In search of the perfect carry-on bag

By David Flynn, April 29 2014
In search of the perfect carry-on bag

Business travellers put a lot of thought into picking the perfect carry-on bag, and that's as it should be.

For the frequent flyer, the right hand luggage lets you zip through security, make an overnight trip without the time-consuming hassle of checked bags – and keep your gear safe and secure in the process.

Of course, the trick is finding the right bag – and knowing what makes it 'right' for you, because carry-on luggage has never been a 'one size fits all' scenario.

That's why many business travellers, myself included, tend to swap between several bags depending on what the trip requires.

For shorter trips, most times I'll partner my laptop bag with my wheeled cabin bag, especially if this means I can get by without checking luggage (this of course calls for smart packing.)

But sometimes I'll opt for a more casual weekender-style bag or compact backpack partnered with a small 'manbag' containing my iPad or Kindle, a pair of compact noise-cancelling headphones plus a few other in-flight items.

The weekender goes into the overhead bin while the smaller bag tucks neatly into the sidewall space between my seat and the window, to keep everything I need close at hand during the trip.

Regardless of what you're looking for in a carry-on bag, here are some factors to take into consideration.

To wheel or not to wheel?

Do you need a carry-on with wheels – or is an over-the-shoulder number such as a backpack or 'messenger bag', or even a simple hand-carried bag, better for your needs?

That'll depend on what you're lugging along, of course.

Pair a large-sized laptop with reams of documents and a wheeled bag is a must. Just remember that even when empty, a wheeled bag will be heavier than a non-wheeled model.

If you're mostly taking clothes for an overnight trip and don't mind carrying your luggage, a soft-sided shoulder bag can be lighter, more flexible to pack and easier to manage.

But for almost all business trips I'm still a fan of the wheeled carry-on. Which brings us to...

Two wheels vs four wheels

The "two-wheel vs four-wheel bag" debate is a bit of a business traveller chestnut, like "window vs aisle" or "Qantas vs Virgin".

Airports and hotels these days seem flooded by four-wheel 'spinner' cases, which let you breezily guide the bag along while it's standing upright instead of pushing or pulling it at a tilted angle.

This lack of effort adds to a spinner's innate maneuverability to make them especially popular among holiday-makers.

But they're harder to push over 'rough' or uneven surfaces ranging from carpet to bumpy sidewalks, and if you leave them unattended on the slightest slope they'll roll away – these things really need a parking brake!

Hard case or soft shell

I'm also seeing a shift towards hardened carry-on cases, especially in the four-wheel spinner category.

Their overall weight is being reduced through the use of composite materials like polycarbonate, although you should avoid trading down in weight at the risk of a less sturdy bag.

Solid wheels and heavy-duty construction, including any telescoping handles, are what you need to ensure your luggage survives life on the road.

A more practical drawback of hard cases is that they lack those handy exterior pockets of soft bags, where you can stow your laptop, travel documents, toiletries and other small items you might want at hand during various stages of your trip.

Having to open your bag just to get at these is not fun. Of course, that problem is solved if you're also willing to tote a smaller shoulder bag.

When smaller is better...

The first error of most travellers is packing too much.

That means you have to lug more around and go through the hassle of fighting for overhead bin space once you're on the plane.

Consider a carry-on bag that's actually smaller than the absolute maximum airlines allow for the sake of your sanity – and your back – when trying to fit it into the overhead bins.

If you're heading on a short jaunt, you don't need that much stuff anyway. If you're on a longer trip, just check in a larger bag and be done with it.

There also seems to be a trend towards carry-on bags becoming shorter but wider, so they keep the same overall capacity but can more easily fit into overhead compartments – a key factor when above-seat space seems increasingly at a premium.

What carry-on bag (or combination of bags) do you use, and why do they work for you?

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David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.


19 Jun 2012

Total posts 17

The better  question David would be which case/s do you use?!

24 Oct 2010

Total posts 2551

Ollie: I've got a few carry-on bags, which I use for different types of trips.

The standard laptop bag - used for almost all trips – is a Booq Viper, of a design which I love but is sadly no longer made; there's also a compact soft STM backpack, used to cary the same kit but more for casual weekend-away flights.

Bags I'd stow overhead range from a two-wheel Tumi to a four-wheel Victorinox, plus a soft Victorinox carry-all bag and a simple Zara weekender.

Why so many bags? I've just accumulated these over the past decade - the Tumi is 10 years old, the Booq almost that many years, the Victorinox bags are ~ 2 years old – sometimes I see a bag on sale (as is the case with the Victorinox bags), it's great value and suits some specific needs of mine (which has sometimes come down to "I need to buy a bag for all the shopping I did on this trip, dammit!"). I like having a number of different bags so I can choose the best one for any trip.

29 Apr 2014

Total posts 2

I love my Tom Bihn Western Flyer carry-on bag. It's slightly less than maximum size so is perfect for an overnight trip and is much lighter than a wheeled bag in case the gate staff get fussy about carry-on weight limits. It fits very well under the seat in front in case the overhead bins are full. It's expensive but incredibly durable and well designed.

If I'm travelling for longer than overnight, I carry my laptop and papers separately to free up more space for clothes in the Western Flyer.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

25 May 2012

Total posts 580

The problem with the four wheelers is that they don't glide so easily over carpet, which is quickly becoming a factor in which airports I decide to transit.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

17 Aug 2012

Total posts 2207

I've used two-wheelers all my life, and with older Samsonite cases, you can be as rough as a baggage handler and they'll pull through. Two-wheelers can take rough handling and fine control much better than four-wheelers, and you don't lose capacity as the wheels don't stick out.

Although the four-wheeler is supposedly easier to handle, if you know how to do it you can make a two-wheeler do many things, ranging from the mundane (stand still, thunder down staircases) to the insane (donuts, "handbrake" turns).

The four-wheel bag is much better suited to the holidaymaker bringing multiple swimsuits and buying home lots of plush koalas and kangaroos. They need raw capacity, don't care much about the finer details (e.g. tiny pocket useless for everything except hiding spare immigration cards of three countries) and don't really know how to make the most of a two-wheel bag.

My 2c is that the bigger the bag, the more sense the spinner makes. But for a heavy carry-on, a two-wheel soft-sided case is still the winner.

02 Jan 2013

Total posts 142

I purchased a hardcase NAUTICA carry on 4-wheeler late last year. Perfect for carry on and gives you 30% extra compared to softcase. Highly recommended!

09 Nov 2011

Total posts 88

This is all great advice until you run  into a snag. I travelled VA/DL Business class/elite Melbourne - LAX - JFK - all great and  could take up to 2 cabin hard/softs without any trouble UNTIL I had to board a CRJ-700 to Buffalo - no large cabin bags - taken from me at the plane door and had to wait ages for it to be returned to me in Buffalo. The CRJ overhead bins can only take small cabin bags turned sideways and there is only room for 1 of these per row in 1st class. The Samsonite hard could have fitted but there is a Delta rule for no wheeled bags on these aircraft.

So the advice here is good, but check the aircraft on multi sectors as you may experience something unexpected.

10 Mar 2011

Total posts 527

I have managed to perfect a week's travel requirements into a carry on bag with additional laptop bag and have space to spare. I avoid checking in luggage if I can avoid it and it saves so much time on arrival.

I prefer a bag with wheels but I don't see the point of 4 wheels on a carry on bag as most of them are designed in such a way that they take up extra space in the overhead locker whereas 2 wheels are much tidier. I haven't tried the hard case ones as yet though.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

17 Aug 2012

Total posts 2207

Pretty much this. My strategy is to have a carry-on roller plus a laptop backpack. The backpack itself can support up to a five days' worth of stuff, plus the laptop and other stuff. It's a much more streamlined way to travel.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

07 Jan 2014

Total posts 32

I have an Antler flylight carry on size four wheeler. Fits about 8 days worth of clothes in it (when packed right) and I love it. 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

10 Jan 2013

Total posts 699

If you do go for a wheeler, I recommend not getting a two wheeler wider (or a four wheeler thicker) than the narrowest a/c aisle you'll fly on. The number of people I've seen wedging their wheeler bag once getting on board is boggling.

Personally I opt for a good satchel shoulder carried soft bag, which can either go under the seat or overhead. Suits me well, given I'm only ever away for a day or two.

16 Dec 2011

Total posts 49

I have 2 paklite bags.  It amazes me why people would buy a carry-on over 2 1/2kg when the limit is 7kg per bag. 

I also have a Kathmandu Litehaul V2 which is fantastic, but not suitable for business trips as it is soft sided and clothes get a bit too creased.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

02 Aug 2011

Total posts 42

Call me old fashion, but I can't stand four wheel bags! They seem to slow me down and have to be held at a much more awkward angle.

What I love about my Antler Princeton Cabin Bag is the ability for me to walk at a very rapid pace over any terriain without skipping a beat, it easily cops being dragged up and over street kurbs and landing hard after a set of stairs.

For me the most important factor is a sturdy bag that can cop a lot of abuse! 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

30 Apr 2014

Total posts 9

I have an ultralight 4 wheeler small carry on bag. It is perfect except for one thing which is when packed hastily or without thought for the dispersment of weight it often topples over when not being held. 

i thought I was pretty thorough in my search for carry on luggage to suit my lifestlye but my search continues.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

28 Apr 2014

Total posts 32

I reckon a good carry-on trolley:

  • shouldn't topple over when standing freely even if packed fully
  • should have grab-handles on both the side and top in order to grab it easily from the overhead bin, and preferably also some sort of handle on the bottom (mostly plastic)
  • should fit lenght-wise in a normal cabin overhead bin (possibly tapered on one end)
  • being able to grab some documents from the pockets whilst it is in the bin
  • the extendable handle should have an intermediate stop, to quickly make it shorter (but not completely retract it) for when you have to go up or down a flight of stairs
  • (TSA-lock.. Mehh, not need here)
  • strong, durable zippers
Myself, I'm a GA pilot, and my brother an airline pilot in Europe, and we both use our carry-on's extensively %2

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

09 Sep 2013

Total posts 187

I'm with you Eight10man - have just caught up with this article and have been looking for the right luggage, both carry on and in the hold stuff, and what is looking like the right gear is made by Eagle Creek, not cheap but well made and all that you would want.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

02 May 2014

Total posts 1

Great article. I was looking for ages for the perfect back wrestling with my preference for a 4-wheel hard case but annoyed at the lack of an external pocket when I came across this beauty : The Lucid 19.5" from Lojel -

The quality of the case is excellent - TSA locks, stylish and light, sturdy two position handle - but the ace in the hole here is the Easy Access Front Compartment. This is a separate quick access compartment in the front with lined pockets for laptop, tablet, documents, etc. I keep my laptop with charger, magazine, Kindle and Bose headphones in here and it's awesome. Also great for whipping the laptop out to go through x-ray without opening the entire bag.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

30 Mar 2015

Total posts 2

I use a Travelpro Maxlite 3 2 whell and its great for overnight or up to a 5 day trip. You do then have to plan what you take away.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

30 Mar 2015

Total posts 2

I use a Travelpro Maxlite 3 2 whell and its great for overnight or up to a 5 day trip. You do then have to plan what you take away.

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