"Every journey has a secret destination of which the traveler is unaware."
This article got its start on a trip. I flew a U.S. based carrier (hint: headquartered in Chicago) non-stop to Salt Lake City from Atlanta. When I retrieved my checked bag, I was distressed to see that the top handle was ripped right out of the bag, hanging pitifully on one screw. The bag, by the way, was the brand the flight crews carry and only a year old. When I asked the airline to repair it, I was told they “don’t cover straps or handles.” The representative pointed to a sign which indicated the airline was not responsible for “normal wear and tear.” What, I wondered, would this airline repair in the way of baggage? “Well, when we run over a bag, we replace it.” A call to the manufacturer to explore whether they might repair the bag at no charge yielded the same finger-pointing: “We only cover defects, not normal wear and tear.”
Since very few manufacturers or airlines offer travelers recourse for damaged bags, I decided to do a little research of my own. I travel for a living, so I am a tough judge of luggage. For more than a month, UPS and FedEx personnel hefted oversized boxes to my third-floor walkup, grimacing with exertion. When I explained my task—to find some of the best luggage on the market—they were intrigued. Seems all of us have at one time or another, suffered from luggage remorse. I felt like Goldilocks, during the course of my research: some bags were too big, some were too small…and a few were just right.
A Luggage Primer. Admittedly, buying luggage isn’t on par with buying a car or house. Still, putting considerable thought into the selection will result in increased satisfaction in your investment, especially these days with amped-up security and crowds. Having the right bag makes traveling so much more pleasurable, and it may mean the difference between carry-on or stowed, health or an aching back, and damaged or undamaged belongings.
But, before we discuss some of my favorite road-tested bags, let’s review how you use your baggage.
- How often do you travel? The more you travel, the more durable your luggage must be. Ballistic nylon (check out the denier; higher counts equal toughness) used on soft-sided luggage is the most durable material in use—and will best withstand the rigors of rough handling. Top-Quality bags have rugged zippers, handles and wheels built to withstand the rigors of frequent use.
- How long are your trips? Just because you take a longer trip, doesn’t necessarily mean you need bigger baggage. I spent a month in India in a “rollaboard” (although I will confess to wanting to burn the clothing upon my return). Today’s wheeled luggage allows you to use the attached strap to add up to three bags. I recommend a 22 inch bag that can be carried on board and a 24 inch bag to check.
- What type of trip will you be taking? The needs of a business traveler are different than those of a leisure traveler. Will you be traveling to one destination and staying or living out of your luggage? If you’ll be living out of your luggage you might want a lot of pockets for organizing, or several small organizers to pack in your luggage. Business travelers need to keep their clothing looking neat. If you are a cruise aficionado, consider the size of your room; ditto if you are a frequent visitor to cities like London and Western Europe, where many rooms are so small that a larger bag is impractical to store. Active vacationers will want to review wheeled duffels that can accommodate gear easily and often feature detachable daypacks.
- Carry-on or checked? If you plan to carry on your luggage, look for the lightest bag that can be easily stored—and make sure it meets the size requirements of your carriers. Log onto www.faa.gov or www.thetravelinsider.info/travelaccessories/airlinecheckedluggageallowances.htm for more baggage information.
- Hard side or soft side suitcases? Resistant to stains and tops at protecting fragile items, hard side luggage may have the longest life (although it may dent or crack). Improved composition materials have made shells lighter; however, even when empty they can still be heavy and/or clunky, a consideration now that weight limits are being so strictly enforced at the airport. Soft side suitcases are lightweight, zippers can be secured, almost all have wheels, and some are expandable for additional packing volume. If you are a fan of garment bags, look for folding, wheeled versions (though there are far fewer of them offered.)
- What are you willing to spend? You can buy luggage in every price range. Brand name luggage often comes with a good (and sometimes, great) warranty, but no-name or private label brands may also suit your needs. Remember: just because a suitcase is expensive, does not mean it will meet your needs or perform well.
- How important is style? Like apparel, some luggage manufacturers offer annual collections with fashion-forward designs and colors. Designer brands like Louis Vuitton are made from the highest quality leather with solid brass fittings and are distinctive and prestigious. Cachet, naturally, comes at a premium.
A Few of My Favorite Bags. Having the right luggage makes a world of difference.
My primary consideration is toughness: I want my luggage to withstand the rigors of conveyors and sorting machines, not to mention being stacked, dropped and thrown through the air. I’ve sat at the window seat as they loaded the bags, so I know how they are manhandled. I’d never consider anything but wheeled luggage—and I’m not alone: a recent national travel magazine polled its readers and found that 72% said wheeled luggage was the single thing that has changed travel for the better.
I also paid special attention to the handles (a retractable, locking handle is essential) and straps (look for multiple rickets for strength), wheels (recessed, in-line skate wheels provide great balance) and zippers (synthetic zippers made of coils can self-repair). Following are the standouts I recommend.
Best All-Around Collection: Modus by Jansport. The folks at Jansport have nailed it with this well-thought out series. Extremely lightweight, the Codura nylon is resistant to tears and abrasions. The 22 inch carry on is extremely easy to maneuver thanks to multipurpose footholds that double as handles on the bottom that give good loading grip and fit easily into overhead compartments. Clever features include a dual access tuck away footwear pocket which is accessible from the exterior, an interior mesh pocket for accessories and a compression panel with a place for a dryer sheet to keep your clothes smelling clean. There’s also an “escape pod,” a small matching bag that detaches for carrying a few essentials. The external pockets are perfect for an umbrella and a water bottle. Best of all is the ergonomic “hammerhead handles” and smooth, quiet, fast wheels, both which eliminate the annoying heel-to-bag contact and tipping, and deliver 360 degree movement. I felt about 87% less wrist strain and 49% less tired than with conventional handles. The 24 inch is perfect for longer trips and the 27 inch would work well for a family. The Modus comes in a unisex, easy-to-spot on the carousel copper and a Barbie-like pink, along with more conservative colors. Like all Jansport products, they carry a lifetime warranty and are very fairly priced. I love my Moduses (Modusi?). Visit www.jansport.com for retailers.
Sexiest Update On An Old School Hard Side Suitcase. This is not your father’s hard side case. When I pulled it out of the box, I moaned out loud. The Zero Halliburton Zeroller is seriously sexy: sleek in a kind of retro, James Bond way, its gorgeous polished aluminum catching the light. Inside, there’s a zip-out suiter and the heavy-duty chrome drawbolt latches (how’s this for smart: there is a third lock on top, in addition to the two on the sides) keep everything tightly inside. While traveling, it elicited a lot of envious stares, like a shiny new car, from both sexes; I must admit I felt like a big shot rolling it. That’s the good news. The bad news is it’s pricey, not expandable and after a trip to Sweden, it was scratched and dented, no longer bright and shiny. My heart sunk like the first time a new car gets a ding. It would fare better when traveling by car or bus. Or, if you are a captain of industry, just ship it to your destination to ensure it stays in top condition. See www.zerohalliburton.com.
Best for the Adventure Traveler. Eagle Creek’s Switchback Max ES 25 cleverly combines a rolling upright with a full-size zip-off backpack (complete with the company’s signature organization compartments which keep everything in its place and easily accessible) scoring it kudos from Outdoor Magazine. The deep packing space allows you to stuff in scuba gear (like I did) along with clothing, and the tough wheels grip any surface—from gravel to asphalt, dirt to carpet. The bag works in perfect harmony with Eagle Creek’s Pack-It Cubes, drawer-like lifesavers I can’t live without—especially when I’m on the go and don’t want to completely unpack. The soft, see-through mesh cubes come in small, medium, large and jumbo sizes to organize rolled socks, underwear, t-shirts, pants and sweaters. They are perfect for couples or families sharing a suitcase. Visit www.eaglecreek.com for retailers.
Best Texas Option. Woman-owned Pacific Design is headquartered in Austin and offers value-priced luggage along with backpacks, messenger bags and iPod covers. I fell hard for the Pink Nucleus (it comes in a lot of great colors). The world’s first true “case within a case,” the sporty Nucleus is more than just a computer sleeve. Made of a unique light molded foam, this case is perfect for carrying your notebook computer (fits up to 15 inch laptops), business cards and a few files around town or across the world. Just slip the Nucleus into any Pacific Design Evolution line case and go. Unbelievably, it’s priced under $25. Log onto www.pacificdesign.com for more information.
Chicest Brand Extension. My Swiss Army knife is one of my most valued possessions. The manufacturer, Victorinox, has a line called Lingo that boasts a sexy 24 inch upright in azalea, a beautiful lilac (other vibrant and basic colors available). The large gusseted pockets on the exterior include a zippered ticket pocket and two large internal compartments mean you can choose to include a third pair of shoes and second pair of black pants. The in-line wheels are smooth and the integrated feet on the bottom double as handles for easy lifting from the carousel. Coolest of all? The one-touch, telescoping mono-pole features a gearshift-like ball that floats in your hand and rotates 360 degrees, banishing twisting discomfort. A terrific value.
Sidebar: Yes, You Can Lock Again. More than 1.4 million bags are checked in aiprots in the U.S. daily. Following 9-11, TSA-certified locks have emerged, so you can again safeguard your belongings. Specially coded and secured, these combination locks can be accessed (and then relocked) by airport authorities without the need to cut locks or force open bags. At less than $10 each they offer peace of mind from pilfering. Visit www.travelsentry.org for details on where to buy them.