Suitcase in hotel room

Which bag fits you and the airlines?

We tested 11 small suitcases costing $39 to $749 that would fit enough gear for a long weekend away and should nestle into an overhead locker on an aircraft. But which are cleared to board?

From our test

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Our test

We put these bags through the wringer. Before we attempted to break them, 3 testers dragged and pushed each bag, loaded with 4kg of clothes, through the lab and streets. They carried them up and down stairs and manoeuvred them around a “check-in gate”. Each tester noted how easy and comfortable the bags were to move.

Then we stuffed the bags with newspaper and put them under a simulated 10-minute downpour, to see how wet the contents become.

Each bag was weighed and measured, to see if they met airline cabin baggage restrictions.

Then we really went at them. Each bag, filled with 4kg of clothes, was picked up by its handle and dropped 300 times on to a concrete floor from a height of 90cm. They landed on their wheels, bounced and fell over. We looked for scuffs, scrapes, cracks and broken wheels or zips.

Finally, we dropped a pointed cylinder on to the bag in several places and assessed if it damaged or punctured the surfaces.

Weighty matters

If you are 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 restriction on weight and size.

Despite many of them being sold as carry-on cases, none of our recommended models met 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, whereas many luggage manufacturers supply dimensions excluding the wheels.

The weighed between 1.8 and 3.0kg. That doesn’t leave much allowance for your belongings before you reach the 7kg carry-on baggage limit.

We packed up a case weighing 2.4kg for a typical long weekend away: a couple of changes of clothing, wash gear, 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 sized cases to capacity you’re likely to exceed the weight limit and you’ll need to check it into the hold, even if it meets the airline size criteria.


What to look for in a small suitcase or carry-on bag.

  • Four spinner wheels are the norm for small suitcases. You can pull the case 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. However, the wheels take up space, which cut into packing space.

  • All our tested bags have an extendable and lockable handle. 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. Models in this test either had lockable zips or came with a built-in TSA-certified combination lock on the main compartment. The TSA bit is relevant if you are flying through the US as it lets security open your bag without destroying the lock.

  • All bags tested have internal straps to secure loads in a partially filled case. Each half of a hard-shell case also 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 space can be useful for squeezing in a few last-minute items, the extra fabric and zip make the case heavier, and an expanded bag is unlikely to 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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