Luggage

Suitcase in hotel room

Which bag fits you and the airlines?

If you’re a seasoned traveller, you need luggage that lasts. We tested 11 small and 11 large suitcases costing from $39 to $1149. We found small cases that won’t be cleared to board and some large cases that won’t go the distance.

From our test

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How we test

Our lift-and-drop rig simulates the worst you might expect from years of careless baggage handlers.

Bags are loaded (4kg for carry-on and 15kg for check-in bags), raised by their handle to 90cm, then dropped on to their wheels. We repeat that 300 times (or until they break). We also drop a pointed cylinder on to the bag and assess if it damaged or punctured the surface.

It’s not just about smashing cases to bits. We also stuff them with newspaper and simulate extreme rain to see if the case leaks, we weigh and measure them, and we get several testers to drag and carry them through a course (including indoors and out, rough and smooth surfaces, up and down stairs, through doorways and into lifts) to see how easy they are to use.

Our overall assessment comprises 50% performance (lift/drop, puncture and rain testing) and 50% ease of use.

Weighty matters

If you’re looking for a carry-on, it pays to choose one that meets airline bag size restrictions. There’s no such thing as a “standard” carry-on bag – each airline has its own restrictions on weight and size.

Despite them being sold as carry-on cases, many small suitcases don’t meet the published size criteria for the 5 major airlines flying from New Zealand airports (see our baggage allowances table. Airline size allowances include protruding wheels, but many luggage manufacturers supply dimensions excluding wheels.

Small suitcases we’ve tested weigh between 1.8 and 3kg. That doesn’t leave much allowance for your belongings before reaching the 7kg carry-on baggage limit.

We packed a case weighing 2.4kg for a typical long weekend away: a couple of changes of clothing, washbag, towel, shoes, a book, an iPad and chargers. When loaded it wasn’t completely full, yet weighed 8.3kg.

So beware, if you pack one of these carry-on cases to capacity, you’re likely to exceed the weight limit and will need to check it into the hold, even if it meets the airline size criteria.

Weight and size restrictions for check-in luggage vary from airline to airline, so make sure you check first. For example, Air New Zealand allows 23kg per passenger for domestic and international flights. If you pay excess baggage fees you can take more – but each bag can’t weigh more than 32kg. Checked-in bags must have a combined linear dimension no larger than 158cm. Stick to each airline’s restrictions to avoid additional fees.

Features to look for

  • Whether you have a small suitcase you're using for carry-on or a large suitcase you need to check in, the weight of the case counts towards your baggage allowance.

  • The wheels and extendable handle take up some internal space, so check the case has the right volume for your needs. If you want a small suitcase for carry-on baggage, check the dimensions against the airline’s requirements.

  • Soft-sided suitcases are lighter and allow you to stuff in extra items, whereas hard-sided suitcases provide more protection for your belongings but cramming extra items inside or fitting it in a tight space might get tricky.

  • You can pull the cases with four spinner wheels behind you using two of the wheels, or push it on all four. Four-wheel cases are easier to manoeuvre than models with two fixed wheels, but some can be difficult to control when pushed across bumpy terrain, and if you're on an incline they could roll away. Two-wheel models only move forwards and backwards but are usually better for clearing kerbs and rolling on uneven surfaces.

  • An extendable and lockable handle is the norm. Look for one that locks into a position suitable for your height and has a comfortable grip. The lock/release button should be easy to access one-handed.

  • All bags had a fixed handle on the top, but not all had one on the side. The side handle can make the case easier to lift and carry.

  • Hard-shell cases usually open in the centre of the 2 “shells”, while soft-sided cases have a top “flap” opening. You may prefer one or the other for ease of access and loading. Hard-shell cases can be awkward to open when both sides are fully packed.

  • Look for good-quality recessed or protected zips. Exposed zips can get damaged through general use – once a zip fails, the bag is useless.

  • Zip-locking tabs allow a padlock or cable tie to be fitted to prevent the case being opened or the zips working themselves open in transit. Most cases either have lockable zips or come with a built-in TSA-certified combination lock on the main compartment (some have both). The TSA bit means security can open your bag without destroying the lock.

  • Internal straps let you secure loads in a partially filled case. Each half of a hard-shell case usually has a zipped cover to keep contents in place.

  • Soft-sided cases usually have external pockets. These are useful for storing items you want to access easily, but check the zips can be locked if you use them for valuables. You usually miss out on convenient pockets with a hard-shell case.

  • Some soft-sided cases are expandable (sections unzip to create extra packing space). While this can be useful for squeezing in a few last-minute items, the extra fabric and zip make the case heavier. Expanding a small bag could mean it won’t meet cabin bag requirements, so will need to be checked in.

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Economy class carry-on baggage allowances

There’s no standard allowance for carry-on baggage across the major airlines flying from New Zealand airports:

AirlineNumber of bags[width=medium]Weight (kg)Dimensions (cm)Size (cm)Small personal item
Air New Zealand 17not stated118in addition to the weight limit
Emirates 1755 x 38 x 20114 for a wheeled casein addition to the weight limit
Jetstar1756 x 36 x 23 A115as part of the weight limit
Qantas 1756 x 36 x 23115in addition to the weight limit
Virgin Australia 27 (combined for both bags)48 x 34 x 23 each bag105 each bagin addition to the weight limit

GUIDE TO THE TABLE A = reduces to 48 x 34 x 23 on regional flights with Q300 aircraft.

Beware of exceeding these rules. Airlines are cracking down on passengers who push the limits of carry-on size and weight. If you are asked to check in your oversized or overweight cabin bag at the gate, you’ll be stung with a hefty charge.

For domestic flights, Air New Zealand and Jetstar charge $60 (the Jetstar charge is waived for bags oversized on new regional flights but within the size and weight limits for other Jetstar flights). That charge becomes $120 and $75 respectively for trans-Tasman flights.

For both airlines, it is cheaper to pre-book an extra checked bag before you travel if you think you might exceed your carry-on allowance.

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