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 seven 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.
Devotees of soft-side luggage should also consider Antler’s excellent ultra-lightweight Brixham range, which comes in at just 1.9kg.
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
$795 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
$805, from Delsey
Rimowa Essential Cabin
Ask anyone ‘Who makes the best carry on bags?’ and there’s a high chance Rimowa will fall from their lips. Made in Germany, the brand’s globe-spanning reputation is a deserved one, with quality models from polycarbonate to classic aluminium.
The lightweight Essential Collection – boasting newly-released Petal and Cedar colour variants of sakura pink and earthy brown – is arguably among the best in the market. The build quality is top-notch, with sturdy wheels and cushioned axles keeping it whisper quiet.
Inside, it boasts a fully-zipped compartment to keep belongings in check, plus a large mesh pocket and compression pad to help you fit more in. At just 3.2kg, there’s plenty of room to throw in several days' worth of clothes before reaching the limit.
For an alternate, though indeed weightier option, pick the Original Cabin Plus. Its aluminium chassis available in silver, black and a Champagne gold-like titanium, all sporting that signature grooved design.
Weight 3.2kg; capacity 36L
$1,230 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
$524 from Samsonite
Tumi Tegra-Lite International Front Pocket Expandable
If it’s freedom and flexibility you seek, the Tegra-Lite International 4 Wheeled Carry-on from Tumi is an exceptional choice – the expandable front pocket variation, in particular.
Zips, pockets and pouches abound, lending it some very convenient storage options, and its durable composite exterior (while admittedly very different to Tumi’s famous 19 Degree Aluminum and ballistic nylon Alpha Bravo) cuts an impressive silhouette.
The front pocket is very handy too, allowing you to keep things you need regularly on hand, such as chargers and documents, while the dual access locks add to the ease of use.
In its zipped form, the case sports a roomy 36L capacity, which is large enough to fit clothes for at least a couple of days or more. But when expanded, it jumps up an impressive 44L.
However, there is a trade off, as that expansion puts it beyond most cabin size limits and would need to be checked in. Still, if you’re flying business or have adequate frequent flyer status to not care about checking in an extra bag, it’s not a big concern.
Another addition is Tumi Tracer, a recovery program to help reunite owners with lost luggage. Each has a unique 20 digit code found on a metal plate on the bag, which can be registered after purchase and if your case is found, you can then be notified.
Weight 3.9kg; capacity 36L/44L
$1,530, from Tumi
Victorinox Spectra 3.0 Global 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
$879 from Victorinox
Looking for a larger check-in case? Take a look at our road test of premium checked luggage here.
Pricing accurate at time of publishing.