The Best Cabin Luggage For ALL Occasions (Seriously.)

By Abi King | Trip Advice

Nov 04
Choosing cabin luggage

Choosing cabin luggage

Clearly, the best cabin luggage available is the one that fits your needs. Sometimes that’s flying hand luggage only to reduce time at baggage reclaim. Sometimes that’s flying with a toddler. Sometimes you’re heading to a destination with a high chance of losing your luggage and so you need to pack differently. Almost always, lightweight cabin luggage is the best cabin luggage.

The Best Cabin Luggage for Each Occasion

With the feet I have, it’s bags rather than shoes that always catch my eye. And given that I spend so much of my life hauling my goods, myself, my office and now my child from A to B and working while I do so, it’s no wonder I pay so much attention to them.

The last few years of careering around the globe have transformed me from the world’s worst packer into a lean, mean travel machine. Well, OK, a slim enough, friendly enough woman powered by chocolate, a list and a desk full of post-it notes.

It’s taken time, not to mention sub-acromial bursitis, to find the right bags for the professional travel lifestyle and to finally realise that it’s worth getting the right carry on luggage in order to avoid wrecking either your body or your business prospects.

I’ve updated the list over the years as security measures and my degrees of style and fitness have changed!

Also, I’ve realised that the kind of bag you need when flying is very different to the best kind of bag for being out and about on the ground.

So, in the latest update, I’ve split these different situations into different categories.

Whatever your circumstances, I’ve rounded up decade of flying in each and every one of those situations to come up with recommendations for the best cabin luggage for you.

Because having the right luggage for the job brings you one step closer to stress free travel. 

Abigail King searches for the Best Places to Visit in the world

Step One: Consider Cabin Luggage Restrictions

Most airlines allow cabin luggage with dimensions of 56cm x 45cm x 25cm, which is what we’ve used as standard. Some American airlines allow for more than this. Some budget airlines give you less. Ryanair is the most notorious example, previously charging passengers caught with luggage greater than 35 x 20 x 20. But they, too, have changed their policy.

Then some airlines allow you one cabin luggage suitcase and one small personal item. Others insist on everything fitting in to the one suitcase (including your handbag) and will make you prove it at the gate, charging you if you can’t pull it off.

Airlines also have very different allowances for flying with babies and flying with toddlers, with some providing generous extras and others providing nothing at all.

Here’s a handy list of common European airlines hand luggage limits from flight search specialist Skyscanner.


Step Two: Consider How Much YOU Need to Fit Into Your Cabin Luggage

For some flights, you don’t need much, even if you’re staying overnight.

For others, you may need suits, wedding hats, baby food, extensive camera gear or complicated medical kit including injections and a sharps disposal box.

Bear in mind that many airlines will take cabin luggage from you at the gate if the flight is full. There are ways to minimise this happening (arrive early or consider flying in business class) but it’s also worth making sure that your cabin luggage can withstand some bumps and bruises in the hold.

All of our recommendations have this at the back of our mind!

Step Three: Consider which items MUST travel in Cabin Luggage

Sometimes, you don’t want things with you in flight. But they HAVE to stay with you. The recent changes regarding how to store batteries and power packs, for example, mean that my hand luggage is often weighed down by electronic goods I have no interest in using during the flight.

I’d also strongly recommend you carry the following in cabin luggage: high value items, sentimental items you couldn’t bear to lose, contact lenses, medication and breakables. Unless, of course, it’s a hideously ugly gift of a breakable, in which case, into the hold it goes ;-)

The Best Cabin Luggage Checklist

Fits the dimensions of the airline you’re flying with

Is as lightweight as possible

Can withstand being put into the hold

Can withstand heat, snow and airport brutality

Has wheels (usually – see below!)

Has a double handle


The Best Cabin Luggage for Most Occasions

It’s hard to beat the Rimowa Topas Four Wheeled Cabin Suitcase, which has been a prominent member of the “best cabin luggage lists” for years.

I have one and I absolutely love it.

It’s sturdy, stylish, spins extremely well and doesn’t fall over when you let go of it to pick up a newspaper and coffee.

Mesh panels inside secure your belongings in place but you can also remove them if needs be. There’s an inside zipped compartment and outer lock with TSA approved combination code. The extending handle mechanism is clean and reliable and there’s a separate, easy to use handle to lift the bag up the steps.

It can withstand all weather conditions, has a capacity of 32L and weighs 4.6kg.

So what are the cons?

Well, it opens like a clamshell, making it hard to get anything in and out quickly without opening the whole thing onto the floor. The weight is not to be overlooked and nor is the price tag (depending on the deals available, this suitcase costs xx )

The tough surface and clamshell opening also means it can be difficult to fit large, awkwardly shaped items into your bag.

What it’s best for: Business travel when you don’t mind everything going into the hold except for your suit and laptop. Or, long haul family travel with this as your “backup” hand luggage. Keep spare nappies, clothes, toys etc i this, while stashing the things you need at hand in a changing bag at your feet.


The Best Cabin Luggage Without Wheels

I’m a big fan of wheeled luggage. Huge. For most people, they make sense and I haven’t used one without wheels for years.

BUT. There are times when the wheels get in the way. For young backpackers, hikers and bikers who need their luggage on their bodies while they cross uneven terrain.

And, let’s face it, often parents who need a spare hand to manage the other suitcases or children (just the one spare hand?! Ed.)

Here, I’d recommend the Lowepro 250 AW II Fastpack Backpack for Camera. Measuring at 31 x 26 x 50cm it weights less than 2kg at 1.8kg, making it one of the most lightweight cabin bags around.

Lowepro are a tried and tested brand with durable joins and great waterproofing. Obviously, though, this won’t protect against severe dents and there is always the risk of someone slashing the bag with a knife or simply undoing the zips in the crowd.

However, the real draw is the separate padded compartment for serious camera gear as well as a padded compartment for your laptop. Then there are several different sections that make it easy for quick access to your passport, boarding pass, water and so on.

Even with these specialist features, it still comes in at under 100 GBP making it lighter on the wallet as well as on the scales.

So what are the cons?

You have to carry it! ;-)

Less secure than the Rimowa

Difficult to fit clothes in that need to stay flat or to accommodate business shoes for men.


The Best Cabin Luggage Solution That’s Lightweight AND Easy on the Shoulders

Every time I fly, I pack a foldable, zippable bag in my hand luggage – just in case. Sometimes it’s cold when I set out but warm when I’m in transit so the hat, gloves, scarf, jumpers etc go right into that bag (and with the UK as my home base, this happens a lot.)

Sometimes, while everything fits into my main cabin bag, it’s just easier to get the things I’ll actually need for the flight out beforehand and stash them in there. That way, when I board the plane, I can just quickly side into my seat.

I have a minuscule suitcase on wheels I bought at the end of the road that can carry my heavy camera gear and chargers yet still slide under most plane seats. This has been the greatest discovery yet for my aching travel bones!

That’s the combo you see in the top pic as I stride towards the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. Brand X stripy suitcase and a gorgeous camera bag from Jo Totes (sadly, Jo Totes no longer make them.)

In this 2018 update, I learned that you can no longer buy the small stripy suitcase either. So I’m on the search for an improvement.

Watch this space. I’ll be back as soon as I can!

Maxwell Scott Luxury Leather




Maxwell Scott luxury leather bag blue boardwalk caribbean hotel
The best weekend travel bag via @insidetravellab


About the Author

Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more.