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Very Frequent Flyers Review the Best Carry-On Bags

Very Frequent Flyers Review the Best Carry-On Bags

Travel with just a carry-on? Or trying to pluck up the nerve to ditch the hassle of a checked bag? An important first step is knowing what bag to carry. So we did a deep dive into FlyerTalk’s Travel Products forum to see what carry-on bags the frequent fliers there swear by. The first rule of one bagger travel? Not all carry-ons are created equal. Here are the ones that frequent fliers swear by.

GORUCK GR1 (Matt Hyatt/Flickr)

The Indestructible Carry-On With a Cult Following

“GORUCK GR1 is the only bag I use!!” is the usual tone of reviews by GORUCK fans. If you’re not aware of GORUCK bags, the best place to start is to know that they’re basically indestructible (each bag comes with a lifetime guarantee) and designed and used by Special Forces soldiers and tested out in the field.

It’s designed to be the only travel bag you need, especially when your safety depends on it. And it also has a bunch of cool features that make it great for travelers who don’t often find themselves in life-threatening situations but want one bag to bring everywhere that will survive anything. Here’s a quick list of the perks of FlyerTalk’s favorite GORUCK carry-on bag, the GR1:

  • They’re TSA compliant, and fit under your seat
  • They open flat for getting things in and out, no digging around necessary
  • They’re comfortable: (padded straps and a stabilizer to make the load easier to carry)
  • They keep your laptop very protected: (the laptop compartment is bombproof and a false bottom keeps it from banging around if you drop your bag)
  • Lots of small pockets: an external one for quick access, 3 internal pockets, and interior and exterior webbing for storing whatever.
  • Very durable: rainproof, built to survive combat situations, comes with a lifetime guarantee

The drawbacks? GORUCKs are indestructible and they are priced like it. Your GORUCK might be the last carry-on you ever buy but it will cost you around $300. And, they’re kind of a gateway drug to other GORUCK bags. “90% of my trips, I use my GORUCK GR1,” said one FlyerTalker on his one-bag of choice. But,

“If cold weather to warm weather transitions require me to pack for multi-seasons, I’ll go with my slightly larger GR2 (modified to replace the compression buckles with G-hooks). My GR1 has side and bottom handles added from factory.

My GR2 has side and bottom handles added from factory + I replaced the compression strap buckle (plastic) with a metal G-hook.

My GR3 is a first run with side handles… and I replaced all 4 plastic compression buckles with metal g-hooks. I’ve only used the GR3 once. Liked it, but it is too big for my needs most of the time.

The GR2 is a fav of mine, but also tends to be a bit big. GR1 is my favorite as it is big enough to haul all my gizmos, clothes and toiletries. Upon arrival at my hotel, I dump all non-office essentials and it becomes a reasonably sized daily carry bag for my laptop, cables etc.”

You could do worse than a carry-on bag with a cult following among frequent flyers.

Tom Bihn Synik 22

The Detail-Oriented Bag That Never Goes on Sale

A bag that never goes on sale is like a restaurant that’s only open on Wednesdays and Sundays. They do it because they can and they’re worth it. FlyerTalkers who own Tom Bihn carry-on bags are almost evangelical about the bag’s seamless meeting of form and function. And, Tom Bihn bags have earned their acolytes with bags of various sizes and shapes that are designed with enormous amounts of attention to detail.

This several-hundred-word treatise on the philosophy behind the ergonomic design of the water bottle pocket and other crowd-sourced detials is a pretty satisfying design nerd-out. TLDR, every part of Tom Bihns are designed to make this bag a fun and helpful travel companion.

  • They open flat so that you can pack it like a suitcase (it also comes with internal straps)
  • They keep your laptop protected: the laptop compartment is suspended off of the bottom and back of the bag (in an easy access pocket)
  • They’re easy to carry: with optional sternum straps and a padded hip belt (with leave-no-trace removable hardware)
  • They have pockets for days: each pocket is perfect for something (from keys to camera)

The drawbacks? All of that attention to design is expensive. The SYNIK 22 will run you around $300 and it’s unlikely to go on sale. But, it’s fans in the FlyerTalk forums do have a few workarounds if you find the price prohibitive. “They do occasionally do a member forum surprise gift or review units. You may find Synik on eBay with patience and persistence but it is a very new item. I’ve seen other premium ‘one bags’ on eBay, too. I can’t speak for all of them but many do offer premium build and materials for the premium price tag. My Synapse 19 is still in great shape and I think I have a 2nd generation model before they had a Synapse 25, plus I tend to overstuff it. Avoiding zipper blowout or a backpack strap stitching coming loose on my main bag is nice peace of mind.”


Red Oxx Air Boss


The Great Place to Start

The clear favorite among the travelers in the world’s largest frequent flyer community? The very customizable Red Oxx Air Boss. Why? The bag’s biggest fans tend to be those who have extensively modified their Air Boss bags to their own personal preferences.

  • They’re great for beginners: they even come with a packing guide (you can also purchase packing cube kits)
  • They’re compartmentalized: there’s an interior section for toiletries, shoes, etc. plus, two outer compartments with straps to keep your clothes wrinkle-free.
  • They’re easy to carry: especially when you use the (retractable) “backpack style” configuration
  • They’re basically indestructible: and that’s coming from frequent flyers who travel quite a lot
  • They hold a surprising amount: really. Prepare to be almost alarmed by how much you can fit in there.

“I carry a Red Oxx Air Boss that I fitted with two of their wide compression straps, with a Tom Bihn Absolute Strap. For three-day leisure trips, I opt for a Red Oxx Sunchaser with the same Tom Bihn strap for three-day leisure trips. BOTH of these bags are excellent and come with lifetime guarantees. Sold my Tom Bihn Tristar, nice bag but the Air Boss I prefer.”

It’s a sizable bag that is best for one baggers who are just starting out. Says a veteran one bagger, “Been using the Red Oxx Air Boss for over ten years. Lately, I’ve been using the Mini Boss more often. I’ve gotten more efficient with packing, so the ‘bigger’ bag doesn’t get used as often.”

The drawbacks? The Red Oxx bag will also run you around $300. But, since all of the most highly recommended carry-on bags come in at around this price point, it’s safe to assume that this is the cost of a bag that will last you your traveling lifetime no matter how often you fly.


Want to read more carry-on bag reviews or let everyone know what carry-on you swear by? Come on down to the forum thread on the topic and join the FlyerTalk.



[Featured Image: Tom Bihn]

View Comments (19)


  1. tryathlete

    January 21, 2020 at 7:05 pm

    I’ve found the Kirkland 21” two wheel roll aboard and the High Sierra Elite 45L backpack time be my choice. The Kirkland is ballistic nylon and guaranteed for life. The High Sierra is a $75 backpack but has the best zippers, thickest material and most room you will find in a business compatible backpack.

  2. tryathlete

    January 21, 2020 at 7:05 pm

    Oh the Kirkland 2 wheel roll aboard is $99!!!!

  3. sdsearch

    January 21, 2020 at 8:56 pm

    The drawback of this article: ALL of these bags run around $300! There are definitely plenty of bags worth using that cost a LOT less than that, including a great Endurax (formerly TUBU) camera gear + laptop backpack for under $75 at Amazon. If that specialized a bag from a good brand can be had for that little, why should general purpose bags cost 4x as much???

  4. peterk814

    January 22, 2020 at 4:23 am

    If this is what FlyerTalk forum members think are the best carry on bags then forum members have zero taste. All these bags are overpriced and extremely ugly looking. There are tons of great bags at a lower price point that are durable, have tons of storage and great features at 1/3 the price.

  5. Jestner

    January 22, 2020 at 4:32 am

    The GoRuck used to be made in the USA and that was part of why it was so expensive. They gave now moved most production to Vietnam. I have found this to be a good backpack but the price at this point is not reasonable. I’d look into Evergoods as it is an ex-GoRuck founder and the bag, at quick glance, looks like it might be a good cheaper alternative. GoRuck lost its bag focus and got into the “mudder”/event scene.

    As for Red Oxx, I have several of these as well. They are built super well, made in Montana and, best of all (yet not mentioned above) have a lifetime guarantee which the Company stands fully behind. Yes the bags are also, like GoRucks, expensive but for the mentioned reasons, make a bit more sense as you only need to buy once.

    If you just go from home to taxi to airport to hotel and back, then sure, some rollerboard can do the trick. However, I find rollerboards are generally very inconvenient for travel where you are walking across cobblestones, up and down stairs, through dirt, navigating subways, hopping on small local buses and so forth. I wouldn’t be able to travel anywhere close to how I do with a rollerboard.

    If I’m carrying a small amount such as going to a beach destination, I can go as small as a Red Oxx Gator. If I’m traveling and not planning on buying much or the weather isn’t cold, I typically go with my GoRuck Rucker (was $129 on sale and better designed years ago) and if I’m needing more space I travel with the Red Oxx Air Boss.

    There is an AirBoss Gator video review on TripHash which can give an idea of Red Oxx durability and design. I find this bag also well suited for other non-travel uses:

  6. nequine

    January 22, 2020 at 4:37 am

    I’ve found Cabin Zero bags to be excellent and way less then $300! Lifetime guarantee and even though I accidentally bought a smaller one than intended, it actually holds a weekend’s worth of clothes and accessories very easily.

  7. tampatravel

    January 22, 2020 at 4:42 am

    The Tom Bihn bags are all incredibly thought out and made in the USA (Seattle). Look at what the bags sell for used on eBay! Yes there are cheaper bags out there, but I doubt there are any that are tested and thoughtfully made like Tom Bihn. I have the Synik 30, Pilot, Synapse 25, Super Ego, and a bunch of other accessories from them. I wish had more!

  8. mikem004

    January 22, 2020 at 5:04 am

    $300 for a backpack! This article is no more than an advertisement for expensive designer label brands.
    I bought my canvas carry-on holdall for $3 from a local budget store. It has been several times round the world with no problems, and is lightweight with no wheels or handle.
    If it breaks, I will just buy a cheapo replacement at my destination.

  9. kingbee

    January 22, 2020 at 5:16 am

    Love my super rugged Deuter futura 42 backpack paired with an assortment of packing cubes for organization. Perfect carryon size and ergonomically designed for comfort as a true backpack not a small suitcase with straps. A little under 4 pounds but nice padded straps and waist belt that allows you to carry all the weight you want to stuff in it. A big plus in my experience is the fact that there are no exposed zippers behind to tempt pickpockets.

  10. George of the Jungle

    January 22, 2020 at 5:53 am

    My Rick Steves carry on backpack is older than I can remember. I think I paid less than $75 for it. It has traveled all around the world many times. It still looks fairly new, and fits in the overhead bin. It opens all the way, and it has outside compartments so I can pull out items, such as a quart sized bag of liquid toiletries. If it every wears out, I might get another just like it.

  11. RaoulM

    January 22, 2020 at 6:47 am

    Patagonia MLC will do the same as these options for 1/3 the price. My first lasted 20 years of regular travel and I only replaced it because the newer version looks smarter and has better external pockets.

  12. NickP 1K

    January 22, 2020 at 9:25 am

    I was given as a gift a nice smaller Rimowa roller that is now on 90% of my trips. I then have a Muji expander duffel in addition to my notebook bag. My Notebook Bag is a smaller Thule case that can FIT into the Muji expander – giving me WAY under the two bag sizer limit even for non US airlines. The Muji expander when not needed folds into a the size of a dress shirt folded, which means I travel light but when I need more things to bring back I can expand it, put all my clothes needing laundry – check it if required and viola. One checked bag freeing up my Rimowa to put things I may buy on a trip and still very very light going outbound.

    As sdsearch stated; you can get cheaper bags. There are good smaller rollaboards from AmazonBasics. Those designer backpacks are HUGE – try getting it under your seat for a 12hr+ flight and have OK legroom when you are flying economy. That duffle as your MAIN bag is insane for large airports. You want to carry that weight 1.5 miles through an airport?

  13. IBJoel

    January 22, 2020 at 10:01 am

    I like Highland Tactical bags. Got me through Europe

  14. view-with-a-room

    January 22, 2020 at 10:15 am

    I am sold on the Tom Bihn Brain Bag backpack and the Tom Bihn Tri-Star bag combination. The backpack fits “under the seat in front of you” and the bag fits in the overhead compartment above me. The backpack is more often than not the day bag during holidays. Oddly enough the Tom Bihn bags ship in endless colors but the only option for me is black. The discrete logo is a good thing. One trick, the Tri-Star fits into a nylon laundry bag to protect the bag as checked luggage. The laundry bag is under $10 and can serve other purposes. And either bag can be washed without issue (follow the directions).

  15. myisland

    January 22, 2020 at 10:34 am

    I’m not interested in any bag over $100.

  16. Long Zhiren

    January 22, 2020 at 11:10 am

    It’s all fun and games until you get a seat with no under-seat storage. You put the soft carry-on overhead, and then all of a sudden, another passenger removes your bag saying that the overheads are only for big wheeled carry-on luggage like their own which now takes up all of the overhead.

  17. S c 0 TT y

    January 22, 2020 at 12:06 pm

    The AyeGear Vest and Jacket are great compliments to my existing carry-on and have been saved a fair few times when i’ve been over my weight allowance on local flights in Europe

  18. SamirD

    January 22, 2020 at 10:39 pm

    I have an Eagle Creek similar in function to this one:

    I got it in college in 1996 I believe. It has been with me all over the world in different countries, weather, altitudes, and even was carrying my books for a day at school while I skateboarded down streets at up to 40mph.

  19. dlaue

    January 30, 2020 at 1:25 pm

    Had lots of repairs to TravelPro platinum luggage. Then I found Briggs and Reilly brand. A wise choice for very frequent traveler. Indestructible and a lifetime warranty from a company likely to last your lifetime.👍

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