6 tips for picking the best carry-on case for your next trip

Our ultimate guide to becoming a cabin baggage connoisseur and lightening the load on your next flight

Carry on luggage guide
(Image credit: Getty)

Lost luggage and record-breaking delays at airports are just some of the reasons growing numbers of travellers are opting to ditch checked bags and rely solely on cabin baggage. The good news? Doing so is easier than ever, thanks to the growing number of brands going all out to cater to globetrotters who are opting to travel light. Here’s our ultimate guide to finding the right luggage for anyone keen to ditch the excess baggage.

If you know what you're looking for, you can also check out our guide to the best carry-on luggage

Carry on bag

(Image credit: Samsonite)

1. Materials matter

When it comes to reducing the weight of your bag, we’re not just talking about taking fewer underpants. One of the best ways to not only reduce the weight of your luggage but create more space is by thinking about materials. When it comes to hard cases, the ones with the lowest weights are often those made with strands of lightweight materials which have been woven together to add extra weight. I'm a huge fan of Samsonite’s C-Lite range of hard-sided cases, which are made from woven polypropylene. They come in a range of sizes, although the smallest one – which will slip easily into an overhead locker – weighs just 1.9kg.

2. Ditch the added extras

Do you (or your suitcase) really need extra external pockets or chunky padlock systems? And don’t be seduced by the often ridiculous added extras which are increasingly showing up on hard-sided cabin cases, either. Will your intrepid explorations really be improved just because you’ve got a case with a built-in phone charger, brake systems to prevent wheeled cases running away (something which we’ve never, ever experienced, to be clear) or a built-in cup holder like the one Wrangler recently added to their hard-sided case? In a nutshell, no.

Carry on bag

(Image credit: Farpoint)

3. Prioritise portability

We’ve all experienced it. These days, the frenzied scramble to extract bags from overhead lockers begins long before the seatbelt lights have gone out. One advantage to travelling with just hand luggage is the time you’ll save – no more waiting for your bag at luggage carousels, which is often the reason travellers aren’t in a rush to disembark their plane (what’s the point when your luggage is still being offloaded, after all)? But travellers who’ve ditched the checked baggage can save even more time by prioritising portability. 

I'm a huge fan of backpacks with extending handles, and built-in wheels (two are great, but four are preferable). This allows them to be rolled along and can be a godsend on cramped planes, when your chances of squeezing your way into the aisle are likely to be significantly reduced if you’re wearing a house-sized backpack. I also love handles – the more the merrier, so that you can extricate your case easily without having to remove others passengers’ cases in order to retrieve yours.

Carry on bag

(Image credit: Quicksilver)

4. Backpacks are better (sometimes)

The downside to single-compartment cases often relates to the ease (or lack of) with which individual items can be removed and replaced. Find the right backpack, however, and repacking your bag after the dreaded security check will take significantly less time. 

You can assign dedicated, easily accessible pockets to the items you’re most likely to have to remove and replace before and during the flight, such as toiletries, gadgets and liquids, before quickly returning them to their rightful place, saving you the embarrassment of digging through upper layers of underwear/medication/weird souvenirs in a single-compartment case in order to get to the bottle of water which has seen your bag diverted to the dreaded security check line.

Carry on bag

(Image credit: Farpoint)

5. Don’t overestimate the importance of access

When you’ve got everything you’ll need for your getaway stuffed into a single bag, it pays to pack in an organised way, and to think about how you’ll access the items. Cabin cases with additional trapdoor-style access points at the top make it easier to access items you’ll need mid-flight, such as headphones and chargers, and backpacks with openings at both the top and bottom, or openings which unzip fully on three sides, can save you huge amounts of time when it comes to getting to specific items.

6. Pack like a pro

Although I’ve recommended keeping accessories to a minimum, there are certain ones which can transform your travels. Compression pouches, which rely on double zips to compress contents such as clothes, won’t just save space, but will keep the contents of your case or backpack organised, too. 

If you’re packing bulky items such as a ski jacket or the world’s fluffiest jumper, consider a vacuum pack bag. Simply fill the bag, attach a vacuum nozzle to the valve and suck out the extra air – you’ll be amazed by how much space you’ll save.

Four seriously cool cabin bags

Ditching the checked baggage? Invest in one of these space savers and you’ll never look back

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North Face Base Camp Duffel (opens in new tab)

North Face’s Base Camp Duffel is a brilliant bag which doubles as both a duffel bag and a backpack and has multiple handles and access points. We love the internal mesh compartments, which make it easy to see what you’ve got stashed where – a godsend when you’ve crammed everything you need for a weekend away into a single bag.

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Samsonite Upscape Spinner Expandable (opens in new tab)

Samsonite’s new suitcases are made from lightweight polypropylene and have four wheels for maximum mobility. Internal straps and pouches help you make the most of the space available, too. The case also does well in the sustainability stakes – the interior is made from recycled PET plastic bottles.

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Quiksilver Travis Rice Platinum 20L (opens in new tab)

This brilliant backpack has a huge number of compartments, and accessing them is ridiculously easy – the bag’s front unzips fully on three sides, which allows you to immediately see the entire contents. It’s another bag with multiple handles, too.

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Osprey Farpoint Wheels (opens in new tab)

Is it a backpack? Is it a wheeled cabin case? It’s both – a roomy 36L case with low-profile wheels which won’t get in the way when they’re not in use, and an extendable handle which ramps up the portability without adding extra weight.

Tamara Hinson is a freelance travel and tech writer who writes for a range of publications, including T3, Wanderlust, the Times, the Metro and the Independent. Favourite destinations include Peru, India, Zambia and anywhere in South East Asia, although as a former snowboard instructor she’s happiest in the mountains. Her favourite trips include a visit to North Korea and the time she joined a postman for his 250-mile mail run around the remote cattle ranches surrounding Coober Pedy, an Australian outback opal mining town where everyone lives underground.