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. The zipper should also be waterproof or have a cover to keep moisture from seeping through it.
- 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.
- Replaceable wheels. Some bags now feature wheels that are easy to replace -- just use a screwdriver to remove the old wheel and put on a new one. Since wheels are often the first thing to go, this is a very good way to extend the life of a quality bag.
- 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 stow 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.
- 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 20- or 21-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 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 four 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.
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.
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.
Some tips for saving your travel money
It used to be that if you could travel with just a carry-on, you were free and clear as far as baggage fees are concerned, but that's not the case any longer; some airlines are now charging for carry-ons. Many airlines also charge you a fee for making reservations by phone, seat selection fees (which you need to keep in mind if you're traveling with children and want to be sure you sit with them), and steep fees for any ticket changes. Always double check your carrier's site for the most up-to-date information.
One way to get some of those fees waived is to stick with one airline. Most offer frequent flyer or loyalty programs that give your first checked bag free, waive ticketing fees, and offer priority boarding or other discounts. The best of the loyalty programs are usually tied to a specific credit card that has the airline's logo. The more you spend, the more points and perks you can earn. NerdWallet.com offers this comprehensive chart of the available travel-related credit cards and the perks they offer.
However, if you don't fly enough to make it worth your while to tie your spending to your travel, there are still ways to save money when flying. Good planning and learning how to pack smart can greatly reduce the amount of space you need, which may allow you to downsize to a carry-on sized suitcase.
Start by checking the weather where you're going. That will help you decide what type of clothing you need. Pare it down to the bare minimum. Then, learn to pack your suitcase to maximize its space. Google "packing tips" and you'll be able to find something for any situation. I, personally, am a huge fan of tips from flight attendants. In particular, this this slide show from the New York Times, which demonstrates how to pack for 10 days in a carry-on, got me through two weeks in England with just a 24-inch suitcase.