#1 High Sierra A.T. GO 556
So this was the winner. A High Sierra ATGO 556 (be careful with the model numbers [Google:AT556] as they're are super important as H.S. makes tons of different bags.) My concerns was that it would fit in the over-head bin. (The FAA says 45 linear inches or 22x14x9) This measures exactly that, but somehow magically is much larger than all of its competitors. I wanted the ability to both throw it on my back, as a backpack (which it can) and use it as a traditional wheeled luggage. (It does that too.) Most every competitor did one thing but not the other. I'm going to be traveling by train and plane, all over Europe, and my previous experience suggested neither of these qualities was negotiable. I love this bag. It also works as a duffel bag, or traditional luggage, with tons of compartments, and compression straps. The downside was for me to get it at the bargain basement price of $78 (almost a third off retail) I had to capitulate to this overbearing blue color instead of the purple Burberry I wanted. Expect to pay between $120-$180, not on sale- but in my opinion it's worth every penny.
I could easily fit two-three weeks worth of clothes in this bag if I didn't have so many shoes to take. If you have a travel companion, I could easily see two of these easily replacing your current luggage set as a carry-on only, over-head bin safe alternative which might avoid baggage fees for the entirety of your future travels.
I do want to post some of the alternatives I considered, but ultimately decided against.
#2 MEC 100 - It's a Canadian company, and the bag is just slightly over-sized for carry-on which would have been a problem for me. Personally I liked the more-backpacky look (and likely better quality) of the MEC, but the company recently redesigned the product removing the backpack capabilities of the luggage meaning it was only a roller. That's a no-go for me, as I will be traveling through London on foot.
#3 Doppelduffel Adventure Bag ($239) - Despite being a fashion disaster, this military grade bag works as both a shoulder duffel bag, and guarantees against armageddon with its super tough zippers. It's masculine, and ugly and has no wheels. The only reason I even considered it was because it would have fit in an overhead bin and likely outlasted a nuclear war. It's likely luggage-porn for your your boyfriend who wants to embody Rambo.
#4 MEI Voyageur - Super light, and a hikers dream, but no wheels. If I wore a lot of Birkenstocks and was going to ride my bike across Europe, it might be a smart choice. Considering its benefits are light and small, it's probably better suited for long-term travel, rather than short romps to and from European countries.
#5 Red Oxx Air Boss - I actually like the Boss. I do. It's got color, the iron-clad zippers of the military bags, and its made of quality materials. Worse yet, I as a woman, wouldn't be embarrassed to carry it. The downside is the price at $225. It also lacks the functionality that I require which I've mentioned previously. It would make a great second-carry-on bag, which could possibly confuse flight attendants into believing it's just a really big laptop bag. (You're allowed a second carry-on such as a purse or laptop bag- this is pushing the limits though.)
#6 Thule - If you're going for that European look (which I am), and want to attempt to look less like an American, and more like a Swede, then Thule makes a fabulous carry-on. It's chic, it's cool, and yes it does do roller, and back pack. However at $289, if you can afford this luggage, you likely don't need to worry about any of that anyways. It also only is about as big as a single set of clothes.
And that's it. I probably looked at a hundreds different pieces including luggage which doubled as a scooter, Live Luggage's motorized suit-cases, or Tumi's stupidly expensive Mission Impossible hard cases. I've seen luggage with polka-dots, money marks, and American flags, none of which are good for anyone arriving in Europe. In the end, if I wanted the largest carry-on, with the most versatility, I ended up back, every time, looking at the High Sierra A.T. GO series.
As a note, you can buy checked versions of the ATGO series, up to some very large sizes. If fitting in an overhead bin isn't a concern, I'd still highly recommend their line. For me, it's now time to get packing, finish my visa, and head off to Brussels. If only the suit-case came filled with money, and a new size 2 body, then I would truly be ready for my study-abroad in Belgium.