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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 $750 item.

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 suitcases.

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 quality

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' $125.

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 luggage

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 hassle

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 warning.

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 good strategy.

Warranty and Repair

A related issue is that of warranty coverage.

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 may be.

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.

Discounted luggage

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 selling price and use that to base your evaluation on. Ignore any other 'pretend' prices.

Intended Use

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 weight allowances?

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 bag.

Size

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 checking.

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 trunks

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.

Expandable bags

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 needed.

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.

Capacity

This refers to how much of the bag's size is actually available for you to use storing things.

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 marginal value.

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 universally convenient.

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

In Part 2 we detail many other factors to consider when choosing carry-on luggage, including weight, wheels, and overall construction.

In 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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Originally published 20 Mar 2009, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
Related Articles
How to Choose a Checked Bag pt 1
How to choose a bag pt 2
Reader comments on their checked luggage experiences part 1
Reader comments part 2

Reviews :  coming soon

See also our series on
Wheeled Carry-On Bags

And still more things

Domestic Airline Carry On Luggage Policies
International Airline Carry On Luggage Policies
Domestic Airline Checked Luggage Policies
Your Rights if your bags are delayed or lost
Distinctive MyTag Luggage Tags
Luggage Transportation Services
Packing Tips
 

Free Shipping on luggage



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