What to look for when buying a carry-on bag

By John Walton, February 22 2012
What to look for when buying a carry-on bag

Business travellers put a lot of thought into picking the perfect carry-on bag.

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 (especially if you pack efficiently) and keep your gear safe and secure in the process.

And because not all business travellers are the same, your carry-on bag can express a little of your unique personality and style.

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.

A large-sized laptop and reams of documents will steer you towards a wheeled bag, as long as you remember that even empty, a wheeled bag will be heavier than a non-wheeled model.

If you're mostly taking clothes for a short trip and are up for carrying your luggage around the airport, a soft-sided shoulder bag can be lighter, more flexible to pack and easier to manage.

For long trips, though, especially when I want to change clothes before landing after 24 hours on the move, I'm still a fan of the wheeled carry-on.

A weighty decision

It certainly seems to me that airlines are weighing hand luggage more often these days.

That's only to be expected with more airlines charging for the first piece of checked luggage -- but it drives home the point about how much luggage weighs on its own, before you even start packing.

Luggage shops should have those handheld scales to compare the relative weight of your carry-on options, but if you're buying your luggage somewhere else you can do a quick heft-test to see which of the bags is lightest.

Hard case or soft shell

Mark Zdravkovic, from Melbourne's Sweeney Luggage, cites the lightweight Kevlar-backed Samsonite Carbonite hardshell as among their best sellers for carry-on.

"More frequent travellers tend to use the hard cases" Zdravkovic says. "You're looking at about 2.2 kilos, saving about 1.5-2 kilos. It's a big step up, since the material's a lot better." 

Samsonite's Carbonite range includes the quintessential road warrior case: the 55cm/22" rollaboard.
Samsonite's Carbonite range includes the quintessential road warrior case: the 55cm/22" rollaboard.

Don't go too far and get flimsy luggage that will tear in a few months and have you right back where you started, though -- that's pretty counterproductive.

"With hard cases, people go for the lightest cases without looking at the type of material they use" Zdravkovic recounts. "With polycarbonate, it's light weight but it's definitely not going to be as strong, and it does crack and dent easier."

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.

So pick a carry-on bag that's 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.

A compact wheeled tote bag (this one's from the Victorinox Werks Traveller collection) may be all you need for an overnight business trip
A compact wheeled tote bag (this one's from the Victorinox Werks Traveller collection) may be all you need for an overnight business trip

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 a suitcase into the hold and be done with it.

The percentage of your travel time devoted to waiting for your bag shrinks as the flight time increases.

Tips for women travellers

If you're a business traveller who doesn't like to keep everything in your pockets -- or you're a woman and despair of the lack of sensible pockets in women's clothing -- check that your prospective carry-on has accessible pockets that are the right size for your needs. 

Kirsty Keane of Ciao Bella Travel offers up some particular tips for women travellers.

First up, your carry-on should have generous handles or straps.

A key factor for women's bags in particular is "the size of the straps, so you can either carry it or sling it over your shoulder" Keane explains.

Next on the list: plenty of pockets, especially on the outside of the bag.

"Outside zips are just perfect for being able to stash your basics -- ticket, boarding pass, and passport -- but you also want to have enough room to take everything that you need."

Laptop slot — or not

We recently looked into whether smaller, lighter ultrabook laptops have killed the traditional laptop bag last week, and AusBT readers were nearly unanimous in agreeing that the conventional laptop bag is on its last legs, if not dead already.

So if you're sporting a smaller laptop or Ultrabook, consider whether you need space taken up in your carry-on bag by a dedicated laptop slot in the middle of the bag.

Alternatives include popping your laptop (perhaps in a neoprene sleeve, hard case or clip-on shell) into an inside pocket or carrying it separately in a form-fitting bag over the shoulder.

'Not black' is the new black

If you can at all avoid it, don't pick luggage that is generic black ballistic nylon.

When your bag is upside down and turned around in the game of real-world Tetris that is the overhead bin situation these days, it's a lot easier to recognise your bag if it doesn't look like all the other black ballistic nylon bags out there.

This goes for checked baggage even more -- pick a bag that you can recognise on the carousel, and that airline staffers can spot in a sea of lost luggage. Ask at the luggage store which colour is least popular -- and buy that one if you can stand the colour.

Which of these is most important to you? Or is there another factor that trumps them all? Share your views with us and with other AusBT readers in a comment below.

John Walton

Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.

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20 Feb 2012

Total posts 5

Great article John. Only thing I'd like to say is while a lot of domestic airlines specify the WxDxH as 105cm max, I've been having alot of trouble finding a good wheeled carry-on bag that meets the volume requirement, even the bags that say they are carry-on compatible.

Also, does anybody recommend a good luggage shop in the Brisbane CBD?

03 Jan 2011

Total posts 666

You're right, and as I said in our article on Australian airlines' baggage limits, it's even tricker if you're away from the mainline triangle trunk routes.

Those turboprop planes and smaller jets are bad for luggage space, and the "under the seat" option isn't there.

I'd definitely recommend sizing yourself underneath that 105cm limit, both for physically fitting it into the bins and for finding space on fuller flights.

Or consider a "manbag for laptop plus soft-sided weekender" option, which is something I'm exploring at the moment.

Can't help personally on BNE luggage places, but fingers crossed someone else can...

24 Oct 2010

Total posts 2553

Colmiga, have you tried Luggage Direct? They're an online outlet but have a 'showroom' at West End... 

06 Mar 2012

Total posts 1

Hunt Leather, Tattersalls Arcade, Queen Street.

10 Jan 2012

Total posts 24

I saw last week Qantas had an online sale on their Qantas branded Antler bags. They were about 30% off and started at $130 ish for a carry on size. Personally I have one as I could use my points to buy it and its pretty good as it is designed to meet the carry on requirements of Qantas domestic, so you could give that a look. Only down side is that its a heavy bag compared to there ultralite bags. 

21 Feb 2012

Total posts 40

There are a couple of stores in Aus, (2 at least in Canberra) who are selling the Cosmolite range at up to 43% off RRP, so make sure you're not paying too much.

I ended up buying the biggest and one smaller from the biggest Cosmolites for my dad, worked out to $450 and $430 flat.   Awesome bags, so light and strong

24 Oct 2010

Total posts 2553

For years now my 'core' carry-on has consisted of a Booq laptop-style bag from Rushfaster (plenty of room for all my in-flight gear, and more pockets than Inspector Gadget's trenchcoat) plus a wheeled Tumi bag. I used to use an STM backpack but prefer the Booq, as I consider it more 'appropriate' to take into meetings etc.

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