Here's my list of the best cabin luggage, updated each year, and screened by other travel experts just in case I'm losing my touch. I hope you find it useful. And if you're wondering what to put in it? Here's a list of carry on essentials as well.
The last few decades of careering around the globe have transformed me from the world’s worst packer into a lean, mean travel machine. In that time, I have come across almost every way there is to pack a bag and not put it into the hold.
Business travel, family travel, glitzy ritzy travel and ultra-budget travel.
Some things are universal. And others depend on the situation.
In a hurry? Skim through the concise version here and click on your merry way. Have a little more time? Read through the list of things to consider when choosing and buying your cabin luggage.
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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. Spinner luggage suits city trips best.
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. It measures 22 x 16 x 8 inches. See more below.
I'd recommend the Lowepro 250 AW II Fastpack Backpack for Camera. Measuring at 31 x 26 x 50cm (12 x 10 x 20 inches) it weights less than 2kg at 1.8kg, making it one of the most lightweight cabin bags around.
The padded compartments for lenses, laptop, passport and more make it versatile and easy to use.
"The Northface Base Camp Duffel. It comes in a range of sizes for whatever your needs, but the small size (13 x 21 x 13 inches) fits in most cabin holds. I love it for sporting trips and outdoor adventures as the tough exterior fabric holds up well wherever I toss it about, and it has some great internal pockets for keeping things organised - crucial if you're heading to an event. Plus it has handy backpack straps for throwing on your back when you need to hurry between transport or getting to and from events. " Rob Robert Godwin, 30, the MD of Lamington Group and founder of the revolutionary room2 hometel brand.
Available in kooky colours and characters, the Trunki changed the world of children's luggage forever. They're fun for kids to put toys into and they can ride and pull the case along. Although lightweight, they're an awkward shape (18 x 8 x 12 inches) for maximising what you can actually bring into the cabin. Also, parents, it's likely you who will be carrying them...
If you're still at the stage of changing nappies and bringing food, then a dedicated cabin bag that splits the two functions is a must. The Lekebaby Backpack (10 x 8 x 17 inches) allows you to manage more than your usual changing bag does, with easy access for water and a waste section underneath.
It’s taken time, not to mention sub-acromial bursitis, 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!
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. And filled in any gaps with input from experts.
Because having the right luggage for the job brings you one step closer to stress free travel.
Top Tips for Managing Your Cabin Luggage
Most airlines allow cabin luggage with dimensions of 56cm x 45cm x 25cm (22 x 18 x 10 inches), 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 20cm (14 x 8 x 8 inches). 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.
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. Also, consider buying packing cubes for your carry-on. It makes it easier to pull things in and out during the airport and mid flight.
All of our recommendations have this at the back of our mind!
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 ;-)
Personally, I don't worry about finding a lifetime warranty. Hopefully my lifetime will be long, in which case my lifestyle will chance gain and I'll likely need a different kind of suitcase. Or, it won't, in which case I'll have bigger problems to worry about.
RIMOWA come with a five year warranty, which is good enough for me.
Spinner wheels are a mainstay of many luggage brands now for good reason. Why damage your back and shoulders when you can whiz luggage right along the airport floor? The only trouble is that rolling luggage doesn't cope as well with cobbled streets and fails entirely in mud or sand. It also adds weight to the suitcase.
So, if you're in good health, travelling off the beaten path and keeping weight to a minimum is the aim: go for a duffel bag or backpack. Otherwise, go for the spinner wheels!
Sturdy, stylish, relatively lightweight and extremely good at wheeling around
The most versatile, sturdy and stylish suitcase out there. Our choice for best cabin luggage.
Stylish and sturdy. 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 telescopic 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.
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 in this, while stashing the things you need at hand in a changing bag at your feet.
For the fit and able, this protects gear and makes it quick and easy to get about on uneven ground.
For young backpackers, hikers and bikers who need their luggage on their bodies while they cross uneven terrain. Parents who need a spare hand to manage the other suitcases or children (just the one spare hand?! Ed.) Measuring at 31 x 26 x 50cm (12 x 10 x 20 inches) 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.
Designed for children, with "lockable" sides, the fun factor here just beats the practicality.
The Trunki keeps children entertained in the airport and involved when packing and planning before a trip. They're fun and reasonably practical but with dimensions of 46 x 21 x 31cm (18 x 8 x 12 inches) they may limit your options if you're planning to travel hand luggage only.
The Trunki comes with stickers and an easily operated plastic lock to prevent contents spilling out onto the airport floor. There's also a fabric mesh on the inside to organise things a little.
Perfectly designed with a section for everything and freeflow space as well.
This really is the handiest cabin luggage option when travelling with very young children. It's soft and comfortable and allows you to have baby in a sling as well. The compartments are well organised but not TOO organised so you can just fling the odd thing in there in a rush. It's easy to keep food separate from toys separate from clean clothes and soiled nappies. And it stays put on your shoulders and slides under the seat in front of you. An excellent find!
Fly business and you usually have a a much greater luggage allowance. This varies from airline to airline so check out the reviews here and check with your airline as well.
In general, I'd still recommend the Rimowa wheelie as your main piece of hand luggage because it travels so well. You can then include a small handbag or briefcase and a suit carrier if you need one.
If money is tight then head to a TK Maxx or Matalan or Thrift store if you're in the US. I can't guarantee the quality of any of it, but it will be cheap! TK Maxx is your best bet for something affordable that won't fall apart on you in transit.
Do spare the money if you can, though. It's a complete false economy if you end up with cabin luggage that breaks during a trip.
The most lightweight option will be something without wheels: it's the frame and the wheels that add the weight. And while technology has improved a lot, it's still a struggle to find a wheelie that weighs less than 2kg.
If this is your first trip in Europe, you may be taken aback at how many cobbled streets there are and how many elevators and escalators there aren't. So, although I'd still recommend the Rimowa wheelie, if you're fit and able enough to use a backpack and have a lot of walking to and from hotels in mind, you may want to opt for one of those instead.
Bear in mind that for international flights, you need to go through airport security. A clamshell case may be less convenient in this situation. On the other hand, if you are visiting somewhere where crime is rife, a hard shell case may be even more important.
I'd say the same as for women: the Rimowa classic wheelie. But you may also want to take a look at the North Face Duffle mentioned above as you're more likely to be happy carrying it.
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. Find out more.
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