Wheels vs. No Wheels: The Great Carry-on Bag Debate

There are pros and cons to every luggage option.

ByABC News
August 10, 2014, 7:09 AM
Airlines that charge for carry-ons may allow a small bag onboard for free if it fits under the seat.
Airlines that charge for carry-ons may allow a small bag onboard for free if it fits under the seat.
Getty Images

Aug. 10, 2014— -- Nothing could be simpler than one of my all-time favorite money-saving flight tips: No matter where you go, don't take a big suitcase. Use a carry-on.

"They don't hold enough," complained one of my employees but she too became a convert and not because I went on a 10-day trip to Italy with a carry-on. Because my wife did.

Why Take a Carry-on

A quick refresher on reasons to use a carry-on no matter where or when you fly.

Save on bag fees: Most airlines let you use a carry-on for free. The exceptions are Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit, and in the case of Spirit it's actually cheaper to check a bag.

Saves time: I love heading straight out the door after a flight; I'm first in line for a taxi plus I'm not part of the depressing scene at the baggage carousel where gaggles of exhausted passengers wait for luggage. And wait and wait.

Save your stuff: The bag that's with you every step of your journey is the bag an airline cannot lose or damage. I was forced to check a golf bag recently which was returned to me semi-destroyed; to anyone who's ever gone through an airline red-tape nightmare, I know how it feels.

Which Carry-on is Best

I use a wheelie; mine's a structured, fabric bag (they also come hard-sided) with two wheels on the bottom, retractable handle up top. Depending on where I'm going, I use a small-ish one or a slightly bigger bag because airline size guidelines vary but standard carry-on dimensions for domestic flights are typically 22" long x 14" wide x 9" tall. Note: Measure a bag before purchasing (and include the wheels in measurements) to be sure it meets guidelines which you can find on airline websites under 'baggage'. If you fly internationally, check those sizes too.

Others prefer to go wheel-less with backpacks or a soft, unstructured fabric or nylon carry-alls that usually come with a shoulder strap. These can range from an L.L. Bean medium duffle ($44.95) to a Brooks Brothers 'Crocodile Weekender' ($15,000). The convert employee I mentioned earlier uses what she describes as a "ratty old nylon gym bag" and says it no longer smells like socks.

Wheels are better: The pro-wheels arguments.

Cheap: As noted, you'll save the $50 checked-bag fee on most airlines.• Painless: It can save you from aches and pains in your back and/or arms. • Roomy: The fairly sizable footprint of these bags means you can pack more and clothes emerge with fewer wrinkles.• Maneuverability: Great on most surfaces, especially bags with spinner-type wheels that can help make sprints through the airport a little easier.

No wheels are better: The no-wheels arguments.

Even Cheaper: Airlines that do charge for carriers usually allow a small bag onboard for free if it can fit under the seat. The squash-ability factor of some no-wheels bags can come in handy here.• Staying Power: Bin space fills up fast and airlines are increasingly vigilant about over-sized carry-ons; if you go over the limit (or the gate agent thinks you have) your bag may be taken from you and placed in cargo. This is less likely to happen with a smaller no-wheel bag. • Restroom-Friendly: Some find no-wheels bags are actually easier to maneuver, especially into tight spaces like a bathroom stall.

And the winner is: I can't declare a winner in this debate because there's no way to fail. As long as you us any kind of carry-on at all you will save money and you will save time.