The Best Carry-On / Hand Luggage
A Practical Guide to Hand Luggage Types, Features and Sizes
Two factors go into deciding on the best hand luggage for your needs. The first is down to personal taste. Most people intuitively know whether they like the idea of a wheeled hard-shell spinner or would prefer a cool backpack or holdall instead.
Secondly, those all-important aircraft hand-luggage size restrictions need to be factored in. Here, you’ll find different rules for the lower cost airlines compared to the ‘flag carriers’ like BA and Virgin.
This page outlines your options in a clear and practical format – taking into account that everyone’s taste is different.
Here are the different carry-on bag types covered in depth below:
- Hard Shell (wheeled; includes both budget and branded)
- Soft Shell (spinners / wheeled at different price points)
- Laptop / Business Bags
- Shoulder Bags / Holdalls
- Ryanair / Low-Cost Airline Compatible Hand Luggage
Within these types you’ll have options for bright colours, funky designs or regular (black / grey) cases. You’ll find size differences too. If you want your hand luggage compatible with Ryanair, who are ultra-strict, then you’ll need less than 40cms high. Traditional airlines go for 56cm max. Security features and price are also important factors.
Below you will find an overview of the features, plus write-ups on the most popular cases from each category. First up, the table below shows the most popular adult options. Note that children’s hand luggage is covered on this separate linked page.
If you scroll down, you’ll find more details on all of these cases, plus some alternative options for each of the categories. First, a look at the sizes allowed on different airlines, and a more detailed look at the types of hand luggage and key extras to look out for.
LATEST REVIEWS OF THE BEST HAND LUGGAGE
Best Hand Baggage: What Sizes are Approved for Different Airlines?
Some airlines are strict about hand luggage sizes. If you are flying on one of the many new ‘super low cost’ airlines, then I do recommend you check.
‘Ryanair Compatible’ is a good guideline measure. Even if you are not flying on Ryanair, hand luggage which is ok for their (non-premium) customers will be ok for any other airline you could think of. These cases are 40cm x 30cm x 20cm. Note that if you pay for ‘premium’ seating, you’ll be able to take a regular sized carry on up to 55cms.
When it comes to the major airlines, there is a single centimetre of difference. Some opt for 55cms tall, while others allow 56cms. This does include the wheels. When it comes to the likes of BA, Delta or Virgin the enforcement is not strict unless you are obviously trying it on. Even EasyJet, who pioneered lower cost flying, allow a full 56x45x25cm carry on.
A good rule of thumb is that 55cms will be no problem anywhere. 56cm is fine for business travellers and those sticking to the biggest and best airlines.
Types of Carry On Cases: More Detail on Your Main Options
While some types of hand luggage are clearly in one category or another – there is a lot of overlap. For example, backpacks and laptop bags overlap. As do soft shell cases with laptop / business type bags. There is more information on exactly what your options are in the section below.
After that, some of the smaller features which can make a big difference are covered. Some are practical, others are nice to have or design flourishes. Once you know what kind of things to look after, you’ll be able to narrow down your search for the best cases to take onboard.
Different Categories of Hand Luggage
Best Hard-Shell Carry On Cases
You’ll the word ‘spinner’ used a lot for both hard and soft cases. This term was coined by Samsonite, though now widely used to describe case with 4 wheels that can move in any direction. You can push them, pull them or (as the name suggests) spin them around.
The other option for hard-shell carry-on cases is 2 fixed wheels. You can pull these along, which is fine for most purposes.
Hard shell cases are made of a lot of materials. Only a handful of years ago, these were heavier options compared to fabric cases. This is no longer true – though if you want a super-light case (like the Neopulse range) then you’ll need to pay a little more.
Keep in mind that some hard-shell cases get scratched easier than others. There can also be issues with residue from stickers accumulating on them over time. Look out for models with side pockets so you won’t need to open them as often while at the airport or after boarding. Zippable compartments inside – on at least one side – is also a plus.
While many brands advertise their TSA locks, these are not so important for hand luggage cases. The idea is that US customs can access your case if you are not available. Since your hand luggage will be with you, that situation is unlikely. Having said that, a simple combo lock can deter casual thefts and will give you peace of mind.
Hard shell hand luggage is likely to be on the bigger side. With many between 55cm and 56cm tall, effectively the maximum for the traditional airlines.
Here are some of the different options reviewed in detail here at Luggage Review:
Soft Shell Hand Luggage Options
You’ll get more options in terms of style for soft-shell carry on cases. The material used is synthetic, with hard-wearing polyester the ideal mix of flexible, water-resistant and robust. If you are after lightweight cases, then soft sided ones are a lot cheaper than the super-light hard options. The ‘Worlds Lightest’ cases are from IT. These combine fibreglass frames with light polyester – they look great too.
There is a lot of overlap with wheeled laptop bags and general soft-shell carry on cases. Aimed at frequent business flyers, the laptop versions look stunning, with compartments for accessories, your suits and that all-important computer. Check out the higher-end ones from Tumi or Briggs and Riley for luggage which is simply stunning.
Designs range from smart and ‘conservative’ single colour to some bright and crazy prints. In between you have things like the IT Duotone, or the Funshine range from American Tourister, which have striking colour combinations. If you are looking for something a little more individual, there are plenty of bright, quirky and fun designs available too.
Soft shell hand luggage comes with 2 or 4 (spinner) wheels.
Laptop / Business Carry On Bags
These days, many people are choosing wheeled laptop bags for daily office use – as well as for business trips. This makes sense, as the amount of devices you need to carry (along with chargers and extras) keeps on growing.
You’ll find reviews of bags, mostly soft-shell types, which have been designed flying for business trips in mind here. These range from the top end Italian styling and super-high quality (Tumi) to the regular brands (Samsonite do some excellent business luggage) and lower-cost versions.
Look out for hard wearing materials. Nobody wants to go to an important international meeting with a bag starting to get tatty. With so many people going for the same old brands, you can make your bag easier to locate by choosing a slightly different finish or design.
Here are some of the business travel hand-luggage options reviewed in detail here:
- Briggs and Riley Baseline Carry On (higher price bracket)
- Antler Business 200 Mobile Office
- Tumi Alpha 2 Hand Luggage
- Samsonite X-Blade 3
Holdalls / Weekend Bags
It is easy to overlook a smart shoulder bag as your hand luggage option. These have the advantage of making it easy to get around the airport. Matching luggage sets always sound good. In a crowded terminal, pushing one bag while pulling another and trying to weave around hordes of people who never seem to give way can be a real effort! With one bag on your shoulder, or on top of your main spinner luggage, you’ll be a lot more manoeuvrable.
There are a lot of soft bags which could fall into this category. Canvas is always good, though can hold water too easily. Leather works and looks stylish, look out for those soft versions – especially those with a vintage look and feel.
You will find plenty of shoulder bags which fall within the guidelines for Ryanair (and other strict lower cost airlines). Here are some of the options which already have detailed reviews:
Best Hand Luggage Backpacks
If there is one item of hand luggage which is able to cover all possible uses – it is the backpack. You’ll find versions for laptops, big ones which make the best of your 56cms of space and plenty of smaller backpacks which fit snugly under the seat in front of you. Add to this the huge range of styles and colour / fabrics, and you have a lot to choose from.
Backpacks for everyday office, college or school use are covered in more depth elsewhere here at Luggage Review. If you are looking for one to carry-on, then security and versatility come into the equation. Look for bags with a smaller carry strap on top, which can come in handy when you are manoeuvring around those crowded plane aisles.
Here are some of the popular backpacks which would work perfectly as carry-on items already reviewed in detail:
- Veevan Backpacks: Range of Colours / Prints
- Tumi Voyager Carson Backpacks
- American Tourister at Work Casual Daypack
If you don’t already fly Ryanair, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about with compatibility… What you’ll find is that Ryanair not only have the strictest guidelines, they are the most likely to implement them – refusing to allow hand luggage which is over their measurements.
You can also use this as a proxy for other lower cost airlines. The idea is that if you hand luggage is Ryanair compatible, it will get on board just about any airline!
Bags need to be 40cm by 30cm by 20cm or smaller. Here is a selection of bags in different categories which already hit that sweet spot.
Best Hand Luggage: Features Guide
Once you decide on what type of bag you want, it is time to think about the smaller features. By deciding which ones are key for you, search options can be narrowed down fast.
Some of these features will be bag type specific, while others apply to several of the hand-luggage categories. This is set out in bullets, to make scanning easier:
- Wheels: Wheels are only needed if you are planning on packing a lot of hand luggage or taking a laptop + documents on your travels. If you only take what you need for the flight, then a small under seat bag will often do the trick. There are two types of wheeled carry on. Spinners have 4 wheels and can go in all directions. Other wheeled hand luggage has 2 wheels on one side only – and are perfect for pulling along. Make sure you check comments / feedback for anything on the sturdiness of those wheels. A broken wheel can kill a case. This could be very awkward if it happens while you are away.
- Locks: Combination locks are a regular feature on cases these days. While they are not the toughest of locks, they will effectively stop casual / opportunistic thefts. For hand luggage, the bag stays in sight (or close, in an overhead bin near you) most of the time. This makes locks less important on the go. There are many other situations where a simple combo lock could come in useful. If you see ‘TSA’ on a lock specification, this is for the US ‘Transport Security Agency’. They have special keys to get into your luggage when needed. If you are not around, and the TSA want to get into your bag, they will simply break in if there is no TSA over-ride.
- Pockets: Consider the pockets on both the inside and the outside of your bag. Inside pockets (and zipped compartments) make organising your things easy. Something for the smaller items, a laptop / tablet container which is padded and a closable area for clothing are all useful. Outside pockets are also useful. If you travel often, then quick access to your passport / documents is a big plus.
- Material: Several features of the material spring to mind. The first is a simple personal preference. You will know whether you are attracted to the new shiny hard-shell cases with ridged designs or prefer a classic leather bag (or anything else!). If you prefer the soft-shell hand luggage, whether it is waterproof is a big factor. No carry-ons that I know of will survive being thrown in the pool – though defending against a quick rain shower is a definitely plus. Depending on your budget, you might need to balance price and weight / quality. For example, hard shell spinner hand luggage does exist at budget price points – though this is usually heavier and more ‘plastic-y’ than the ones created by the big luggage brands.
- Style / Labels: If you are style conscious – or want to use the best-known and best-quality brands, then good for you. There are options for everyone, and those brands built their reputations over many years! You can find more on the biggest and best luggage brands in this dedicated section here at Luggage Review.
- Straps / Handles: This really does depend on the style of bag, though you’ll still find a lot of variations. If you have wheeled luggage, look for handles on both the top and the side. You’ll be fighting to get it out of the overhead bin, or to carry your bag on stairs otherwise. Some even have backpack type straps, giving you the best of both worlds. Cheaper bags give you a nylon / polyester grip for the handles. For regular use, invest in something a little more padded and comfortable.
More Detail on the Best Hand Luggage Top Picks
#1 – Samsonite Flux Spinner
These hard-shell cases come in different sizes, with the hand luggage versions 55cms tall. This makes them perfect for major airlines. These are the go-to cases for frequent travellers. Distinctive ridges, a smaller black and grey design and Samsonite quality make for a winning combination.
You’ll get 4 double wheels, a zipped inner compartment (plus elastic straps on the other side and an impressive 44 litre capacity. You’ll find more detail in my detailed review of the Flux Spinner Hand Luggage – or you can jump to the gallery (new window) on this dedicated amazon.co.uk product page instead.
#2 – Super Light Samsonite Neopulse Spinners
You get a ‘wow’ moment when you first pick up the Neopulse spinner hand luggage from Samsonite. These are metallic cases which seem too light to be real. It is only when you stand on one that you’ll figure how light they are. These are premium priced carry-ons. If you are worried (as some owners are) about the metallic finish scratching and scuffing easily, then there is a matte black alternative with sharp red trim.
Concentric squares give this case a distinctive look. 4 double wheels, TSA safe combo lock, double zipped compartments inside and that build quality you’d associate with Samsonite all included. You get their 5-year warranty too.
#3 – Best Budget Hard Shell Hand Luggage
If you’d love a branded hard-shell case, though can’t currently justify spending the money, then the Coolife expandable spinners could be the perfect solution. These cases are inside the carry-on requirements of the major airlines. They also look great, with a choice of colours, top-to-bottom ridges and lined interior compartments.
While they don’t have the big brand badge, these cases certainly have the spec. You get robust spinner wheels, a multi-locking aluminium handle, lock with a TSA override, and some models even have the ability to expand. Coolife cases look so good that you might find people asking where you got them from.
Check out my detailed review of these lower price spinner carry on cases or check the colour selection and feedback from (very satisfied) buyers yourself over on this dedicated amazon.co.uk product page now!
#4 – Best Soft-Shell Wheeled Hand Luggage: The Funshine Cases from American Tourister
For me the Funshine cases (at least the darker tones) are classy, rather than too much ‘fun’. Granted even dark grey does have an ice blue trim. This only adds to the squat good looks. If you prefer something more distinctive, why not check out the #Rio Red’ version.
These cases are made from high-grade polyester. They are tough, light and have 4 wheels for 360-degree spinner movement. Each one comes with a combination lock, front pocket and zipped mesh pocket inside (along with the usual cross ribbons which hold everything in place). The carry-on Funshine spinners are 55cms high, with a 36-litre capacity. At the time of writing, these cases come with a discount over at amazon.
#4 – Best Classic Soft Wheeled Carry On Cases: The Duotone from IT
IT has a reputation for affordable and light cases. Their extensive range even includes the current world record holder for the lightest luggage. The ‘Duotone’ has a different look to many carry-ons, and super-tough nylon for the build. This is another ‘spinner’, with all-direction movement thanks to 4 wheels and telescoping handle. Unlike many IT cases, this is a regular thin handle, not one of the extra wide ones.
Best of all, you get 2 front pockets – invaluable when on the move. I also like the way the front opens to reveal a single extra-deep internal compartment, with a 34-litre capacity. This comes in at only 2.2kgs, and there are 4 different colour combinations available.
You can find the full information on my IT Duotone Spinner Hand Luggage review page. If you want to jump straight to the colour combinations and pricing instead – then head to this dedicated Duotone page at amazon.co.uk instead.
#5 – High End Business / Laptop Hand Luggage the Tumi Alpha 2
Frequent business travellers swear by the quality of Tumi cases. The Alpha 2 is everything they do best in a soft-shell design. This is 36cms, at the top end of the carry-on allowance range, and has components of both a laptop case and hand luggage.
As you’d expect at this price point, the features list puts regular brands in the shade. These include double entry to the main compartment, 2-stage frame expansion capability, removeable section which can keep up to 2 suits in shape, and mesh pockets as well as 2 separate zipped pockets.
You can also get trim options to personalise your Tumi carry-on case to you.
Check out my Tumi Alpha 2 review for the full low-down. Alternatively see the full features list, gallery (inside and out) plus feedback from other business travellers over on this dedicated amazon.co.uk product page.
#6 – Antler Business 200 Mobile Office / Cabin Bag
You don’t need to spend ‘Tumi’ money to get a quality cabin bag which doubles up as a laptop bag or wheeled briefcase. The Antler Business 200 was designed with business trips in mind. This is a soft shell, wheeled bag with pockets and padding for your laptop, tablet, documents and accessories. It is 55cm x 40cm x 20cm – with a solid 36 litre carrying capacity.
Styling for the Business 200 is contemporary, without being novel or showy. The feedback from users has been positive, especially when it comes to the build quality. Best of all, this Antler bag will not break the bank.
See the spec and feedback run-down on my detailed Antler Business 200 carry-on bag review. Alternatively, you can head straight to amazon.co.uk and check out the latest (big at the time of writing) discounts on this dedicated Business 200 product page.
#7 – Canvas and Leather Weekend Bag
Holdall / Weekend bags like this one from ‘Good One’ have had a resurgence recently. When you think about the varied uses, this is no surprise. They work perfectly for hand luggage while you travel, gym bags, shopping bags or the perfect holdall for a weekend away. You’ll see the black / brown leather combo in the picture. This is one of 4 different combinations, all of which look timelessly smart.
These are light bags, which fold away neatly when not in use. You’ll find some welcome additions, including zipped side pockets and an adjustable shoulder strap. While the fancy cases listed above do have their place, there is certainly a time and place for a handy weekend bag like this one. When you see the price, it will quickly turn into a ‘no brainer’.
Check out my detailed review of this excellent leather and canvas weekend bag here. Alternatively, you can check the colour combos and feedback for yourself now, over on this dedicated amazon.co.uk product page.
#8 Versatile Fight Approved Backpacks from Veevan
There are a lot of colour combos, and even some more interesting printed designs in the Veevan backpacks range. What they share is a very smart design with a square look, and angles which seem to work well with all the colours. There are handles on the side and top, making this more flexible than your average backpack. This is in addition to adjustable padded straps.
Pockets on the front, bottle holder and mesh pocket on the side, two main compartments and an unexpectedly big 38 litre capacity make this plenty big enough for a regular (15.6 inch) laptop. It is 50cms tall by 33cm wide and 20 deep – well within the ‘under seat’ or overhead bin requirements at all but the pickiest airlines. Read my detailed review for more.
Check out the range of smart, bright and (some) exotic prints and feedback from satisfied buyers over on this dedicated amazon.co.uk product page.
#9 – Ryanair Approved Carry-on Luggage Set
One thing that comes up a lot with hand luggage is ‘will Ryanair accept it?’. It is not just the famous low-cost carrier that has strict rules about hand bags, many other airlines also do these days. None of them have quite the same reputation as Ryanair when it comes to surcharges though!
Ryanair allow one carry on bag, plus an additional smaller bag (handbag for example). The savvy flyers in their planes take advantage by maximising both bags… which is where this handy set comes in. You’ll get one 35x20x20 bag, and one 55x40x20 bag (for premium seating) in one lower cost option.
While you are never going to get ‘big brand’ quality at this price point, feedback has been positive. Many people went as far as to call this 5 Cities set a complete bargain. With a wheeled case as well as a shoulder bag, and free delivery, this price point is a real steal!
Wrapping Up: Plenty of Options for Carry On Luggage
With so many types of hand luggage, you might wonder why so many people use the same black cases with wheels. While many of those are practical solutions (for business travel especially), it can pay to explore your options before choosing the perfect cases for your own tastes and practical needs.
Black luggage is standard, though there are many designs and trim options, even for those that perfect this regular starting point. If you want to liven up your travel bags, there are plenty of options for you in this regard too.