Carry-on luggage is the frequent traveller’s best friend, keeping belongings close-at-hand and doing away with the need to linger at carousels long after your flight.
But, as everyone knows, not all bags are created equal – and the wrong bag adds unwelcome hassle to every trip you take.
A well-designed, functional and durable case that doesn’t tip the scales in its own right can save both time and money. It also means you can get on with your business or activate holiday mode without hassles or stress.
With this in mind, the Executive Traveller team road-tested six premium carry-on models – rolling, packing, spinning and hoisting in a real-life setting – to see which cases are up to the demands of rigorous travel.
Antler Clifton Cabin with Pocket
Founded in London in 1914, Antler is widely hailed as one of the most durable luggage brands available today. The Clifton range is its best-seller, with the ribbed polycarbonate exterior able to withstand whatever your travels throw at them.
The Clifton Cabin with Pocket is an ‘enhanced’ version of the classic carry-on. The key difference, and it’s a highly practical one, is the lockable front pouch containing sleeves for a tablet and 15.6” laptop, along with space for noise-cancelling headphones or a book.
Plenty of thought has been put into this case, and it shows. From the two-way locking mechanism to the soft rotating handle, the bag is well made and feels like it could easily withstand the demands of frequent travel.
The front pocket compromises storage slightly. This isn’t a big issue for those who travel light, but the pocket-free version could be a better option for those travelling with a secondary tote or backpack.
Weight 3.3kg; capacity 38L
$349 from Antler
Carl Friedrik The Carry-on
Carl Friedrik isn’t a widely known name in the luggagescape, and in a sea of look-alike bags that could be a good thing: you’ll probably be the only one in the airport lounge accompanied by the London-based firm’s handsome Carry-on model.
Clad in a gunmetal shell with cognac, chocolate or black accents and leather handles (we went for the eye-catching contrast of cognac), this mid-sized 40 litre bag is simply too elegant to ever present as checked luggage and risk scuffs, scratches and battle-scars marring its good looks.
That cognac trim is the only notable flourish in Carl Friedrik’s considered design. Even that the bag glides with ninja-like stealth on four pairs of Japanese wheels seems intended to not draw attention to it in a shouty ‘look-at-me’ way – but the Carry-on is an eye-catching travel companion in its own right.
The aluminium frame and lightweight polycarbonate body barely nudges the scales to 3.5kg, and every inch of available space inside is yours to fill. (A slightly larger ‘Carry-on Pro’ model adds an extra-large front pocket inside for fast and easy access to your laptop or tablet, cables and other travel essentials.)
One of two smartphone-sized internal zip pockets can hold a powerbank, with an inbuilt cable running to a pair of USB ports protected by a rubber flap and tucked away beneath the telescoping handle.
Weight 3.5kg; capacity 40L
$720 from Carl Friedrik
Delsey Chatelet Air 2
Parisian luggage purveyor Delsey has been around since 1946, born from a merger of two brands specialising in cases for cameras and record players. A frequent sight in airports around Europe, particularly in France, the brand’s chic aesthetic is hard to miss.
Chatelet Air is one of Delsey’s most striking ranges – like something Brigitte Bardot may have carried in the 50s.
Available in blue, brown, pink or angora with vegan leather trims, smooth double wheels, a premium-feel polycarbonate shell and well-organised interior make it a welcome meeting of both style and function.
Several zippered storage compartments, including one for you to pop in your own power bank for the USB outlet, make it particularly easy to pack and locate your items, rather than rummaging around inside. It even comes with a handy shoe bag.
Although the USB port alongside the lock does feel a bit like a gimmick, and its plastic cover may degrade over time, it's still nice to have.
Weight 2.9kg; capacity 38L
$549, from Delsey
Rimowa Original Cabin Plus
Rimowa is a brand which needs no introduction. The German luggage marque is the ultimate aspirational carry on purchase, underscored by a globe-spanning reputation for quality.
The Cabin Plus is part of Rimowa’s Original Collection, its aluminium chassis available in signature silver, black and a Champagne gold-like titanium, all sporting that iconic grooved design.
And it’s a big bag: the massive 49-litre capacity embraces the new era of travelling with only hand luggage, pushing the limits of carry on and annexing the overhead bin above your business class seat.
At 4.7kg when empty, the Rimowa Cabin Plus is also the heaviest bag in this roundup. But there’s no doubting its visual appeal or a physical robustness that’ll keep your belongings safe in all circumstances.
And yes, that lovely case will get scratched and scuffed, but treat it well and it develops a wonderful patina over the years.
Weight 4.7kg; capacity 49L
$1,990 from Rimowa
Samsonite sits comfortably among the world’s top luggage brands. Whenever you’re travelling with one, a deep-seated confidence that your belongings are well protected is virtually a given.
Made with Samsonite’s trademark Curv technology, the C-Lite Spinner’s expertly crafted and robust outer shell means it can withstand the bumps and thumps of travel, whether that's hoisting it into the overhead locker or checking it in.
Incredibly light considering the toughness of its outer shell, the C-Lite’s internal fabrics are also sustainable, made from 100% recycled bottles while maintaining the structural integrity needed to ensure no rips.
A smooth and fluid rise of the double-length handle ensures there’s no need to slouch in order to comfortably wheel the bag as you walk, with a satisfying click coming when fully retracted.
Like any decent cabin bag, the TSA-approved lock is handy when submitting it to the uncompromising checks of American security officials.
Weight 1.9kg; capacity 36L
$489 from Samsonite
Victorinox Spectra 3.0 Frequent Flyer Carry-On
Makers of the Swiss Army Knife, Victornox brings similar ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ ingenuity to its Spectra 3.0 – a versatile case with multiple compartments, lockable easy-access door, hidden SIM key and pen, a charging port and more.
The recycled polycarbonate shell is impressively light and eight-wheel design makes for a smooth, manoeuvrable drive. Plus, the bag can be expanded up to 20% if you find yourself stocking up on souvenirs or extra clothing.
Though higher priced than some competitors, Spectra is very well made, with smooth zippers and silent run wheels. Interior pockets and stitching feel quality too, and the Victorinox Red colour stands out amid more commonplace black and silver.
Its quick-access front door is excellent, meaning you don’t need to air your dirty laundry each time you have to access something (though the pouch does eat into the main compartment a bit). The twin-bar telescopic handle also allows you to pop a backpack on top without it spinning round a single handle, like on some competitors.
Weight 3.3kg; capacity 37L
$829 from Victorinox
Pricing accurate at time of publishing.