While there are a few wheeled bags that you can get away with on certain airlines, it’s hard to find one that is roomy enough to pack a decent amount of clothes and personal items without going over the size and weight limit. Therefore, a good backpack that’s designed for plane travel and not for hiking is your best bet. The best backpack for airline travel carry on should be comfortable enough to carry while waiting in line at security and from the airport to the hotel. It doesn’t really need to have sternum straps or other extra features that hiking backpacks do.
We already have some favorite backpacks that work well on US airlines, but you might run out of luck on European airlines even if one dimension exceeds the limit by just an inch. In fact, IATA approved “Cabin OK” bags fall within 21.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 inches (55 x 35 x 20 cm) even though some airlines allow a bit more than that. Therefore to be on the safe side, the following options that we have chosen for best backpack for traveling Europe have never run afoul of any European airline and some of them are even airline approved carry on luggage. They all have a capacity of about 40 liters so you won’t feel undercut in terms of packing space.
If the airline you’re using also allows a personal item in addition to the carry on, take a look at these bags.
Osprey Packs Farpoint 40 Travel Backpack
For the best of the best in travel backpacks, you have to look at Osprey options. This Osprey Farpoint 40 is so versatile, that you can use it as a carry on or city daypack or as a hiking pack. It is one of the more expensive packs of this size but unlike most other carry on travel backpacks, this one is designed to be comfortable to carry for long periods of time.
It’s a smart looking backpack that is designed for men and women but has LightWire frame suspension that shifts the load from the harness to the hip belt. These and the padded shoulder straps can be zipped away and hidden behind the back panel to create a sleek and slim pack that is safe to check in on your flight if you want to. Mesh panels on the back panel, harness and hip belt ensure that there is no chaffing and enough ventilation. Another comfort design comes in the form of external compression straps that tighten the pack to make it stable and bring the weight of the load closer to you, which makes carrying easier.
If you need to just grab the bag and get going, there are two padded grab handles – one on the top and one on one side. These make it easier for you to lift the bag over your head and into an overhead compartment.
The main compartment is accessible via dual zippers with pulls that can be locked with a luggage lock. Inside this is a zippered mesh pocket that is a good size for a small laptop or tablet. On the front of the bag is a single zippered pocket and there are several attachment points on the exterior to allow you to carry other gear like a hiking pole or camping gear.
You can get the Farpoint 40 in two sizes: a 40 Liter and a 38 liter. The former is 22 inches in height, while the latter is 20 inches in height. Both are 14 inches wide and 9 inches in depth and they both weight just over 3 pounds when empty. It is a deceptively large backpack with a cavernous main compartment that features restraining straps for your belongings to stay in place.
The construction is of durable Ripstop nylon and it comes in 3 colors.
Cabin Max Metz Flight Approved Backpack
If you’re looking for a budget option, then the Cabin Max Metz backpack has been a favorite with UK customers for a few years but is also available in the US. Although it doesn’t have a laptop compartment, it has a massive overall capacity for its size at 44 liters. It measures 55x40x20 cm and will suit lots of budget European airlines. Because it is completely softsided, you can use it even with the stingier airlines by just packing less. It is incredibly light, weighing just 660 grams or 1.45 pounds.
The main compartment opens via a douple zipper and all around U-shaped opening. This space is very roomy and is perfect for your clothes and accessories and even a laptop in its own sleeve. There are two internal pockets here. The next compartment in front of that is also double zippered and is an organizer space for your small electronics, travel documents, etc. There is a mix of zipped and open mesh pockets here to keep things neat and one of them is the perfect size for your clear plastic toiletry bag. The last pocket right in front is smaller and singled zippered and good for last minute things you need to store just before you reach the security line.
There are two exterior compression straps on either side of the bag to keep it compact and easy to carry. You also have a pair of internal restraining straps in the main compartment to keep your clothes from shifting too much. The shoulder straps are padded and adjustable, and although the bag is not meant to be carried on your shoulders for long periods of time, they are perfectly fine for getting from one place to another. There is a velcro-wrapped handle on the top of the bag if you want to carry it by hand.
The bag is made of a shower resistant polyester material and comes in a variety of color combinations and patterns.
Hynes Eagle 38l Flight Approved Carry on Backpack
The Hynes Eagle 38l Flight Approved Carry on Backpack is made of polyester and is available in black or purple. It is shaped like a suitcase but is more softsided and comes with adjustable padded shoulder straps that you can hide away in its slip mesh back pocket when they’re not in use. You also have a top and side grab handle.
The backpack weighs 1.8 lb and measures 13 by 7.9 by 19.7 inches but adjustable double compression straps on either side allows you to compress the bag further to fit under your seat on the plane. These buckles and straps can also be hidden away in small nooks built into the sides of the bag.
The main compartment of this pack opens book style via double zippers and there are pockets and restraining straps inside to keep your stuff tidy in transit. Next comes a large U-shaped double zipped organizer pocket on the front that can hold a 15.6″ laptop, a tablet, phone, pens, cards, cords and other small items. The smallest external pocket lies right in front and opens vertically via a single zipper.
Timbuk2 Wingman Travel Duffel Bag
The trouble with a lot of true backpacks is that their depth from back to front often goes over the maximum width allowed, which is about 8 to 9 inches for many European carriers. While many backpacks can be under-packed so that they can be compressed to fit in to a luggage sizer, this severely reduces packing space. That’s why some may prefer a duffel or suitcase style bag that typically comes with more width and length than depth for maximum packing capacity. The Timbuk2 Wingman Travel Duffel Bag is one such bag but it has adjustable backpack straps with sternum strap that can be tucked away when not needed.
Its dimensions, weight and capacity are 20.9″ x 15.7″ x 7.9″, 2 lbs, 3 oz and 40L. Even though the width here seems slightly more than what most airlines allow for carry on, it is balanced out by the reduced height and depth. Existing customers of the Wingman say that they have successfully travelled around Europe with it and that it goes easily into overhead bins.
There are lots of compartments to separate and keep everything in its place. It starts with two zippered pockets underneath the velcro secured front flap. The smaller one is L-shaped loading for your travel documents, while the other is top loading and padded for a tablet. Behind that is a padded zippered compartment for a laptop. A 17″ Macbook will fit nicely in there. Behind that is the main compartment that opens via a dual zippered lid. The inside of the lid features a full zippered pocket for storing accessories, undergarments or dirty laundry. The main compartment is like that of a suitcase with dual compression straps for your clothes. On one side is a zippered pouch whose wall is flexible depending on how much you pack in there. The pouch has an exterior zippered opening as well so it’s perfect for packing shoes, toiletries or anything else that you want to keep separate from the main compartment. You can use it for dirty laundry as well, so at the start of your trip it is empty and all of your clothes are in the main compartment. As your days of travel go by, you add laundry to the pouch and its wall moves inwards as the contents of the main compartment dwindles.
There are carry handles on all three sides of the duffel plus a detachable and padded shoulder strap. If you need them, the backpack straps are hidden inside a zippered panel right at the back. Just remove them and clip the ends to the d-rings on either side of the bottom of the pack.
You may not be able to fit this bag underneath a plane seat and petite women might find the shoulder straps a bit uncomfortable to use for long stretches, but if carrying enough gear for a two week trip to Europe is important, then this durable nylon Wingman is a good buy.