Checked Luggage Tests and Reviews
What sort of bag should you buy?
Times might have
changed, and so too have luggage designs, but the
underlying wealth of choices, need for suitcases, and
fundamental questions about which style, color, and price
would be your best choice remains.
Use the information in this series of articles to help you
choose the type of luggage best suited for your needs.
Part 1 of a 3 part introduction on
buying checked luggage - see other parts in this
introduction, and luggage reviews and related material,
listed in the links on the right
Luggage in general, and suitcases
in particular, vary enormously in cost, while apparently not varying
so much in functionality.
Should you get the biggest bag
or smallest? The lightest, or a heavier but more robust
bag? The cheapest, the most expensive, or something priced
at a sweet spot somewhere in the middle?
The information below will help you
shop more carefully for luggage and reassure you that you're
making the right choice, whether it be for the $30 item or the
A Short History of Luggage
Luggage is not a new thing.
Indeed the word 'luggage' first appeared in 1596.
As modes of travel have
evolved, so too has the luggage we bring with us. Travel
these days is less stressful and typically for shorter time
periods away from home, and so luggage has
become lighter and smaller.
With travel these days being a 'do it yourself' experience most of the
way and most of the time, suitcases in particular are now designed to be wheeled by
their owners for the relatively short distances they need to be
transported by hand as part of any journey.
Originally, luggage was made
of wood, metal and leather. Modern and lighter materials
have taken over - first vinyl and fabric, and more recently
plastics and, at the high end, carbon fibre.
Wheels first started
appearing on suitcases in the 1980s, but it took a while for the
modern and functional design of wheeled suitcase to evolve. Early wheeled
suitcases often had ridiculously small wheels on their long side
and a flexible pull strap, making the suitcase unstable and
uncontrolled, and prone to
fall over at any time.
The need for lighter luggage
has become more pressing. Until the mid 2000s, most
passengers flying from, to, or within the US could take at least
two suitcases with them, each weighing up to 70lbs.
Nowadays, most passengers can take only one suitcase, weighing
no more than 50lbs, with potentially massive penalties for going
overweight or for taking extra pieces of luggage.
A major paradigm shift has
helped make luggage lighter. In days gone by, luggage was
designed to be strong and with solid sides to protect the
contents from sharp impacts. But these days it is accepted
that the external sides of a suitcase can be soft
rather than rigid. A softer material can absorb the energy
from having the bag be dropped (or something dropped on it), and
as long as you pack the bag's contents so that breakable things
are in the middle with padding such as clothing surrounding
them, they are as safe or safer than in a solid heavy case.
The rest of this article
discusses the difference factors to consider when choosing roll-on suitcases, future
articles in the series will contain reviews of specific
Cost - and Value
Identically to the
considerations we discuss in our parallel
series on carry-on rollaboard bags, you'll find yourself confronted with a massive
variety of options and prices when choosing full size suitcases.
Perhaps the easiest
attribute to measure is a suitcase's cost. But
remember the adage - a fool knows the price of everything, but
the value of nothing.
It goes without saying that
cheaper bags usually don't last as long as more expensive bags.
But is it better to buy three bags, each costing $100, and
replace them as needed, compared to a single $300 bag which
lasts as long as the three $100 bags combined?
If you use your carry-on
only rarely (once or twice a year), then a poorly constructed
inexpensive bag might still give you three or even more years of
life and might be adequate for your needs. But if you use
your luggage regularly, you'll probably prefer something that
will reliably last for a good number of journeys.
Don't confuse cost with
Cost alone is seldom a good
indicator of the quality of a suitcase. Suitcases
typically have massive margins built in to them - the item that
you see in a retail store showing 'normal retail price
$500/special discounted value only $250' may have cost the
retailer only $100 to buy from the manufacturer, and may have
cost the manufacturer only $40 to buy from the Chinese company
that makes the bags on behalf of the name brand manufacturer.
Go next door to the next
store, and you might find a similar bag that also cost $40 to
buy from China, but the manufacturer sold it to the retailer for
'only' $70 and the retailer in turn is selling it for 'only'
And if you are looking at a
high end 'name brand' bag with a ridiculous $1000 price tag on
it, do you really think it is four times better than the $250
bag and eight times better than the $125 bag? Almost
certainly not - the bags are probably surprisingly similar,
except for a bit of leather stuck on the outside of the highest
priced bag, and maybe some extra pockets inside the bag, and not
much else. Are its zips eight times sturdier? Do its
wheels last eight times longer? No and no.
By all means, if you wish to
buy a top end bag to make a personal statement about yourself,
do so, but don't expect a greatly improved piece of luggage.
The danger of expensive
If you have a high-end name
brand bag (or even a 'knock-off' copy that looks almost the
same) you're sending a message to any and all would-be thieves
that you're a 'big noter'. If you've got such an expensive
bag, the chances are you've filled it with similarly expensive
clothes, jewelry, and other belongings to match the bag.
Many thieves will
preferentially select expensive looking bags in the
hope/expectation that the bags will have more valuable contents
than will beaten up looking generic bags.
Value - Reliability and less
We suggest that buying a
longer lived suitcase is always better than buying several, cheaper
and shorter lived suitcases. Luggage rarely fails at home between
journeys! Instead, your suitcase will invariably fail at the least
convenient moment, somewhere on your travels. Worse still,
whereas a robustly made bag might give some warning of pending
problems, cheaper bags are more likely to suddenly fail without
Put it another way - how
much would you pay to reduce by at least two thirds the hassles
associated with unexpected luggage failures? When you factor
this into the cost equation, buying cheap no longer seems such a
Warranty and Repair
A related issue is that of
Warranty issues are more
important with full sized suitcases than with smaller
take-onboard items, because the full sized suitcase will be
subjected to the full stresses of airline and airport baggage
handling systems, and with a greater weight of contents inside
them, every drop provides greater stress onto the suitcase than
with lighter bags.
Almost without exception, all bag
manufacturers exclude any type of airline related damage from
their warranty coverage. Which means that if your bag
fails while sitting untouched in your closet, and it is within
the bag's warranty period, then the manufacturer will probably
repair your bag for you. But start actually using your bag
as it is intended to be used, and all of a sudden, most
suppliers refuse to help if your bag suffers any damage.
There is one shining
exception to this - Briggs & Riley. They offer a no
questions asked lifetime warranty, and will repair or replace
your bag, no matter what the cause of the problem, or how old it
This is a very positive
feature to keep in mind when considering their products.
Because of this, a Briggs & Riley bag can be considered to have
a substantially greater life (and with less maintenance cost)
than most of their competitors.
Eagle Creek offer a
similarly good warranty - their 'No Matter What' warranty - but
only on selected bags, not on all bags in their range.
If you need to have a bag
repaired under a manufacturer's warranty, do you need to send
the bag back to their warehouse or do they have contracts with
luggage repair stores around the country? You might find
it more convenient to simply drop off or send your bag to a
local repair store than to ship it across the country. On
the other hand, of course, there is surely nothing simpler to
ship than a suitcase - simply put a label on it, with no need to
worry about protective packaging or anything else!
Beware of diminishing returns
There seem to be three
general types of pricing levels for most bags. The first
level is the under $100 level, which is where you'll find
discount store and no-name bags priced. In general, we
tend to avoid these bags.
The second pricing level is
in an approximate price range between perhaps the low $100s and
the mid $500s. These bags tend to be robustly made and
fully featured, with no compromises in quality or functionality.
The third pricing level is
anything over about $600, where you're paying a premium for what
appears to be little more than the brand name.
Is a $600 bag twice as good
as a $300 bag? Is a $750 bag three times as good as a $250
bag - and 25 times better than a $30 bag?
Although we haven't reviewed any of the most
expensive bags in detail, it seems fair to say that the
mid-priced bags impress us as 'adequate for all ordinary
requirements' leaving only the doubtful added value of a brand
name for the highest priced items to claim as their own.
And many of the top end
suitcases are not all that practical. They may have
leather material on the outside, which is heavier than other
materials, and which shows signs of wear more quickly. And
they may have little or no warranty coverage.
Cost/value sweet spot
It seems that the bags
presenting the best compromise between ridiculously high price
at one extreme, and poor quality at the other extreme, can be
generally found in the $200-500 price zone. That is not to
say that you won't sometimes find a good value sturdy bag available at
$150, but you'll rarely find good values (for
ordinary users with normal requirements) much above $500.
You'll sometimes see luggage
offered for sale that is described something like 'recommended
retail price $500, special sale price $250'.
This does not mean you're
getting a $500 piece of luggage at a great price. It
usually means you're getting a $250 piece of luggage that has a
pretend $500 price but which no-one ever pays.
For some strange reason,
luggage is often sold on the basis of setting a ridiculously
high original pretend asking price, then offering what seems to
be a huge discount off that. Concentrate on the actual
price and use that to base your evaluation on. Ignore any other
Are you choosing a bag that
you know will only be used to carry low weight loads, or will
you be loading your suitcase with heavy dense materials like
books and brochures, and pushing the upper limit of airline
And, similarly, is this a
bag you'll be using when flying - ie, checking it and trusting
it to the stresses of the baggage handling systems, or is it a
bag you'll use more for your own road trips, when you can more
carefully handle the bag in and out of your car?
Is this a bag that you'll be
flying with once a week, year round, or is it a 'spare' bag (or
are you only a very infrequent traveler) such that it might only
be used a couple of times each year?
Depending on the intended
use for this bag, maybe you can get away with choosing a lower
cost and lower quality bag, because it won't often be used, and
won't often be stressed. On the other hand, if you will be
regularly checking it, and using it to carry medium to heavy
loads, perhaps better to invest in a more rugged longer-lasting
Perhaps the most visible
feature of a bag is its size. Surprisingly, bigger is not
always better. Although, when choosing an airplane
carry-on bag, we'll usually give preference to a bag that is
(sensibly) larger than a bag that is (too much) smaller,
different factors come in to play when choosing bags you'll be
There's probably some sort
of 'law' that predicts the bigger the bag you have to travel
with, the more you're going to want to pack into the bag.
This means more hassle packing and unpacking, and greater
potential problems with bag weight limits/penalties on planes.
A bigger bag is probably
going to be more expensive - you'd sort of expect that!
But a bigger bag will be three other things, as well :
It will be heavier, because
there is more material used in constructing it
If you're not filling the
bag, items inside won't be as well protected and may roll
around or break
For travels to/from airports
and elsewhere, bigger bags may make it harder to fit all the
bags for you and your traveling companions, if any, in car
For these reasons, it is
perhaps better to choose the smallest size bag that will be sufficient
for your purposes, rather than to play on the safe side and get
a bigger one than you really need.
A good compromise might be a
bag with an expandable gusset built in to it. This can
increase the bag's depth by anything up to 3", giving you a
smaller bag to start with, but with the ability to expand if
Airline size limits
There are usually limits on
the maximum size of bag an airline will accept without penalty.
If your bag is larger than this maximum, you will probably have
to pay an oversize fee - and this fee can be as much as $100, or
sometimes even more (each way, not roundtrip). Worse
still, if your bag is both oversized and overweight, you'll be
paying both penalties.
Most airlines have a 62"
size limit (the notable exception being Airtran with a 61"
limit) - this is determined by adding together the length, width
and depth of your suitcase, more or less at its greatest points.
A typical 'large' size suitcase with, perhaps, a manufacturer's
size specification of 28" might have dimensions of 29" x 18" x
12" or thereabouts - it will almost always have slightly less
than 62" in total dimensions. But be careful if selecting
a 29" or larger bag, because you'll be getting close to the 62"
point, and remember that manufacturers describe their bag's size
based apparently on its inner dimensions, not on its maximum
external dimensions. Handles, wheels, bulging overpacking,
and such like can all add several extra inches to the total size
of a suitcase and risk putting you over the 62" maximum.
This refers to how much of
the bag's size is actually available for you to use storing
A bag with rounded corners
will hold less than one with more squared corners.
A bag with an elegant
tapered profile will hold less than a boxy one.
A bag with an internal
handle mechanism will hold less than one with an external
mechanism, and also has a harder to efficiently use irregular
shape on the bottom of the suitcase.
Wheel recesses can further
reduce internal space, but wheels that stand a long way outside of
the case may be more susceptible to damage than ones that are
recessed into the body of the bag. Smaller diameter
wheels take up less overall space than larger ones, but don't
give as smooth a ride when you're wheeling the bag along.
Surprisingly, a bag with
many internal compartments can also end up with less net space
to store things than a bag that is just one big empty container.
Some internal compartments can help you in your packing, but too
many can take away from practical packing space, and the bulk
(and weight) of the internal packing aids can detract from their
If you have a bag with few
internal pockets and compartments, you can supplement this by
getting separate zip up containers and packing aids - things
that can be used in and transferred between any of your
different pieces of luggage, and which are therefore more
On the positive side,
external pockets and or zip expanders can enable you to stuff
more into your bag in an 'emergency'.
Capacity is more of a
concern with smaller bags - bigger bags tend to be more than big
enough, even if not well designed for best use of space, and
with the big bags, your problem is more likely to be not one of
having insufficient space, but rather that the weight of
everything you've put in your bag has exceeded the 50lb maximum
free luggage allowance most airlines now provide.
Read more in Parts 2 & 3
Part 2 we detail many other
factors to consider when choosing carry-on luggage, including
weight, wheels, and overall construction.
Part 3 we feature a
range of comments from Travel Insider readers who report on
their own experiences with carry-on luggage.
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20 Mar 2009, last update
28 Nov 2012
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.