Airline baggage rules are ever-changing and bag fees can be expensive
As airlines place more and more restrictions -- and fees -- on checked luggage, packing lightly and relying solely on a carry-on bag has gone from being a lifestyle choice to a necessity for some. Luggage manufacturers are responding with versatile new bags that weigh significantly less than older models, yet offer every available square inch of volume that the airlines will allow for carry-ons, meaning you can pack more and still end up with a bag that fits in the overhead compartment.
That is, at least most of the time. A growing trend in the airline industry is to outsource flights to regional carriers, even for trips as long as four hours. This means more frequent flights, but much smaller planes with correspondingly smaller overhead bins. As a result, even "approved" carry-ons of about 21 or 22 inches might have to be gate-checked. This doesn't cost money, but travelers need to be aware of the possibility that they may not have access to a bag that they planned to have nearby. And it will likely cost you time; you may have to wait until the baggage handler brings the pink-tagged bags up to the jetway, something that can take a while if they have to use a freight elevator, as some airlines do. If you have a tight layover, that can cause you to miss your connection -- or force you to sprint to your next gate.
Choosing the right bag for your trip is essential; here are the main types
A carry-on bag should be no longer than about 21 or 22 inches; although a very few airlines will allow a bag as large as 24 inches in an overhead bin -- usually on longer flights with larger planes. Check the airlines' website for their carry-on size restrictions. And be aware that their "official" guideline may not apply to your particular flight. Study your ticket carefully, if it says your flight is "operated by" another airline that is "doing business as" (DBA) your airline, that means you are likely to be flying on a regional jet. In many cases, your 21- or 22-inch bag won't fit in the overhead bin. You have to pay attention to the width of your bag as well. Most airlines restrict carry-on bags to an overall combined dimension of 45 linear inches, or 22 by 14 by 9 inches. So, if your bag is wider or thicker, the airline might make you check it even if you're on a full-sized plane.
That is why the best carry-on bags in this report all range in size from 17 to 19 inches tall and are smaller than the maximum allowances for both width and depth. These bags will fit in the overhead bins of virtually any size plane. The other bags we recommend mostly fall in that 21- to 22-inch size parameter, and, while they will be fine to use as carry-ons for most flights, they might have to be gate-checked on smaller, regional jets.
Spinner and rolling luggage is getting sturdier and lighter. Wheeled luggage revolutionized the baggage biz, making suitcases -- even very heavy ones -- much easier to haul from the car to the plane, and vice versa. Until a few years ago, the only types of wheels on luggage were the inline skate type, also called fixed wheels or roller wheels. Now, spinner wheels are much more common. They can spin 360 degrees, so bags can be smoothly scooted along beside you as well as pulled behind you or pushed in front of you -- which makes it easier to transport two suitcases. Spinner wheels used to get panned for durability as they had an annoying tendency to buckle and/or snap off, but manufacturers are solving that problem and spanner wheels are lighter and more durable than in the past. Still, many frequent fliers prefer the fixed, inline wheels found on roller bags, saying they're more stable, and make a suitcase lighter, roomier, and easier to pull. For this report, we found the best spinner luggage as well as a great couple of great roller bags.
Garment bags are not quite as common as they used to be in our increasingly casual world, but there are still plenty of people -- male and female -- who need to take a suit or dress when they travel. While many suitcases have built-in options for handling dressy clothes without wrinkling or creasing them, none do it quite as well as a dedicated garment bag. Our top choice will win you over with its unique design.
Duffel bags are a very popular option for travel -- and not just for outdoor adventurers. Many people love the roomy, yet minimalist, packing style and appreciate their durability and the softer construction that helps them to fit in places where a traditional suitcase won't. We found duffel bags that are stylish and chic, as well as top choices for the backcountry hiker that will last a lifetime.
Luggage sets are a fun, affordable option. Many hard-core travelers eschew luggage sets, preferring to own a specific selection of bags for their various travel needs, but luggage sets are a great choice for those who either need to pack a lot of stuff and want their bags to match, or for the less-frequent traveler who want to own a good variety of bags -- and want the discount that usually comes with buying them as a set. They're great for family travel too, mom and dad can use the larger bags and the bigger kids can use the smaller bags. And don't forget your tots: we found an adorable roller bag that even the youngest toddler can pull through the airport while your fellow travelers enjoy a dose of cuteness to brighten their travel-trampled day.
What else you need to know about the world of luggage
Luggage is frequently discontinued and updated, almost as often as electronics are, but there are still names that are standouts in any iteration: Samsonite, Travelpro, Briggs & Riley, Victorinox, Delsey, The North Face, and American Tourister, to name just a few. Although we focus mostly on specific, individual bags in this report, keep in mind that all of these bags come in smaller and larger sizes as well, and have the same quality as the size we recommend. Don't hesitate to choose the size that best fits your needs. Just be aware that the bigger the bag, the less likely it can be used as a carry on.
We also have some bad news: If you travel frequently you will probably need to replace your luggage frequently. Travel is tough on your bags and even the best bags will fray, get beat up, the wheels will wear out and the zippers will stick or split. Even the cheapest suitcases usually come with a 10-year limited warranty, but good luck getting anything out of it. The list of restrictions is longer than a security line during the holidays. They don't cover normal wear and tear (and who defines "normal" anyway?), damage caused by the airlines (which is the cause of most luggage breakage), or most anything else that actually damages your bag. The only thing most do cover is manufacturing defects, but most warranties don't specify what that means. Also, the comments we see from those who do try to get their bags repaired is that it's a huge hassle. There are exceptions to this -- most notably Briggs & Riley who even cover damage caused by the airline -- but not many. Also, you'll need to hang on to your receipt. Many luggage manufacturers won't even talk to you about your broken bag without it.
You'll notice that we don't make any specific recommendations for "lightweight" luggage. That's because virtually all luggage made today is lightweight. Still, it's easy to make some mistakes when looking for bags that shave their weight down to the bare minimum, so be sure to take a look at what we have to say about that in our detailed discussion of lightweight luggage elsewhere in this report.
How we found the best luggage
The editors of ConsumerSearch are very experienced travelers, so we drew on our own knowledge to explain how airlines deal with baggage and some of the changes in the industry that have led to more fees and size restrictions. Then, for our specific luggage picks, we turned to the professional testers at sites like Fodor's and OutdoorGearLab.com. They put bags through their paces, sometimes for weeks, then report on durability and convenience. We also looked at roundups by travel experts at places like Forbes.com, SmarterTravel.com and Backpacker magazine. They don't always test the bags, but they're knowledgeable about travel and the needs of various types of travelers. We also combed through hundreds of owner reviews at sites like Amazon.com and eBags.com to find out how all of these bags hold up under real world use.