Best lightweight carry on luggage for international travel
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Best Lightweight Carry On Luggage for International Travel

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Choosing the Best Lightweight Carry On Luggage

Choosing the right lightweight carry on luggage is the first step to packing for your international travel.

It is important to know how you plan to get around in Italy – or pretty much all of Europe – when choosing which carry on luggage type is best for you. Choosing the right lightweight carry on luggage is the first step to packing for your international travel. Since we focus on car-free travel, that means we usually take the train to the central station and walk to our lodging – up to 2 kilometers. And, since Europe is full of cobblestone streets, luggage can take a beating.  We recommend lightweight carry on luggage, backpacks, and totes for international travel that are best suited for planes, trains, buses and walking to get to your destination. 

Are Large Backpacks practical?

I don’t recommend large backpacks since we discovered a few years back that we are no longer comfortable carrying 40 pounds on our backs all day long. On the other hand, for those who are strong enough and young enough, large backpacks can definitely be practical, especially if you travel to lots of different places every day or so. Your hands are free to take pictures and navigate, and you don’t have the issues with wheels on cobblestone streets. But again, for many of us, large backpacks can be heavy and uncomfortable. And only having one bag can be challenging. 

So the question for many of us who need a large piece of luggage and don’t want to tote all that weight on our backs, is “what type of carry on luggage works best – Roller or Spinner?”

Roller Bags vs Spinner Bags

Roller bags and Spinner bags almost seem the same but there are slight differences between the two. A brief explanation is that roller bags generally have two larger wheels and you must tilt the luggage to wheel behind you. The Timbuk2 Co-Pilot luggage illustrated here is a roller bag. Spinner bags, by contrast, have four small wheels, which makes it easy to wheel the bag upright alongside while you walk.  The High Sierra Rockshell is a Spinner bag. Both bags are lightweight and will fit in the overhead carry on compartments on most planes. 

Timbuk2 Co-Pilot Luggage Roller Luggage

High Sierra Rocshell Hardside Spinner Luggage

My experience with my favorite spinner bag

I am a big fan of the spinner bags. In fact, during my corporate travel days when I was bouncing through airports three times per week, the spinner bag was my go-to.  

Follow Our Footprints to OrvietoBut then I used my favorite corporate spinner bag for my first trip to Italy, and yikes, it was not fun to roll my bag down those ancient and beautiful cobblestone streets! The little metal wheels were put to the test.  It was impossible to have the bag glide along beside me like I could do on smooth airport and concrete sidewalk surfaces. I had to tilt and roll it behind me on the cobblestone. Because the wheels were so small, it was exhausting to pull it down the road to our lodging. To top it off, the vibration was really uncomfortable. 

On my next trip, I opted for my older roller bag with the larger rubber wheels. What a difference! I don’t want to give the impression that it is a piece of cake to wheel any larger-wheeled bag down cobblestone streets, but in general, larger wheels on luggage is much more bearable on rough, ancient European streets. 

Oh, and my arms didn’t hurt as much! 

A bonus: my luggage seemed happier.

So, based on my numerous trips of trial and error, both Dom and I have discovered the best lightweight carry on luggage for our style of international travel. Our favorite types of carry on luggage  are:

    • 21-inch roller bag (meets carry on requirements)
    • Relatively small backpack /tote/computer bag (adapted to be a pannier) carry on.

I like my luggage to be stylish, lightweight, and sturdy, so I shy away from the outdoor style gear (I am not a world nomad!). Here are a couple of our best lightweight carry on luggage brands that are practical for international travel.

What brands should I consider?

If you have read about Dom’s fiascos with carrying a roller bag, a computer case, AND a CamelBak daypack, you will understand why I finally convinced him to consolidate his “necessary” luggage pieces from three to two. I purchased this lightweight High Sierra Unisex AT7 Carry-on Wheeled Duffel and backpack. It was reasonably priced and so far has held up well. Plus, it gives him the option to wear it as a backpack if he chooses (so far he hasn’t). He also has the High Sierra AT7 Computer Backpack, which gives him way more room than his old computer bag and CamelBak daypack combined. The computer backpack also has the sleeve that will fit over the handle of the larger carry on luggage, making it convenient to travel longer distances on foot. One thing that seems to bother him is the placement of the handle on the face of the bag, rather than the side, but he has gotten used to it now. What he really likes is that it has a few separate compartments so he can keep his clean clothes away from shoes and soiled laundry.  

High Sierra Unisex AT7 Carry-on Wheeled Duffel and backpack

High Sierra AT7 Computer Backpack

Eagle Creek Expanse International Carry-On Bag

Timbuk2 Co-Pilot Luggage Roller Luggage

There are numerous bags out there to consider. Samsonite makes luggage that will hold up just fine. I also like  Eagle Creek and Timbuk2 carry on luggage. They are made for active travel so they are both lightweight and sturdy.

For women, in addition to your roller bag, you need to have an all-purpose carry-on backpack-style tote. You will be using this every day while exploring and it will replace your purse on these long trips. Trust me, I no longer pack purses because they just waste space and aren’t used when you are on the go.  

Here is my current go-to backpack/tote that I easily added pannier clips to. The third picture has the pannier hooks that I picked up at my local bike shop. I simply clipped them onto the sides of the bag with a couple of light-duty carabiner clips (which are incredibly handy to have). Now my bag stays secure on the rear bike rack when we choose to get around town by bike – and we advise you get around by bike as often as possible!

If you’re someone who carries a lot of gear (cameras, chargers, iPads), either the Timbuk2 or Sherpani is for you. These are high-quality, are versatile and stylish, and are some of the best bags I’ve owned. They are expandable, have a laptop-protector pouch, include shoulder and backpack straps, and they fit easily on your roller bag handle.

Timbuk2 Forge convertable Tote and backpack

Sherpani Camden, Backpack, Tote Bag, and Crossbody Bag

Other essentials for packing

Packing Cubes

Packing cubes come in handy to separate out undergarments, socks, and clean and soiled clothing. Before I had my Sherpani roller bag with a separate shoe compartment, I used them for shoes.  I have the BAGAIL 7 Set / 8 Set Packing Cubes Luggage Packing Organizers for Travel Accessories and the set gives me a few options for separating out my clothing. And they also make your stuff fit better in your bag. The drawstring laundry bag is nice to have, so if you are looking for a set, I recommend finding one with the laundry bag included.

Foldable Tote

This is a must-have for me. You probably have one at home that you can use, but if you don’t, consider buying a foldable tote bag because you never know when you might need one. We usually carry wine, cheese, and other local treats on our day trips. Having a sturdy bag with you that doesn’t take up much space comes in handy.  I had one for years and I finally had to replace it. I chose this Packable Satchel Backpack bag. I like that it has an attached pouch with a clip so I can keep it secure when I am not using it.

Carabiner Clips

These really do come in handy. You probably have a couple lying around the house, but if you don’t, pick up a small pack. They don’t need to be heavy-duty and you will find that they help you keep track of multiple things and make it so you can secure almost anything to your belt or bags.  I bought a 10-pack of SWATOM Aluminum Alloy Carabiner Clips for less than $10 at the time of this writing.

Collapsible Water Bottles

These are nice to have on hand. Tap water is ok but it is a good idea to buy water in Italy. You can buy small bottles virtually anywhere but if you go to the grocery store, you can buy larger bottles for pennies to keep in your lodging and fill up your own bottles. Plus, you can fill them up with filtered water at most airports now.  I prefer the kind that roll up, rather than collapse down since they take up less room in my bag. We have these baiji bottle ll120 Silicone Water Bottles which makes it is easy to tell which is mine and which is Dom’s.

Laundry Detergent Sheets

Love, love, love these Beyond Concentrated Laundry Detergent Sheets. I stumbled upon them by chance just before my last summer trip and now I simply cannot live without them.  For a woman, I travel light – I pack 3-4 days worth of clothing for a 3-week trip. How am I able to travel so light? The secret is that we always try to stay in apartments that have washing machines. I do laundry often, which means I don’t have to lug around laundry soap or several sets of clothes.  I used to carry a lot of stuff. I’d buy a small bottle of liquid soap, carry it from city to city, and leave it at the last place we stayed.  It was heavy, bulky, and inconvenient. But no more. These laundry sheets are lightweight and take up almost no space. I can cut them down into smaller strips if I need to do a smaller load or opt to wash things in the sink. And unlike laundry soap, I never have to throw away unused laundry sheets. They are solid sheets (almost like dryer sheets) so I can carry them on the plane. One pack will easily get you through a 2 -week trip. Buy them – they are worth it. 

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Best Lightweight Carry On Luggage for International Travel

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Apart from our complete travel guide on this website, here are other reading materials we recommend checking out before your trip.

Rick Steve’s

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Essential Italy

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Lonely Planet

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Guide Italy

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