Leaders of the pack: travel light with these premium carry on bags

From short breaks to multi-day escapes, quality luggage should never be far from your side.

By Staff Writers, October 14 2022
Leaders of the pack: travel light with these premium carry on bags

Carry-on luggage is the frequent traveller’s best friend, keeping belongings close-at-hand and doing away with the need to linger at carousels long after your flight.

But, as everyone knows, not all bags are created equal – and the wrong bag adds unwelcome hassle to every trip you take.

A well-designed, functional and durable case that doesn’t tip the scales in its own right can save both time and money. It also means you can get on with your business or activate holiday mode without hassles or stress.

With this in mind, the Executive Traveller team road-tested seven premium carry-on models – rolling, packing, spinning and hoisting in a real-life setting – to see which cases are up to the demands of rigorous travel.


Antler Clifton Cabin with Pocket

Founded in London in 1914, Antler is widely hailed as one of the most durable luggage brands available today. The Clifton range is its best-seller, with the ribbed polycarbonate exterior able to withstand whatever your travels throw at them.

The Clifton Cabin with Pocket is an ‘enhanced’ version of the classic carry-on. The key difference, and it’s a highly practical one, is the lockable front pouch containing sleeves for a tablet and 15.6” laptop, along with space for noise-cancelling headphones or a book.

The Clifton Cabin with Pocket includes secure spots for your passport, pen and travel documents.
The Clifton Cabin with Pocket includes secure spots for your passport, pen and travel documents.

Plenty of thought has been put into this case, and it shows. From the two-way locking mechanism to the soft rotating handle, the bag is well made and feels like it could easily withstand the demands of frequent travel.

The front pocket compromises storage slightly. This isn’t a big issue for those who travel light, but the pocket-free version could be a better option for those travelling with a secondary tote or backpack.

Weight 3.3kg; capacity 38L
$349 from Antler

Carl Friedrik The Carry-on

Carl Friedrik isn’t a widely known name in the luggagescape, and in a sea of look-alike bags that could be a good thing: you’ll probably be the only one in the airport lounge accompanied by the London-based firm’s handsome Carry-on model.

Clad in a gunmetal shell with cognac, chocolate or black accents and leather handles (we went for the eye-catching contrast of cognac), this mid-sized 40 litre bag is simply too elegant to ever present as checked luggage and risk scuffs, scratches and battle-scars marring its good looks.

A beautiful yet durable suitcase designed to elevate life on the go
A beautiful yet durable suitcase designed to elevate life on the go

That cognac trim is the only notable flourish in Carl Friedrik’s considered design. Even that the bag glides with ninja-like stealth on four pairs of Japanese wheels seems intended to not draw attention to it in a shouty ‘look-at-me’ way – but the Carry-on is an eye-catching travel companion in its own right.

The aluminium frame and lightweight polycarbonate body barely nudges the scales to 3.5kg, and every inch of available space inside is yours to fill. (A slightly larger ‘Carry-on Pro’ model adds an extra-large front pocket inside for fast and easy access to your laptop or tablet, cables and other travel essentials.)

One of two smartphone-sized internal zip pockets can hold a powerbank, with an inbuilt cable running to a pair of USB ports protected by a rubber flap and tucked away beneath the telescoping handle.

Weight 3.5kg; capacity 40L
$795 from Carl Friedrik

Delsey Chatelet Air 2

Parisian luggage purveyor Delsey has been around since 1946, born from a merger of two brands specialising in cases for cameras and record players. A frequent sight in airports around Europe, particularly in France, the brand’s chic aesthetic is hard to miss.

Chatelet Air is one of Delsey’s most striking ranges – like something Brigitte Bardot may have carried in the 50s.

Charge your devices with a conveniently located USB port by the TSA lock.
Charge your devices with a conveniently located USB port by the TSA lock.

Available in blue, brown, pink or angora with vegan leather trims, smooth double wheels, a premium-feel polycarbonate shell and well-organised interior make it a welcome meeting of both style and function.

Several zippered storage compartments, including one for you to pop in your own power bank for the USB outlet, make it particularly easy to pack and locate your items, rather than rummaging around inside. It even comes with a handy shoe bag.

Although the USB port alongside the lock does feel a bit like a gimmick, and its plastic cover may degrade over time, it's still nice to have.

Weight 2.9kg; capacity 38L
$805, from Delsey

Rimowa Essential Cabin

Ask anyone ‘Who makes the best carry on bags?’ and there’s a high chance Rimowa will fall from their lips. Made in Germany, the brand’s globe-spanning reputation is a deserved one, with quality models from polycarbonate to classic aluminium.

The lightweight Essential Collection – boasting newly-released Petal and Cedar colour variants of sakura pink and earthy brown – is arguably among the best in the market. The build quality is top-notch, with sturdy wheels and cushioned axles keeping it whisper quiet.

The seasonal shade is available in Cabin, Check-in and Trunk sizes.
The seasonal shade is available in Cabin, Check-in and Trunk sizes.

Inside, it boasts a fully-zipped compartment to keep belongings in check, plus a large mesh pocket and compression pad to help you fit more in. At just 3.2kg, there’s plenty of room to throw in several days' worth of clothes before reaching the limit.

For an alternate, though indeed weightier option, pick the Original Cabin Plus. Its aluminium chassis available in silver, black and a Champagne gold-like titanium, all sporting that signature grooved design. 

Weight 3.2kg; capacity 36L
$1,230 from Rimowa

Samsonite C-Lite

Samsonite sits comfortably among the world’s top luggage brands. Whenever you’re travelling with one, a deep-seated confidence that your belongings are well protected is virtually a given.

Made with Samsonite’s trademark Curv technology, the C-Lite Spinner’s expertly crafted and robust outer shell means it can withstand the bumps and thumps of travel, whether that's hoisting it into the overhead locker or checking it in.

The C-Lite's interior is made from 100% post-consumer recycled PET bottles.
The C-Lite's interior is made from 100% post-consumer recycled PET bottles.

Incredibly light considering the toughness of its outer shell, the C-Lite’s internal fabrics are also sustainable, made from 100% recycled bottles while maintaining the structural integrity needed to ensure no rips.

A smooth and fluid rise of the double-length handle ensures there’s no need to slouch in order to comfortably wheel the bag as you walk, with a satisfying click coming when fully retracted.

Like any decent cabin bag, the TSA-approved lock is handy when submitting it to the uncompromising checks of American security officials.

Weight 1.9kg; capacity 36L
$524 from Samsonite

Tumi Tegra-Lite International Front Pocket Expandable

If it’s freedom and flexibility you seek, the Tegra-Lite International 4 Wheeled Carry-on from Tumi is an exceptional choice – the expandable front pocket variation, in particular.

Zips, pockets and pouches abound, lending it some very convenient storage options, and its durable composite exterior (while admittedly very different to Tumi’s famous 19 Degrees Aluminium and ballistic nylon Alpha Bravo) cuts an impressive silhouette.

The case has a built-in USB-C port, 3-stage telescopic handle and split case zip entry.
The case has a built-in USB-C port, 3-stage telescopic handle and split case zip entry.

In its zipped form, it sports a roomy 36L capacity, which is large enough to fit clothes for at least a couple of days or more. But when expanded, it jumps up an impressive 44L.

However, there is a trade off, as that expansion puts it beyond most cabin baggage size limits and would need to be checked in. Still, if you’re flying business or have adequate frequent flyer status to not care about checking in an extra bag, it’s not a big concern.

Weight 3.9kg; capacity 36L/44L
$1,530, from Tumi

Victorinox Spectra 3.0 Frequent Flyer Carry-On

Makers of the Swiss Army Knife, Victornox brings similar ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ ingenuity to its Spectra 3.0 – a versatile case with multiple compartments, lockable easy-access door, hidden SIM key and pen, a charging port and more.

The recycled polycarbonate shell is impressively light and eight-wheel design makes for a smooth, manoeuvrable drive. Plus, the bag can be expanded up to 20% if you find yourself stocking up on souvenirs or extra clothing.

Victorinox offers an option to engrave the case with your initials or a personal message.
Victorinox offers an option to engrave the case with your initials or a personal message.

Though higher priced than some competitors, Spectra is very well made, with smooth zippers and silent run wheels. Interior pockets and stitching feel quality too, and the Victorinox Red colour stands out amid more commonplace black and silver.

Its quick-access front door is excellent, meaning you don’t need to air your dirty laundry each time you have to access something (though the pouch does eat into the main compartment a bit). The twin-bar telescopic handle also allows you to pop a backpack on top without it spinning round a single handle, like on some competitors.

Weight 3.3kg; capacity 37L
$879 from Victorinox

Looking for a larger check-in case? Take a look at our road test of premium checked luggage here

Pricing accurate at time of publishing.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

01 Oct 2013

Total posts 31

I have been using a Tumi Alpha expandable soft carry on bag with 4 wheels for more than decade. Once of the best purchases that I have made. It still looks new and functions well despite numerous work and leisure trips over these years. The same goes for the larger (but same model) check-in luggage.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

08 Mar 2017

Total posts 17

I have been using a Tumi soft leather shoulder carry on for over ten years and it still looks as good as new. You lose space with the wheels of the hard case and they don't have as many accessible pockets.

22 May 2020

Total posts 7

Quite a few of these bust the maximum size listed by some airlines (like Qantas or Finnair). Has anyone had a problem using the bigger ones, like the Rimowa? I have just spent 2 months schlepping around Europe (with only cabin bags) and frequently saw ground staff getting people to put their bag in the bag sizer device, and then tag the non-fitting ones  to go into the hold. I might add we never took a flight that wasn't chockers, with the bins were stuffed to overflowing. Some airlines (Like Austrian) keep the business bins closed during boarding and guard them against intrusion; some (like Aegean) board so many people before business the business bins were full, not helped by the first 2 or 3 rows being filled with aircraft stuff as they have miniscule space in their galley. It isn't great sitting in 2 and your bags back in steerage above row 7 - hell of  struggle to get at them after landing.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

28 Nov 2018

Total posts 3


Coupla comments. Airlines are now stricter on carry-ons. To avoid being sprung at the gate it needs to be legal in size and weight. That's 8-10kg for most economy and even some business (CX). So a 3Kg case doesn't leave you much for your gear.  Samsonite have got theirs down to 1.9kg, not bad.

10 years ago there was nothing on the market. So I said stuff it, I'll design my own. Many versions later it's now down to 1.0 Kg and christened 'Akilo'.  It's gone from aluminium to carbon fibre frame, 2 wheels to 4 and has an ultra-lite rip-stop bag with carbon fibre weave. It expands from 38 to 62 litres and has backpack straps. It's adequately strong if you handle it yourself, after all it is a carry-on.  With a Hedgren shoulder 'handbag' for the heaviest items (ipad, toiletries) I am usually away for 1-2 months with it. It's been round the world every year including some challenging third world places.

It's only once had a serious problem, it lost an unfair fight with an A380 seat motor designed for 200Kg passengers. The upside? It triggered the rebuild with carbon fibre which finally got the weight down to a kilo. What has it cost? Don't ask!

06 Mar 2020

Total posts 4

UpUpAndAway, I have a soft sided Antler and line the inside bottom of my checked bag with  black garbage bag, and lay the other one over the top of the packing, before strapping it down. Picked up a wet bag from the carousel a few years ago and have lined the checked luggage ever since.


11 Jul 2014

Total posts 897

Great idea!!!! I’ll try that.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

24 Jan 2018

Total posts 615

I'm with you (you too, UpUpAndAway), but any readers here who haven't tried Atsko Silicone Water-Guard (made in Orangeburg, SC, USA).  Needs to be applied liberally on a mild to warm (not hot) day and allowed to dry for 2-3 hours before given a 2nd coating - but done only ONCE per year.

For the benefit of Aussie readers, I watched bervously for over 40 minutes as the luggage trolley at Cairns airport got smashed during a tropical downpour (thinking any minute one of the ground crew would rescue the trolley).  Test for yourself using the garden hose.  Costs about A$20/can.  Do my Victorinox soft cases every November and also the woollen Crombie and Cordings overcoats (especially across shoulders and around hem sections.  

As a great Aussie once said (often) - "Do yourself a favour . . .". 


11 Jul 2014

Total posts 897

I'll try it B-T

I've been a Victorinox buyer for years, this Spectra 3.0 is a superb case, when you look at not just the quality but convenience features like USB battery charging and that opening section on the front. But the RRP makes it over-priced in my book, shop around and you can find this one quite a bit cheaper.


11 Jul 2014

Total posts 897

I wonder the maximum amount of kilos people have got away with in there carry on. Travelling around Europe in July with our Samsonite soft cases we had 14.8 kilos in one of them (just in case the bags in the belly went missing). I’m just glad all our flights were premium airlines in business.

Once boarding a QF flight in LA the guy next to me had 20 +plus kilos of computer gear in his carry on.

Hi Guest, join in the discussion on Leaders of the pack: travel light with these premium carry on bags