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Luggage design has come a long way since the days of the ubiquitous black holdall. Our voracious appetite for travel means many of us now demand better from our bags, especially when airlines are charging more than ever for the privilege of putting a suitcase in the hold.
If you’re travelling short haul or heading somewhere on the train for the weekend, the latest carry-on designs should give you more than enough space (unless you have more shoes than Imelda Marcos).
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We’ve reviewed the best carry-on luggage of 2019 and shared our expert tips on what to look for when shopping for the lightest and most durable cabin bags.
With prices from £60 to £330 all budgets are covered, and we’ve not just stuck to traditional wheelie designs, including a mix of hard case, soft multi-functional rucksack designs and soft wheelie bags
So no matter if you’re an executive with important work to do or a tired parent escaping for a spa weekend, we’ve got something for you.
How we test our carry-on luggage
Chris Haslam is one of the leading consumer journalists in the UK, with two decades of experience. He (and a close team of trusted globetrotters) have packed, stuffed, unpacked, pulled, dragged, chucked and occasionally kicked numerous carry-on suitcases halfway across the world – and these are the ones he rates as the best.
Chris travels a lot for work and has tested dozens of bags and suitcases over the years. He’s also impatient, so never likes to check bags in the hold of a plane, so has become an expert in smart packing. Want to get a week’s worth of clothes in a tiny carry-on, just ask Chris!
What is the best carry-on luggage in 2019?
Chris rates Away’s The Carry-On as the best carry-on bag in 2019. If money is no object and you travel regularly for work, he also recommends the Victorinox Spectra 2.0. The Eastpak Tranverz S is his best value carry-on bag.
Best carry-on luggage
1. Away, The Carry-On – best carry-on luggage overall
Talk about hidden strengths! When I took delivery of this 3kg bag (55 x 34.7 x 22 cm), the flimsy feeling polycarbonate shell looked and felt perilously thin, but after a handful of trips we can happily attest to its hidden strength. It’s impervious to dings, dents and heavy-handed baggage handlers, and if it does get crushed it pops back in place with barely a bruise.
It’s a seriously good looking suitcase, in a classy, understated instagram influencer kind of way. But the four wheel design is extremely balanced whether being pulled on two or pushed along on all four. The 360-degree-spinning wheels have better cushioning than many we’ve tried, and sound silent on all but the most bumpy of surfaces.
On the inside, the Away is a spacious, and very well organised bag and makes the most of its generous 39 litre capacity. The case is divided into two, with half the space for shoes and harder items and the other half for clothes.
The zipped-off section keeps dirty soles well clear of the clothes, even when the bag is full, which is a neat touch, and the compression straps make a huge difference to the amount clothes you can pack. And while a tote bag does just as good a job, we love the fact it comes with a stowed zipped laundry bag, meaning clean and dirty are kept neatly apart.
Another hugely useful touch is the hidden 10,000mAh battery that has two USB ports and can charge your smartphone a handful of times, a godsend if you’re delayed at an airport. The battery is also TSA approved for travel and can be popped out in seconds to make charging it up again easier, and for putting through airport security.
Ideal Home’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars
2. Victorinox Spectra 2.0 Dual-Access Global Carry-On – best premium carry-on luggage
If you can look beyond the high price, this compact (20 x 38 x 55 cm) 32 litre polycarbonate shell design from luxury Swiss brand Victorinox is a treat to use. Firstly it has some of the smoothest running 360-degree spinning wheels we’ve ever pulled through a packed train station.
But the real bonus here, compared to other similar sized bags, is the quick access door on the front that opens up to reveal a well organised multi-compartment door, ideal for passports, documents, tablet, headphones and cables etc., and a very well designed padded and – significantly – removable laptop bag.
The laptop bag is great for quick work trips, helping to reduce the need for a second bag on a plane, but because it can be completely removed, when you’re not in business mode you gain extra space for more clothes
The quick-access door also makes it so much easier to have a rummage for something hidden deep in the bag, without having to open the main zip. It’s worth remembering though, that while the bag does come with a TSA approved combination lock on the main zip, you’ll need to buy one for the front access door.
The main interior of the Spectra is also well thought out, although not as generous as some. There are two sides to the main compartment, but if you unzip and roll down the panel on one side, you can combine the sides to have one large main compartment. We managed to squeeze in enough clothes and a pair pair of shoes for a four day trip, and still had space for a Toblerone from the airport on the way home.
Our only slight complaint is the fact the bag only has one handle (on the top) which isn’t a problem for the majority of the time. But after enjoying the side handle on the Samsonite, especially when loading the bag into the overhead compartment, it feels like a feature a bag at this price should have.
Ideal Home’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
3. John Lewis & Partners Athens 55cm 4-Wheel Cabin Case – best budget carry-on luggage
It’s at least £50 less than the next cheapest design on test, and we have to admit we thought this bargain bag from John Lewis would suffer, but in truth, side-by-side with the rest on test it wouldn’t be obvious which the budget buy was.
Made from a rigid hard-shell, the Athens looks good in cool understated grey, and is available in 55, 65 and 75 cm designs if you like your carry-on to match your hold luggage. It has a combination lock for security, but be warned, it isn’t TSA approved, so leave it unlocked if you go through US immigration, just in case they want a rummage.
The zip is more than acceptable for the price, but compared with the Antler, you can really tell where the extra money is spent.
The four wheels are large and don’t quite have the effortless maneuverability of the eight wheel cases, but it shouldn’t make a huge difference in then long run, and in our tests it bounced well over door edges and changes of flooring whether we were pushing or pulling it along.
At 3.25kg it isn’t the lightest on test, but none of them stay light for long once you start packing, and with 36 litres of usable space across two sections, both separated with zippered covers closures, it’s a great bag to pack and keep organised
And finally the Athens also comes with a five year guarantee, which is quite frankly ridiculous given the low price. There’s no escaping the fact it lacks a bit of the finish, feel and potential longevity of some of the more expensive designs here, but if you need a good looking wheely case for a few trips a year you could do a lot worse than this.
Ideal Home’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
4. Eastpak Tranverz S – best carry-on luggage for capacity
Available in 37 different colours and seven sizes, from cabin to colossal, a more than generous 30 year warranty and huge 42 litre capacity, it’s little wonder the Tranverz has become hugely popular with everyone from stylish weekend breakers to surf adventurers.
Made from heavy duty polyester, soft cases have two advantages over hard shells; firstly, they stuff flat saving valuable loft or wardrobe space when not needed, and secondly, if you pack well you’ll manage to stuff more in. The Tranverz S measures (H51 x W32.5 x D24cm) making it a but chunkier than the Samsonite, but it only weighs 2.4kg and there’s room for a whopping 42 litres of stuff.
Be aware however, that if you do stuff it to capacity – and fill up the front zip pocket – you may get raised eyebrows from cabin crew as it will look pretty chunky. Tightening the four side compression straps will help tame your luggage, but despite its bulk it is well within limits for most airlines.
With only two wheels you’ll be pulling this bag around, but the large scooter style wheels – complete with bearings – are by far the best on test over rough ground. If you’re heading off the beaten path and don’t want to wear a rucksack, this is the next best thing. The telescopic handle is also one of the most rigid on test and feels reassuringly robust.
Inside, both halves come with a zippered nylon cover to keep things tidy, and while there aren’t any internal compression straps the ones on the outside do a great job keeping the contents in place. There’s a TSA combination lock on the top and the zip feels solid, although not as chunky as some we’ve tried.
So we’re a big fan of the soft case, but we did run into a bit of a problem in the rain. On one short haul trip the bag was put in the hold (not due to its size, but the flight was full and we were late to the gate!) and on arrival the luggage was left out in the rain waiting for baggage handlers.
It was an extreme ‘test’ admittedly, but the polyester did leak around a couple of seams and around the zips. We were actually impressed our clothes weren’t soaking, but this isn’t a problem you’ll find with a hard shell carry-on.
Ideal Home’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
5. Antler Juno II – best stylish carry-on luggage
Antler has been making luggage for over 100 years, and as a result know a thing or two about blending practical design and current trends.
The Juno II is a really gorgeous looking bag available in a range of colours and finishes, from sleek minimalist matte black or crisp white to the citrus orange, bold pink or cool turquoise from the Brights collection. It’s a better looking design than many we’ve tried, and it costs quite a bit less.
Each Antler bag comes with a 10 year international warranty, so even before you start there’s peace of mind a-plenty, but you needn’t worry, this bag will last – and age – gracefully.
This is partly due to the polypropylene used in the case, that is both super light (2.4kg) and impressively resistant to bangs and bump thanks to reinforced corner profiles and sculpted profile. They’ve also dyed the plastic rather than simply painted on a thick layer, so even when it does inevitably get scratched you’ll hardly be able to tell.
The zip is one of the main points of weakness on any bag, but we were extremely impressed by the chunky zip used here tha, no matter how often we caught clothing in it – and we did it deliberately several times – it never once popped. Add in the Recessed TSA combination lock and you’ve got a very secure bag indeed
Open it up and you’ll not be wowed by many clever features, but the elasticated straps keep looser items like shoes and plugs safely secure and it’;s all lined so no clothes are in compact with the plastic body, but it’s not a patch on the class-leading Away compression straps that make the difference between squeezing an extra outfit in or not.
The 360-degree rotating wheels are smooth and agile across uneven surfaces, but they do make a racket – more like a skateboard coming down the street than a carry-on bag – but it was great to use in the airport where the surfaces are more forgiving. The extendable handle is also nice and comfortable and there is also a side and separate top handle for lifting into the overhead with ease.
Ideal Home’s rating: 4.5 our of 5 stars
Buy now: Antler Juno II, £159, Amazon
6. Chrome Industries Summoner backpack – best carry-on luggage for practicality
Tricky to categorise, this impressively designed bag manages to be a practical gym duffle, a carry-on sized suitcase, comfortable rucksack and laptop protector in one. With reinforced handles on the top and side, as well as padded, well-designed rucksack straps, you can carry it any way you need, and thanks to the four seatbelt style compression straps with rugged clasps on each corner, if you don’t need to fill it to the maximum 32-litres, you can simply pull the straps tight and the bag shrinks accordingly and prevents it from feeling unbalanced when you’re wearing it.
The central zip running the full length of the bag gives quick access to the largest compartment inside, and we found it a great way to get to our stuff without opening the main bag. It’s also a handy place for a gym kit and trainers, if you decide to use the bag more than just for travel. In fact, we think it’s a shame to only get this bag out when heading to the airport, and thanks to its good looks and sheer convenience we’d also happily recommend it as a work bag.
But when you do need to pack clothes for a trip, the bag opens up like an executive carry-on, complete with mesh clothing protectors. It’s an extremely clever design, with enough room to keep shirts flat and relatively crease free, as well as housing our 15” laptop in a nicely padded sleeve with extra slots for every bag clutter.
The bag is made using a reassuringly thick Polyester twill fabric that should take plenty of abuse over the years, and thankfully, the rucksack straps are well padded, and even if you’ve got a small frame, you’ll have no problems staying comfortable.
If we had one complaint, it would be that there are almost too many compartments and zips, and we occasionally got confused and opened up the wrong section. The compression straps are also a little awkwardly positioned meaning we have to unclip them to access the zip to the laptop sleeve.
Ideal Home’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
7. Samsonite S’Cure Eco Spinner 55 – best eco-friendly carry-on luggage
Admittedly it won’t do anything to reduce the carbon emissions generated from flying, but the S’Cure ECO is the only bag we’ve found made from a minimum of 85 per cent recycled polypropylene. All of the plastic used in the case comes from Samsonite’s own production process meaning less waste ends up in landfill, which is a real bonus. Even the Samsonite badge is made using a recycled wood resin.
That said, green credentials count for nothing if it’s a lousy bag to use, but in reality this is an exceptional design that blends the classic Samsonite hard-case reliability with the convenience of a slim carry-on. Instead of the usual zips, Samsonite uses three hard clips, with the one on the side featuring a sturdy TSA approved (great for US travel) combination lock – and a rubber seal between the two sections of the bag. The result is a bag that’s waterproof, dustproof and harder to break in to.
Internally it’s a fairly standard design with an open half – which holds items in place with two elastic straps – and a zipped up half for your clothes. It has a capacity of 34 litres and yet is just 20cm thick (55 x 40 x 20cm) and weighs just 2.9kg. It feels considerably smaller than the Away, and feels to us better suited to smaller women’s clothes. If you need more space for a weekend away, you’re packing too much stuff!
We love this bag, and while the wheels get a bit wobbly over less-than-perfect pavements it shouldn’t be a deal breaker, and if you search online you can probably find it cheaper than the RRP, which is already great value.
Ideal Home’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
How to buy carry-on luggage – everything you need to know
What size luggage is considered carry on?
In order for you to take your carry-on into the cabin, it’s going to have to meet the airline’s size requirements. Annoyingly however there is no standard carry-on size and different airlines can have different size requirements for cabin luggage, so make sure you check online to see what the standard size is for the airlines you fly with the most.
The largest sized carry-on allowance we found was for EasyJet who allow passengers one 56 x 45 x 25 cm bag while the smallest was on Ryan Air, with a fairly unrealistic 40 x 20 x 25 cm allowance. For an up to date list of carry-on allowances visit skyscaner.net and search for ‘cabin luggage.
As with size, airlines also usually have weight restrictions for carry-on bags, but there’s not a huge amount of difference between the weight of the majority of empty bags available, so the onus is on you to pack sensibly and check before you fly. Nobody wants to be syphoning off smalls into carrier bags at the check-in desk!
Should I buy carry-on luggage with wheels?
The pull-along suitcase has revolutionised the luggage industry, and while being stuck behind a bus load of tourists all pulling along a case can be annoying when you’re in a rush, they are incredible practical.
Two-wheel models (see Eastpak) need pulling, while the latest four-wheelers can be pushed, although they have a tendency to topple when moving between different floor surfaces. Avoid hard plastic wheels as they’ll not last and send irritating vibrations along your arm, instead look for rubber coated, or solid rubber designs that will offer some shock absorption.
What is a TSA approved lock?
Many bags come with ‘TSA approved’ locks designed for use when travelling in the United States. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) requires access to luggage without the passenger being present, so they have agreed to accept certain locks which they can open and relock without damaging the bag.
Can I use a backpack as carry on?
If you’d prefer to carry your bag on your shoulders there’s a host of great designs available, although many look a bit ‘hiking’ for our tastes. We recommend looking for a multifunctional design that blends features like large zip openings with comfortable shoulder straps. As a bonus, look for designs where the straps can be hidden away, just in case the bag does need to go in the hold.
How important is the interior?
If you’re a business traveller look for designs with laptop sleeves and multiple pockets for stowing small essentials, and a flat base wide enough to take a folded shirt without excessive creasing. In our tests we found that compression straps are extremely useful as they can often add litres more space by squishing everything down, while zipped-off areas are handy if you need to keep dirty shoes away from clean clothes.
What’s a good warranty on carry-on luggage?
All the bags on test came with between a two and 30 year warranty – we’d say 10 years is a good benchmark if you are spending over £100, and five years if you’re on a tight budget. Make sure you register your bag before you use it, and remember that most brands won’t cover you for general ‘wear and tear.’