The Complete & In-Depth Guide to Buying Luggage

Luggage Buying Guide

It’s no surprise when buying travel luggage, you’re looking for something that’s mainly durable and affordable. For others, factors such as style, design, movability, weight, softshell vs. hardshell, etc. also play a role. With countless brands on the market, and a plethora of options to choose from, it’s important that you buy the luggage that’s going to fit your specific needs and get your belongings to your destination safely.

What Kind of Luggage do I need?

The easy answer to this question is… it depends. You need to ask yourself a couple different questions before you begin searching.

How often do you travel?

Do you normally travel by car, plane, boat, train, etc.?

What’s the average length of your stay?

Do you travel mainly domestic, international, or both?

Do you store any valuables or easily damaged items in your luggage?

Are you strong enough to carry all of your belongings through an entire airport?

Are you willing to check a bag if it isn’t considered a carry-on?

These are just a few questions to consider before making any purchase. If you’re someone who travels often, more than a couple times a year, it may be worth investing in a higher end luggage set. On the other hand, if you’re a first-time buyer who only needs this for a single summer trip to the Bahamas, then you’ll probably be able to get by with the regular old duffle bag in the closet.

Generally speaking, if the length of your trip is longer, then you’ll want a larger piece of luggage, potentially a multi-piece set. This not only makes it easier to sort your belongings, but a matching set is also stylish.

Camera Equipment Bag

Camera equipment is an example of an expensive item that could be smashed or broken during travel.

Do you normally store any easily damaged items in your luggage? This could be anything from colognes, perfumes, small electronics, to camera equipment and more. If so, you may consider investing in hard shell luggage. This luggage is rigid and often made of thicker plastic that won’t bend or break. Thus protecting all of the contents inside from outside abuse.

Are you able to carry all of your belongings through an entire airport? Even if you are fit enough, it isn’t exactly enjoyable and no one wants to board the plane dripping in sweat. Unless, it is a very short trip, as in a few days or less, buy luggage with wheels.

Hard-Side vs. Soft-Side Luggage

Also known as hard shell and soft shell luggage, these terms refer to the outer material the luggage is made out of it. The majority of today’s hard-side luggage is made out of ABS plastic. ABS plastic is an easily recyclable material, that is used to make common products such as computer keyboards, Legos, power-tool housing, and much more[1]. It’s weather-resistant, durable, comes in a variety of finishes.

Hardsided luggage

ABS plastic is one of the most common materials used to make hard-sided luggage.

Soft-side luggage is typically composed of a tough nylon, or canvas material that flexes and moves with ease. This makes it ideal to use for carry-on bags since it can be placed into tighter places compared to its rigid counterpart. Additionally, soft-sided luggage will almost always be lighter than a hard-sided piece, thus reducing your chances of your bag being flagged at check-in.

Hard-Side Luggage

Pros

  • Protects contents from being smashed and other outside abuse.
  • More water resistant than soft-sided luggage.
  • Can’t be cut or torn open with a sharp object from a would-be thief.
  • Easy to stack in a car, plane, or cruise ship.
  • Almost always has at least 2 (usually 4) wheels built-in.

Cons

  • Can’t be pushed into tighter spaces because rigidity.
  • Some brands scuff easier than others, making unsightly marks.
  • Heavier than most soft-sided models. Could be a problem if the bag is overweight at check-in.

Soft-Side Luggage

Pros

  • Easily placed in tight spaces.
  • Has outside pockets that can easily be accessed for quick items like a phone charger.
  • Won’t show scuff marks. Any dirt or debris can be cleaned off easily.
  • Some models offer a built-in interior shell that provides additional protection against outside bumps and drops.

Cons

  • Seams can rip if the bag is overpacked, or made of cheap materials.
  • Most models are 2 wheeled or less, making it more difficult to transport long walking distances.
  • Does not provide nearly as much protection as a hard-side model.

Why do the Wheels Matter?

It’s a given that having wheels (also called ‘casters’) makes travel a gazillion times easier on your back and forearms. There’s no need to get into that discussion here. What you do want to pay attention to is the type, number, and size of the wheels.

The first, and most important, is whether the wheels are fixed or spinners. Fixed wheels are what you would probably see on a rolling backpack. They do not have the ability to pivot, and can only move in one direction (forward and back). If you slide the backpack laterally, the wheels can’t move and will cause the bag to tip. Most two wheeled bags will have this type of wheel installed.

hard sided luggage spinner wheels

A hard-sided suitcase with spinner wheels.

Spinner wheels, on the other hand, can pivot and swivel in different directions. They can move forward and back, laterally, and diagonally. Instead of having to tilt you bag to roll it, these bags can sit all on all fours and be rolled with less effort. Almost every four-wheeled luggage piece has these types of wheels installed.

luggage fixed wheels

A rolling suitcase with fixed wheels.

The second factor to pay attention to is the number of wheels. The more wheels a bag has, the smoother the movement will generally be. Bags can have anywhere from zero to eight wheels. Ones with eight wheels will have two wheels on each corner, thus offering more contact points for a smoother ride.

Lastly, pay attention to the size of the wheels. Unfortunately, most manufacturers don’t openly list the size or width of luggage wheels. This makes it difficult to compare, especially if you’re online. However, keep in mind the larger the wheels, both in height and width, the better the ride. Larger wheels make the ride smoother and easier to get over any cracks or debris in the way.

With all this being said, what are the best wheels to have on a suitcase? If you can afford it, get a bag that has four or eight spinner wheels. Although it’ll vary from brand to brand, this setup will probably give you the smoothest ride. At the very least, get a bag that has at least two wheels, fixed or spinner, for your larger luggage pieces. This will make traveling easier and more enjoyable.

How to Secure your Luggage while Traveling

Travel Sentry Lock

A TSA approved combination lock.

A big concern amongst travelers is theft, especially if you’re bringing expensive belongings with you or traveling to an unfamiliar area. Most suitcases nowadays have zippers that allow you to place a lock on your luggage if one isn’t already built in. A luggage lock can serve two useful purposes here: One, protect your belongings from theft, and two, prevent your bag from accidentally opening after being checked-in.

If your luggage must be searched for ‘x’ reason, you’ll want to be sure the lock you have is TSA approved. If it isn’t, then TSA will have to cut your lock off, which won’t be replaced. TSA works with a number of companies to develop locks that can only be opened by TSA with their master key.

Built-in vs. Add-on Locks

Built in TSA Lock

A TSA approved lock built-in to the suitcase.

Whenever possible, look for suitcases that have a TSA approved lock built-in. Apart from convenience and inability to misplace it, these locks won’t get snagged or caught in conveyor belts. When your bag is moving from one conveyor belt to the next, there is a small gap between the belts. A dangling lock can get caught in this gap, ripping it off and ruining the zippers of your luggage.

If your luggage doesn’t have a lock built-in, you can still attach one and it’ll probably be alright. However, I would recommend avoiding the cable style locks as these tend dangle more than the padlock style locks.

One feature add-on locks have above their built-in counterparts is some offer an “open alert indicator.” Essentially this a small indicator that turns red when an agent has to inspect your baggage. This will let you know to double check and make sure nothing has been misplaced while you’re still at the airport.

If you’re paranoid about the lock getting snagged, or don’t have time to go out and purchase a lock, use zip ties. Although anyone can cut them off, they will at least keep your bag from opening up. If TSA does have to cut it off and check your bag, simply bring a few extras to place on zippers after you get your bag back.

Additional Areas to Check

Zippers

If the zippers break, then your suitcase is virtually worthless at that point. There are two types of zippers used on most luggage: chain and coil. While both look almost identical to the naked eye, a closer inspection says otherwise.

Chain zippers have a set of metal teeth on both sides, which interlock as the bag is closed. Coil zippers have a set of nylon or plastic coils that are layered as the slider moves up. Because of this design and material used, coil zippers are usually inferior, in terms of durability, to chain zippers.

Most modern suitcases are made with a chain zipper so you don’t normally have to check. However, if you find yourself buying from an unknown brand, you may want to ask the seller what kind it is. Don’t be alarmed if the seller doesn’t know, a simpler question may be if the zipper is metal or plastic.

Coil plastic and metal zippers

A chain zipper is seen on top (black) and a coil zipper in the middle (orange).

Handle

The majority of rolling suitcases today have a telescoping handle. If you’re purchasing in store, it isn’t a bad idea to test out the smoothness of its movement. How sturdy does it feel? Does it lock into place easily? Overall, get a feel for its movement and pay attention to any hiccups or areas where it seems to get stuck.

Summary

All in all, be practical with what you plan on buying. Consider the frequency of you travel and the belongings you normally take with you. Make moving from point A to point B easier and consider a suitcase with wheels. In the end you know your situation better than anyone, so go with what makes sense to you.

Do you have an idea of what you’re looking for? Check out some of the links below to guide you to more specific models.

[1] https://www.creativemechanisms.com/blog/everything-you-need-to-know-about-abs-plastic


Originally published at Brian M. Fischer.