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Luggage buying guide: What to look for before you shop

Options and features—and airline rules—abound. Consumer Reports helps you get a grip.

Published: July 2014

Getting started

In an iconic early-1970s TV ad, a gorilla in a zoo hurls, kicks, and stomps on an American Tourister suitcase (video). The point, of course, was to demonstrate that if American Tourister luggage could survive a few rounds with a primate, it could take the worst abuse from any traveler, airline baggage handler, or hotel bellhop.

Today, durability is just one factor to consider. Myriad features and styles of luggage now complicate the selection process. “What you’re really doing when you shop for luggage is hunting for a traveling companion," says Michele Marini Pittenger, president of the Travel Goods Association, an industry trade group. “So you want to be choosy, like you’re picking a roommate.” Pittenger points out that a good piece of luggage is an investment, something that will be with you for the long haul.

A single piece of luggage might not meet all your requirements. Indeed, most business travelers we talked to use different bags for work and leisure. Adam Weissenberg, 50, vice chairman and head of travel, hospitality, and leisure at Deloitte, who travels 50 percent to 70 percent of the year, told us that he uses his Tumi carry-on for business travel, but checks in large duffle bags for family vacations. "I have two teenage girls, so I am not going to win that argument," he says.

As for brands, business travelers tell us that showy brands or flashy designs are not important. “I’ve noticed that the vast majority of business travelers do not give a hoot what type of brand they have,” Blair Godfrey, 29, an admissions officer at the University of Pennsylvania who travels weekly, says. “Everyone has a basic black bag.”

Figuring out what to buy, though, isn’t easy—the selection of luggage is enormous. According to the TGA, U.S. consumers spent nearly $2.9 billion on luggage in 2013. With countless styles and a vast choice of merchandise (one online retailer, eBags, offers 55,000 bags) the task can be overwhelming.

We help you narrow the field by highlighting attributes that will have the greatest impact. Focus on these features to select the bag that meets your personal needs and preferences. (Click on the links above to navigate through this guide. If you're on our mobile site, just scroll down.)

—Susan Feinstein

Personalize your luggage so it will stand out among similar-looking bags.

Make your luggage stand out

The basic black suitcase is like a travel uniform these days. It’s a problem when travelers can’t distinguish their own bag from others’. Joel Rickman is a 41-year-old executive for a software company. He travels 50 weeks a year. He tells this cautionary tale.


“Several years ago in JFK airport, after going through security, I picked up my briefcase on the other side of the X-ray machine, walked through the terminal and sat down at a restaurant. I put my hand in the bag and realized it wasn’t my bag. I ran frantically through the terminal, looking at every man’s bag to see who had my bag. I finally found the man carrying my bag, the exact same one he had, and he was just about to board a flight to Turkey! Ever since then, I put something personal on the outside of my bag to distinguish it from identical bags. I keep a St. Louis Cardinals decorative tag on the handle.”


Size and capacity

The piece on the left is designed for carrying on; the one on the right for checking.

When the film character Greg Focker (played by Ben Stiller) struggles to cram his oversized bag into an airplane overhead bin in the 2000 comedy "Meet the Parents," he ends up getting booted off the plane. For many real travelers the fear of losing their luggage, or the dread of waiting for it at the baggage carousel, makes them just as determined as Focker to keep their luggage with them. 

“Being able to fit my bag in the overhead is key,” says Weissenberg. “I never, ever check luggage for business travel.”

That’s fine, as long as you heed the size restrictions. Here’s what you need to know.

  • Don’t pay attention to tags, labels, or promotions that proclaim, “Official Carry-On Luggage.” There’s no regulation that dictates carry-on dimensions—airlines impose their own restrictions, and the limits can vary among airlines and even among aircrafts. As a general rule, though, for most U.S. domestic flights, a 22-inch upright bag (measuring a total of 45 linear inches) passes muster. For overseas flights or domestic flights in other countries, you’d be safer with a bag that's 20 inches in height.
  • If you want to stow a bag underneath the seat in front of you, look for bags that go by such names as wheeled tote, underseat carry-on, or cabin bag. These bags are smaller than carry-ons that go in the overhead bin—but the exact size you need can vary even within the same airplane, depending on seat location. To be sure, check the aircraft’s guidelines for on-board pet carriers—a reasonable proxy for the floor-to-under-seat clearance.
  • 

If you are buying larger luggage to check in, the most common options are 24 to 30 inches (measured on the longest dimension of the case). You can find suitcases as large as 36 inches; check with the carrier for size limits.
Protrusions reduce the amount of interior volume available for packing.

Maximizing storage

While the outside measurements of a suitcase or carry-on bag are important, don’t forget to consider how roomy the inside is. This can be hard to do because many manufacturers do not disclose the interior volume. So you are on your own to look for features that maximize interior space:

  • Squared edges. Interior volume is sacrificed with curved corners.
  • No protruding pouches. Outer pouches that jut out from the main compartment waste allowable space—they contribute to the overall external dimensions, but distort the bag's shape in a way that wastes packable volume.
  • No wheels or handles. If you really need to make the most of every inch of interior space, forgo wheels and handles. Wheels add to the overall dimensions of the bag, and a handle's frame structure steals interior space.
Removable packing cubes allow you to organize belongings within the suitcase.

Compartments

The number, size, and configuration of luggage pockets or compartments are also considerations. For the organizationally challenged, there’s the Genius Packer 22” Carry-On, with designated compartments for everything. If you like to design your own system, consider purchasing a suitcase with no or few compartments and organize your belongings in packing cubes, which come in a variety of sizes. Many travel bags now come with dedicated, padded pockets for a tablet or laptop, like the Tumi T-Tech Network Lightweight Continental Carry-On. An important point to remember: Exterior, protruding pouches and pockets reduce the total volume of packing space—they are part of the overall dimensions of the bag, while leaving adjacent spaces empty.

Compartments may not be necessary in all situations. For example, one traveler tells us he has different compartment needs for different types of travel. “For checked luggage, I’m not as concerned about exterior compartments,” says Barry Durst, 55, a frequent traveler as a regional marketing manager for Ikea North America. "Compartments are a convenience for my carry-on luggage, though."

 

Airline luggage rules

A typical carry-on bag with dimensions that add up to 45 linear inches.

The four cardinal questions for understanding airline luggage rules are: How big? How many? How heavy? How much? Airlines restrict the size, weight, and number of bags you can carry on and/or check. Exceed any of the limits, and you’ll find out how much the overage will cost you.

Before you pick your luggage, know the rules. Unfortunately, there’s no law or universal standard governing the size, weight, or number of suitcases you can carry on or check. Each airline sets and enforces its own rules. Your best bet is to check your carrier’s website each and every time you travel.

In selecting new luggage that will conform to the rules of most airlines, here a few general guidelines.

How big?

Carry-on: In the United States, most domestic flights allow carry-on bags that measure no more than 45 linear inches (upright height + depth + width). The most common configuration is 22” x 9” x 14”. But some carriers, such as regional commuter jets and international airlines, impose smaller carry-on limits. When shopping, don’t accept the bag’s advertised measurements at face value. Measure the dimensions yourself and make sure your measuring accounts for all parts that jut out from the main body, such as pouches, wheels, and unretractable handles.

Checked baggage: Nowadays, most airlines charge for any number, size, or weight. But you’ll incur an even bigger fee if your bag exceeds the rule-of-thumb 62 linear inches (again, including protrusions) for domestic flights. Outside the U.S., the cumulative weight, rather than the size, is often the most important factor.

How heavy?

Carry-on: Although U.S. domestic airlines are not currently imposing a weight limit, don’t assume you can carry on 100 pounds of bricks inside your 22” x 9’ x 14” bag. If you can’t lift it into the overhead bin, you’ll probably be asked to check it. International carriers might have weight restrictions. As always, check before you pack.

Checked baggage: In the U.S., 50 pounds is the usual limit. An overweight bag will add a fee to your tab. Outside the U.S., restrictions on total cumulative weight of your checked luggage might apply. Some foreign carriers even have minimum size and weight rules. Check.

How many?

To, from, and within the United States, the answer is usually (but not always) this: one checked bag (stored in the plane's luggage hold), one carry-on bag (stored in the cabin’s overhead bin), and one personal item (stowed beneath the seat in front of you). Flights completely outside the U.S. might be more concerned about weight of your checked baggage than the number of pieces.

How much (does it cost)?

Domestically, a checked bag can run you $25 to $100 dollars—and up to $200 additional if the bag is overweight or oversize. Jet Blue does not charge for the first piece of checked luggage, and Southwest has no fee for two pieces. Other airlines offer free baggage check for certain passengers, such as those flying first- or business-class, or those who are members in special airline programs.

For more about airline carry-on rules, see the Consumer Reports article Know your airline's carry-on rules before you fly.

How many wheels?

The partially recessed wheels on a roller bag move back and forth—they don't spin 360°.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that wheels appeared on suitcases, albeit in an inefficient way. These early-version wheelers were traditional horizontally oriented suitcases outfitted with tiny casters and a pull strap. In the late 1980s, those awkward wobblers gave way to the version that's common today—vertically oriented, with integraged wheels and a telescoping handle. Today, wheeled suitcases comprise at least two-thirds of all luggage sales, according to Peter Cobb, a founder of eBags, the online luggage retailer. Today's wheelers are so easy to handle that even celebrities such as Anne Hathaway—who could easily have someone carry her bags—are spotted rolling their own luggage.

If you plan on rolling your own luggage, your first decision is whether to buy a two-wheeler or a four-wheeler.

You drag a two-wheeler behind you.

Two-wheelers

Suitcases with two wheels, also called rollers, utilize the same type of wheels found on in-line skates. They only roll forward and backward. The wheels are slightly recessed into the case, which confers two advantages: protection from snapping off (beneficial for checked luggage), and economy of space. If you need a suitcase that can easily clear curbs or roll on uneven surfaces such as sidewalks or cobblestones, a two-wheeler will work better than a four. Also, they’ve been on the market longer so there’s a larger selection of models, although that's quickly changing.

This style has some shortcomings, though. Since you have to pull the wheeled case, some travelers complain that this position causes shoulder, wrist, and back pain. Also, it can be cumbersome to drag a two-wheeler in a crowded space because you need some clearance between yourself and the bag.

The four wheels on a spinner bag move 360 degrees, like the wheels on a shopping cart.

Four-wheelers

Suitcases with four wheels are also known as spinners because each wheel swivels 360 degrees, like on a shopping cart. You can push them, pull them, wheel them along side you, and turn them in any direction. They are also easier to navigate in tight spaces, such as the aisles of planes, trains, subways, and buses. A heavy or large suitcase may be easier to manage with four wheels. If you are concerned about ergonomics, the spinner is a better choice than the roller because it does not put stress on your shoulder.

The four-wheeler, though, does have some shortcomings. Since the wheels are externally mounted instead of recessed, they are more prone to snapping off. (Wheels attached with screws are more secure than those with rivets, according to experts.) Spinner wheels also occupy valuable real estate within fixed allowable dimensions, reducing the amount of internal packing space. It’s wise to check if the published size of the bag includes the wheels—they will be included in the allowable dimensions for a carry-on. Another drawback: If your suitcase is on an incline, it could roll away.

You operate a four-wheeled spinner by moving it alongside yourself.

Going wheel-less

Unless you are a weight lifter or a light packer, you might not want to forgo the wheels. But under some circumstances, you might want to go wheel-less. For example:

  • If you need to ensure the maximum possible interior volume. The wheels and the frame structure that supports the handle system encroach on interior volume.
  • If you expect to take your bag on bumpy, rough, cracked, sandy, or icy surfaces, where wheels are hard to manage. 
  • If you won’t have to ever handle your own luggage. 

Can’t make up your mind? If you want flexibility between roller and non-roller you can buy a suitcase without wheels and also buy a collapsible luggage cart that can be brought on board a plane and stowed underneath the seat in front of you. You can find bag-cart combinations that weigh less than a single wheeled suitcase.

Hard-sided or soft-sided?

Luggage made of a pliable, compressible fabric is easier to fit into an overhead bin.

The most important attribute to look for is good quality materials, says Doug Dyment, who runs the luggage-advice website onebag.com.

Currently soft-sided luggage dominates the market, but hard-sided is quickly gaining ground due to the newer, lightweight materials.

Soft-sided luggage

Soft-sided luggage is made of fabrics that move and yield. Its two biggest advantages are that it is usually lighter in weight and that it can flex and compress to conform to tight spaces. “If there’s a quarter-inch that will determine whether your bag squeezes into the overhead bin or is relegated to gate-check, a hard-sided bag will land in gate check,” Dyment says. Fabric flexibility also comes in handy when you have limited storage space at home.

The “soft” of soft-sided luggage is usually a woven nylon fabric, such as Cordura or ballistic nylon. Ballistic is the shinier of the two and over time can abrade, but abrasions will not compromise the strength of the fabric. Cordura is a little softer and abrasion-resistant, preferable for an over-the-shoulder bag. If you consider a suitcase made of ripstop nylon, often known as “parachute material,” make sure that it is a high-denier fabric. (Denier is pronounced duh-neer.)

The lowest quality fabric for use in luggage is polyester.

Leather, while it can be beautiful, is heavy, scratches easily, and is not practical.

One more important note: Fabric denier is a measurement of weight, not quality. A high denier does not necessarily mean a higher quality fabric. A high denier piece of luggage can be made of a low-quality yarn that can easily puncture and rip.

Today's hard luggage is made of lightweight materials.

Hard-sided luggage

Hard-sided luggage, also known as hard-shell luggage has come a long way. It used to be you went with hard for maximum protection and soft for minimum weight. Today, hard-sided luggage is made with such high-tech plastics as ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), polycarbonate, and others that are lightweight and durable. ABS is the lightest, but polycarbonate is more durable. The most durable, but also the heaviest, is aluminum.

Hard-sides are best for protecting the contents of your luggage from breakage. They also provide better security because they have integrated locks and can’t quickly be ripped open with a blade. That said, most composite plastic hard-sides close with a zipper, which can be vulnerable. Aluminum luggage, on the other hand, most often has metal draw-bolt latches instead of zippers. Hard-sided luggage stacks easily, making it ideal for cruise ships, which stack the baggage in the belly of the boat before departure.

If you tend to overpack, a hard-sided piece will rein you in. The case is not very forgiving, so there's no chance of over-stuffing it. For carry-on, this guarantees that the piece will fit easily in your airline's luggage-sizer. 

A 50/50 split opening found in most hard-side luggage has two shallower sides.

An interesting feature of hard-sided luggage is the 50/50 split opening. Baby-boomers may remember their parents using this type of luggage, in which you pack on both sides equally, stabilize the contents with an x-strap or middle divider, and close it up like a clam shell. Of course you need double the surface space to open a 50/50 split. Most hard-sides are built this way, but there are some on the market that have a top-lid opening.

The downsides of hard-sides: They scuff and scratch easily; they are inflexible, so you can never squeeze just one more pair of shoes inside; and you need a fixed storage space for it. Also, few hard-sided suitcases have outside pockets.

Keep your vacation costs down by getting a great deal on a hotel room.

Baggage weight

Savvy travelers have long known that traveling light is easier than taking too much. When you consider baggage fees, there’s even more of a reason to take less. So it could be a good idea to start out with lightweight bags. Luggage experts recommend that a non-wheeled bag weigh between two and four pounds, and a wheeled bag weigh no more than 7.5 pounds. For airline travel, most of the weight you lug around should be the weight of your belongings, not the bag. Before you leave, check with your air carrier about weight limits—you don’t want to be caught paying a fee for overweight checked baggage, and you don’t want to have to check an overweight carry-on.

Do you trade off durability when you opt for a lightweight bag? Not necessarily. Brenda Fiala, an executive with a digital marketing company, found one that meets her requirements on both counts. “Lightweight and durable are hard to get together, until last year when I bought a Tumi bag,” she says. “It is great—it’s my favorite.”

Zippers

Chain zippers, with two sets of interlocking teeth, are stronger than coil zippers.

A lot can go wrong with a zipper. If it breaks while you are traveling, you could have a mess on your hands. You might also 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. They are better and stronger than coil zippers, which slide 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.

Doug Dyment, the founder of onebag.com, says the zipper is a proxy for the overall quality of the bag. “One of the first things I do on a bag is look to see wherther it has a YKK zipper and if not, I don’t buy it,” he says, referring to zippers made by the Japanese company YKK, which are widely believed to be the most reliable zippers on the market.

Handles

For maximum comfort using wheeled luggage, look for an adjustable-length, soft-grip handle. Check the wrist angle and the feel of the grip. For maximum durability, the handle should be firmly attached, with little to no wiggling or rattling as you pull the bag. Also, a handle that retracts completely inside the bag is less likely to sustain damage.

Retractable handles on roller luggage are attached to the bag with either one or two posts. Many travelers prefer a two-post handle system because of its ability to piggyback a smaller bag while in transit, or to support a laptop, briefcase, or tote while at rest. It’s also important to check the operation of the handle. For example, Susan Bancheri-Meringolo, a flight attendant with American Airlines, values the one-touch operation on her Travelpro. “You squeeze the handle, you don’t have to push a button on the side of the bag.”

Warranties

If you want your bag for the long haul, get the one with the best manufacturer’s warranty. A lifetime warranty to repair or replace the bag is, of course, the best option. Some examples of manufacturers offering the best warranties include Briggs & Riley, Boyt (on some product lines only), Eagle Creek (some product lines), eBags (house brand), Lands’ End, L.L. Bean, Osprey, Travelpro (Platinum 7 Collection), and Victorinox (some collections). Always make sure to check the warranty statement for specific requirements, such as exclusions for airline damage.

Knowing what to look for can help you zero in on the right luggage for your usual type of travel, ease of use, and personal preferences. Most of the features discussed are found at a wide variety of price points. Peter Cobb of eBags notes that there are many value-oriented brands for people who do not travel often and just need something serviceable. These include Delsey, American Tourister, Ricardo, and some Samsonite collections. Examples of middle-of-the-road brands are Samsonite, Travel-Pro, and Victorinox. Highest-priced brand names include Tumi, Briggs & Riley, and Rimowa.

   

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