Most airlines allow you to bring aboard two carry-on items: one for the overhead bin, plus a smaller personal item that must fit under the seat in front of you. A great piece of underseat carry-on luggage can hold and organize the essentials you need close at hand in the airport and on your flight, along with anything you don’t want to trust to a checked piece of luggage, such as prescription medications or a camera.
After weeks of testing a variety of backpacks, totes, briefcase-style bags, and wheeled carry-ons, we’ve determined that the best underseat luggage, is the sleek Briggs and Riley ZDX Cargo Backpack(available at Amazon for $259.00). Its thoughtful design, excellent build quality, and outstanding warranty make it a great choice.
These are the best underseat luggage we tested ranked, in order:
Briggs and Riley ZDX Cargo Backpack
Tom Bihn Aeronaut 30
Cotopaxi Allpa 28L
Away Everywhere Bag
Solo Westside Overnighter
Samsonite Small Rolling Underseater
Delsey Paris Hyperglide Softside Luggage
Wandf Foldable Travel Duffel
Briggs and Riley ZDX Cargo Backpack
The sophisticated, tough Briggs and Riley ZDX Cargo backpack features an organization system that increases packing possibilities rather than limiting them, unlike almost every other bag I’ve ever tried. Made from 800D ballistic nylon with a PVC coating, this backpack should hold up to moisture, dirt, and abrasion and still look great. With its 24L (1464 cubic inch) capacity, it holds lots of stuff. Unless you pack it super thick, the ZDX Cargo should fit easily beneath airline seats—it measures 18 x 12 x 8.8 inches and fit in our bag sizer packed up with our test items.
The ZDX Cargo will help you breeze through airport security, thanks to two pockets accessible from the bag’s top—the laptop sleeve and its large ‘cargo hold’, which is ideal for storing your quart-sized bag of liquids. In addition to protecting your computer, the bag’s laptop sleeve also includes four sections that can also be used to keep track of a tablet, e-reader, and documents. A thin layer of padding separates and protects the contents of the laptop sleeve from the rest of what’s inside the bag’s main compartment. In that main compartment, two large mesh interior pockets help keep smaller items organized. Packed up with our test items, the ZDX Cargo still had a surprising amount of room to spare. There’s plenty of extra space to add a camera, a change of clothes, and other nice-to-have items.
Hidden by a rain-protection flap on the front of the bag is another two-sectioned zip pocket, equipped with a pen holder. We liked that you can access the contents of this pocket with the pack still slung on one shoulder. This pocket is RDIF-shielded, making it ideal for stashing your passport. However, its size also makes it great for storing bulkier items like an apple, phone, charger, and other items you want to access quickly while you wait at your gate or stand in line to get your documents checked. Each side of the pack also has a slip pocket (one zips closed), both of which can hold a large water bottle. The ZDX Cargo’s zippers are all high-quality, self-repairing YKKs. All but the front and side pockets have lockable double zippers—and the zipper openings are all large enough that you’ll never need to seek out specialty locks.
There are a number of ways to tote the ZDX Cargo around. The top of the bag has a rugged carrying handle, which is perfect for helping you to slide it out from under the seat in front of you during a flight. Its adjustable backpack straps have low-profile padding and are ergonomically designed for shoulder comfort, while its sternum strap is ready to help disperse the weight of heavy loads. A simple strap, built into the ZDX Cargo’s back panel, tucks the shoulder straps away tight against the bag when they’re not needed. Speaking of its back panel, its aerated mesh padding provides some lumbar support and helps make wearing it feel cooler and more comfortable.
Briggs and Riley outfits this backpack with a hidden ID tag that’ll keep your personal information hidden when not in use. To make the bag easy to identify as yours, the company offers free monogramming. Perhaps best of all, Briggs and Riley’s “Simple as That” unconditional lifetime guarantee means there’s no charge and no questions asked for any functional repairs.
I’m Johanna Read, a freelance travel writer/photographer, and management consultant. Thanks to both jobs, I travel a couple of times a month (pre-pandemic). I might be on a tiny float plane somewhere in my home province of British Columbia, Canada, or jetting around the world for a research trip. Direct flights aren’t the norm for where I travel and I need to be on the go as soon as I land, so I almost always fly carry-on only. I’ve learned how to make travel as easy and stress-free as possible and know which gear helps and what isn’t worth the bother, price, or added weight.
There are no standard dimensions for under-seat storage on planes. How much room you’ll have depends on the type of plane, your row, and your individual seat. One of the few benefits of a middle seat is that you’ll often have more storage near your feet than your neighbors at the window and on the aisle. SeatGuru.com can help you know what to expect, but it doesn’t always take into account things like In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) boxes which can sometimes get in the way.
For our tests, we had the team at our laboratory in Cambridge, Mass., build a bag sizer, similar to the ones used in airports to check whether your carry-on fits the overhead bin. We used dimensions of 14 x 18 x 8 inches (slightly smaller than the 11 x 18 x 11-inch dimensions that United Airlines uses for pet carriers, which must fully fit under the seat according to FAA regulations).
I tested whether each bag fit in the sizer both empty and when packed with these carry-on essentials:
a 12¾ inch laptop
An 9.5 inch iPad in a protective case
a smartphone, earphones, an extra battery, chargers, and cords
a quart-sized bag of liquids and a toiletry case
a change of socks and underwear plus a bathing suit for an on-arrival swim (just in case of delayed checked luggage)
a pair of sunglasses in a case
a notebook and pen
the paper itinerary, reservation confirmations, and the boarding passes from my last trip
my passport, wallet, and keys
extra N95 masks
a bag with a few snacks
a water bottle
a travel pillow
While packing, I assessed the pockets and organization options of each bag for convenience and accessibility plus determined whether the bag’s design made packing easy or annoying. I packed for how I’d actually travel—both wanting to go through security smoothly and being able to access essential items on board after the bag had been tipped to fit under a seat and then pulled out to open at my feet in the limited space of an airline seat.
My tests also included checking the quality of the overall build, zippers, and handles; the comfort of carrying and/or rolling the bag; and security options like places for luggage locks and RFID shielding.
What to Know About Buying Underseat Luggage
There is no shortage of models and styles of bags sized to fit under the seat in front of you on an airplane. If the ones we recommend in this guide aren’t to your liking, you will want to consider a few things when you set out to buy one:
Choose styles that free your hands: personal preference plays a big role here, but keep in mind that bags that can be worn on your back or on your shoulder free up your hands for showing your documents (whether on paper and/or on your phone), removing your mask for your ID check, or carrying a cup of coffee.
Soft-sided bags offer flexibility: however, you do need to make sure you don’t pack them too thick to fit into the underseat space (if you do, shuffling items around often resolves the problem).
Avoid wheels and too much structure: the structure of wheeled bags means you can’t just shift your belongings around if the underseat space is tight. Unless you’re unable to physically carry a bag, it’s better not to waste space and weight limits on wheels and hard frames. Wheeled bags might not fit under the seat even when billed to do so, so you might need to use the overhead bin anyway, and then you’re allowed a larger carry-on suitcase. While official under-seat dimensions might indicate your structured suitcase fits, keep in mind that it might be a challenge to angle it to fit into the narrow space between your seat and the one in front of you to actually get it in place. And once it’s there, opening it up to access your stuff during your flight won’t be easy.
Organization: the best underseat bags have easy-to-access pockets for essentials you need in the airport (passport, boarding pass, liquids, and laptop) and on the plane. In a cramped airline seat, bags that open at the top are much easier to get into without spillage than ones that open like a book or with a front flap. An ideal bag will also store items you'll want to keep with you but don’t actually need until you’ve reached your destination (ideally, at the bag’s bottom and out of your way). A large main compartment to store items you'll need at your destination provides plenty of space and gives you the most flexibility. You can use packing cubes to organize smaller items, too. like charging cords and spare batteries. Having a few interior pockets is great, but they should be designed to provide you with organizational options, rather than force you to store your stuff in only one way. An exterior pocket that fits a water bottle makes it easy to keep your refillable bottle at the ready (and not leaking inside your bag).
Carry options: Great bags have multiple handles, so you can grab and carry them the way you want whether in hand, on your shoulder, or on your back. Handles need to stand up to carrying and/or rolling your bag, even when packed heavy. If the bag comes with backpack straps, they should be padded to make wearing it more comfortable. However, too much padding can add to the bag’s weight and size. For wheeled bags, retractable handles should have multiple height settings, slide smoothly, and not take up too much space.
Compatibility with other luggage: Some personal-sized carry-ons are designed with a passthrough or panel that allows you to slide them on top of the handle of your wheeled checked or carry-on luggage. This is useful if you want your luggage to roll smoothly as one unit and without risking the top bag falling off. However, it often means sacrificing an exterior pocket and it is a stress point at risk for rips.
Build quality: Think about how much you travel before investing in a bag. Frequent flyers should consider investing in durable well-made luggage with desirable features and, if possible, a comprehensive warranty. Doing so will save you money in the long run and reduce the possibility of the luggage failing you while you’re away from home. However, if you travel infrequently, a more affordable bag with fewer features and a lesser build quality could still provide you with years of service.
Brand names: The distinctive patterns and logos of higher-end brands can signal to pickpockets and thieves you’ve got money to spare and valuables worth stealing. Consider foregoing fashion for practicality.
Other Underseat Luggage We Tested
Tom Bihn Techonaut 30
Measuring 11.4 x 16 x 7.1-9.4 inches, the Tom Bihn Techonaut 30 is an adaptable bag designed, primarily, to be worn as a backpack. However, its backpack straps can be tucked away when not in use, allowing you to carry it in hand by its padded handle as a briefcase-shaped duffel or with an optional shoulder strap. That the backpack straps can be stowed away makes it a cinch to slide it under an airplane seat. The bag’s sternum and waist straps can be removed completely.
The Techonaut 30’s large main compartment opens wide with a double-zippered front flap. It can unzip partially for you to access items in the confined space of an airplane. There are no organizational aids inside the main compartment, save a pair of compression straps and a large zippered mesh pocket on the inside of the compartment’s flap. A zippered laptop pocket sized to hold portable computers up to 16 inches in size is accessible from the top of the bag. Other exterior pockets include a lockable compartment at the bottom of the bag that is well sized to fit a pair of shoes or a jacket. The inside panel separating this pocket from the main compartment can also be unzipped to make the main compartment even more spacious. The small pocket on the top of the bag is ideal for keeping your liquids bag handy for the TSA and includes a key leash. There’s a pocket for a water bottle plus a small pocket for providing quick access to your phone and passport.
My only concern about the Technonaut 30 is that if you try to access its contents at your feet while on the plane, you’d need to prevent the front flap from opening too wide so nothing spills out.
The Cotopaxi Allpa 28L’s interior design will suit hikers well. However, if you prefer more flexibility in how you pack, this isn’t your best choice. The 19 x 11 x 9-inch backpack fit in our sizer when packed, but filling the interior pockets made it lumpy.
Cotopaxi is a certified B Corporation that prioritizes sustainably. Using fabric remnants from other manufacturers that would otherwise be wasted, each sewer chooses their own combination when making these colorful bags. You can select a specific color combo when you order or be surprised.
When sitting on the plane, top-loading backpacks are usually the easiest for accessing your belongings. Instead, this pack opens like a book with wrap-around lockable YKK double zippers (the main zippers also have a band of fabric across them to thwart pickpockets). Inside, mesh dividers and pockets keep your belongings organized but they’re better suited for soft items like clothes rather than bulky cameras and toiletry bags. There was little room to spare when packed up with our test items. Your laptop is easy to pull out at security from the bag’s side, but the two-sectioned laptop compartment isn’t lockable. Your quart-bag of liquids would be most accessible if you stored it in the top-most interior mesh pocket. This backpack is very weather resistant plus comes with a rain cover, but there are only two external pockets and no exterior spot for a water bottle. If the bag’s design suits your needs, you’ll feel good buying from this carbon-neutral company that has fair employment practices and allocates revenue to poverty alleviation and community development.
The spacious Away Everywhere Bag (16.3 x 10.2 x 7.3-inches, which fit in our luggage sizer) is made with water-resistant nylon and can be carried either by its comfortable (and detachable) shoulder strap or with its leather handles in hand. Some people may find the leather handles are large enough to use on their shoulders.
The Everywhere Bag’s main compartment is roomy and closes with lockable double zippers (though some luggage locks might not fit very easily). Inside the main compartment, you’ll find a large zippable pocket and a few open-topped sections for flatter items like a slim wallet and business cards. There’s also an interior sleeve sized to hold a small umbrella or a slim water bottle, plus a key leash. The bag’s two-sectioned laptop sleeve will hold a 15-inch device plus an iPad-sized tablet.
One side of the exterior of the bag has a non-lockable pocket ideal for quick access to your passport and phone; the other side has a panel that slides onto the handle of a spinner suitcase.
My one complaint about this bag is that its laptop compartment is billed as having a magnetic locking zipper but I couldn’t find an explanation of how it worked.
The Solo Westside Overnighter, measuring 15 x 16.25 x 8.5 inches, looks like a briefcase on two wheels. Its design is better suited as a portable office for files and a laptop than for use as an all-purpose carry-on. The structured, polyester-covered bag weighs 8.1 pounds and feels heavy even when empty. That it’s designed to be pulled and pushed around an airport by its collapsible handle helps to offset the weight of the bag and its contents. While the wheels rolled smoothly during testing, the Westside Overnighter’s collapsible handle was a little stiff and sometimes needed extra effort to deploy properly.
This Westside Overnighter opens like a book and features two restraining straps to prevent it from falling completely open. This could make it relatively easy—for a structured suitcase—to get at items near the top of the bag’s interior or from its “quick access” exterior pocket during your flight. This bag has an unusual configuration not well suited to bulky items. You do have options to fit a laptop though. The first comes with an admin panel sewn into it for storing business cards, pens, and papers. The second laptop area is divided into two sections. Here, you’ll find a removable padded sleeve that fits laptops up to 16 inches in size as well as a flat area that could be used to store a tablet or documents. We were pleased to find that the double zippers for the bag’s three largest compartments have space to add locks. The only space for a water bottle is inside the bag, which could lead to your belongings getting wet if the bottle leaks.
If you fill the Westside Overnighter’s exterior pockets, you risk making the bag too thick to fit under the seat. Even while empty, it was a struggle to get this structured bag into our luggage sizer.
The 16.5 x 13.75 x 9-inch Samsonite Small Rolling Underseater is a cloth-covered, four-wheeled spinner suitcase with structured sides. Unfortunately, the placement of the bag’s wheels made it impossible to fit into our luggage sizer during testing. So, you’ll likely need to put it in an overhead bin on your flight. If you also have a full-sized carry-on with you, some airlines might ask you to check one of them.
About two-thirds of the Small Rolling Underseater’s interior is taken up by its main compartment, which is divided by a hanging panel with a zippered pocket. Unless the main compartment is packed full, items inside of it will likely get tossed about when the bag is tipped on its side. The pockets built into the bag’s interior, as well as its single exterior pocket, are well sized to fit an iPad-sized tablet. An exterior pocket has a USB port if you want to add a battery pack to charge your phone or tablet. A passthrough panel allows you to stack the Small Rolling Underseater on top of another bag.
Samsonite states that the Small Rolling Underseater can hold devices up to 13.3 inches in size, but most laptops are larger than that--my 12¾-inch laptop was too large to fit into this bag.
Spinner wheels roll easily
Did not fit in luggage sizer
Laptop pockets not accurately sized
Difficult to access interior items in tight spaces
Delsey Paris Hyperglide Under-Seater with 2 Wheels
The Delsey Paris Hyperglide Softside Luggage is a tough, two-wheeled bag with a polyester shell wrapped around a structured frame and measures 9 x 15 x 13 inches. Despite its advertised size, this bag proved to be too large to fit into our sizer during testing.
The bag’s main compartment has a large zippered mesh pocket on one half and compression straps to secure items on the other. Two interior pockets are designed for shoes and an exterior pocket is sized for a not-too-big water bottle. We were disappointed to find that the only place that fit my 12¾-inch laptop in the Paris Hyperglide was horizontally in the main compartment. When I inserted my device into the bag’s interior laptop sleeve, the bag’s lid wouldn’t close properly. The laptop didn’t fit at all in the bag’s exterior pocket. However, my iPad (even in the case) did. While in your airline seat, accessing anything in this suitcase’s interior will be difficult.
Did not fit luggage sizer
Laptop compartment sizing inaccurate
Difficult to access interior items in tight spaces
The Wandf Foldable Travel Duffel is an inexpensive briefcase-shaped bag measuring 16 x 12 x 6 inches. It has a single, large interior compartment plus a small exterior pocket. The bag’s main compartment does not contain any organizational aids. So, unless you pack it full or use packing cubes, its contents will get jumbled around as you carry it or push it under the seat.
The Wandf Foldable Travel Duffel’s single exterior pocket is sewn onto a band of fabric so that you can slide the bag over the handle of a spinner-style suitcase. We liked that this bag’s double zippers are compatible with luggage locks. But this bag doesn’t come with a shoulder strap and its handles don’t have a grip guard. This means that fully loaded, the bag could be uncomfortable to carry for long periods of time.
While the Wandf Foldable Travel Duffel’s lightweight build may make it easy to fold up and store when not in use, it also suggests that it might have a shorter lifespan than the other under-seat carry-on luggage in this guide.
Our team is here for one purpose: to help you buy the best stuff and love what you own. Our writers, editors, and lab technicians obsess over the products we cover to make sure you're confident and satisfied. Have a different opinion about something we recommend? Email us and we'll compare notes.