Carry-on suitcase guide: 6 things you need to consider when buying luggage

Here’s what you need to think about when deciding not to check-in luggage

Carry-on suitcase guide: 6 things you need to consider when buying luggage
(Image credit: Getty)

You’ve made the decision to travel light. It’s a short trip, and you don’t want to be wasting time at luggage carousels in airports. Nor do you want to risk losing your luggage by checking it in. So now what? How do you choose the perfect piece of carry-on luggage?

Here are six things to think about before making that all-important decision.

1. Get the size right

Remember those full-service airlines that were generous with luggage and didn't mind if you took over 40kg of stuff on holiday? Unless you're flying long haul, and increasingly, in business or first class, those days are gone. The airline you fly on and the luggage you are allowed to take onboard into the cabin are now inextricably linked. 

If you take something bigger than you are allowed, you will have to pay a fee; cue those horrible metal cages that airline staff will make you shove your luggage into. Unfortunately, it's a race to the bottom and one where the lowest common denominator wins; the savvy traveller surely chooses a piece of luggage that will be allowed onto any aircraft. 

At the time of writing, that’s 56x45x25cm and 23kg, so don’t ever buy a carry-on suitcase that is any bigger. Also, bear in mind that wheels and handles are counted in those measurements.

2. Think about gadgets

Are you going to be travelling with a tablet or a laptop? If so, and you think you're going to want to access either during your journey, choose a carry-on suitcase that has exterior pockets built for the job. There are many options around that have laptop sleeves, and though tablet sleeves are a little less common, they do exist. 

You can also find carry-on suitcases that have built-in sunglasses cases, which can be really useful to access quickly when stepping off an aircraft into the blazing sunshine. After all, isn’t that one of the reasons you went travelling in the first place? Having pockets on the side or front of your carry-on suitcase can also be really useful for holding food or drink while you’re in the airport.

(Image credit: Getty)

3. Two or four wheels?

Four. Always go for four. Even better, find a carry-on suitcase that has four double-wheels, which will give you excellent mobility. Bags with two wheels can be dragged along behind you. That might sound fine, but in a busy airport or train station, and particularly in a queue, you're basically taking up the space of two or three people, and you can find yourself tripping-up others, and generally making your journey more difficult. With four wheels, you can roll the suitcase beside you, which is much safer and easier, as well as drag it along behind you if you prefer. 

However, make a note of how solid the wheels are, and what kind of terrain they are capable of travelling across without problems. After all, dusty or even tarmac roads with curbs are a lot harder work to wheel a case along than the flat shiny floor of an airport.

4. Handle with care

Here's another great reason for test driving your carry-on suitcase before you purchase. You might think that the handle on your suitcase is of no importance, but just you wait until you start dragging around your belongings. The telescopic handle that rises out of the suitcase often does so in two or three sections, with each extra joint affecting the stability of your suitcase when it’s on the go. Is it easy to extract the telescopic handle? Some have a pop-up mechanism, others are more manual. Some luggage even has a zip-over cover to hide a handle when not in use.

5. Hard-sided or soft-sided?

Although that 56x45x25cm size is easy to meet if you buy a correctly-sized hard-shell polycarbonate suitcase, those who choose soft-sided luggage have to make sure they don't overload their bag. It's very easy to go over the 25cm depth if you bag bulges at the front. It’s also worth considering the differences between the two distinct styles of luggage; soft-sided is lighter, typically expandable, and tends to have more pockets, while while hard-sided is more durable, protective and (sometimes) more stylish. 

(Image credit: Getty)

6. Getting organised

Carry-on suitcases are often sold on features like wheels, handles and mobility, but what about the inside of the luggage? You're likely going to be living out of your suitcase for some time, and if you plan to frequently jump between hotels, your carry-on suitcase is going to be your de facto mobile wardrobe. 

There are three things to think about when inspecting the inside of a carry-on suitcase. Firstly, look for a waterproof pocket, which can be really useful for transporting cosmetics and washing gear (and allow you to leave that bulky wash-bag at home). After all, such things often break or burst while in transit, and it's a real pain to scrape toothpaste or moisturiser off your clothes. Secondly, see if there are any pockets, both in the lid of the suitcase, or ranged around the walls of the main compartment. Such pockets can be really useful for storing small items. Lastly, look for compression straps, which allow you to pack down your clothes and fit more into your carry-on suitcase.

That’s six things to think about before investing in what could – and should – be your favourite travel companion for many years to come. 

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Jamie Carter

Jamie is a freelance journalist, copywriter and author with 20 years' experience. He's written journalism for over 50 publications and websites and, when he's not writing, spending most of his time travelling – putting the latest travel tech through its paces.