How Much Space Do You Lose in an 18-Inch Carry-On?

Is buying an 18-inch (or even smaller) carry-on a foolhardy move? Or is it a smart, forward-thinking purchase?

With the recent speculation that airlines are looking to reduce the allowable size of a carry-on bag , it seems only natural that there’s been a rise in the sub-22-inch carry-on market. But is buying an 18-inch (or even smaller) carry-on a foolhardy move? Or is it a smart, forward-thinking purchase. And even more importantly, how much can you actually fit in an 18-inch carry-on bag?

I decided to put it to the test by pitting the 18-inch Delsey Solution against two 22-inch models: Eagle Creek’s AWD Tarmac and Flight 001’s 22-inch Avionette.

Checking Measurements

Suitcase measurements are notoriously unreliable, so I started the test by pulling out the yardstick and getting the facts straight. Indeed, while the Delsey’s interior space measures 18 inches, it actually reaches a height of 20 inches when the four roller wheels (and excellent clearance) are factored in. Similarly, the Avionette is technically 22 inches of structured space, but when the extra material at the top of the bag is included (space which would be filled out by a bag packed to capacity), the dimensions stretch into the 24-inch zone.

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The Capacity Test



The 18-inch Delsey Solution maximizes width in the absence of height, which does wonders for its interior capacity. I was pleasantly surprised by how much the bag held as I filled it to establish the baseline. I managed nearly a week’s worth of fall clothing, plus a pair of shoes and a medium-sized toiletries case. Not bad.



Next up was the Eagle Creek AWD Tarmac. Measuring a true 22 inches, the bag’s interior space is slightly smaller to make room for the four rugged spinner wheels. The items that had filled the 18-inch suitcase to capacity left enough room in the 22-inch bag to fit an additional larger item—say, a pair of shoes or a medium-weight jacket. The difference wasn’t staggering, but it was noticeable.



With an integrated two-wheel design that allowed the packable interior to run the length of the bag, I was curious to see if the Avionette would offer even more room than its 22-inch four-wheel counterpart. And indeed it did, but only slightly. A determined packer could squeeze two pairs of additional shoes into the space left free, but no more.

The Verdict

It’s not as bad as you’d think. Nearly anyone who can pack necessities into a 22-inch carry-on will likely be able to get by with an 18-inch bag. The only caveat is that, without a long side, items such as travel tripods and other longer items may not be able to fit inside.

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The Surprise Lesson

The second lesson here is more of a reminder that suitcase dimensions aren’t consistently reported. Sometimes 22 inches includes the wheels; sometimes it doesn’t. In some suitcases, the packable interior runs the entire length of the bag; in others, the wheels offer more rolling clearance but less packable space.

Before wheels, suitcases were little more than boxes designed to be hoisted by skycaps and bellboys. Price and materials aside, one was essentially like another. But the rise of baggage fees and the carry-on lifestyle has produced a profound increase in the variation of suitcase designs. The moral here is to decide what dimensions you’re looking for and then read the fine print. Some companies offer a breakdown of interior and full-height measurements (look for the “specs” tab on the product page), but this information can be surprisingly hard to track down online.

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Christine Sarkis thinks far too much about suitcases. Follow her on Twitter @ChristineSarkis and Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation.


By Christine Sarkis

There's a 95 percent chance Senior Editor Christine Sarkis is thinking about travel right now. Follow her on Instagram @postcartography and Twitter @ChristineSarkis.

Christine Sarkis is an SATW-award-winning journalist and executive editor at SmarterTravel. Her stories have also appeared on USA Today, Conde Nast Traveler, Huffington Post, and Business Insider. Her advice has been featured in dozens of print and online publications including The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, and People magazine. She has also shared travel tips on television and radio shows including Good Morning America, Marketplace, and Here & Now. Her work has been published in the anthologies Spain from a Backpack and The Best Women's Travel Writing 2008. She is currently working on a travel memoir.

The Handy Item I Always Pack: The Trtl Pillow. It's easy to pack and comfortable, and makes it so I can actually sleep on flights.

Ultimate Bucket List Experience: Seeing the Aurora Borealis from the comfort of somewhere warm, like a glass igloo or hot spring.

Travel Motto: Curiosity is an amazing compass.

Aisle, Window, or Middle Seat: Aisle all the way.

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