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Buyer's Guides and Travel Guides

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Buying Luggage Overview

Part of experiencing a life full of adventure is picking up a little baggage along the way. Or luggage rather. It doesn’t matter if you’re a seasoned traveler or just planning your first trip, having a solid suitcase is a must.

With people flying more and more frequently, the importance of having quality luggage that you can depend on is more important than ever before. Solid, high-quality gear can be a huge money-saver in the long run. The last thing you want is a broken suitcase in the middle of a trip or somebody breaking into a cheap zipper lock. Choosing the right type of luggage to conform to the strict airline regulations will also save you money on extra fees and check-in requirements.

Deciding what kind of luggage is right isn’t always easy. Thousands of options exist with different styles, features, and materials. Comparing the different options can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be that way. When deciding on what kind of suitcase fits your needs, start by considering these points.

How can I use my suitcase?

Do you primarily travel by plane, car or cruise ship? If you’re a frequent flyer, make sure you understand the baggage rules of the major airlines. Airlines are strict about how much space your carry-on can take in the cabin and how many checked-in pieces each person is allowed. Older suitcases may no longer comply with current regulations, so now may be the time to upgrade.

For road trips, you’ll want something that fits nicely in your car’s trunk to maximize the amount of space. Irregularly shaped suitcases may end up creating a lot of wasted space in your trunk.

Cruise ships stack passenger luggage together in the boat’s belly before departure. You’re best options are flat, rigid pieces of luggage that stack easily and won’t break.

Where do I store my luggage?

After your travels, you’ll need a place to keep your suitcase. For some people, extra space is a luxury. If you really need the floor space, consider a duffel bag or a collapsible backpack instead of a suitcase to minimize the footprint. Hard shell cases have a fixed volume that they require, but you often fit a set of 3 suitcases within each other like a Russian nesting doll. Soft shell cases have a little more give in the front and back, but long-term the softer material may warp.

If you’re storing it long term in the basement or attic, a hard shell suitcase is less susceptible to things like mold or changes in temperature.

What size suitcase do I need?

If you’re packing for your family, you may want to get a 3-set piece of small, medium and large suitcases. It all depends on your own packing habits. Do you like to over-prepare for your trips and bring everything just in case? A large check-in and a carry-on luggage will be enough to store everything you need. Do you prefer a minimalist approach to travel? A careful packer can store enough on a single carry-on for weeks.

Do I need a soft or hardshell luggage?

Soft-sided luggage are made of flexible fabrics like woven nylon or polyester. The more popular fabric of choice is ballistic nylon. This type of fabric is strong and shiny, but over time it will abrade. While abrasions won’t affect the strength of the fabric significantly, they can be unsightly and potential weak points in the future.

The benefit of using a soft shell suitcase is that the flexibility can help you squeeze a few extra items in when you really can’t decide which outfit to bring. The added flexibility may also help you just squeeze into the carry-on limitations when your suitcase is right at the borderline of oversized.

The downside is that these cases are less protective and vulnerable to being ripped. It’s not unheard of for customers to receive their suitcases ripped and with items missing or falling out. Even if you lock the zipper, potential thieves can simply cut through the material itself.

On the other end of the spectrum, hard shell suitcases are becoming more and more popular. Today’s hard-sided luggage are manufactured with the latest in high-tech plastics such as polycarbonate and ABS. These materials are incredibly lightweight while also being extremely durable and resistant to damage. ABS is the lightest, while polycarbonate is heavier but offers much higher durability. Aluminum suitcases are the heaviest but offer the greatest protection. Keep in mind that airlines have strict weight limits on baggage, so an aluminum suitcase can’t actually hold as much luggage before you have to pay extra weight fees.

Hardshell luggage are much more durable and with the advanced materials available, they can sometimes be even lighter than their soft-sided counterparts. The rigid structure also protects your more fragile belongings. Electronics, glass or other similarly fragile items are well protected within a hard-sided suitcase. The advanced materials can withstand a huge amount of force without breaking. A hard shell suitcase often comes with a built-in lock mechanism. They offer a higher level of security with their integrated locks than soft shells which usually rely on an external padlock. They also cannot be ripped open with a knife.

The downside is that because it is rigid, you cannot over-stuff it. You’ll have to pack according to the suitcase’s dimensions. This may end up benefiting people that find themselves over-packing frequently as it forces them to rein in what they throw in their baggage. Because the structure is always the same, you’ll also not have to worry about conforming to your airline’s baggage size restrictions.

What about luggage wheels?

Gone are the days where we were forced to lug around our suitcases by hand. The vast majority of luggage these days are wheeled suitcases. If you’re planning to get a suitcase, you’ll need to decide if you want a two-wheeler or a four-wheeler

Two-wheel spinner suitcases

Dual-wheeled luggage are often called rollers. These type of suitcases feature two inline wheels that can only roll front and back, not side to side. A very common type of wheeled luggage several years ago, these type of suitcases are meant to be used by pulling on them from the extended handle and letting them roll behind you.

These type of suitcases are convenient because they feature recessed wheels, giving them a slightly smaller footprint and keeping them securely in place when traveling. Because they move in a fixed direction and are meant to be pulled, two-wheelers are great for travelers looking to get around an urban environment. Uneven pavement, cobblestones and sidewalk curbs are all cleared easily by two-wheelers.

However, the downside is that they must always be pulled and the constant dragging weight can quickly tire you out. In a crowded area where maneuverability is important, dragging a two-wheeler suitcase can be frustrating. The wheels are fixed in place, making turning difficult unless you have a wide berth. Imagine a truck pulling a trailer on a crowded highway trying to change lanes! While the recessed wheels decrease the overall footprint, it will protrude into the storage space and give you a little less amount of space for your things.

Four-wheel spinner wheel suitcases

This kind of suitcases is also called spinners, named for the 360 degrees that each wheel can swivel. These kind of suitcases are becoming much more popular and quickly replacing the standard two-wheel luggage.

The advantages of a four-wheel suitcase are numerous. Instead of only relying on being pulled, they can be pushed, pulled or wheeled next to you. The revolving wheels give them the ability to turn quickly and are much easier to navigate in crowded areas like airports. Especially in the case of heavier luggage, a four-wheeler will be much easier to handle than a two-wheeler. Because these suitcases are free-standing when they roll, they put little strain on your arm and shoulder. It’s much easier to roll them along then to drag a two-wheeler for a long period.

While they offer numerous advantages, there are still some downsides. The wheels are mounted externally, and that is inherently less durable than the recessed two-wheelers. The external wheels also take up a bit more space.  This can be a problem in smaller airplanes’ overhead cabins where suitcases are required to be put in wheel first. However, this problem can be overcome in some suitcases where the spinner wheels are externally mounted, but placed in a special recessed area to give the best of both worlds.

No-wheel suitcases

Incredibly rare these days, there are very few instances where a no-wheeled suitcase will be better than one with wheels. Some people might like the novelty of it, or have simply been using the same suitcase sets for decades and are reluctant to let it go.

A few circumstances that might make you choose an old-fashioned wheel-less suitcase:

  • You want the absolute maximum amount of storage space possible and absolutely cannot sacrifice the space the wheel and handlebars would take.
  • You’re enjoying a luxury trip where you never have to handle your luggage
  • The suitcase has some sort of sentimental value to you – perhaps it was your father’s suitcase that he once toured the world in.
  • You prefer using a backpack or duffel bag instead of a suitcase

Baggage Breakdown

Each component that makes up a piece of luggage is important. From the zipper to the material, each part is important and should not be overlooked. To pick the right luggage for you, consider each element and how the design may or may not benefit you.

Zippered suitcases

Perhaps the unsung hero of suitcases. The zipper is what holds most luggage together and gives you easy access to your stuff. There are two types of zippers – coil and chain. Coil zippers are cheaper and very popular. They feature spiral plastic elements that lock together when zipped. While they are great on clothing and other garments, they are far inferior to chain zippers when it comes to suitcases.

A chain zipper features two sets of interlocking teeth made from either nylon or metal. They are sturdy, have a lower failure rate and much more difficult to tamper with and break into than a coil zipper. This is because coil zippers can be easily pulled apart with a small knife or pen and reclosed without any sign of damage. When choosing a quality piece of luggage, always stick with a chain zipper.

The quality of the zipper is a good indicator of the quality of the entire suitcase. Cheap, low-quality zippers often mean a similarly cheap suitcase that you can expect to have a short lifespan.

YKK is widely accepted as the industry standard for the best and most reliable zippers available.

Luggage lock overview

Luggage locks are a popular feature of modern suitcases. Especially with hard-shell cases, the lock is often integrated directly into the suitcase and keeps it closed as a theft deterrent. Some more inexpensive models may have interlocking loops around the two zippers for an aftermarket lock.

Be aware that in the USA, the TSA lock must adhere to TSA regulations. To be TSA-compliant, the lock needs to have a master key opening that allows it to be opened by any TSA agents that need to inspect your baggage without breaking the lock. Both aftermarket and integrated locks require this master key access.

Make sure that the lock you use is sturdy and can’t be easily tampered with. Keep in mind that even with the best available lock, your luggage is still at risk if your zipper is not up to par or the material can simply be cut open.

Best luggage handles

Retractable handles are an important means of transporting your luggage around. For two-wheelers, looking for a handle that is sturdy with little give. In two-wheelers, the handle can have either a single beam or two posts. Having a single large post gives the handle a more sturdy feel when pulling on it. With two posts, there is a little less stability if the weight shifts more from one side to the other, but it provides a way for you to carry smaller person bags by hitching them onto the posts while you pull. Regardless, you will want a handle that feels good and conforms naturally to your grip.

For four-wheeler suitcases, the handle should feel comfortable to push around. While you don’t have to worry about having your suitcases weight constantly straining your shoulder when pulling it around, you still need to consider how easily the handle can be used to push the suitcase.

In all cases, make sure the handle feels high quality and slides smoothly. In low-quality handles, the posts can end up getting stuck or being difficult to retract. This can be very problematic if it suddenly decides to stop retracting right when you need to put it in the overhead compartment.

Luggage compartments

Having separate compartments in your suitcase is a great way to keep your stuff organized. Especially with hard-sided luggage that features a clamshell design, the different components can help you separate your clothes, electronics, and toiletries neatly.

A good suitcase will have a means to physically separate these compartments, so the contents do not spill into each other. This usually means a zippered area for certain items on one size and a compression system on the other. Having these compartments will keep your items organized neatly, but also saves you a lot of space.

Soft-sided suitcases often have external pockets that protrude and add space for smaller things you may want to keep separate. These exist in hard-sided suitcases as well, but are less common. Keep in mind that the external pockets are still part of the overall dimension of the suitcase and these pockets may reduce the total volume within.

Luggage materials

Luggage weight has always been tied closely with the material of the suitcase. In the past, weight and durability had a direct correlation – the heavier the case was, the more durable it was while, the lighter the material used, the less durable the case ended up. Many of the high-quality old suitcases were made with heavy materials like leather, heavy plastics or metal.

However, that is mostly untrue today. Modern materials have created hard shell suitcases that are incredibly resilient, but still very lightweight. Polycarbonate is frequently believed to be the best material right now for luggage. It’s very light but strong enough to take severe punishment without damage. In fact, many polycarbonate suitcases are lighter than their soft-shelled contemporaries.

Smart luggage capabilities

The latest trend is to have a suitcase that has “smart” features like GPS tracking, electronic locking and USB ports for charging. These features are certainly helpful but come with their own downsides. Many airlines have strict regulations about what kind of electronics are allowed to be checked in, as well as restrictions on external battery packs. These regulations are always changing, and your smart suitcase may end up not meeting the updated regulations in the future.

Additionally, having a charger and other electronics integrated into your suitcase is definitely very convenient, but it also forces you to constantly charge your suitcase. In a time where we have endless gadgets that need charging, adding your suitcase to that list might not be very attractive. If you end up needing to check in your smart luggage, you’ll need to remove any battery packs inside your suitcase. Because of how they are situated, this often requires you to unpack all your belongings to reach where the battery pack is stored.

Finally, the addition of these electronics poses a slight risk to your own belongings. If a wire short circuits or water is spilled, there is a chance that the electronics may damage your things.

Read to upgrade your luggage?

If you think you’re ready to pick out the perfect suitcase, follow these guidelines to judge what is right.

Luggage dimensions

While most suitcases will do what they can to conform to the carry-on size restrictions, there is no industry-wide standard. It is up to the discretion of each airline on what they will allow as carry-on and what needs to be checked. If you are a frequent flyer of a particular airline, make sure your suitcase matches the dimensions or you will have checked luggage to deal with.

Give it a test spin

Feel the grip of the handle and how smooth it feels sliding into place. A good handle should be comfortable on your hands and also feel sturdy for extended use. Wheel it around and see if the wheels roll smoothly. The wheels should be attached firmly to the suitcase and shouldn’t rattle or squeak.

If you can, load up the interior with some stuff and see how it handles the added weight. For two-wheelers, does the added weight put unnecessary strain when trying to pull it? For four-wheelers, how smoothly does the luggage continue to roll when packed

Check the interior

Inspect how much room is in the interior. Are the components placed in a way that maximizes your storage space? Look for where the wheels and handlebars are attached. Do they take up a significant amount of space inside? If you have smart luggage, how big is the battery and where is it placed? Is it within easy access and does it protrude into the storage space?

If you are a fan of storage compartments, envision how you would use each part and what you would store. This gives you an idea of how useful the interior features would be to you.

These are all important factors to consider when deciding on a piece of luggage. However, when you make a good choice, that suitcase can often last you many many years. A suitcase is not only a place to store your belongings when you travel; it’s a space that you’ll depend on heavily on your adventures. Make sure you find the right luggage for you that will last you a long time and keep your belongings secure.

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