Suitcase or Backpack? It really depends on your preference, but bringing a backpack as your carry-on has a lot of advantages. (Unless you are flying for business, then you might want to read this post on business carry on luggage.)
For one, it's much lighter than a suitcase and won't eat up all your free baggage allocation.
Most are small enough to use as carry on backpack. And, once out of the airport, you can still use the same bag on day trips. After all, taking your hardcase carry-on to the beach just isn't very convenient.
At A Glance: Our Top 4 Picks for Carry On Backpacks
Some of these designs also have nifty features like built-in rollers or hi-tech add-ons, making your carry-on backpack more functional than ever.
Now you can find the best carry on travel backpack for your needs!
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North Face Router Backpack
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InCase EO Travel Backpack
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Oakley Kitchen Sink Backpack
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Kensington SecureTrek 17" Lockable Anti-Theft Laptop and Overnight Backpack
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Osprey Porter 46 Backpack
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SwissGear 1900 Scansmart
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NOMATIC 40L Travel Bag/Backpack
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Thule Crossover 32L Backpack
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Osprey Farpoint 40 / Osprey Fairview 40L
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Timbuk2 Wingman Convertible Backpack
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Hynes Eagle 38L Weekender Backpack
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The Tortuga Setout is one of a new breed of travel backpacks. It's designed specifically for travelers, just like it's brother the Tortuga Outbreaker (which is a little bigger).
This means that all of the different features of the backpack are designed from scratch to support a traveler to the maximum. In fact, this is the kind of travel backpack you can take on a shorter trip and not need any check-in luggage at all.
In many ways it does not look like a carry on travel bag, mainly because the inside is one big area for your stuff. Which means it really lends itself to packing cubes too.
There are mesh side-pockets for things like a drink bottle or umbrella. And a zippered front area where you can store electronics and other smaller items.
Like all well-designed carry on travel backpacks, the Tortuga Setout also has a zippered padded laptop panel on the back. It is well protected not only because it is at the back, but also because of the padding.
Lastly, the Tortuga Setout also has has two carrying options - the handles built into the side and top of the back, or the backpack straps, with well-padded hip belt on the back. These are also removeable which makes it a great hybrid bag! (Unless you are after a backpack with wheels that is!)
All in all, it is more like a soft suitcase that is also a travel backpack and will fit under many a seat on a plane too, so it's really carry on size. It's made from very durable material too, so should last any kind of traveler for years to come!
The North Face is a brand synonymous with travel and adventure and hiking backpacks. While they have lots of superb gear in their lineup, The North Face Router Backpack is one of the most functional.
These guys have perfected the science of comfort and durability. Whether it's a long commute or a quick flight, the FlexVent suspension system features custom injection-molded shoulder straps, a padded mesh back panel with a spine channel and a wicking lumbar panel for maximum support and ventilation. You can have this on your back for hours and you still won't feel too hot or sweaty.
And since virtually nobody travels without some kind of gadget anymore, the bag's nifty external pockets and sleeves are ideal for the tech-savvy traveler.
This is a great laptop backpack because it has a dedicated lie-flat 17" laptop compartment in the rear. Unfortunately, for those with smaller travel laptops, there is nothing to secure your gadget in place. So, there will be a tendency for your laptop to slide around the large sleeve. Not a deal breaker, but worth noting.
The front compartment also features a neoprene tablet sleeve, with other smaller pockets designed for mobile phones, power banks, players, camera gear, and any other gadget you will be carrying with you.
With a 35L capacity, this mid-sized carry-on backpack is big enough as a single carry-on but still handy enough to be a useful travel backpack in almost any situation (and it's carry on size). It even has external pockets so you don't eat up precious interior space while keeping hydrated.
The exterior of this travel backpack is made of nylon so it's water-resistant but not waterproof. Dirt easily washes off with soap and water, and side straps help cinch the bag to make it compact and keep things from sliding when it's not full.
The hip belt can be tucked into a bottom pocket if you prefer not to use it and the sternum strap is also removable. All great features in a travel backpack for sure, but it can also double as a hiking backpack.
TheInCase EO Travel backpack is a sleek, stylish, and versatile travel bag for any kind of traveler or frequent flyer.
It's made of 70% cotton and 30% polyester making this bag both durable and weatherproof.
The front panel is also triple-coated with water-resistant treatment so everything inside your bag remains safe and dry under light rain.
The padded shoulder straps and breathable mesh panels make travel feel comfortable. It also has an adjustable sternum strap for additional support.
This travel backpack has a dedicated compartment that fits a 17" laptop so it's easy to take your laptop in and out during security checks.
Side straps help keep your items stable and secure, but can also be loosened to expand the bag up to 35%.
The front panel has an inside slip pocket to protect your tablet while organizer pockets hold chargers cables and other items.
The main storage area has a clamshell opening (opens up on three sides with a zipper), allowing you to lay your back flat and completely open for better organization of clothes and other items. Ideal if you use packing cubes.
Having said that, it may not be an easy carry on backpack to use for everyday. If you need to quickly get things out of your bag, you'll have to open it up like luggage. Despite being expandable, it will not fit shoes if you already have clothes and other gadgets good for two days.
The Oakley Kitchen Sink Backpack is loaded with pockets, hooks, sleeves for you to haul just about anything you'll need on your travels. This travel bag is perfect for travelers who don't necessarily pack light but still don't want to check a bag.
With a 34L capacity, it has enough usable space plus some extensions thanks to three hooks in the front. It also makes a handy hiking backpack.
Made of 69% Nylon and 31% Polyester, the bag is also durable, sturdy, and water-resistant. The bottom also has an abrasion–resistant panel for enhanced durability.
The padded shoulder straps fall in the right place on the shoulders and don't pull when weighted down. It has adjustable sternum and hip belt for extra comfort and stability.
When it comes to storage, there are several versatile options:
A shoe compartment lies at the bottom of this travel bag to keep the weight evenly distributed as well as not let it mix in with the rest of your items.
The top of the bag features a moulded pocket held down by two metallic hooks. This is meant to hold eyewear (it's Oakley, after all), but can easily fit in gadgets, cables, and other essentials.
Note: This can get in the way when you open the main storage area, which lies under the moulded pocket.
The front panel opens up to reveal even more pockets and compartments, while external pockets on the side are for a water bottle on one side and miscellaneous items on the other.
The very back is a padded side access panel to hold a 17" laptop, but it's still snug enough to hold smaller dimensions. This is one of the more impressive and handy features of this pack.
The external material of the travel bag is very sturdy and hardy, but it can also has some minor flaws. While there are several pockets to hold your items, they push in more than out, eating up usable space in the main compartment. Also, if you're not someone who wants their things dangling outside the pack, the metal hooks may turn out to be useless to you.
The Osprey Ozone Convertible Backpack is by far the most versatile, functional, and usable carry-on bag for international travel. Its lightweight and durable construction doesn't eat up your baggage allowance, and it combines the best functions and conveniences of wheeled luggage and a carry on backpack combination.
The luggage is equipped with with the High Road Chassis, featuring a lightweight aluminum frame, large wheels with a high-clearance for ease of use.
Sturdy and padded shoulder pads with hip and sternum straps easily converts this luggage to a bag making it easier for you to move around town once you arrive.
A nifty feature is its detachable daypack, secured to the main luggage with easy release buckles and a zipper. It also has a side water bottle pocket which we all love, right?
When attached, the daypack has a front panel with organization pockets for easy access to your bits and pieces.
The main luggage has a top pocket for your toiletries or other essentials that you will need to quickly pull out and put back (great for security checks).
There are low profile handles on three sides of the main luggage so it's easy to grab, pull, and lift in any situation.
All in all, this is the carry-on backpack for travelers that wants the best of both worlds.
The Kensington SecureTrek Backpack is specifically designed for the business traveler or the tech-savvy explorer.
This is one of the few backpacks with a built-in lock to clip in their strong, hammerhead zippers. If you still need even more security, you can attach your own luggage lock to the built-in one. It also features sturdy anti-theft and puncture-proof zippers to deter would-be pickpockets and thieves.
The bag is evenly balanced with a back strap that slides over luggage handles so it can sit securely on top of your wheeled luggage if you happen to be using one. Great for travel, but not so much for a hiking backpack.
The bag is built with lots of compartments for organization and easy access.
There's a dedicated compartment that can handle both a 17" laptop and a 10" tablet, plus pockets to store chargers, cables, and other gadgets.
This device compartment is also expandable, so gaming laptops can easily fit into the compartment, as could your camera gear.
The same compartment opens up to pack your clothes, shoes, or other items, secured with a cloth cover to keep them from being exposed when you take out your gadgets.
Another compartment opens up for other items such as documents or paper items. And, there is another hidden compartment to store more valuable items such as passports and tickets.
Your purchase is protected by a 10-year limited warranty covered by Kensington.
The Porter is a very popular travel backpack from Osprey, and it is a very safe bet. It is also one of the carry ons with the largest capacity, so it is a great choice for travelers who want a backpack that will entirely replace a suitcase.
It is made from Nylon, so its exterior is going to be very durable and water resistant. There is only one thing that I don’t like about this backpack, and it is the backpanel. It is padded, but there is no ventilation on it – that could be an issue in the warmer months.
The same goes for the main straps and hipbelt; very soft and comfortable, but have no breathable mesh to help them breathe.
The main compartment of this pack is very spacious and has padded walls. And because it is such a large area, it is great for those of you who love packing cubes.
There are also zippered pockets inside it, for effortless organization. In addition to that, the pack has a front compartment with an organizer panel, which is great for any smaller items you would like to have handy.
And you also get a dedicated laptop section, which is almost TSA friendly. It does not unzip fully, but it does allow you to take out your laptop without touching anything in the main storage space.
Last but not least is the Straightjacket compression. Which is a great feature to have whenever the backpack is not entirely full, as it allows you to reduce its size. Plus, this makes the pack super easy to store, since it will collapse when empty.
This bag is your best option if you are mostly looking for a TSA friendly laptop backpack. The Scansmart allows you to go through checkpoints without any hassle, thanks to the laptop compartment that unzips and lies flat.
It is also one of the best backpacks you get in terms of value for money. This is high quality pack, made from durable and weather-resistant 1200D ballistic polyester that can withstand quite a lot of torture. But it also has a very affordable price tag.
The pack features a 17” laptop sleeve, which also has a floating tablet sleeve inside. And it has a lot of external pockets – zippered side pockets, stretch side pockets, a front pocket with an organizer and a quick-access zip pocket.
The main compartment is okay, but it’s definitely not designed to hold clothes. It’s a bit smaller than you would expect, and it features several large slip pockets, a smaller phone pocket and multiple zippered pockets on the cover. It’s actually perfect for all your cables, chargers, books and similar items.
This SwissGear pack has a padded and ventilated backpanel, which contoured and comfortable hiking straps. The backpanel actually features AirFlow ventilation technology by SwissGear, which pretty much guarantees your carrying comfort.
Another thing worth mentioning is that you get an extremely sturdy grab handle at the top of the pack. It’s covered with rubber and lies comfortable in your hand even when the pack is pretty full.
The Nomatic backpack is one of the best high-end options. It is made from water repellent Tarpaulin, which is a very durable material. This is a TSA friendly laptop backpack, which means that it has a dedicated electronics compartment that lies flat when unzipped.
This compartment can easily fit a 15” laptop, and it also features a tablet sleeve – perfect for tablets up to 11”.
The design of the backpanel on this bag is very interesting. It’s not ventilated sadly, which is a bit of an issue considering the price point. However, both the backpanel and the straps are very comfortable and stowable. This pack also has removable hip belt, as well as a convenient handle that goes over the backpanel.
And it comes with a laundry bag; a useful addition that allows you to separate your clean clothes from your dirty clothes.
The main compartment of this bag is quite spacious, and it can fit enough clothes for several days. In addition to that, the Nomatic backpack also features an RFID safe pocket with a TSA approved lockable zippers, a shoe compartment, multiple external pockets and a luggage strap.
Overall, this bag is a good choice whether you’re looking to entirely replace your suitcase, or just for an addition to your checked bag.
The Crossover backpack is a good choice if you’re all about staying organized. It has several packing compartments and loads of pockets, which are great if you mostly have smaller items in your carry on.
The main compartment is spacious, but it is not designed to hold too much travel gear – this backpack is the best option if you want something in addition to your checked suitcase.
It’s great for your electronics, because it has a dedicated and somewhat TSA friendly electronics compartment in the back. And because it has a front compartment with an organizer panel that can hold all of your smaller items.
Then there is also the crushproof SafeZone pocket which is lockable and removable. It’s perfect for your phone and sunglasses, and any other fragile items you might have. And if you don’t really like this pocket, you can just take it off completely.
The shoulder straps are perforated EVA and they are very comfortable. There is a sternum strap that will hold them in place, but there is no hipbelt. In addition to that, the backpanel of this Thule pack is padded, and feels soft against your back.
You might experience and issue with the zipper pullers – that's pretty much the only thing people are complaining about. They tend to break off, and you will need to replace them or manage without them. If that's not a deal-breaker for you, then definitely consider getting this backpack.
The Farpoint and Fairview have been Osprey’s best-selling carry ons for a while now. And for all the right reasons – they are remarkably durable, they have large capacities and they actually pass as carry on size at the airport.
Plus, the design quality is off the charts – these backpacks are very comfortable to carry around, because of their padded and ventilated backpanel. They also feature a thick, padded and ventilated hipbelt, which helps transfer the load away from your shoulders and onto your hips.
Which means that no matter how heavy the pack gets, you won’t really feel its weight.
The Osprey Farpoint 40 is the men’s backpack, and the Fairview is the women’s – the main difference between the two is that the Fairview is contoured to fit a female body perfectly. All of the other (important) features are exactly the same on both packs.
The main compartment is very spacious and it features internal straps and a large pocket on the cover. It opens up almost like a suitcase, so packing will be pretty easy. In addition to that, these packs also have a front compartment with an organizer panel, for all the items you like to have handy in-flight.
Another thing worth noting is that both packs have external straps that let you cinch-in the backpack – very useful when it is not filled to capacity.
Overall, if you want a reliable and durable carry on that can fit enough clothes for several days, the Farpoint/Fairview is an option that will not disappoint you.
This backpack by Timbuk2 is a great option. It has very big capacity, and it’s a good option if you need a carry on that you can fit all of your clothes in. The pack is made from 450D poly hex rip stop, which is a very durable material.
It has multiple grab handles and sturdy zippers. And it is currently discounted by some 50% - if you wind up liking this pack, grab it while the deal lasts!
The Wingman opens up just like a softshell suitcase. It has a padded packing compartment with tie-down straps that will hold your clothes in place and a large zippered pocket on the cover. It is super easy to pack in this backpack, and you have a lot of space inside, thanks to the 40-liter capacity of the bag.
This is a convertible backpack; it comes with two removable straps so that you can carry it like a backpack. And you can also carry it like a duffel bag – just remove the shoulder straps and attach the bit padded strap that you also get with the pack.
The pack also features an expendable top compartment and a front zip pocket that fits all of your smaller items – phone, passport, wallet etc. It is large enough that you can fit a 17” laptop inside the dedicated compartment, but still a small enough size that you won’t have issues using it as a carry on bag.
Overall, it is a great choice if you want something sturdy with a large capacity.
The Weekender is one of the best affordable options for a carry on backpack. It is made from 600D Polyester on the outside, and features polyester lining on the inside.
The backpanel of this pack is padded and covered with breathable mesh. These are also stowable, so that they don’t get in the way when you want to stash this in the overhead compartment or under your seat. They also have a sternum strap, which helps them stay in place.
There are two straps on each side of the backpack, and they help keep the pack nice and tight. This is especially useful if you don’t fully pack the main compartment, as it allows you to reduce the actual size of the backpack.
The main compartment is very spacious, and it opens up like a softshell suitcase. There are tie-down straps inside, which will keep all your travel gear. And there is also a large zippered pocket on the cover of this compartment, for any items you would like to keep separate.
This backpack also has a front compartment with an organizer panel, which is great for all items you would like to have easily accessible. Additionally, there is another smaller zippered pocket on the front of the pack and it can fit your tablet.
Unfortunately, the Weekender backpack does not have a dedicated laptop compartment, but it can easily fit any laptop inside the main compartment. As such, it might not be the best option for travel.
I could not mention every single backpack on the market, but wanted to give an honorable mention to a couple of other backpacks that are worth considering.
This Aer travel pack 2 is quite similar to the Tortuga Setout and Tortuga Outbreaker, but different enough to warrant checking out. It has a decent capacity at 33L, and is still small enough to work for carry on luggage.
The Aer travel pack also comes with all the features your would expect like a handy front organisation section. A 17 inch laptop pocket, and decent straps and back padding for carrying long distances.
Another very well thought out travel backpack, the Peak Design Travel Backpack starts at a slim 30-35L and can expand all the way up to 45L. It is accessible from multiple places - front, back, and side, which is rare in most travel bags.
It also has all the features we have come to expect from a travel backpack- laptop storage, water bottle holders, large packing space, stowable straps and it even has hidden straps you can use to attach even more on the outside. This is really a commendable option from Peak Design.
Choosing the perfect travel backpack can be difficult, but with the right features in mind, your choice can become a lot easier. The following are some of the things you should be on the look out for when reading this review:
Because you are going to use this as a travel backpack, comfort is a big factor. Especially if you are going to be wearing it for a while (maybe using it as a day pack on arrival?).
Some of these backs are designed for long term use and have nice back padding and ventilation.
Another issue is the hip straps. If you carry a lot of great like me, you want to take the load off your shoulders in the long run. So well padded hip straps are a must. But, if you just want it to move around the airport, this might not be your biggest concern.
Another big question when it comes to carry on backpacks is whether the straps are stowable. Sometimes you need to carry a lot of heavy stuff, and then you want your travel bag to act like a backpack. Other times you just want to stash it under the seat in front or in the overhead bins. In the latter case, you want the straps to be out of the way.
Some of the travel backpacks do that really well, and have that dual mode. Others are just standard backpacks and don't even consider that. They are very old school like that.
Note: There is another option which you will see with the Osprey and that is a combo wheelie bag/backpack.
Depending on what you are bringing and how you like to pack, the amount of storage space and options in a travel backpack is worth thinking about.
Do you need access to things for security checks (toiletries, laptop, tablet) and during the flight. It can be a pain if you have to dig for these while taking your seat.
On the other hand, if you don't need them, they just waste interior space and make the bag heavier.
For the laptop specifically, it is better towards your back, as this will make it more comfortable to carry. Also, it's great if there is a separate access for security and ease of access during travel. We all know what it is like to have to get through security, struggling to fish our laptop out of the bag. That is wear and easy to access laptop compartment really comes into play. Especially for the frequent traveller!
Depending on how much you are going to use this, being waterproof is an issue. It can always rain, but if you only intend on getting from the taxi to the hotel. No problem. If you are walking around on a day trip... bigger issue for your travel gear!
This is wear a rain cover can come in handy, but not many backpacks in this category come with them. So be on the lookout for a storable rain cover or at least consider buying your own dedicated rain cover for long term travel.
External pockets can also be handy for water bottles, tripods and umbrellas. And other hooks or tabs if you want to carry a travel tripod, helmet or other gear might be a must for your travels. Just keep in mind that although the space in your carry on backpack might be enough for today (or this one trip) you will always have issues at some point and need to attach things in emergency. You might buy too much on a weekend trip, or just be on a different kind of trip that requires and extra thick jacket. It happens to me all the time!
As always, it comes down to how you want to use it:
If you intend on more time with the pack on your back, I believe the Northface is a great option. It has nice support, ventilation and the laptop is right on your back. The Oakley is also a great option, just not as streamlined or compact. But, if you want more pockets and options, it is a great choice.
For security, you can't go past the Kensington, the company that made their name that way. The zippers are top notch, the locks great, and you can add your own.
The Osprey is the only one in this review for those wanting a rolling bag that is also a travel backpack. A great option for someone that flies a lot, but needs to be able to carry things on the go once they arrive.
The following are some of the most frequently asked questions regarding carry on backpacks.
A general rule is that a carry on backpack should be between 40-45 liters maximum. Many of the specific travel backpacks like the Opsrey Farpoint or Tortuga Setout are around or below this size. They are also designed in most cases to fit under the seat on a plane.
Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!