How to choose the right bag for carry on
Your carry on bag
When you travel light, your carry on bag is your best friend: it’s going to be with you a good deal of the time. For that reason, you have to like your bag. When I first started travelling, I didn’t think too much about what constituted a good carry on bag - after all, most of my stuff was in my large suitcase travelling in the hold. Since becoming an extreme light traveller, I’m far more fussy about what I carry with me.
What to consider
So you’re going shopping and there’s a wide array of bags. Which one to choose? In the past I’d pick the bag in a colour I liked, but these days, I focus on the dimensions - or size of the bag. There are as many dimensions as there are bags - so which is the one permitted to go with you and be placed in the plane’s overhead locker?
I researched airline’ rules for carry on bags. The size and dimensions that most airlines favour is 56 cm x 36 cm x 23 cm (22 x 14 x 9 inches). As it’s challenging to visualise those figures when shopping, I suggest you take a tape measure with you so that you can measure the bag yourself in the shop.
My previous carry on bag was clam shell hard sided, but at about 3 kgs, it was too heavy as an exclusive carry on bag. My current wheeled carry on bag weighs only 1.5 kgs, which is perfect for a light traveller. It might be challenging to find the weight of specific bags in the shop as the details are often hidden on small labels. My advice is to research online where you should find all the specifications.
As you’ll be carrying and lifting your own bag, I suggest you look for a bag with a sturdy handle - and perhaps an extra handle on the side. This makes lifting your bag out of car boots and overhead lockers much easier.
Even though your carry on bag is not going to be thrown into the hold, I like bags that are sturdy and tough. Always test the zippers - they should run smoothly in all directions. The retractable handle should retract and extend smoothly. Check that the wheels won’t snap off if caught on an obstacle.
I always like useful add-on features. My latest duffle bag came with a small light tote bag which is perfect for day use. Look out for quick-access pockets in the front or the rear of the bag - always handy for important papers or chargers.
Types of carry on bags
There are two main types of carry on bags: those with wheels and those without wheels.
If you’re looking for a sporty look, a duffel bag with a shoulder strap, wheels and a retractable pull handle might be the bag for you.
This is like a backpack as it has shoulder straps, two wheels and a pull handle.
This is the bag I like most of all. My ‘spinner’ has four wheels and a retractable handle. I do like a clam shell opening bag, but my soft-sided upright opens on one side only. I’ve gotten used to packing like this and with the small amount of stuff I take with me, I don’t have to do too much rummaging to find what I'm looking for.
These bags are similar in shape to the soft-side upright but they have very rigid walls. Great for throwing into the hold, but I’m not sure such a rigid bag is necessary for a light traveller if you only have carry on luggage.
Duffle, overnight and weekend
A little like a gym or sports bag, a duffle bag is essentially a cylinder with straps. It’s a good soft bag as it fits into most small spaces. I’m not clear on the distinction between duffles, overnight and weekend bags. To me they fall into one and the same category, which is a soft bag that you carry by hand.
If shopping for a duffle bag, I suggest you consider one that opens like a clam shell as it’s much easier to pack if you have two separate compartments: one for clothes and one for everything else.
I bought and used a duffle bag recently for the first time. I love my Pakt bag, which has been extremely well designed. But it has one downside: even carrying only 7kgs, my hand gets sore and I don’t find it easy walking for kilometres through airports carrying this bag.
Even a switch from carrying the bag by the handle to using the shoulder strap didn’t work for me. Carrying the bag across my body was far too bulky and carrying it on one shoulder dragged me down.
For a longer trip, I think I’ll return to my soft-sided upright with wheels - and keep my beautiful Pakt for weekends away.
These have come a long way since the kind of garment bag that your suit came in. Garment bags these days have compartments for shoes, accessories and clothes. They are perfect for an overnight trip, but I doubt I could travel for three weeks with only a garment bag for my carry on.
There really are no standards: one airline might allow slightly larger bags into your overhead locker, while another might limit the height. My advice: always check with the airlines that you’ll be using to ensure you can take your bag as carry on.
Carry on luggage Planepack recommends
What we like: This bag is light, durable, elegantly designed and easy to use. When I needed to buy a new bag for Mr PetMan, I bought this one again - just in a different colour: for him and for her.
What we like: This is my ultimate stylish soft duffle bag. It’s beautifully designed and built: robust, practical and light.
About the author
I’m Slobodanka Graham, content entrepreneur and extreme light traveller. I wasn’t always like this, but adopted light travel when my suitcase was lost by the airlines one time too many.