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Luggage

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Which bag fits you and the airlines?

We tested 13 small suitcases between 45 and 56cm that would be considered “carry-on” bags by a reasonable consumer. They were a mix of hard- and soft-shell models priced from $25 to $699. Which is the right fit?

From our test

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Our test

We looked at how easy the cases were to handle and move, and because aircraft luggage doesn’t always get treated with kid gloves, we tested how they handled abuse.

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Useful features

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

  • 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.
  • Other handles: Fixed handles on the top and side of the case make it easier to lift. Hide-away backpack straps can be useful to free up both hands.
  • Opening central or top: Hard-shell cases usually open in the centre of the two “shells”, while soft-sided cases have a top “flap” opening. You may prefer one or other for ease of access and loading.
  • 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. Some cases come with a TSA-certified lock, which may be built-in or separate. These locks can be opened by US airport security staff if your bag needs to be inspected, whereas non-TSA locks may be cut off.
  • Internal straps and dividers: Useful for securing loads in a partially filled case.

Weighty matters

The cases in our test weighed between 1.9 and 3.7kg. That doesn’t leave much allowance for your belongings before you reach the 7kg carry-on baggage limit.

We loaded up the American Tourister AT Applite 55cm, one of the lighter models in our test at 2.4kg. We packed 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.

Standard size?

In November 2014, Jetstar reduced its carry-on allowance from 10kg to 7kg, announcing it would enforce the limit with “cabin baggage officers”.

Jetstar said the new limits were to reduce passenger frustrations where they struggle to find space in overhead lockers. However, the bag size didn’t change, just the weight, so it wouldn’t affect space in the lockers.

The reduction, and reason for airlines cracking down on carry-on baggage, may be due to “seat only” fares. Offered at a lower price, they allow an airline to advertise lower fares for a route. They also encourage passengers to save money by not checking in a bag – squeezing more into carry-on baggage instead.

The International Air Transportation Association (IATA), a trade group whose members represent nearly 85 percent of total air traffic, proposed a standard carry-on bag size earlier this year with maximum dimensions of 55x35x20cm. For many airlines this is smaller than their currently allowed size. Many airlines, including Emirates, agreed to adopt the policy but in June it was put on hold after backlash from mainly US-based airlines, citing concerns they hadn’t been consulted, it would result in increased fares, and it was unfair to ask consumers to purchase the new smaller bags.

Only one of the small suitcases we tested meets the IATA-proposed size. But given the mismatch between allowable size and volume, we think it makes sense to reduce the carry-on baggage allowance if it means the rules become fairer and more consistent, and all passengers can find space for their cabin luggage.

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 bagsWeight (kg)Dimensions (cm)Size (cm)Small personal itemTested bags that pass
Air New Zealand 17not stated118in addition to the weight limit12
Emirates 1755 x 38 x 20114 for a wheeled casein addition to the weight limit5
Jetstar1756 x 36 x 23 A115as part of the weight limit2
Qantas 1756 x 36 x 23115in addition to the weight limit2
Virgin Australia 27 (combined for both bags)48 x 34 x 23 each bag105 each bagin addition to the weight limit1

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 charges $60 and Jetstar $70 (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 $160 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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