Listen to this article
As any regular traveller can testify, ensuring you have exactly the right bag for each trip would mean keeping a whole attic full on standby.
Going there and back in a day? A shoulder bag might suffice. But suppose you need to carry heavy documents or electronic equipment over and above the usual laptop. Then you might need a heavier bag, or even one with wheels.
Spending a night or two away? Can you squeeze an extra suit and enough other spare clothes into a trolley bag without creasing them too much? Or would it be better to take a suit holder?
Making a longer trip? One frequent flyer, a former banker, says: “Even going to Asia for a couple of weeks for the bank, I tried to take only cabin bags. I would take enough clothes for one week in a big suit carrier.”
Sometimes, however, there is no option but to check luggage into the hold, in which case weight is not such a problem. And although wheels are essential if you don’t want to search for an airport trolley – or worse, find the small change with which to release one – the only real decision is whether to go for a hard or soft shell.
Cabin bags cause the worst headaches. Many low-cost airlines set very low weight limits – though they enforce them inconsistently, depending on the departure airport. Some allow a maximum of only 5kg. Most permit passengers to take up to 8kg onboard. But a bag with wheels and an extending handle can weigh upwards of 2kg empty.
A rare exception is Antler’s Urbanite trolley bag which converts into a back pack. The bag has a capacity of 29 litres, measures 51cm x 36cm x 23cm and weighs only 1.9kg. Antler’s 27l Mantis cabin roller case measures 48cm x 35cm x 18cm and weighs 2.2kg.
Delsey produces a hard-shell cabin bag with wheels measuring 13.8cm x 19.7cm x 9.5cm and weighing 2.5kg. But many such bags weigh 3kg or more.
An Antler spokeswoman says: “We are always trying to take weight out of our bags while striving to build in durability. If you look at the past five to ten years, I would say they have got 20 to 30 per cent lighter.”
To the suggestion that some manufacturers may have stretched credulity when claiming that their bags meet airline size requirements, she replies: “We consider that we adhere to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) recommended total measurement of 115cm*, but that is by no means standard across the airline industry. Airlines are often flexible about suit holders. Sometimes they allow them in the cabin, and sometimes they don’t. Ours are outside the set size limits, so we could never make the claim that you can take them on board.”
The company was narrowly beaten to first place in a cabin bag survey published in March by the UK consumer watchdog organisation Which?. Its Bond Street soft-sided overnight cabin bag, which measures 51cm x 36cm x 23cm and weighs 3kg, came joint second with the Delsey Passenger hard shell, measuring 47cm x 35cm x 21cm and weighing 2.5kg, and Samsonite’s A450 series Sahora plus Spinner 55 (56cm x 41cm x 21cm, 4.1kg). The four-wheeled Samsonite proved “ fantastic on all kinds of terrain”. The manufacturer says such bags are particularly popular with women travellers. The Antler bag won the highest marks of the best five for water resistance, however.
First place went to another Samsonite, the 32l Starwalker Zipper Upright, which weighs 2.8kg and measures 55cm x 40cm x 20cm. In fifth place came Marks & Spencer’s Traveller 69 soft-sided bag (57cm x 38cm x 25cm, 3.5kg) which was the cheapest tested.
Which? noted that some manufacturers issue disclaimers stating that although their bags should be accepted as cabin luggage the airline has the final say. It also said that the cases tested “were often a couple of centimetres larger than the measurements stated by the manufacturers”, even if they were described as suitable to be used as hand luggage.
And even if a cabin bag is light as a feather and its total dimensions meet the IATA standard, it may still be rejected if it fails to fit the frames that some carriers position at check in.
Samsonite’s four-wheel Sahora also received a favourable report from the US website Travel Insider, which reviewed $2,500 worth of carry-on bags. But the site’s clear winner – for travellers to whom size and weight are critical – was the Eagle Creek Pilot EXP, which measures 53cm x 35cm x 22cm and weighs 2.8kg. It proved “by far the lightest of all the bags tested…With an overall very ‘squishy’ design it is easy to squeeze and shove it into tight spaces (including the airline sizing template).”
Although you would be unlucky if an airline insisted that you checked in a bag which was marginally over the carry-on limit, Travel Insider echoes the concerns of Which?, noting that, when measured, some of the bags it reviewed turned out to be a little bigger than their manufacturers claimed.
“Not only do luggage stores and manufacturers not always tell you if their bag is legally sized or not, they also frequently give incorrect measurements for their bags. Their measurements generally are for the inside of the main compartment, and they assume that any external pockets are of zero thickness, rather than stuffed full of things, which can easily add a few inches or more, and they ignore any external framing such as wheels and carry handle, which can also add inches.”
• test the bag to see how stable it is when you wheel it – especially if buying an obscure brand – to make sure it doesn’t tip over too easily;
• fasten a brightly coloured strap around your bag to identify it;
• if you think you have to check in a bag in the US and need to lock it, check whether the lock is approved by the Transport Security Administration (TSA). Go to their website and search using the keyword “locks”.
• carry your computer in a bag that doesn’t sing out “laptop” to make it a less obvious target for thieves.
* IATA recommends that cabin baggage should have a maximum length of 22in (56cm), width of 18in (45 cm) and depth of 10in (25 cm). The sum of these three dimensions should not exceed 45in (115 cm). These dimensions include wheels, handles and side pockets.