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Luggage

Luggage buying guide

Last updated: May 2015

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Getting started

Consumer Reports provides luggage reviews to help consumers find the best luggage for their needs. If you have old luggage, buying new luggage can be a money-saver in the long run. Having the right type of luggage to fit current-day airline luggage rules will help you avoid extra fees by enabling you to comply with carry-on restrictions and check-in weight limits. But figuring out what to buy isn't easy. With countless styles and vast merchandise, the task can be overwhelming. Consider these factors before you shop.

Decide how you will be using it

Is it for flying, driving, cruising, or some other purpose? For airplane travel, familiarize yourself with the luggage rules of the airlines you plan to patronize. If it's for road trips, look for bags that are pliable enough to maximize your trunk space. For cruise ships--which stack baggage in the boat's belly before departure--flat, rigid luggage is optimal.

Consider how you will store it

Once the luggage gets home, where will you put it? Hard-sided bags are the most unforgiving; you can't squeeze them into a storage space. Soft-sided, structured bags have a little forgiveness on the front and back, but the footprint is fixed. If you have no place to store a stand-up suitcase, you may have to limit yourself to unstructured duffels or the selection of new collapsible bags, such as this one or this one.

Know what size you need

This will depend mainly on the length of your trip and, if you are flying, airline luggage restrictions. It also depends on your own habits. Some people can pack for two weeks in their carry-on and an underseat personal item.

Consider some extras

A distinguishing luggage tag or colorful ribbon will help you grab the right suitcase from the conveyor belt at the arrival terminal--and discourage a fellow traveler from mistaking your bag for his own. If your bags do fall into the wrong hands, intentionally or not, a luggage tracker will pinpoint its location. Afraid of exceeding the baggage weight limit? Invest in a hand-held luggage scale. Although not included in our luggage reviews, various packing organizers, like Packing cubes, flat toiletry kits, and packing folders, can help you get the most out of your luggage.

Types

Carry-on

A carry-on bag is one you can bring aboard the airplane and stow in the overhead bin. To avoid being forced to check your suitcase for later retrieval on the conveyor belt, buy a bag that conforms to the strictest rules in the industry. Right now, for U.S. carriers, those are the ones set by the big three--American, Delta, and United/U.S. Airways--at 22 x 9 x 14 (height x depth x width). Height is the measurement from the floor, including wheels, to the top of the handle in its lowered position. Depth is the measurement from front to back. Width is the measurement from side to side. Some U.S. carriers permit larger carry-ons. For international flights, defined as those originating AND ending outside the United States--the size limit is generally smaller than for U.S. domestic flights. If you are a frequent flyer on many different carriers, you'll have to decide if you want to buy several carry-on bags to conform to the various size restrictions, or if you'll use one carry-on that meets the most restrictive rules. But even with the most rule-abiding luggage, there's no foolproof way to ensure your bags won't be relegated to the plane's underbelly, as the flight crew can impose further restrictions, even after boarding has begun.

Personal item

A personal item is a bag that you stow underneath the seat in front of you on a plane. It includes briefcases, tote bags, camera bags, laptop bags, and small backpacks. But you can get the most out of your allowed personal item if you buy a bag specifically designed for this purpose. Often they contain compartments for your passport, phone, pen, and wallet, as well as a padded section for a laptop and a main section for clothes and overnight essentials. Many of these underseat personal items can serve you well for a one- to two-day jaunt. Paired, the personal item and carry-on can get many people through a week-long trip.

Unfortunately, there is no standard size for the personal item. For U.S. domestic flights, the rules are all over the map, from a generous 16x12x14 (Spirit) to a meager 17x9x10 (United), and some airlines (American, Delta) don't even specify dimensions. Whether it fits or not under the seat can vary even within the same aircraft. Aisle seats are notorious for having the least wiggle room underneath. Before you shop, review the specifications for various airlines. You can also check the aircraft's guidelines for on-board pet carriers--a reasonable proxy for the floor-to-under-seat clearance.

Large luggage

Any suitcase larger than a carry-on size has to be checked. The most common options are 24 to 30 inches in height. You can find suitcases as large as 36 inches, but check with your carrier for size limits.There's usually a weight limit, with extra fees applied for excess weight per bag. Outside the U.S., restrictions on total cumulative weight of your checked luggage might apply.

Features


Wheels

Wheeled suitcases comprise at least two-thirds of all luggage sales today. If you plan on rolling your own luggage, your first decision is whether to buy a two-wheeler or a four-wheeler.

Four-wheelers

These are also known as spinners because each wheel swivels 360 degrees, as on a shopping cart. You can push them, pull them, wheel them alongside yourself, and turn them in any direction.

Pros:They are easier to navigate in tight spaces, such as 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.

Cons:The wheels are externally mounted, not recessed, so they are vulnerable to snapping off. (Wheels attached with screws are more secure than those with rivets, according to experts.) Spinner wheels also steal valuable packing space, as the length of the wheels is included in the overall allowable dimensions. A spinner won't remain stationary on an incline; you have to lay it on its side if the floor is on a slight gradient. If you do get it stay still in an upright position, make sure the packed items are evenly distributed, otherwise the suitcase can tip over.

No wheels

You might want to forgo wheels under these circumstances: 1. You need to ensure the maximum possible interior volume. The wheels and the handle structure use up space. 2. You expect to take your bag on bumpy, rough, cracked, sandy, or icy surfaces, where wheels are hard to manage. 3. You won't have to ever handle your own luggage, as on a luxury tour.

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, not side to side. The suitcase rolls behind you as you pull it from the extending handle.

Pros: The wheels are recessed into the case, which protects them from snapping off during rough handling. Also, given that the allowable overall dimensions are fixed by airlines, wheels that are recessed concede more space to the interior packing area. For urban journeyers, two-wheelers are better than four-wheelers for clearing curbs and rolling on uneven surfaces like sidewalks or cobblestones.

Cons:Some travelers complain that the dragging position causes shoulder, wrist, or back pain. Also, it can be cumbersome to drag a two-wheeler in a crowded space because you need clearance between yourself and the bag.

Hard-sided or soft-sided

Soft-sided luggage dominates the market, but hard-sided is quickly gaining ground due to newer, 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.

An interesting feature of hard-sided luggage is the 50/50 split opening, 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.

Pros: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.

Cons: 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.

Soft-sided luggage

Soft-sided luggage is made of fabrics that move and yield, 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.) Fabric denier is a measurement of weight, not quality. A high denier does not necessarily mean a higher quality fabric; a high denier bag can be made of a low-quality yarn that can easily puncture and rip. One of the lowest quality fabrics used for luggage is polyester.

Pros:Soft-sided luggage is usually lighter in weight and can flex and compress to conform to tight spaces. This flexibility also enables you to squeeze in just one more pair of jeans (which could be a con if you tend to overpack). Also, a yielding material might be the difference between keeping the bag on board and having it relegated to gate-check. Fabric flexibility also comes in handy when packing a car trunk and storing the bag at home.

Cons:Soft-sided luggage is not as protective as hard-sided and is vulnerable to ripping (accidental or intentional) if it is not of high quality.

Zippers

A lot can go wrong with a zipper. If it breaks while you are 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. 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. Zippers can be a proxy for the overall quality of the bag. A YKK zipper is widely believed in the industry to be the most reliable zipper on the market.

Handles

Wheeled luggage, which comprises most of the market, have retractable metal handles. For maximum comfort, look for an adjustable-length, soft-grip handle. One that retracts completely inside the bag is less likely to sustain damage. Two-wheeled bags can have one- or two-post handles. 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.

Compartments

The number, size, and configuration of luggage pockets or compartments are also considerations. Many travel bags now come with dedicated, padded pockets for a laptop so you can avoid carrying yet another bag for your laptop. Another type of interior compartment is a suiter, which enables you to pack a suit inside your regular suitcase without having to carry a separate garment bag. An important point to remember about compartments: 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.

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's a good idea to start out with lightweight 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.

Smart features

Built-in electronic capabilities are the newest luggage feature. A "connected" suitcase knows where it is, how much it weighs, and who's allowed to handle it by virtue of such functions as location tracking, built-in digital scales, digital locks, fingerprint recognition locks, proximity sensors, trip tracking, and built-in power sources. Alternatively, you can create your own customized high-tech luggage by adding these electronic devices separately to your analog bags.

Locks

For USA travel, luggage locks have to be TSA-compliant, which means that security agents have a universal master key so they can open your lock without breaking it in the event that they have to physically inspect the contents of your bag. If you are buying an after-market lock the packaging will state if it is TSA-compliant. For integrated locks, the luggage's sales tag will indicate if the lock is compliant.

Shopping tips

Bring a tape measure

Don't pay attention to tags, labels, or promotions that proclaim, "official carry-on luggage." There's no regulation that dictates carry-on size--airlines impose their own restrictions, and the limits can vary among airlines and even among aircraft. Know the rules of the airlines to plan to fly. Measure the dimensions yourself and make sure the measurements account for all parts, including outer pouches, wheels, and handles.

Hold the 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. It's also important to check the for smooth movement as you retract it and pull it up.

Wheel it around

The wheels should roll smoothly and stay in place. Gently jiggle the wheels with your hands to make sure they are firmly attached.

Check the interior capacity

While the outside measurements 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 the features that maximize interior space. These include:

Squared edges. Interior volume is sacrificed with curved corners.

Integrated outer compartments. Outside zip compartments should be on the same geometric plane as the main part of the bag--protrusions waste space, as they are irregularly shaped.

No wheels or handles. If you really need to make the most of every interior inch, forgo wheels and handles. They impinge on total packable space.

Check the warranty

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.

Shopping online

If you find an online deal and you are not an experienced consumer of luggage, try to find the item in a brick-and-mortar store first so you can handle it, wheel it, and lift it to make sure the bag is suitable for you.

   

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