- Buyer's Guide
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OK, it’s time to scope a few carry-on bags. These are the workhorses of the frequent traveler, and can make or break a trip through the smallest detail.
But first, a little about cabin-legal bags…
If my trip is less than a week and if I can avoid it, I never check in luggage. Many airlines charge for checking in a bag and I just prefer to have everything with me when I travel. There’s that, and they still tend to lose bags a bit too often.
What makes a good carry-on bag?
DIMENSIONS: First of all, it has to meet airline guidelines and in the States, at least, that’s a maximum of 45 linear inches (all sides added).
WEIGHT: While some US airlines let you carry on the kitchen sink, most international airlines are now limiting bag weight to around 18 lbs (8 kgs). That’s not much, so your bag should weigh less than 7 lbs (3kg) if you want to take much more than underwear.
Note: For one of the most comprehensive Cabin Allowance lists we’ve seen, head over to the Telegraph UK. It lists most UK, European, and major international airline allowances for weight and dimensions. The scary thing is that more European carriers are restricting cabin baggage to 5 kg (11 lbs) limits.
POCKETING: Next, it should have a number of easy to access external pockets to reach toiletries, earphones, a cell charger, etc. Hard cases don’t do this, and it’s one of the reasons we’re not big fans.
LAPTOP: Then there’s the laptop compatible thing. A padded section is a must, but a good bonus is a dedicated padded laptop pouch which eases concerns while going through those dreaded security lines.
CARRYING: It should generally have at least two carry options – padded shoulder strap and top grip are popular but backpack straps or wheels have their place. If it has wheels, think about how well it will carry up or down stairs.
DURABILITY: There’s still times when you end up checking the bag anyway, so it needs to stand up to handlers’ frustrations. Zips, wheels and seams are the usual failure points, so look for a durable fabric without any sharp corners that might start a tear. Replaceable wheels are a bonus because even some good brands have been known to put shoddy bearings in.
THE LOOK: If you need to meet with a client or give a presentation, you kinda want to avoid the camo or rainbow colourways. The industry is built on black for a reason. But that might also be a reason to not go black.
Here are some carry-on bags that we think fit the bill…
Wheeled bags suit heavier loads and longer distances to travel. If you are a big public transport user, or travel away from cities, you should opt for something you can shoulder instead. Oh, and make sure the thing stands when loaded. If you’ve ever had a tip-prone wheeled bag, you know what frustration truly is…
The Gravis Jetway rolling bag is on the larger size for cabin baggage, but sneaks in to most airlines. There’s loads of organizing features, replaceable wheels, nice componentry, and a reasonable price. It is on the heavier side at almost 8 lbs, but it is larger than average, so we almost forgive it. There’s some pretty radical color options, and a similar bag from sister brand Burton (which is heavier and IMHO not quite as good).
The Merrell Escape is a well priced, medium of the road bag. A longer than usual telescoping handle is a treat, but other than that, you just get a solid performer at a good price. Not the street cred of the Gravis, but not everyone is chasing that…
Hybrid bags offer the benefits of wheels while on smooth ground, then add backpack straps for when stairs or unsealed paths take over. Some hybrids are crazy heavy, but these two only have a small weight penalty, while adding huge flexibility.
Mandarina Duck was like a breath of fresh air when they first appeared on the luggage scene. They are by no means cheap, but they are really interesting, well performing bags that set you a little apart from the crowds. The Mandarina Duck Isi 40L Cabin Luggage has a great layout, reasonable weight (6.3 lbs), and a unique look.
Caution: This is the Isi trolley B7V33. There is an Isi trolley B7V30 that looks similar, but does not have the backpack straps option (saving 1 lb). Yep, that’s confusing.
We have a sweet spot for the Rip Curl Search Cabin, having hauled it through some amazing ‘work’ trips (which might have included some pretty epic waves tacked on to the end). It’s a feature-rich bag, dealing with your laptop, all your tech, toiletries, clothing and work gear. Ahhh, the memories…
If you subscribe to the OneBag or OBOW approach, these bags are the only way to go. They are the lightest format (skipping all the heavy structure), and let you pack more into them. We’ve tried to pick some of the more work-focused ones out there…
America has a broad stable of heritage outfitter brands, in which Filson is firmly established. Making gear since 1897, the Filson Passage Carry-On Bag tries to reflect some of this heritage through its old school styling. Thankfully though, new school features give you a backpack option, as well as lots of pocketing and comfort tweaks.
Patagonia have had an odd relationship with bags. Despite producing some of the industry’s most innovative and original formats, for years they drifted in and out of taking them seriously. But the last few years seems to have seen them return, and the innovations are continuing. The MLC Burrito is a suit bag for the active. If you need to get around in ironed duds, this bag will soon become your best friend. And yes, it’s available in black.
PS: There’s lots of other sweet bags in their Maximum Legal Carry-On range. Well worth a look.
Qwstion rock. They have worked out their unique look, and are playing really nicely with it. It’s all in the coated canvas fabrics that have re-emerged recently, but they do a great job of adding personality to work-safe carry gear. Their backpack is not the most pocket-rich bag, but it opens right out to give you access to any corner, and a laptop sleeve hides nicely against the back panel.
If all of those bags are a little too work-focused for you, stay tuned for an upcoming post on Weekender bags. These will be more casual and duffle-like, better suiting road trips than airport skips.
As always, if you have any thoughts, feedback, experiences or suggestions for cabin bags, we’d love you to share it in the comments.
Extra thoughts: This bit is for the real bag geeks amongst you…
We were talking about the difference between a Carry-On and a Weekender. The way we figured it:
Carry-On bags are generally business focused. They are more serious bags for getting things done.
Weekender bags are more leisure focused. They are as much about announcing casualness as carrying your gear. They should make you feel relaxed and happy.
When you put them to use, Weekenders are often thrown in the car for a road trip or country jaunt, while a Carry-On feels out of place without aircraft nearby. As mentioned, we’ll cover some of our favorite weekenders in a follow-up post soon.