The perfect carry-on bag

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.

The trick is finding the right bag – and carry-on luggage has never been a one-size-fits-all scenario.

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