Whether you’re a frequent flyer or just want a weekend away without paying for a check-in bag, we’ve found the best carry-on luggage for you
Airlines famously love to catch passengers out with extra hidden costs on a flight. Whether it’s reserving a window seat or just something to eat, no flight is ever as cheap as advertised. At least there is a way to avoid paying excessive hold luggage charges, and that’s by packing light (our guide to packing cubes will help with that) and investing in the best carry-on luggage.
Cabin luggage often still incurs extra cost, but far less than you’d pay for a 20kg-plus suitcase in the hold. And because it comes on board with you, you don’t have to wait to claim it when you land. There are many different styles on offer.
Do you go for a soft shell cabin bag, or hard? Four wheels or two? Expandable or not? Stylish or practical? Laptop sleeve or none? Hand luggage that fits every airline, or one that suits the airline you fly with most often?
We’ve taken the guesswork out of it by reviewing the best carry-on luggage in each of the above styles, as well as speaking to ex-British Airways cabin crew. You’ll find their advice on carry-on rules and tips on the best luggage brands at the bottom of this article, beneath my reviews.
What is carry on luggage?
“Carry on luggage is the bag, backpack or small suitcase you are allowed to bring on the plane with you,” explains Taylor Collins, a former cabin crew member at British Airways. “You will need to check with your airline for restrictions, since this varies by airline and route.”
Unfortunately there is no standard size for carry-on luggage, with every airline implementing their own size and weight restrictions. If you’re looking for a carry on suitcase that will be accepted by most airlines, you’ll most likely be safe with 56 cm x 36 cm x 23 cm. Most airlines also say that carry on luggage shouldn’t weigh more than 10kg.
How I tested the best carry on luggage
I’ve spent two months testing these carry on suitcases in person, rating them for weight, manoeuvrability, compression features, strong zips, TSA locks, clever compartments, interior size, style, durability and any smart features like battery packs. Here is what I found, starting with my favourite…
The best carry-on luggage
1. Away The Carry-On
Best carry-on luggage overall, 10/10
We like: how easy the suitcases are to manoeuvre around busy streets
We don’t like: the shell scuffs easily
- 40-litre capacity
- Polycarbonate hard shell
- 55.1 cm x 34.8 cm x 22.9 cm
Sometimes companies are guilty of sacrificing practicality for aesthetics. Away manages to triumph in both. The Carry-On is a minimalist suitcase without exterior pockets, made from a sturdy, matte polycarbonate shell.
The 360-degree spinning wheels are the smoothest and quietest of any of the suitcases I tried, making it a winner on the uneven streets of London. Another handy feature is the built-in USB charger which you can add on for £20. I don’t think it’s a must, especially as portable battery packs are so cheap to buy these days, but it saves having to root around your smaller bag or even your suitcase to find a charger.
Inside is an eraser to get rid of scuffs and marks on the case (an unfortunate byproduct of hard shell cases) and a laundry bag. One side has a zip up pocket while the other has a compression zip and I was happy to find the handles didn’t eat too much into the space on the right hand side.
Away suitcases certainly aren’t the cheapest but I do think they’re excellent value. They’re easy to manoeuvre, lightweight and last forever. It doesn’t hurt that they’re rather smart looking.
2. Tripp Holiday 7 Cabin Four Wheel Suitcase
Best value carry-on luggage, 10/10
We like: the cheerful colours and low price
We don’t like: it would be nice to have some sort of additional interior pocket
- 37-litre capacity
- Polypropylene case with polyester lining
- 55 cm x 40 cm x 20 cm
You’ll probably recognise this one. Tripp suitcases make up half the passport queue at Gatwick and are easily recognisable by their bold colours and dimpled front.
Tripp has a brand new iteration of its bestselling Holiday range of suitcases: the 7. It’s the perfect budget suitcase, complete with a TSA lock – which is impressive at this price point.
Inside are two compartments, one meshed and zipped, the other with compression straps. It’s a four-wheeler with seamless 360-degree movement and the polycarbonate shell is lightweight.
There’s nothing particularly special about the Tripp Holiday 7, it just does the basics really well. Without a doubt, the best budget brand in the luggage market.
3. TravelPro Maxlite 5
Best lightweight carry-on luggage, 10/10
We like: the number of pockets which you can stuff with last minute packing
We don’t like: it’s not as stylish as the minimalist hardshell suitcases
- 39-litre capacity
- Polyester fabric with a water resistant coating
- 55.2cm x 40cm x 20cm
If the shiny new hardshell cases don’t appeal to you, this super-lightweight softshell suitcase might be more your bag. TravelPro is perhaps most recognisable for its FlightCrew line, specifically designed for airline crew.
Though the Maxlite is designed for regular travellers, it takes in everything TravelPro has learned from the pros: the need for durability and functionality. That means using strong, water and stain resistant nylon fabric and easy glide zips, padded exterior pockets and offering a good warranty.
This suitcase might not be as pretty as the minimalist hardshell designs, but it’s probably the most practical on this list. Most notably, the handle is the softest and most ergonomic I tried. The exterior pockets were deep and padded, meaning I could fit my laptop inside.
The interior felt huge, but bear in mind you can only pack on one side; the opening is only a flap, compared to the clamshell designs of others. Personally I found this easier to pack. There was no fussing around with secret compartments.
If you’re a softshell suitcase loyalist, I don’t believe you’ll find better value than this.
4. Rimowa Original Cabin Cabin
Best luxury carry-on luggage, 10/10
We like: the solid design which will last forever
We don’t like: the exterior picks up scuffs and dents (but can be knocked back into shape)
- 29-litre capacity
- Aluminium-magnesium alloy
- 55 cm x 40 cm x 23 cm
What is so special about Rimowa suitcases? Simple: they’re made with a lightweight aluminium-magnesium alloy, resulting in one of the most durable suitcases money can buy. Rimowa pioneered the aluminium suitcases trend in the 1930s and remains the very best today.
Aluminium is less commonly used for luggage than polycarbonate or fabric, since it tends to be heavier and more expensive. The trade-off is that it comes with a lifetime guarantee and your suitcase becomes something of a family heirloom.
Taylor Collins from British Airways Holidays says: “Rimowa is the epitome of suitcases, in my opinion. Expensive, but comes with a lifetime guarantee and excellent if you are a frequent traveller.”
I was pleased to find both sides of the suitcase had excellent compressive straps, which meant I could pack lots inside. I loved the trunk-style snap of the bulky locks as they click into place. There’s certainly a feeling of nostalgia when using this case.
Let’s be honest, owning a Rimowa suitcase is a status symbol. The brand is owned by LVMH, the luxury goods house which owns Louis Vuitton, Dom Perignon and Givenchy among others. But if you can afford it, you won’t find better.
5. Antler Clifton Expandable Cabin
Best hard shell carry-on luggage, 9/10
We like: the beautiful colour and rotating handle
We don’t like: the handles do slightly cut into the capacity of the suitcase
- 43-litre capacity
- Polycarbonate shell
- 56 cm x 35 cm x 23 cm
Firstly, I absolutely love the mineral blue colourway of this Antler Expandable suitcase, which has earned plenty of compliments from jealous friends and family. This is my suitcase of choice for lugging around planes and trains because it’s so smooth and easy to manoeuvre. I don’t have to worry about getting stuck in turnstiles (something I’ve had bad experiences with in the past).
It’s equipped with a TSA lock on the side and two handles, plus an extendable handle for wheeling. The handle has an innovative twisting mechanism which rotates as you walk for a more comfortable grip. Inside, one side has a compression strap while the other has a zippable compartment complete with extra pockets for last minute toiletries.
I love the expandable aspect. Be aware, though, that you won’t be able to expand it while flying, since that takes it over the size of most baggage allowances. The handles do slightly cut into the capacity, but not enough that it’s an issue. There’s still a good 43 litres of volume.
All in all, this Antler suitcase has the British quality you’d expect from a heritage brand. With the lifetime guarantee, I expect to use this one for years to come.
6. Samsonite Upscape Spinner Expandable
Best expandable carry-on luggage, 9/10
We like: you can remove and wash the interior lining
We don’t like: it becomes misshapen when expanded
- 39-litre capacity
- Polypropylene shell and recycled PET plastic bottles interior
- 50 cm x 40 cm x 20 cm
Samsonite is on a mission to prove traditional brands can be innovative too with this ridged hardshell carry on. If you’ve ever fallen foul of a shampoo disaster and found yourself on your hands and knees scrubbing to little avail, you’ll love this feature: a removable and machine-washable lining. Genius.
Other than that, this suitcase is made with recycled materials, has an integrated USB port and is expandable. Like the Antler suitcase above, check your airline allowances before expanding. Unexpanded, this fits British Airways, Ryanair, TUI, Jet2 and a number of others.
You can fit a fair amount inside this suitcase thanks to the nifty zipped compartments and compression straps. Everything is kept secure with a TSA lock while an integrated ID tag makes it easily distinguishable.
I love the modern look of this suitcase and the silver lining. Samsonite is a brand I’ve used for years, so I’m not surprised I loved this carry-on as much as I did.
7. Eastpak Tranverz S
Best soft shell carry on luggage, 9/10
We like: you can pack both sides, which is unusal for softshell cases
We don’t like: they’re roller wheels rather than spinners
- 42-litre capacity
- Polyester fabric
- 50 cm x 32.5 cm x 23 cm
Ask frequent travellers and experts their favourite suitcase and you’ll be surprised how many people choose the Eastpak Tranverz, which comes in a small, medium and large size. The small is the perfect size for a cabin bag.
Unlike other soft suitcases, it features a clamshell design, meaning you can pack up both sides. (Usually soft shell suitcases have an opening flap and can only be packed on one side.) Each side is secured with compression straps and there’s also a zip-fastened front pocket.
I love the ruggedness of this suitcase – which is also water-resistant, by the way. I felt far more adventurous wheeling this around than I did the Away or Antler suitcases above. The soft fabric is flexible, too, so I found I could really pack it full but still compress my clothes down. It would make an excellent companion to an intrepid traveller.
8. July Carry On Pro
Best suitcase for business trips, 9/10
We like: the SnapSleeve laptop case makes security a doddle
We don’t like: it’s on the bigger side, meaning it won’t fit some airlines
- 42-litre capacity
- Polycarbonate shell with aluminium bumpers and nylon lining
- 55 cm x 38.5 cm x 21.5 cm
Freshly launched in the UK, Melbourne brand July brings a splash of personality to the suitcase market with a variety of colourful and customisable suitcases, weekend bags and travel accessories.
This Carry On Pro caught my eye in particular because of the SnapSleeve feature. It’s essentially a laptop sleeve which sticks and unsticks to the suitcase using Fidlock technology. It’s a sort of magnetic, mechanical latch which doesn’t budge unless pulled away, making it a lifesaver for airport security. As it’s an add-on, it doesn’t eat into the overall capacity of the suitcase. It’s also water-resistant, to keep your laptop safe from water damage in the rain.
The SnapSleeve coupled with the ejectable battery on top makes this July suitcase the perfect companion to a frequent business traveller or digital nomad. Inside you’ll also find compressive straps for packing and a hidden laundry bag with a 42-litre volume for packing. I also love July’s Carry On Light suitcase which weighs just 1.8kg, though it’s a little small for longer trips.
9. Horizn Studios M5 Essential
Currently £240.50, Horizn Studios
Best sustainable carry-on luggage, 9/10
We like: the focus on sustainability
We don’t like: you have to pay extra for interior compression
- 35-litre capacity
- Partially recycled polycarbonate shell and recycled polyester lining
- 55 cm x 40 cm x 23 cm
Horizn Studios recognises the tension between wanting to live as sustainably as possible while also wanting to travel. While buying sustainable luggage obviously doesn’t cancel out the impact of flying, it’s one of many small steps we can all take to make a larger change.
Horizn Studios uses cruelty-free materials, recycled packaging and creates durable products intended to be repaired rather than replaced. This M5 is one of the brand’s hero products.
Its features include a water-resistant front laptop sleeve, a TSA lock and 360 degree spinner wheels. If you don’t mind shelling out a little extra for the smart version, you also get a removable charger, in-built compression and a laundry bag.
I don’t love the fact that you have to spend extra for compression features, but otherwise I like the look and feel of this suitcase. It’s compact and has a lovely sheen. The front pocket is useful with a padded pocket for a laptop and additional space for other packing – perhaps an iPad or Kindle which would also need pulling out at security.
10. The Portable Porter Co. Carry On
£225, The Portable Porter Co.
Best retro carry-on luggage, 9/10
We like: the beautiful, retro design
We don’t like: the handle is a little uncomfortable
- 40-litre capacity
- Polycarbonate shell and recycled PET interior
- 56 cm x 45 cm x 25 cm
The Portable Porter Co. Carry On has a retro design with a polycarbonate shell and leather handles. I tried the mustard colour, which is just the right shade of yellow – not too garish and not too muddy.
Inside, the lining is made from 15 recycled plastic bottles. Each side offers something a bit different. One half has a strong compression mat and straps, while the other is a zippable compartment with extra pockets. There’s also a leather luggage tag and a laundry bag inside, which is a nice touch.
My one gripe is that I didn’t like the shape of the extendable handle. The actual bit you grip has a strange shape which juts out where you’d wrap your fingers. It’s clearly designed for the angle at which you’d hold it if you were to wheel it along beside you. As soon as you go to drag it behind you on two wheels, it slightly digs in.
That really is me being picky, though. Overall it’s a lovely design and I especially love the smart leather handles.
11. Kipling Teagan C
Currently £109.60, Kipling
Best two-wheel suitcase, 8/10
We like: the soft, stretchy materials means you can overpack
We don’t like: there’s no lock
- 33-litre capacity
- Recycled polyamide exterior and recycled polyester lining
- 55 cm x 40 cm x 20 cm
This Kipling is probably the softest, most flexible suitcase I tried, meaning as a chronic overpacker, I could really cram it full. It’s also super light, weighing just 1.89kg, so I didn’t have to worry about overdoing it on heavy items. It’s also water repellant, a must for travelling in the UK.
Inside is a compression clip – although the straps feel slacker and weaker than others I tried. The opening is a flap, so you only pack on one side. Thankfully, despite how soft the material is, the sides still support themselves and stand up as you pack.
This is a two wheeled design, meaning it’s designed to be pulled along behind you. The extendable handle can also be zipped away, which is a nice touch.
It’s worth noting there’s no lock system on this suitcase, so if you’re concerned about security, this might not be the one for you. But if you’re looking for a comparatively budget-friendly, classic duffel suitcase, you’ll love this.
Carry-on luggage FAQs
What features should you look for in cabin luggage?
“Check the weight of the bag,” says ex-BA cabin crew member Taylor Collins. “Carry on luggage often has a weight limit up to 10kg, meaning the more your suitcase weighs, the less you can pack inside.
“I always tend to opt for a four wheeled case, as this is the easiest to take around the airport. You will also need to ensure that you can lift it up and down into the overhead lockers.”
Collins’ final two pieces of advice are to choose a suitcase with a lock for security and either to mark your suitcase by tying a ribbon around the candle, or steering clear of black suitcases. It’s never any fun trying to tell your black suitcase apart from every other unremarkable black suitcase on the same flight.
What is the best cabin luggage to buy?
The Away Carry-On is our best-rated cabin luggage because it’s the best combination of spacious, durable and stylish with extra features including compression straps and a USB charger. It’s lightweight, has a TSA combination lock and has 360-degree spinner wheels, which glide along any surface without making much noise at all.
Collins says, “There is lots of cabin luggage out there to buy and not one glove fits all. Although a softshell suitcase is lighter, a hardshell case is my preference. It’s likely to last longer and be more protective.”
Which is the lightest cabin luggage?
July’s Carry On Light claims to be the lightest suitcase in the world. Although I preferred the Carry On Pro reviwed above, I also tested the Carry On Light which weighs just 1.8kg. It still has 32 litres of carry space.
For a softshell carry-on, try the Kipling Teagan C, above. It weighs just 1.9kg, only a little more than the July suitcase.
As for our ex cabin crew expert, Taylor Collins, she suggests the Tripp Holiday suitcases: “Their website is also very handy since you can search via carrier – BA, Easyjet etc – and it will show you which case size is accepted.”
What size is carry on luggage?
Ah, the million dollar question. If only it was so simple to answer. Every airline has different baggage restrictions and some even change their allowances depending on the destination.
Collins suggests the average baggage allowance for carry on luggage is 56 cm x 45 cm x 25 cm, which is the British Airways allowance.
A cheaper airline like easyJet has a smaller allowance, at 45cm x 36cm x 20cm. RyanAir’s allowance is smaller at 40cm x 20cm x 20cm. Jet2 has a large allowance for a budget airline, allowing 56cm x 45cm x 25cm, the same as British Airways. TUI Airways allows 55cm x 40cm x 20cm. Each airline specifies their own allowances on their own website.
If you want a universal cabin bag to fit most airlines, you may be safer sticking to RyanAir’s 40cm x 20cm x 20cm. However, if you generally fly with the same airline, you’ll be safe sizing up according to their parameters.
Text taken from: https://www.telegraph.co.uk