What the best luggage has

  • Durable construction. The most common fabrics you'll find in tough, soft-sided bags are thick polyesters with double-stitching that resists fraying, abrasions and tears. Hard-sided luggage is becoming more common, with light, yet tough, polycarbonate materials that also have some "give" for fitting into a tight overhead compartment. Many bags have reinforced corners.
  • Water resistance. Few thing are more dismaying than picking up a checked bag that has been tossed into a puddle by baggage handlers, or sat on the tarmac in a storm, causing the water to soak into your carefully packed belongings. Some bags are made with waterproof material, some are not. If that's important to you, look for that feature in the description.
  • Sturdy wheels and handles. Many manufacturers try to reduce bag weight by making handles thinner and wheels smaller. This can make a packed bag hard to pull, causing the wheels to collapse, the handle to wobble, and the whole unit to rock back and forth. That's not worth the tradeoff. Be sure the wheels are large enough and sturdy enough to hold the bag's weight -- especially the stems that support spinner wheels -- and that the handle does not feel flimsy.
  • Tough zippers. When you're traveling there is no quick fix for a broken zipper. Zippers that catch or seem as if they'll burst when your bag is packed to its limit can make your trip an exercise in frustration. If the zippers seem flimsy or don't move smoothly, look elsewhere.
  • Grab handles for easy lifting. Also known as helper handles, these make it easier to maneuver bags into and out of luggage bins. Most suitcases have them on the top and sides, some have a bottom handle as well.
  • A good organization system. Yes, some people like duffels and their cavernous, single compartment vibe. But most people like to be able to separate their undies from their jeans, their shoes from their blouses and their personal care items from everything else. Look for a bag that gives you those options. Also, if you're an ultra-organizer, look into packing cubes to give you even more options.
  • Front compartments. One of the biggest complaints we see about bags is the lack of front pockets. Likewise, those with front pockets often get the most praise for convenience. This is because when going through security you have to have quite a few things right at hand. You have to show your boarding pass and I.D. but then be ready to store them immediately away since you can't walk through the machine with them in your possession. You have to remove laptops and allowable liquid containers, then be able to quickly put them back so you're not holding up the line. An accessible front compartment makes this all much easier.
  • Dedicated laptop storage. Many suitcases say they have "room for a laptop." That's all well and good, but it's not the same as having a dedicate, padded, pocket that will actually protect your laptop in the event that your suitcase is dropped, jostled, or you end up having to gate check the bag and leave your laptop inside for whatever reason.
  • 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. This is not a necessity, but it's a nice extra.

Know before you go

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.

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 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.

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