Once upon a time, booking a holiday was easy. You visited your friendly travel agent, bought some traveler’s cheques, and packed the family suitcase. Then off you went.
The family suitcases were probably large and a porter would have carried them to the check-in counter. Today, most people wheel their own luggage. And the days of two big bags and a generous weight allowance per flight are long gone. Wash and wear clothing makes packing simpler and lighter. So what luggage should you buy?
On a recent trip to Lecce, Italy, it seemed silly to get a taxi for the short walk to the train station. My friend happily pushed her large, four-wheeled case, while I lugged my old, heavy, 2-wheeled bag – lugged being the operative word! Guess who arrived at the station with sore shoulders? That was when I decided it was time for a new suitcase!
What suitcase to buy?
Review websites tell you to buy luggage to fit the mode of travel, but I can’t afford to buy a different case for cruises, airline travel, and car trips. I need a versatile piece of luggage that fits all my travel needs.
Hard or soft sided
I looked at both. There’s no doubt that hard sided cases seem more secure, but a couple of thoughts immediately occur. Most of these open in half, like a clamshell. This means you can’t easily open the case on a standard luggage rack in a hotel room. And if you’re like me and need to stuff in just one more jacket, a hard-sided case is unforgiving. It will simply not zip up (or it will, to the ultimate detriment of the zipper). And some of these are heavier than their soft-sided alternatives.
Soft sided luggage will make room for that jacket (heck I’ve been known to sit on my case to compress everything!). But those zippers will only stand so much pressure! And soft sides are more prone to wear and tear (or thieves with sharp knives).
Here’s what Consumer’s Reports says about zippers. I can’t do better than quote them: A lot can go wrong with a zipper. If it breaks while you’re traveling, you might have to toss out the bag. Zippers come in two types: chain and coil. A chain zipper has two sets of interlocking teeth, usually made of metal. It’s better and stronger than a coil zipper, which slides on two parallel coils usually made of polyester. Chain zippers are much more difficult to break into than coil zippers, which can be pulled apart with a ballpoint pen and reclosed without a trace of wrongdoing. Zippers can be an indication of the overall quality of the bag. A YKK zipper is widely believed in the industry to be the most reliable zipper on the market.
There are wheels and wheels. Before you buy, try rolling the bag around; do the wheels roll smoothly? Do they wobble? Try gently moving them – are they firmly in place? Are they solid or flimsy? Think luggage handlers tossing this bag into the hold – are these delicate little wheels going to snap off?
I take it a step further. I want to know how those wheels will perform when there’s weight in the suitcase. I obviously can’t pack the bag in the store, so I find a couple of smaller bags and put them inside the larger bag. Now how do those wheels move? If there’s any hint of sticking, find another case.
Two or four wheels?
How many wheels do you need? Pieces with two wheels require lugging, but the upside is that the wheels are recessed, so less likely to get damaged by luggage handlers. And if your bag is a carry-on, the wheels aren’t taking two inches of your allotted length. Finally, you can stand a 2-wheeled bag up anywhere. It won’t roll away.
Four-wheeled bags require very little effort to push/pull. But because they usually spin 365 degrees, you can have steering issues if they aren’t very full (never an issue with me!). Most importantly, they won’t stand still if you’re on even the smallest incline. Why don’t luggage makers add a small brake? Emery boards tucked just under the wheels on the down slope will usually stop the bag from rolling.
Size and weight
It’s tempting to select the largest bag possible. After all, one can never have too many clothes, just in case! Here’s why you shouldn’t.
Remember that in some situations (like my cool Air B & B in Soverato, Italy), you might need to walk up a couple of flights of stairs. Some charming hotels (and I’ve found a few in my travels) may not have an elevator. Are you up to lugging a really big suitcase?
More importantly, airlines place restrictions on luggage. Always check weight and size limits with your airline. These are not consistent across carriers.
Some carriers actually have suitcase size restrictions even on checked bags, and all have weight restrictions. The overweight penalties are substantial. Remember that a large piece of luggage can weigh as much as 8.5 – 13 pounds (3.9 – 5.9 kg) before you even pack a swimsuit. Who wants to carry suitcase weight? I’d rather use my weight allowance for clothes.
Airlines are getting stricter
For carry-on luggage, size is critical. After many years carrying my trusty TravelPro on board, I was recently confronted by an airline official who pointed out that it’s now too large. When did the size restrictions change? She didn’t make me pay (bless her!) but suggested I might get dinged another time. Airlines are getting super finicky about carry-ons, especially as most now charge for checked bags, resulting in more and more passengers trying to avoid this fee by using carry-ons.
I did a quick check and nearly all the major airlines accept carry-on luggage that is 22” by 14” by 9”. Several still limit the weight of carry-ons, though others, like Air Canada, have eliminated a weight restriction on these. My bag was actually about the right size but it was so over-stuffed, and the hiking boots scrunched into the top zip pocket added so much height, that I was well over 9”. So bear this in mind when packing a carry-on with generous outside pockets.
Let’s get technical. If you really want to get spendy, you can buy a suitcase that will weigh itself, and if it gets lost, can tell you exactly where it is, and unlocks with your fingerprint. Or you can buy a lock that will do this. Note that all locks have to be TSA-compliant, ie. accessible with a universal master key if an agent has to physically inspect the contents of the suitcase. Since I rarely have occasion to carry the crown jewels, all this technology seems a little over the top. But if you love gadgetry, this may be your thing.
Check reviews for luggage. There are a few brands that get consistently great reviews. My favourite brand is TravelPro, simply because I happened to buy one years ago and found it was sturdy, reliable and easy to handle. Good brands may cost a little more but they usually offer a lifetime warranty so if the zipper breaks or the material frays, it’s covered. Some cover airline manhandling damage on some of their luggage lines but not others. As far as I know, only Briggs and Riley offers free repair no matter what the cause of the damage.