Carry On Comparison:
Lightweight Travel Backpacks
The Best Carry On Luggage (IMO):
Jump straight to my carryon comparison table
I spent a lot of time researching the perfect carryon bag for a traveler who doesn’t like to check bags. While I still feel that most carryon’s are lacking - either they're too heavy, or the straps are too flimsy, or the bag is too big for all airlines (keep in mind that European airlines have different size restrictions than North American airlines do). In the meantime, I have found my favorite bag!
The main qualities I look for in a carryon bag are weight, size, bag layout, durability, and comfort.
The number one attribute I look for in a carryon is WEIGHT. While half a pound or so might not seem like a huge deal, it can become a big issue when you’re trying to cram everything you need for your trip into a backpack while keeping the weight under am extremely restrictive weight limit (I’ve seen limits on carryon bags as low as 6 kg/12 pounds on some of the budget airlines), so my bag needed to be as lightweight as possible. I won't even consider a bag that weighs more than about 2.5 pounds, but I have included a few in my comparison as some of the heavier bags do come with more of the creature comfort features.
The next trait I look for is SIZE: will the bag conform to all airlines restrictions? Some airlines now charge for a “large” carryon bag too so if you can get away with staying in their “small” category you can avoid paying unnecessary baggage fees.
Here is a listing courtesy of worldtraveler.com of the maximum dimensions and weight limits allowed on some of the major airlines (always check your airlines restrictions before traveling though as weight and size limits may change from time to time): http://www.worldtraveler.com/international-carry-on-size
And another for some of the major European airlines courtesy of skyscanner.net: https://www.skyscanner.net/news/cabin-luggage-guide-hand-baggage-sizes-and-weight-restrictions
This list is fairly comprehensive but dates back to 2009 so not sure how accurate the information is: http://flyingwithfish.boardingarea.com/2009/06/28/carry-on-weight-baggage-limit-chart-for-65-world-airlines/
When it comes to LAYOUT, I personally prefer the convenience of a backpack for those situations where you need your hands free, but one that opens up suitcase or duffle bag style: a bag that has a full zip that opens up the whole length and sides of the bag. I don’t like the top-opening backpacks, then you have to go digging through everything you packed to get to items that are hiding in the bottom. I used to swear by the wheeled roller bags, but after years of travelling and managing to get my packing list so light that I can generally get by with just a carryon bag, the added weight of the wheels is too high a price to pay for the convenience of the wheels (plus, wheels can break and when you're rushing to catch a plane down the cobblestone streets of London and one of your wheels snaps, well let's just say that was not a fun morning, but I did make my flight ;-).
As for DURABILITY, I need something that is well made and isn't going to fall apart after a couple of uses. My bags get a lot of wear and tear, so it has to be strong, and preferably have some kind of water repellent aspect to it.
COMFORT is the last thing I look for because the other 4 are just more important to me. However, I have had some lower back issues from hauling around too much weight, so finding something that distributes the weight more evenly across your shoulders and hips is important. Also, I recommend finding a bag that's breathable on your back and won't cause you to get soaked in sweat if you're going to be carrying it around for hours on a hot day.
So after reading hundreds of reviews on multiple bags from various providers, the backpacks that sounded the most promising included (and this by no means an exhaustive list, these were just some of my favorites in my research):
(If you're interested in any of the bags and they are available on Amazon I have provided affiliate links below the table, if not available there then I have provided non-affiliate links below that)
Here is my carryon comparison sorted by WEIGHT
*Minaal doesn't state capacity "because there's zero industry standardisation, and a million variables that affect the result. One company's 35L is another's 50L."
**The Osprey site doesn't say anything about a laptop sleeve but other sites do. Double check before buying if you need a laptop sleeve.
***Weights, dimensions, and prices are current from the brand's website (or from MEC's website if the brand's site did not have the information, or converted on Google) as of June 7, 2017
At the end of the day, it came down to cost versus weight. (Plus can you tell I'm a big fan of the Timbuk2 bags? ;)
I found the Timbuk2 Wingman on a resale site and I love it! (However I do have the previous version, which I think is actually a tiny bit lighter than the current version). It's been all over Europe and North America with me. I can fit a TON of stuff inside, and it zips open all the way on three sides so I can see exactly what I have packed. There is also a zippered pocket that runs across the top, a mesh zipper pouch against the inside of the bag, a zippered pocket across the bottom, one against your back (technically I think this is for a laptop but I rarely travel with a laptop, too much weight), and finally an exterior zipper pocket (on the newer version it appears to be a velcro pouch) which is handy for keeping papers and such in it (plus an extra luggage tag!). My only issue with the Wingman is that when it is fully loaded and heavy (usually when I'm returning from a long trip), it winds up being hard on my back. Maybe adding hip straps would help or rebalancing the weight in other ways. Technically I think it's a tiny bit too wide for some airlines, but it is also super squishable so if need be (I've never had to) I could force it to fit in the airlines bag size checkers.
This is my Timbuk2 Wingman upon returning from my last trip
This is after I removed some stuff. Notice how there's still a TON of room on top to fit wayyyy more stuff in, and I've covered probably all of the heavy items already! And I haven't even touched the outside pockets yet (I usually stuff the bottom pocket with heavier items or items that I'm not going to need right away, and the top pocket with things I'm going to want on the plane so that they're easy to access (snacks, pillow, etc)