope, a 4-year-old frequent flyer who’s been pulling her own carry-on through O’Hare International Airport since she was 2. She was able to pull each of the bags without help but she declared the Brookstone 21-inch Dash to be the best and easiest to pull. It is similar to the Heys USA Xcase 20 Inch Shiny Carry On that Charlotte uses.

Below is analysis of each.

What We Liked

Like Charlotte, I liked the Dash. But I thought the lightweight Eagle Creek Hovercraft Upright  was the best of the bunch. It weighs just over seven pounds and has lots of cool features. Among my faves: the side pouch for carrying a water bottle and the hideaway name tag. The telescoping handle locks in at two heights. The first one was just right for Charlotte.

Charlotte’s fave, the Brookstone 21-inch Dash, gets extra points for its cool factor. This hard-sided bag looks too small to be worth much as a carry-on, but it easily holds enough for a one- or two-night getaway and its sturdy and functional design make it a good choice for kids. It has four wheels, not two, which makes it easy to maneuver and the hardside construction makes it durable enough for kids. A word of warning: Charlotte’s hardside Heys bag had to be gate-checked on her family’s last trip. Its shiny surface bears many scrapes and scars from its close encounter with the baggage handlers.

The Delsey Helium Breeze Carry-On Bag supplied by Suitcase.com seems to have the toughest construction and the most bells and whistles for the money. I was particularly taken with the ergonomic aluminum handle and tough wheels. I also like the grab bar at the bottom that adds stability when it’s standing and makes it much easier to boost it into the overhead bin on the plane. The manufacturer offers a lifetime warranty that promises to repair or replace the bag against defects in materials or workmanship. Sadly, the promise does not extend to abuse inflicted by baggage handlers. It’s the heaviest bag we tested, but Charlotte had no trouble handling it.

Briggs & Riley Transcend 21-inch Carry-On Expandable Upright has many of same business traveler-friendly features as the Delsey and also has a lifetime warranty. But Briggs & Riley even covers airport damage. So if the baggage handlers wreak havoc on your Briggs & Riley bag, just pay to send it to one of the repair centers and they’ll fix it free. The warranty covers everything but normal wear and tear and all you pay is the shipping charge. The company calls it “reality engineering.” By seeing how the bags get damaged in the real world, the company officials say they know what engineering changes are needed to extend the life of its suitcases.

TravelPro’s WalkAbout Lite 3 is another lightweight option with some cool features. The two-stop handle made it easier for Charlotte to pull and the front compartment has an easy-to-use full length fold-out design. This is a bag with many features for business travelers, including the 3-in-1 Suitfolder and Packing Board System designed to help travelers fold dresses and suits to prevent wrinkles.

Finally, the Athalon Fusion 22 inch Wheeling Carryon Duffle with Zip-Off Top. This was by far the cutest bag we got to test. My daughter, Tess, 13, fell in love. The cool look (bandana black, they call it) and interesting design won her heart. Unfortunately, it didn’t win mine as a good option for kids. Once the duffle was zipped onto the rolling bag, it became front heavy and a little awkward for Charlotte to pull. It was easy for Charlotte to pull once the duffle was unzipped, but that left someone else to lug around the duffle. It has no wheels on its own although it does have straps that can turn it into a backpack. I suspect this might be a good option for someone traveling with a child too young to pull his or her own bag. Once the duffle is attached the two bags would be officially counted as only one carry-on bag. The dual bag also has plenty of room to pack supplies for one adult and one child. On the plane, unzip the two, put one in the overhead and the other under the seat.

For tips on what to look for when buying a carry-on, click here.

Cindy Richards is the editor of TravelingMom.com, the mom of two terrific teens and a woman who can carry on about a good carry-on. She also writes the TravelingMomwithTeens blog  at TravelingMom.com and the Suitcase Packin’ Mama travel blog at ChicagoParent.com.