Carry-on suitcase vs travel bag: which luggage is best when travelling?

If you’re choosing between a hard-sided suitcase and a duffel, holdall or tote-style travel bag to take into aircraft cabins, here’s what you need to consider

Carry-on suitcase vs travel bag
(Image credit: Getty)

Drag or drop? Whether you are flying short-haul with cabin baggage only, or going long haul and want to take the luggage into the cabin with you, there are two types of luggage to choose between; a roller suitcase you can drag on to the aircraft, or a duffel, holdall or tote-style travel bag that you drop from your shoulder when you get onboard.

A travel bag is less formal and usually lighter, but a carry-on suitcase has its advantages.

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

1. Keeping things safe

A carry-on suitcase is the safest way to travel. Although you don’t have to worry too much if you're taking your stuff into the aircraft cabin, bags are always falling out of overhead lockers. That might be important if you are travelling with an expensive camera or a laptop. As a bonus, you can decide to check-in a hard-sided piece of luggage when you get to the airport (or even at the gate) and not worry about the condition of your stuff when you get to the luggage carousel at your destination. That's not true for a soft-sided holdall or tote, which could get scuffed, squashed or soaked during its journey through the baggage handling process.

2. What do you need at your seat?

One of the major annoyances of flying is that passengers are constantly getting up to fetch items out of carry-on luggage stored in the overhead lockers. If you're travelling with a hard-sided carry-on suitcase, you're going to have to use the overhead locker, no question. However, a soft-sided travel bag can sometimes be stored under the seat in front of you (or even between your legs if it's a short-haul flight). If you need to fetch items during the flight – whether it's a laptop, a portable battery to recharge your phone, various cables, or some headphones – it’s always easier if you have those things to hand as close to you as possible. Travel bags often have pockets on the outside, too, so fetching small items is much easier than on an all-in-one hard-sided carry-on suitcase.

(Image credit: Getty)

3. How strong are your shoulders?

Long journeys to airports. Long queues in airports. Long layovers and more queueing. Although a travel bag might be your preferred mode of luggage style-wise, there's bound to be a point on your trip when you wish your luggage had wheels. It's all down to how big your luggage is, of course, but you can pack a lot into a carry-on sized suitcase or travel bag. Either way, the ability to wheel your luggage either behind you or alongside you saves your shoulders and back from the strain of having to carry a travel bag.

4. Business or casual?

Unless you go for a real leather travel bag with a huge price tag, a wheeled carry-on suitcase is almost always going to look more professional. You might disagree, but a travel bag slung over the shoulder is the definition of casual. So if you're travelling on business, and you want to leave a good impression of being smart, consider going for a wheeled carry-on suitcase. It's also a fact that if you are travelling with business suits, smart clothes and shoes, it’s going to be easier to keep everything neat and tidy in hard-sided luggage.

(Image credit: Sandqvist)

5. Airlines ignore travel bags

Try it! Sling a travel bag over your shoulder when you queue up at the gate to board an aircraft and any airline staff tasked with finding luggage to check into the hold will probably ignore you. While those with wheeled, hard-sided carry-on suitcases often get forced to check-in their luggage and consequently waste time at the carousel when they land, passengers with travel bags rarely get asked to do the same.

6. Going shopping?

If you've packed a hard-sided carry-on suitcase to the max, there is no wriggle room to store spontaneous purchases, jackets and food for the journey. However, if you travel with a soft-sided holdall it’s likely that you can get a little more inside when you need to. Obviously, you don't want to go over the 56x45x25cm limit on the size of carry-on luggage, but there’s always room to squeeze something more inside a holdall or tote.

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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.