One of the most important decisions that any traveler can make is what luggage to buy. Bags come in a nearly infinite variety of sizes, materials, and prices. It’s often difficult to determine the relative benefits of bags when they can be found at such different price points.
How to Choose Luggage
In the world of carry-on luggage and the battle for bin space, it’s important to carefully consider the size of your bags. The standard for international carry-on bags is 20 inches, while domestic U.S. carriers allow a 22-inch bag. If you travel primarily with a carry-on both internationally and domestically, the smaller bag may be a better option. (See the list of essentials we always take on board with us.) If you are checking a bag, you have a lot more latitude on size and shape.
Airlines are getting stingier on weight restrictions for baggage. If the suitcase itself weighs a lot, that means you can take less stuff with you…or you pay more money for the privilege. Regardless, a bag made of lightweight materials will serve you well. No matter what bag you purchase, consider packing as efficiently as you can.
Bags generally come in hard side and soft side. Hard side bags are more durable and take more of a beating if you need to check the bag. Though not usually completely water resistant, hard side luggage may protect better against rain, puddles, and spills. Soft side or fabric bags are often expandable and can stretch more around the edges, giving you more room in a pinch (or for when you buy some souvenirs on your trip).
When you’re thinking about how to choose luggage, consider what kind of wheels you need. You can opt for recessed wheels, which are set back into the bag, or spinning wheels that are attached to the outside of the suitcase. Spinning wheels give the ability to move the bag sideways, which is handy for narrow aisles on airplanes, but they take up extra space in the bin. You may also have the option of choosing two wheels or four wheels, which can add stability to the bag.
You need to carry your bag somehow. The most common approach is some kind of a retractable handle. Handles can either be two bars or a single bar. Two-bar handles add more stability but often come with extra weight.
Everyone wants to feel that their luggage is safe when it’s out of their sight. While locks may help with that, they are not foolproof. Because all checked baggage is subject to search, the TSA can cut the locks off bags. Unfortunately, the majority of theft from baggage is actually committed by TSA agents and airline employees. Nevertheless, locks can deter theft in hotel rooms and other places, so they can still be a good idea.
Think about how you use your luggage and what features are important to you. Do you use a piggyback clip or luggage strap to hang your laptop case from your rolling suitcase? Do you use a lot of compartments inside your bag? Only you will know what features are truly necessary.
Have you ever noticed that nearly all luggage is black? Black doesn’t show dirt as much as other colors do, but since it’s so prevalent, it’s easy to confuse one bag with another. Having a color that stands out from the crowd (or a distinguishing luggage tag) is also helpful if you’re looking for luggage that has been lost by an airline.
In luggage, as in life, you get what you pay for. Generally, higher prices are reflective of better quality. No matter how much money you spend, a high quality suitcase can be trashed by airline baggage handlers in a matter of moments.
We’re firm believers in spending money for a quality carry-on suitcase but buying less expensive larger bags that get checked and will need to be replaced soon. We recommend visiting a box store (like Target) or a department store to test out what features you like in a bag and see it in person, but then purchasing your bag online to save money and get exactly what you want.
But before you buy, search out independent reviews on the bag you’re considering. Online stores have reviews, but your best source of information can come from an impartial source like the Luggage Council. These reviews can be invaluable in guiding your decision. But remember, the best travel luggage is the one that works for you!
Laura Longwell is an award-winning travel blogger and photographer. Since founding Travel Addicts in 2008, she has written hundreds of articles that help over 3 million people a year get the most out of their travel. In that time, she has visited nearly 60 countries on 5 continents, often returning to favorite destinations over and over again. She has a deep love of history, uncovering unexpected attractions, and trying all the good food a place has to offer.
In addition to Travel Addicts, Laura runs a site about her hometown of Philadelphia—Guide to Philly—which chronicles unique things to do and places to see around southeastern Pennsylvania. Her travel tips and advice appear across the web.