What types of trips do you take most often? This is an important consideration. If you just take weekend trips, all you'll probably ever need is a 19-inch carry-on. If you take business trips that last several days, you'll want a slightly larger bag that allows you to pack a mix of professional and leisure gear. If you're the adventurous type, a heavy-duty bag that can hold your sports gear is a must. If you only travel a couple of times a year, but it's a mix of short and long distances, a luggage set may be your best bet.
What type of aircraft are you flying on? You may think your carry-on bag fits your airlines carry-on size restrictions, but that depends upon what type of plane they put you on. If you end up on a regional jet, you'll probably have to check anything longer than 19 inches. And the chances of that happening are very good. More than half of all passenger flights are now completed by regional carriers, even on flights as long as 4 hours.
Can you lift your bag? Do not rely on the kindness of strangers. If you can't wrangle your own bag -- which means lifting it in and out of the overhead bin -- without assistance and without clonking anyone on the head, either check it or pack a smaller bag.
How much do you pack? Most airlines charge baggage fees by the bag, so it's usually better to opt for one large checked bag instead of two smaller ones. The exception to this is if your bag goes over the usual checked bag weight allowance (typically 50 pounds for domestic flights) or exceeds the airline's size restrictions. This will incur extra charges. Checking a second, smaller bag might be cheaper than paying extra fees for an oversize or overweight bag.
Warranty, schmarranty? Ah, the 10-year luggage warranty. There are few "guarantees" more misleading, and reading the list of restrictions is about as sobering as listening to the possible side-effects of the latest pharmaceutical. They don't cover normal wear and tear, misuse, carrying unusual items, accidents, exposure to weather, scratches, dents, water damage or damage by the airlines. In other words, they don't cover the things that actually break a suitcase. The only thing they cover is manufacturer's defects, but no manufacture really defines exactly what that means. There are a couple of exceptions, such as Briggs & Riley and their "Simple as That" Lifetime Warranty that even covers airline damage and is held up as the industry standard. With most others, it's not even worth the hassle to try. Just buy a new suitcase.
Can you try before you buy? We strongly recommend not purchasing a suitcase sight unseen. Most of the bags we review can be found at your local department store, sporting goods store or luggage store. This is particularly important since manufacturer's warranties also don't cover choosing the wrong bag. If you buy it, you may be stuck with it. Checking it out in person beforehand might reduce buyer's remorse afterwards.
If you're traveling in a group, planning for an extended stay or have to bring heavy or bulky belongings, you'll need to check at least one bag. A little research can help you dodge, or at least minimize, the costs you incur. Start by shopping airlines when you buy your tickets -- if multiple carriers have similar fares, check to see which has the most generous policy for checked bags. A few carriers still offer at least one free checked bag, most notably Southwest and Jet Blue.
While you're at it, check into loyalty programs. Sometimes joining a frequent flyer club, applying for a credit card tied to a particular carrier, or reaching a certain number of frequent flyer miles is enough to get you at least one checked bag for free.
Elsewhere in this report:
Best Reviewed Luggage: The six best luggage choices, as identified by professional tests, expert reviews, user reviews, and our own analysis.
Best Carry-On Luggage: Overhead bins are getting smaller by the minute, and airlines are tightening up their bag restrictions. These 19- and 20 inch bags and duffels will fit even the tightest spaces.
Best Spinner and Rolling Luggage: Spinner luggage, with wheels that swivel 360 degrees, and roller luggage, with sturdy, fixed, inline wheels are the most popular option for travelers. Most of our Best Reviewed will fit in an overhead bin, too.
Best Luggage Sets: Stylish and with a lot of packing options, luggage sets give you a lot of bang for the buck. We found a few good choices for grown-ups, and even some cute picks for children.
Lightweight Luggage: Manufacturers will call just about anything "lightweight," but what does that really mean? We discuss the tradeoffs and tricks of lightweight luggage.
Our Sources: Links to the expert and user reviews we used to select the best luggage, along with our assessment of each reviewer's expertise, credibility and helpfulness.