Choosing the right luggage: Form and function are the ultimate match
As airlines place more and more restrictions -- and fees -- on checked luggage, packing lightly has gone from lifestyle choice to necessity. Luggage manufacturers are responding with versatile new bags that weigh significantly less than older models, meaning you can pack more and still avoid weight surcharges. Meanwhile, we're seeing a trend toward more and more one-bag travelers getting by with nothing but a single carry-on, sometimes for a week or more at a time.
With the rising popularity of one-bag travel, it's little surprise that our report is chock-full of carry-on bags. What might be more surprising is how many of those carry-ons don't have wheels. Although upright (two-wheeled) and spinner (four-wheeled) carry-ons are still quite popular, more and more travelers prefer to give up the extra space and weight taken up by wheels, frame and telescoping handle in favor of carrying more of their own belongings. Still, eschewing wheels does force you to carry the bag in your hand, over your shoulder or (in a few cases) as a backpack -- so we don't expect wheeled carry-ons to ever truly disappear.
The best checked bag is one that fits your travel needs. Soft-side bags flex to accommodate your belongings and gracefully handle being overstuffed (as long as their zippers are up to the job). Soft-side luggage is usually less expensive and also weighs less, allowing you to squeeze a few extra pounds in before incurring extra fees. On the downside, those soft sides are vulnerable to slashes or tears and just don't offer as much protection as a hard-sided case.
Hard-side cases come in two types: rigid metal cases and semi-flexible polypropylene cases. The latter flex just enough to absorb impacts, then pop back into shape; they offer better protection for your belongings than a soft-side case but don't quite live up to the armored standard of a rigid metal case.
Rolling luggage is still a top choice for many travelers. Not everyone can lug a bag through an airport, especially if you have other things to carry. Wheeled luggage makes it a breeze to transport your bag from point A to point B -- just be sure the wheels and handle are sturdy and well-made or you may find yourself with a broken-down bag halfway through your trip.
Almost all large luggage -- including some duffel bags -- have built-in wheels nowadays; the real question is how many wheels you want. Generic upright or rolling luggage usually has two wheels with two stoppers on the other side that let the bag balance upright when you're not using it. Spinner luggage has four swiveling wheels, allowing it to pivot neatly in place -- or start rolling on its own if the bag doesn't have a wheel brake and you happen to be standing on a slope. In both cases, a telescoping handle helps you keep control of the bag. The best handles should adjust to a range of heights and be firm and solid, with no extra play, even when fully extended.
Some luggage manufacturers seem to apply the term "wheeled duffel" to almost any soft-sided case. Although we use the manufacturer names for each given piece of luggage evaluated in this report, we restrict entry into the "duffel" category to only those models that have duffel-style handles -- short loops that come together to form a single handle over the center of the bag. Also, you'll see this type of bag spelled variously as duffel and duffle. We use "duffel" generically, and "duffle" if it's how the manufacturer spells it.
ConsumerSearch has analyzed expert and customer reviews to evaluate the features, durability and style of dozens of types of luggage. The result is our picks for the best luggage in five categories: Best rolling luggage, best lightweight luggage, best carry-on luggage, best luggage set, and best duffel. One of these is sure to make your travel just a bit more hassle-free.