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Carry-on luggage buying guide: What you should know before you buy your next suitcase

How to find the right piece of carry-on luggage for your next trip.

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Asturias, Spain, two little girls waiting at the airport terminal

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Why should I use a carry-on bag?

Carry-on luggage can make flying easy and convenient. The benefits of using a carry-on bag include:

  • Save time. If you only bring a carry-on bag on your next flight, you won't have to wait in line to check your bags or spend an extra half an hour waiting for your bags to be unloaded after you land. If you aren't going away for too long, a well-packed carry-on bag can save you a lot of time. Keep in mind, there are some items that you cannot pack in a carry-on bag.
  • Access your essentials. Having a carry-on bag with designated compartments for passports, valuables and other documentation can remove one layer of travel-related stress and make sure all your essentials are within reach at all times.
  • Make flights more comfortable. With carry-on luggage, you can easily pack a book for taxiing, a pillow for overnight flights, toiletries to freshen up and an extra jumper for when the air conditioner is cranked all the way up. Having a few comforting items on hand on a long flight can be a lifesaver. For inspiration, check out our recommendations for seven in-flight beauty essentials to stash in your carry-on luggage.

Soft vs hard bags

Soft-sided bags form the majority of the luggage market and are often made from nylon or canvas-like materials. Hard-sided, or hard-shell, cases are traditionally made from polycarbonate and can offer sturdier protection for your belongings.

Each case type has its advantages and disadvantages.

ProsCons
Soft-side
  • Flexible
  • Lightweight
  • Extra pockets and compartments
  • Can rip if low quality
  • Less protection
  • Harder to find four-wheeled models
Hard-side
  • Protective
  • Often comes with built-in locks
  • Flat lay packing
  • Inflexible
  • Prone to scratches and dents
  • Does not typically include side pockets

How to compare carry-on luggage

Basic carry-on luggage can start at around $35, while more-expensive options from luxury retailers can set you back over $1,000 or more.

When choosing carry-on luggage, consider the following features:

Size

The bigger the bag, the more you can pack. While this could be the difference between needing checked luggage and not, airlines do have strict weight limits. Just because you'll have extra space doesn't mean you'll be able to use it.

Weight

If the carry-on limit is already 7kg, you don't want your bag to weigh 5kg. Soft-sided bags are often lighter and therefore take up less of your weight capacity. While certain hard-sided models can be equally as light, they are typically much more expensive.

Expandability

You can find expandable carry-on bags that allow you to increase and decrease the capacity of the bag. This can mean squeezing in that last-minute purchase or coming home with a much smaller bag after offloading presents for your hosts.

Pockets

Carry-on luggage can be designed with a range of additional pockets and attachments. These include umbrella clips, electronic pouches and designated document sleeves. Think about how you will use your bag and which extra pockets or features you would use the most.

Wheels

Decide if you want two wheels, four wheels or no wheels. Two-wheeled cases are often sturdier and more durable, as the wheels are traditionally recessed in the case. Four-wheeled bags, also known as spinners, are more maneuverable in tight spaces, yet are more susceptible to breaks as the wheels tend to be externally attached. This is an important decision as you spend a lot of time moving with your carry-on luggage, including getting to and from the airport and roaming about in transit.

Handles

Does the case have two handles? Is one of the handles extendable? Are they easy to grip and comfortable to hold? Is there a shoulder strap extension?

Zips

The two most common types of zips are chain and coil. Chain zips are traditionally stronger, made of metal and harder to break into.

Flexibility

Soft-side bags are more flexible than hard-side ones. This often allows you to push the limits of capacity and sneak in that extra pair of socks. This flexibility also allows these bags to be stored in smaller spaces or packed away into larger bags with ease.

Carry-on weight limits

Many airlines enforce strict weight limits for carry-on luggage, with most Australian airlines capping carry-on luggage at 7kg. These limits are put in place to ensure that there is space on board for all passengers to safely stow a piece of carry-on baggage. Weight limits can depend on the ticket you've purchased and often vary from airline to airline. Check your carrier's policy before you start packing, especially if you're changing airlines mid-journey. Next time you travel, check out the best airlines for baggage in Australia to see if you can bring more while paying less.
Carry-on luggage allowances for Australian airlines

What can't I pack in my carry-on bag?

Some items shouldn't be packed in a carry-on bag because they take up too much space or weigh too much. There are also many items that are outright banned for air travel. These may vary from airline to airline, especially if you're flying with an international carrier. Items that are regularly banned include:

  • Knives
  • Kitchen utensils
  • Sporting equipment
  • Metal cutlery
  • Tools
  • Straight razors
  • Letter openers
  • Golf clubs
  • Cricket bats
  • Pool cues
  • Hypodermic needles
  • Fireworks
  • Aerosols
  • Handcuffs
  • Cable ties

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