Suitcases, carry-ons, and other kinds of luggage have plenty in common. They usually come with wheels, a handle, and zippers. But not all suitcases are created equal. Whether you plan to give luggage as a gift over the holiday season or simply need to buy new luggage before traveling, you might find out the differences the hard way.

A better option is to consider the results of our survey of luggage satisfaction sent to 65,000 Consumer Reports members. The respondents told us that wheelability and durability are among the most important factors to consider when purchasing luggage. In fact, according to more than 27,000 members who rated their suitcase, satisfaction with its durability turned out to be the greatest predictor of overall satisfaction.

Here's what to consider when buying luggage.


Go to Consumer Reports' 2018 Holiday Central for updates on deals, expert product reviews, insider tips on shopping, and much more.
 

Wheelability

Most luggage sold today comes with wheels. The challenge is to figure out whether you should get four wheels or two. Travelers who prefer four-wheeled suitcases like them because they can spin 360 degrees, making them easy to maneuver. With four wheels, you can easily wheel the luggage beside you, in front of you, or behind you. It’s also easy to navigate in airplane aisles and other tight spaces. But there's a downside: If you find yourself on an incline, the luggage could roll away.

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A two-wheeler, on the other hand, only goes forward and backward. It’s less ergonomic than a four-wheel spinner, but if you’re going to be walking along city streets, two-wheelers are better for clearing curbs and rolling on sidewalks, cobblestone streets, and other uneven surfaces.

Durability

Zero in on the zippers. If a zipper breaks when you’re traveling, it can be a headache. So vet the zippers on your luggage before you buy. They 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. Coil zippers can be pulled apart with a ballpoint pen. Also, some savvy buyers consider zippers as a proxy for the overall quality of the bag, so you may want to take a close look. The zipper brand YKK is widely thought to be the most reliable zipper on the market.

Whirl the wheels. When it comes to durability, wheels can be a weak spot. Check that the wheels roll smoothly and stay in place. Gently jiggle them with your hands to make sure they're firmly attached.

The wheels on four-wheelers are mounted externally, leaving them vulnerable to snapping off with rough handling. For a more secure attachment, check that the wheels are attached with screws rather than rivets.

A two-wheeler has recessed wheels, which means they're protected from snapping off. Also, like the wheels on in-line skates, they roll forward and backward, causing less wear and tear than the 360-degree spinning four-wheelers.


Check our luggage buying guide and our retailer ratings to find the best places to buy luggage.
 

Hold the handle. For maximum durability, the handle should have little to no wiggling or rattling as you pull the bag. One that retracts completely inside the bag is less likely to sustain damage. Also check for smooth movement as you pull it up and retract it.

Select a side: Hard or soft. Like a majority of suitcase owners told us they did, choose a high-denier material if you want soft-sided luggage because it’s lightweight and allows you to stuff in “just one more” item. (Denier is a measurement of fabric weight.) If your highest priority is protection from rips and protection of your packed items, a hard-sided bag would be better. It can't be torn or intentionally ripped open with a blade. The most durable? Aluminum luggage. But it’s also the heaviest.

Bring a tape measure for carry-on luggage. Ignore tags, labels, or promotions that proclaim "official carry-on luggage." Nothing is official. No regulation dictates carry-on size; airlines impose their own restrictions, and the limits can vary among airlines and even among aircraft. Moreover, a Consumer Reports investigation found that 9 out of the 11 models we measured were larger than claimed by the manufacturer.

Bottom line: Measure the dimensions yourself. Make sure they account for all of the parts, including outer pouches, wheels, and handles. And if you're buying online, check the comments section on a suitcase's model page for any complaints about real vs. advertised size.

For more buying tips, including those on size, warranties, and interior capacity, check our luggage buying guide.