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When Carry-On Luggage Isn’t Carry-On Size

For many airline travelers, carry-on luggage is a great way to save time and money—they can bypass baggage claim and avoid the hefty fees for checked baggage.

But if you’re in the market for new carry-on luggage—for yourself or as a holiday gift—Consumer Reports has an important heads-up: Carefully measure any carry-on bag before you buy.

The reason? You can’t always rely on the product dimensions found on the bags’ hangtags or on a seller’s website to determine whether a piece of luggage is carry-on-compliant. It has to be 22 inches high x 14 inches wide x 9 inches deep for domestic travel on three of the biggest airlines—American, Delta, and United—for instance. Other airlines have different carry-on rules.

Carry-On Complaints

We were tipped off about this carry-on luggage size problem by customer comments on Amazon.com and eBags.com indicating that the carry-on bags they ordered were larger than advertised. For example, one customer left this comment about a bag he ordered via Amazon:

And this one on Amazon from another frustrated traveler:

And from an eBags.com customer:

Consumer Reports Gets Onboard

So we decided to see for ourselves. We bought 11 different pieces of luggage from 11 different brands that were marketed as carry-on luggage size. (Some of the bags are shown at the top of this article.) Our measurements were done using a measuring box incorporating a laser level.

Before we started measuring, however, we had to deal with the bulges that some bags—in particular soft-sided pieces—have in certain areas. Otherwise, measurements might not reflect true dimension of the bag.

To ensure accurate, uniform measurements, we flattened the opposing surfaces of each carry-on by placing a 21-inch-long x 10.5-inch-wide piece of plywood on the top surface, with a 10-pound weight placed on top of the wood. We measured each dimension—height, width, and depth—in the same way. (See the photo below.)

How Do the Bags Measure Up?

We found that nine out of the 11 models we measured were larger than claimed by the manufacturer. (See the table, below.)

For example, the TravelPro Maxlite 3 21" Expandable Spinner ($280) is labeled as being 21 inches high x 14 inches wide x 9 inches deep. A suitcase of those dimensions would be within the size limit for domestic carry-on on American, Delta, and United— 22 inches high x 14 inches wide x 9 inches deep.

However, when we measured the bag, the actual size was 22.5 inches x 14.75 inches x 9 inches—exceeding the limit by 1.5 inches in length and 0.75 inches in width.

Even carry-ons from companies that topped the list for durability and ease of carrying in our survey of luggage brands showed inconsistencies between the marketed and our measured dimensions.

*Prices reflect manufacturer or retailer price as of early November 2015.

Why the Discrepancies in Labeled and Measured Sizes?

It appears that many manufacturers focus on the interior dimensions of the bag to capture packable space.

A spokesperson for Samsonite said that the company does not measure the handles or wheels. “We measure ‘wire to wire’ and ‘edge to edge’ so that you have the packing dimensions,” the spokeswoman, Amy DiLisio, said.

Briggs & Riley told us that the company measures its bags from the bottom of the case to the top of the handle—but does not include the wheels. That can make the difference between your bag being allowed as a carry-on and it getting checked—and you paying baggage fees.

Airlines care about the full footprint of your bag. The exterior dimensions include the wheels, the handle in the retracted position, and any other projections. It all takes up space in the overhead bin, so it all counts.

All of this is important because the dimensions on the product’s hangtag or in website description drive purchasing decisions. If a manufacturer provides only the interior dimensions, it’s not helpful if you're looking for a carry-on that complies with your airline's carry-on rules.

Bottom Line

When you shop for luggage in retail stores, take along a measuring tape. And if you are ordering online, check user reviews on retailer and manufacturer sites to find out whether other owners have faced problems taking the "carry-on" onto the plane. Also check the retailer's return policy. Just in case.

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