A good carry-on bag can give your holiday a boost from start to finish: whether that’s through clever pockets that save you the frantic scramble to separate your liquids from your laptop at security, or by magically deploying an extra few litres of space for your end-of-vacation shopping.

We looked for bags that are innovative and ingenious, whether that was a pop-open front for easy access to the top of the bag, like the Samsonite, or an easy access laptop pocket like the Gregory.

Then we considered weight and profile: weight, because you don’t want to struggle getting the case into an overhead locker, and profile, because (while all these bags fit the dimensions for carry on luggage) some airlines will be more militant than others about what counts – and we wanted to make sure all ours would pass even the strictest test.

Into that mix we added capacity: ideally, you want a cabin bag that will take a week’s worth of packing, to avoid having to check another bag and spend the first half of your holiday in baggage reclaim.

We tested some of these bags on flights and some on simple commutes across London: if a bag doesn’t get in the way at rush-hour on the Victoria line, it’s discreet enough for a packed plane. While durable wheels aren’t as important for cabin bags as they are for larger bags – they’re likely to be lighter so easier to carry, and the wheels will come under less strain – we also put the wheeled cases through their paces on our street obstacle course of pavements, cracked paving slabs and potholes. We usually preferred spinners, where the wheels spin 360 degrees.

As well as classic wheeled bags that are perfect for a business trip or weekend away, it’s worth considering duffels and backpacks, particularly if you’re planning a more varied holiday and know you’ll be slinging the bag in a bus hold then running with it to a train terminal.

But often even the best-planned holidays are unpredictable: a missed bus could see you trundling your case over all kinds of terrain. Thankfully manufacturers seem to get that: we were really impressed with the versatility of many of the bags we tested, particularly the convertible wheeled backpacks, like Kathmandu and Osprey, and duffel bags that doubled as rucksacks, like Ortlieb and Gregory.

Whatever kind of holiday you have planned, these are the bags to bring for a smooth journey from door to door..

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Briggs & Riley sympatico 4-wheel expandable international cabin suitcase: £449, John Lewis & Partners

Dimensions: H56 x W35.5 x D23cm
Capacity: 50l
Weight: 3.6kg

Not only is this the smoothest, smartest bag we tested, it also bends the laws of physics, thanks to its unique expand-compression system. This is a godsend for slapdash packers like our reviewer: if you run out of space, pop the clasps at the top and bottom of the bag to release an extra couple of inches of room (22 per cent more space, Briggs & Riley says, bringing it to almost 50l capacity – incredible for a cabin bag). Zip it closed, push down hard and the bag compresses itself back to cabin size again.

We really overstuffed the case and it worked like a charm: no more sitting on the lid to try and force the zip closed. This is typical of a bag that’s so classy – from its soft, sand-coloured lining, to the padded internal coat-hanger – you feel like it should have its own butler to pack and unpack it. It glides like a dream, has timeless good looks, and comes with a lifetime guarantee. Expensive, yes, but you’ll never need to buy another case again.

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American Tourister soundbox spinner cabin bag: £93.60, Amazon

Dimensions: H55 x W40 x D20/23cm
Capacity: 35.5/ 41l
Weight: 2.6kg

We fell in love with this case because it was vibrantly, luminescently yellow, with an engraved circular pattern on the shell that made it look like it rolled in from the 1960s. That’s not an entirely shallow reason to love it: were you to check it, this bag would be identifiable on the conveyor belt a terminal away. Beneath its glorious exterior is everything you expect from a solid, American Tourister bag: it’s expandable, with twin compartments, both with straps to hold things in place, a mesh divider pocket, and a smooth and easy spin. If yellow isn’t your colour, there are peach, purple, jade and scarlet cases in the range – all just as eye-catching.

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Victorinox lexicon hardside global carry on cabin bag: £395, Victorinox

Dimensions: H58 x W41 D21cm
Capacity: 34l
Weight: 3.2kg

A wonderful piece of Swiss engineering, this was without doubt the toughest case we tested: our reviewer would happily trust it with her most fragile camera equipment. Its smooth profile packs an impressive 34l of space, and everything about it is sleek and refined: the slate grey inner pockets, the recessed wheels and handle. But – like the Swiss army knives for which Victorinox are famous – the best thing about this case is the sheer number of smart features it tucks away.

There’s an internal pocket for a portable battery, for example, with a built-in USB cable whose external port is hidden underneath a multitool (containing an impossibly tiny biro and sim card remover) that is itself hidden in the handle. There’s even a pocket for a Swiss army knife (although definitely don’t pack one if you’re flying with the case). Our reviewer loved this bag largely because it made her feel like James Bond.

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Samsonite darts spinner cabin bag: £190, Selfridges

Dimensons: H55 x W40 x D20cm
Capacity: 36l
Weight: 2.6kg

A really innovative case, the darts spinner has a flexible front that pops open to let you access the top half of the case without having to unzip the whole bag. It’s really well thought out – the bit of case you can access contains a small pocket about the right size for electricals and some liquids – but we did find bending the plastic a bit alarming. It looked fine afterwards but we wondered if it might show wear after a lot of use: although this might not be an issue as you are only likely to use the feature when going through security or boarding. The case was one of the lightest we tested, a breezy 2.6kg, and had that lovely, smooth Samsonite glide.

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Kathmandu hybrid trolley bag: £149.99, Amazon

Dimensions: H56 x W36cm x D23cm
Capacity: 32l
Weight: 2.36kg

A brilliant idea by Kathmandu, this clever little cabin bag converts from a wheeled bag into a rucksack, thanks to the straps concealed in its back panel. It looks smaller than its 32 litres – so brilliant if you’re planning to fly with a strict airline – and has plenty of handy features, like a front pocket that’s small tablet sized and ideal for travel documents.

The backpack is easy to deploy and feels comfortable enough: you wouldn’t want to hike with it and the wheels do make it look a bit novel, but that’s a small price to pay for having a bag that can switch effortlessly between airport terminals and busy streets. Remember to tuck away the backpack straps before wheeling or they can get caught in the wheels.

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Thule crossover 2 carry-on spinner cabin bag: £320, Case

Dimensions: H55 x W35 x D23cm
Capacity: 36l
Weight: 3.45kg

Thule is well known for its snowsports gear, car roof racks and bicycle equipment – so, as you’d expect, its take on a carry-on bag is adventure-ready, feels indestructible (it has a moulded ballistic base) and looks the part. Our favourite feature was the sunglasses case integrated into the front, with a plush lining for the lenses and a stiff, solid wall for protection. We also liked the generous, divided front pocket – exactly the right size for a tablet or e-reader and a small liquids bag – and the expansion zip, which gives you a generous extra 6cm of space. It took us a little while to get used to the telescopic handle – the release buttons are on the side, not the top, which is very intuitive when collapsing the handle but a bit tricky when releasing it.

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Osprey fairview wheels 36 cabin bag: £123.56, AllOutdoor

Dimension: H55 x W36 x D23
Capacity: 36l
Weight: 2.4kg

A backpack with wheels, this clever bag by Osprey had everything we were looking for in a convertible case. Based on Osprey’s much-loved Fairview trekking backpack, it’s supremely comfortable to wear, thanks to the suspended mesh back and chest and hip straps. The recessed wheels don’t dig into your back at all, and when you want to wheel the case the straps pack away neatly underneath a panel on the back. We were really impressed by how many backpacking features the bag kept: its tough, water resistant outer and water bottle pockets, for example. It also has a generous front and top pocket for liquids and electrics, and the front unzips completely so you can pack it like a duffel bag. A fantastic, innovative crossover.

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Away the weekender cabin bag: £245, Away

Dimensions: H55 x W32 x D22cm
Capacity: 38.7l
Weight: 2.2kg

A really classic-looking bag, the weekender looks like it belongs in a sepia-tinged 1930s movie, or casually slung on the back seat of a convertible for a spontaneous summer break. But it’s not just good looking: the canvas outer and leather base feel really durable, and the padded shoulder strap was still comfortable when the bag was fully packed. We loved the external door for the shoe compartment (like a kind of shoe garage), the tucked away laptop sleeve and the accessible side pockets (perfect for liquids and electronics). We were also blown away by the bag’s capacity: as well as three inner pockets, the main compartment felt like it kept going and going – it boasts a 38.7l capacity, the same as most cases, but with a sleek profile. A gorgeous alternative to a suitcase.

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Ortlieb duffle cabin bag: £117.44, CycleStore

Dimensions: H53 x W31cm x D22cm
Capacity: 40l
Weight: 986g

Our reviewer cycled around the world with Ortlieb bags and can vouch for the fact that when they say a bag is waterproof, they mean that you could take a bath with it. So it is with this duffle, beloved of adventurers, kayakers and climbers: the zip is similar to what you get on a wetsuit, and the incredibly tough fabric is pretty much indestructible. It’s comfortable to carry as a duffle, but we found more comfy as a backpack – the straps separate to let you do this. We loved the handy external pocket (not waterproof) and the hooks that cinch the bag down or let you hang the bag up if you want to. The bag’s undeniably low on frills: there are two internal pockets and one giant compartment, but that said, you won’t care about frills when the bag falls out of your kayak and your laptop survives the dip.

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Gregory proxy 45 cabin bag: £120, Gregory

A proper trekking backpack that you’d be proud to carry around town or on a business trip. This pack has all the Gregory savvy that makes them the brand of choice for epic adventures like hiking the Pacific Crest Trail – a wipe-clean, dirt and odour proof compartment for offensive hiking socks, for example – but with smart features for urban travellers, like the office-style pocket with compartments for pens, notepad and laptop.

Best of all is the smart stowing system for the straps and backpack straps: this is a necessity if you’re checking the bag, but is a nice touch if you’re carrying it on and don’t want buckles trailing all over the overhead compartment. Multiple, padded handles – on the top, bottom, front and the sides – make it easy and comfy to carry in minimalist mode. A genuine all-rounder.

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The verdict: Cabin bags

Briggs & Riley’s sympatico and Victorinox’s lexicon really vied for the top spot, with the former just edging it thanks to the unique compression technology (and our sloppy packing). Away’s weekender is a stylish option if you want a duffle.

IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing.