The best luggage has

  • A long warranty. Experts say this is the simplest way to estimate luggage quality, especially if the warranty covers damage caused by airlines.
  • Industrial nylon construction. The most common fabrics you'll find in tough, soft-sided bags are Cordura, which has more abrasion resistance, and ballistic nylon, which is slicker and more resistant to tears. Nowadays, leather is considered a poor choice for luggage -- it's heavy, prone to mold and vulnerable to abrasion.
  • Higher denier, unless... "Denier" measures the fineness of thread; the higher the number, the thicker the thread and -- usually -- the tougher the fabric. However, at OneBag.com, Doug Dyment notes that some imported 1,680-denier ballistic cloth is less durable than lighter, but better-made 1,050-denier ballistic nylon.
  • Water resistance. Only a few bags pass soaking tests. Water resistance is especially important with bags that will be checked rather than carried on, which could easily end up sitting on the tarmac in a downpour.
  • Strong handles and zippers. Most complaints about durability involve handles and zippers breaking, bending or sticking. Chain zippers, which are fused to the fabric, are more durable than coil zippers, which are sewn on. In either type, look for the YKK brand. Check handles for comfort, too.
  • Grab handles for easy lifting. Extra handles on the sides, bottom or top make it easier to maneuver bags into and out of luggage bins.
  • Integral TSA-approved combination locks. TSA-approved combination locks are designed to keep potential thieves out of your luggage; they can only be opened via the combination -- which you set and control -- or keys controlled by TSA agents. Integral or built-in locks never go missing, and the best models are low-profile enough not to snag on clothes or other pieces of luggage.

Know before you go

Soft-side or hard-side? Soft-side bags are generally lighter, more vulnerable to cutting or slashing damage and less expensive; hard-side travel cases are often heavier, more expensive and may permanently deform or dent if they receive sufficient abuse.

Wheels or no wheels? One-bag-travel experts tend to recommend bags without wheels, as they are lighter and have more carrying capacity. If you do choose a wheeled bag, look for encased wheels set widely apart -- they maneuver better and are more stable. Check your wheeled bags for balance, too; one common complaint about rolling bags is that they tend to fall over instead of standing upright. Larger wheels will maneuver more smoothly over uneven terrain, and softer wheels will lessen vibration and noise.

How are your shoulders? If you're opting for a non-wheeled carry-on, are you prepared to carry it over your shoulder or in your hand for the entirety of your trip? If not, consider convertible models, which have tuck-away backpack straps to let you distribute the weight more evenly.

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. Checking a second, smaller bag might be cheaper than paying extra fees for an oversize or overweight bag.

Do you need internal organizers? If your suitcase doesn't have many internal organizers, you might consider using packing cubes or stuff sacks to help keep your belongings organized.

Value expectations: The dollars and sense of it

Air travel is becoming ever more expensive and restrictive when it comes to luggage. Airlines charge you to check your bag, but limit the size of a free carry-on to a size that isn't practical for more than a short trip.

If your carry-on is too big or too heavy, you might still be faced with unexpected fees and the hassle of an unplanned bag-check. Play it safe by keeping your carry-on at 20 pounds or less and below the typical maximum size of 22 by 14 by 9 inches. European guidelines are sometimes more strict. About.com's guide to honeymoons and romantic travel, Susan Breslow Sardone, provides a list of carry-on size and weight limits for many international airlines -- but you should still double-check with your airline, domestic or international, to confirm their most up-to-date requirements.

Also, keep in mind that some luggage manufacturers list the internal (packing) measurements for their bags, but airlines go by the external measurements. Unless otherwise noted, all measurements listed in this report -- excluding the numbers you'll see in bag names -- are external measurements.

A few tricks for checking bags through

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 allow similar fares, check to see which has the most generous policy for checked bags. At the time of this report a few carriers -- namely Southwest and Jet Blue -- still offer at least one free checked bag.

While you're at it, check into loyalty programs. Sometimes joining a frequent flyer club, applying for a credit card tied to said frequent flyer account or reaching a certain number of frequent flyer miles is enough to get you at least one checked bag for free. Do read the fine print on any luggage policies -- size and weight limits still apply, and if you go over in either case, you can expect to pay extra fees.

Elsewhere in this report:

Best Luggage: Which luggage is the best for your needs? Editors name the best rolling, best lightweight, best carry-on, best luggage set and best duffel.

Best Rolling Luggage: What is the best rolling luggage? Editors say eBags, Briggs & Riley and Gregory make the best rolling luggage on the market.

Best Lightweight Luggage: What is the best lightweight luggage? Editors say Osprey and Tumi have the top models of lightweight luggage. Read analysis of expert and user reviews.

Best Carry-On Luggage: Which brands are the best choices for your carry-on luggage? Editors say Patagonia, Red Oxx, Tom Bihn and Mother Lode are the best carry-ons.

Best Luggage Sets: Which set of luggage is best? Editors do the research to discover who makes the best luggage sets. Traveler's Choice and eBags come out on top.

Best Duffels: Which duffel bag is the best? Editors say the very best duffel bags are lightweight and capacious -- some even have wheels. L.L.Bean makes the best duffel.

Our Sources: Links to the expert and user reviews we used to select the top luggage, along with our assessment of each reviewer's expertise, credibility and helpfulness.

Back to top