It occurred to me as I was unpacking from a big trip that I had been rocking the same backpack since I started doing trip reports semi-seriously in 2013. Not that my trip reports and reviews are stylish or anything, but that’s a long time to be using the same backpack for as much travel as I’ve been doing.
Therefore, I decided to retire that one right then and there. I set out to find the best underseat luggage options available, and after a long search, I settled on this really cool-looking Swiss Gear carry on:
The entire point of this article is to take you through my process of weeding out all the options for the best underseat luggage (and believe me – there are a ton). Then, I’ll tell you all the things that I love and don’t love about the choice I made.
But before I can do that, I need to explain to you my criteria for what I require in a carry on bag. It’ll help explain why I went for a Swiss Gear:
- It must be able to hold 1 weeks worth of clothes (not all that difficult for a simple guy such as myself).
- It must fit under the seat in economy class
- It must have lots of pockets to help me organize camera gear and other travel essentials (such as a passport, wallet, ear plugs, etc).
- I need a padded sleeve for my iPad
- I prefer a backpack over a wheeled bag
- It’s gotta look great
- It’s gotta be a great value
As you can see, I’m a picky guy. That’s probably why I held on to my old backpack for so long, and why it was borderline agonizing to weed through all of the current options. Someday I’ll have a personal assistant to help me out with these sort of things, but for now, it’s all up to me.
The 5 bags I was thinking about buying before settling on the Swiss Gear:
As much as I try to support independent retailers such as eBags and Zappos, I always end up gravitating towards Amazon whenever faced with difficult shopping conundrums such as this. The comparisons and reviews make it extremely simple to see what’s out there. It’s also easy to see what’s good and what’s not. Here are a 5 specific bags that fit my rigorous 7-step criteria for the best underseat luggage:
1. The North Face Borealis backpack:
I was drawn to this one immediately due to the fact that I’ve loved every North Face backpack I’ve ever owned. How could this one possibly be any different? The Borealis is the modern version of the one I used to have with tons of useful storage, good looks, and a nice price.
- The main compartment features a padded, highly-protective laptop sleeve and the front compartment is equipped with a tablet sleeve to protect and organize your electronics.
- Finished with easy-access, stretch-mesh water bottle pockets and an external bungee cord that allows you lash on additional gear.
- 19.75" X 13.25" X 9.75" (fits perfectly under an airline seat)
2. Osprey Packs Daylight Plus Daypack:
Uh oh. Just like the Borealis backpack I mentioned above, this particular Osprey bag is jet black and very stylish. It’s a little pricy, but you can probably already tell that I’ve got a thing for stealthy black backpacks.
- Large panel loading main compartment provides accessibility to contents.
- Dual stretch mesh side pockets provide additional storage options.
- The multi-function interior sleeve can be used for either a hydration reservoir or tablet. Primary material is 210D Nylon Double Diamond Ripstop.
- Front panel shove-it pocket is great for stashing a light rain shell and other smaller items.
- Mesh-covered die-cut foam back panel provides both comfort and ventilation.
- Total volume : 20L - Attaches to a variety of compatible Osprey packs.
3. Swiss Gear Travel Gear laptop backpack 1753 (the modern version of the bag I chose)
I’ve heard a lot of really great things about Swiss Gear carry ons (I see them in airports all over the world), so this stylish bag really caught my eye. Especially the Heather Gray version – which was a tempting option considering that every other backpack I’ve ever owned has been black. Best of all: the price seemed to be an absolute bargain.
- The TSA-friendly lay-flat / padded rear compartment is ideal for fitting my 16-inch MacBook Pro (and all it's accessories such as the power cord, charging brick, and wireless mouse).
- The multiple pockets are a lifesaver! I use the front pocket for charging cords, and the side pockets for things like GoPro cameras, camera batteries, and snacks.
4. AmazonBasics Slim carryon travel backpack:
You see, this is what happens when you shop on Amazon. Never in a million years would I have considered an Amazon-branded backpack to be in the running for my best carry on bag competition, but…here we are. For what it’s worth, I was immediately drawn to its very simple and clean design. Upon further investigation, I realized that it’s actually rated very highly in the reviews. So…why not? The price seems to be decent as well.
- Slim backpack with comfortable fully vented and well-padded back panel; ideal for short trips.
- Dedicated laptop sleeve and top-load, fleece-lined tablet pocket for transporting electronics.
- Front storage pocket keeps smaller items neatly organized and easy to access.
- Zippered side-mounted water-bottle pocket (there when you need it, out of the way when you don’t).
5. KAKA travel backpack / rucksack / flight duffel bag:
Despite the odd name, the tall and thin form factor of this particular bag intrigued me. It’s a little different than my normal style, but the very black and rugged design (very similar to The North Face bags) made it somewhat familiar. A very low price was also very attractive, and I found myself coming back to it again and again in my search.
- Durable anti-theft travel bag: it's made with high-quality terylene oxford fabric.
- A total of 10 pockets: 1 main zipped pocket, 3 front zipped pockets, 1 side mesh pocket, 2 small strap pockets and 3 pockets in the large front zip pocket.
- It can provide separated space for computer, iPad, A4 files, wallet, clothes, power bank (and more).
Whittling it all down to my top 2 choices:
The process of finding the best underseat luggage choice (for me) took several hours. It was somewhat agonizing considering that I have high demands for the bag I travel with, and I needed to be absolutely sure that I made the right choice. Making it even more stressful was the fact that I’ve never once screwed up a carryon bag decision. And I wasn’t about to end that streak now.
After hopping back and forth between all the options I listed above, I narrowed it down to two:
- The North Face Borealis: If you’ve been reading (and watching) my airline reviews for any amount of time, it should be no surprise that I was finding it difficult to stray from The North Face brand. I’ve had The North Face backpacks long before I ever started traveling so heavily, and I just knew that I couldn’t go wrong with this one as well.
- The Swiss Gear 5902 (note: it’s no longer available, but the Swiss Gear 1753 I listed above is the modern equivalent): The idea of having a Swiss Gear carry on was becoming more and more intriguing as I was whittling down my choices for the best underseat luggage. The fact that I see these things everywhere was comforting (it tells me that it’s a quality product), and I was also feeling tempted to change up my style a bit.
I weighed these two options just as heavily as the last car purchase I made. Hey – I take this stuff seriously, ok? But it didn’t take long to figure out what it was that I needed to do.
Decision made: I’ve officially switched to a Swiss Gear carry on bag
Even though the Swiss Gear 5902 looked slightly smaller than the Borealis, I smashed that “buy now” button with the confidence of a guy who was making the biggest decision of his life (one that would change mankind as we know it). From that moment forward, all I could do was wait until it arrived to know for sure if I made the right decision or not.
If you’re curious, here are a few more specific reasons why I chose the Swiss Gear 5902 carry on as the best underseat luggage:
- Even though it was slightly smaller than my existing bag, I welcomed the idea of being forced to pack lighter from now on. I feel as if I had been overdoing it lately anyway.
- Smaller size also meant lighter weight
- The “quick access pockets” (the small zippered containers on the outside) are plentiful and perfectly sized for the things I need to put in there (charging cables, my GoPro camera, Passport, etc).
FYI, I chose the Heather Gray option. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve had black backpacks for as long as I can remember, so I was way past due for a style change.
Everything I like and don’t like about my Swiss Gear 5902
Even though I was extremely happy when it arrived, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to know how good (or bad) it was until I took it on a trip with me. I mean, how could one possibly crown something as The Best Underseat Luggage without actually flying around the world with it for at least a week?
The inaugural trip for my fancy new Swiss Gear carry on was a whirlwind trip to Dubai and back from San Diego (with stops in New York, London, and Dublin). To say that I got to know that back in and out during the course of that week was an understatement, and I learned some very interesting things. Mostly things that I liked, but there were a few things I didn’t like about it as well. Let’s start with the good things:
Everything I like:
1. The size
Holding it in my hands for the very first time had me very concerned about it being able to fit a week’s worth of clothes (and other miscellaneous travel gear) in it. I really needed to be sure that I could comfortably travel with it.
Not only was I able to successfully cram 7 days worth of clothes and other stuff into it, I did so without any more difficulty than I could with my old North Face backpack. And yes – it fit under the seat in front of me (in economy class) on all 7 segments of my recent trip to Dubai and back. Including the tiny Delta Connection E175 from LAX to SAN at the very end.
2. The pocket configuration
Because my job is doing airline reviews and I need lightning-quick access to my camera so that I can get awesome footage of my in-flight meal before I accidentally eat it, quick access pockets are important. There are three on this particular Swiss Gear carry on: one of the front, and two smaller ones on the sides.
Note that they label the side pockets as “water bottle holders”, but…they don’t work very well for that since they are so shallow. But as zippable pockets to securely store things, they’re perfect.
I’m very hard on my carry on bags. Not only do I stuff them to 3 times their recommended capacity (at least), I also stuff them in packed overhead bins and under seats on tiny regional jets. I tug and pull, toss them around like a football – so much so that I’m pretty sure that bags all over the world fear me.
Thankfully, I’m very happy to report that this Swiss Gear 5902 held up admirably to a full week of abuse as my carry on for the recent trip to Dubai and back. I returned home with it completely unscathed, and it still looks brand new. This bag will hold up well.
Everything I don’t like:
1. The Velcro “protection” strap for the laptop sleeve
Just like I need quick access to my camera gear, having quick access to my iPad is important too. There’s a lot of waiting around in airports and on airplanes, and I’m always reaching for my iPad to work on the endless supply of blog posts for SANspotter.com. Unfortunately, the strap that is there to prevent laptops and iPads from falling out is incredibly intrusive. So much so that I’m thinking about taking a pair of scissors to it and cutting it out for good.
Having to reach down into the bag to rip open a very strong Velcro connection is awkward and time consuming. And since I’ve never (ever) had a laptop or iPad fall out of a backpack sleeve, it’s an unnecessary inconvenience as far as I’m concerned.
2. The little blue accents
I know. Unsightly (but teeny tiny) accent colors aren’t going to knock this bag off my “best underseat luggage” list. However, every time I look at this thing sitting next to me in the airport terminal (or under the seat in front of me of course), I can’t help but to think that those little accents would look way better in red. Or gray. Or nothing at all. Blue is a cheap-looking choice in my opinion.
Is a Swiss Gear carryon bag for you?
Whether or not you should follow in my footsteps is up to you (at least when it comes to carry on bags choices that is). I’m quite proud of my Swiss Gear purchase, and I can confidently recommend it for anyone who needs a robust and stylish bag that will easily fit in tight underseat storage spaces. Even if you cram it to silly extremes like I usually do.