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The perfect carry-on bag

Date
Two wheels or four?

Two wheels or four?

Business travellers put a lot of thought into picking the perfect carry-on bag, and that's as it should be.

For the frequent flyer, the right hand luggage lets you zip through security, make an overnight trip without the time-consuming hassle of checked bags – and keep your gear safe and secure in the process.

Of course, the trick is finding the right bag – and knowing what makes it 'right' for you, because carry-on luggage has never been a one-size-fits-all scenario.

That's why many business travellers, myself included, tend to swap between several bags depending on what the trip requires.

Most times I'll partner my laptop bag with my wheeled cabin bag, especially if this means I can get by without checking luggage – a move that calls for smart packing, which is of course another topic for another day.

But sometimes I'll opt for a more casual weekender-style bag or compact backpack partnered with a small 'manbag' containing my iPad or Kindle, a pair of compact noise-cancelling headphones plus a few other in-flight items.

The weekended goes into the overhead bin while the smaller bag tucks neatly into the sidewall space between my seat and the window, to keep everything I need close at hand during the trip.

Regardless of what you're looking for in a carry-on bag, here are some factors to take into consideration.

To wheel or not to wheel

Do you need a carry-on with wheels – or is an over-the-shoulder number such as a backpack or 'messenger bag', or even a simple hand-carried bag, better for your needs?

That'll depend on what you're lugging along, of course.

Pair a large-sized laptop with reams of documents and a wheeled bag is a must. Just remember that even when empty, a wheeled bag will be heavier than a non-wheeled model.

If you're mostly taking clothes for an overnight trip and don't mind carrying your luggage, a soft-sided shoulder bag can be lighter, more flexible to pack and easier to manage.

But for almost all business trips I'm still a fan of the wheeled carry-on. Which brings us to...

Two wheels or four?

The "two-wheel vs four-wheel bag" debate is a bit of a business traveller chestnut, like "window vs aisle" or "Qantas vs Virgin".

Airports and hotels these days seem flooded by four-wheel 'spinner' cases, which let you breezily guide the bag along while it's standing upright instead of pushing or pulling it at a tilted angle.

This lack of effort adds to a spinner's innate maneuverability to make them especially popular among holiday-makers.

But they're harder to push over 'rough' or uneven surfaces ranging from carpet to bumpy sidewalks, and if you leave them unattended on the slightest slope they'll roll away – these things really need a parking brake!

Hard case or soft shell

I'm also seeing a shift towards hardened carry-on cases, especially in the four-wheel spinner category.

Their overall weight is being reduced through the use of composite materials like polycarbonate, although you should avoid trading down in weight at the risk of a less sturdy bag.

Solid wheels and heavy-duty construction, including any telescoping handles, are what you need to ensure your luggage survives life on the road.

A more practical drawback of hard cases is that they lack those handy exterior pockets of soft bags, where you can stow your laptop, travel documents, toiletries and other small items you might want at hand during various stages of your trip.

Having to open your bag just to get at these is not fun. Of course, that problem is solved if you're also willing to tote a smaller shoulder bag.

When smaller is better...

The first error of most travellers is packing too much. That means you have to lug more around and go through the hassle of fighting for overhead bin space once you're on the plane.

Consider a carry-on bag that's actually smaller than the absolute maximum airlines allow for the sake of your sanity – and your back – when trying to fit it into the overhead bins.

If you're heading on a short jaunt, you don't need that much stuff anyway. If you're on a longer trip, just check in a larger bag and be done with it.

There also seems to be a trend towards carry-on bags becoming shorter but wider, so they keep the same overall capacity but can more easily fit into overhead compartments – a key factor when above-seat space appears increasing at a premium.

What carry-on bag (or combination of bags) do you use, and why do they work for you?

David Flynn is a business travel expert and editor of Australian Business Traveller.

Twitter: @AusBT

25 comments so far

  • After going through a few too many cheaper bags I bought a Travel Pro and love it. Very solid, maybe weighs a little too much empty for some people but that's unavoidable if you want a really good bag that will last for years and years. I know some people have the philosophy to buy a fairly cheap bag and toss it after a year but I'd rather spend more up front and never worry that my bag is going to fall apart in the middle of a trip. I pair this with a slim backpack for use on the plane and when I'm in the overseas city.

    Commenter
    SteveD
    Date and time
    September 04, 2012, 11:36AM
    • For weekenders, my North Face - Hotshot backpack does the job. While for slightly longer trips I use a diving brand named Mares - Captian Cruiser Cabin. Best bag ever and all my fellow dive mates are using the same bag for out short trips.
      - It uses super tough denier and rust proof metals fittings (as it was made for diving),
      - big big heavy duty zips,
      - has expandable bellow if you want to turn it into a slightly bigger bag and has straps to make it smaller,
      - has a front velcro pocket and zip which is really hand to access stuff,
      - this bag is super light and
      - has telescoping handle for 2 wheeling.

      Why buy those expensive brands when you can get something so functional. :)

      ahh now is only i could be travelling / diving right now to some sun kissed island

      Commenter
      Lxchin
      Date and time
      September 04, 2012, 11:48AM
      • If, I'm traveling overseas on business, its usually a laptop backpack, however, if it's for pleasure, a small backpack to fit my i Pad and camera etc. What l have noticed alot in the last couple of years, is people taking a medium size roller as carry on as well as a back pack. Don't the airlines and security monitor this? Also, people who take these bags on can't even lift them into the overhead lockers....
        I usually take a medium to large suitcase and have both 2 wheel and 4 wheel roller. I have a 2 wheel Samsonite Ultra-lite and after one business trip, the handle had already broken loose after the baggage handlers flung it onto either the hold or the carousel as it certainly didn't leave my hands with a broken handle at check-in. I don't think it matters which type of bag you take, so long as it comes back to you in one piece, if at all!

        Commenter
        Al
        Date and time
        September 04, 2012, 12:07PM
        • A light bag with no wheels that you can comfortably slip under the seat in front of you is definitely the way to go for an overnight trip. These days when particularly in a 737 it can be a real battle to find overhead luggage space, it's a godsend not to have to walk up and down the plane looking for a spare slot. Get a lighter laptop like an ultrabook and keep your files electronically, and you can fit everything you need including toiletries, a change of shirt/underwear and even gym gear in with it.

          I love my Tom Bihn Western Flyer - it's beautifully built and designed, fits everything I need into it (see above) and fits under the seat in front - perfect for the overnight trips that I tend to do.

          Commenter
          taipan
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          September 04, 2012, 12:28PM
          • Only a novice gets 2 or 4 wheels, the ultimate carry-on has 6.
            Once you get a HENK - you'll never get anything else. Which is a good thing, because it's got a lifetime warranty and ain't cheap.

            Commenter
            First off the plane
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            September 04, 2012, 1:20PM
            • Can't talk, currently playing on the Henk web site personalising a case. I was rapt with my new hard and soft Victorinox carry-on after it survived its first use admirably well, but now I want a purple Henk with grey carbon interior and monogrammed button!

              Commenter
              Queen Cersei
              Location
              Melbourne
              Date and time
              September 04, 2012, 2:02PM
            • Yes, the Henk looked interesting until I saw that the price starts at EUR25,000.

              Commenter
              Second off the plane
              Location
              Sydney
              Date and time
              September 04, 2012, 2:44PM
            • Rather than a HENK why not just have the butler carry everything for you?

              Commenter
              petermac
              Location
              Tascott
              Date and time
              September 04, 2012, 5:48PM
            • I enjoy having a regular henk. In fact my friends tell me I'm a complete henker sometimes. I always tell people I meet how wealthy I am and how important I am and what sort of standard I wish to travel in. I now get my servant to carry my henk as it hurts my wrist when I have to carry anything heavier than my Waterford pen or my Patek Phillipe Tourbillon watch.

              Commenter
              completehenker
              Location
              holland
              Date and time
              September 05, 2012, 2:38PM
          • Love my Victorinox carry-on bag. What wins me over when I look for a bag are plenty of pockets, including at least one on the outside for passport, tickets etc, and plenty on the inside for all sorts of stuff you don't want floating around loose on the inside.

            Commenter
            Son of Ryan Bingham
            Date and time
            September 04, 2012, 2:26PM

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