Ultimate Luggage Buying Guide

Ultimate Luggage Buying Guide

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Once upon a time, we could sleep late, stuff everything in a backpack and duffel bag, and scramble to the airport in time to catch a plane.

Ah, how life and travel have changed. Buying new luggage might seem like a burden, but in fact, good luggage is a must-have for any traveler—whether you’re heading somewhere exotic, or just to Nana’s house for the weekend.

When it’s time to buy new luggage, it’s hard to know where to start. Which brand? Wheels or no wheels? How big or how small? In this guide, RAVE Reviews answers these questions and a whole lot more, combining our research with the expert input from travel writers and luggage industry experts.

By the end of this guide, not only will you know everything about luggage, you’ll have found luggage that suits you—and your style of travel—perfectly.

What Kind of Luggage Do I Need?

Perhaps the second most profound question we can ask in life, right next to “To be or not to be?” is “What kind of luggage do I need?” Okay, we’re kidding, but when it comes to buying luggage, answering this question is step one.

Before deciding what kind of luggage you need, answering these questions will go a long way toward helping you find the kind of luggage that suits you best.

How Do You Like to Travel?

How you like to travel means more than whether you’re taking a boat up the Amazon river, or whether you’re more of a hang around the hotel pool–type vacationer. When answering this question, first consider the means by which you like to reach your destination

If flying is how you like to roll…err… fly…then you’ll want to familiarize yourself with airline requirements and fees for carry-on and checked luggage. How much money you want to spend flying with your luggage can play a big part in luggage size, and you’ll also want to think about time spent getting to and from the airport—choosing luggage with things like wheels and highly ergonomic handles can help.

Cruise ships, for example, stack luggage in the storage compartment of the boat. If there’s a cruise on your agenda, then look for hard-sided, rigid luggage that won’t be easily damaged (we’ll tell you more about hardshell luggage later).

If a road trip is in your future, then your options are a little more open. But still, you’ll want to measure the trunk of your vehicle just to make sure your bags are going to fit.

How Will You Store Your Luggage?

As much as we might like to always be traveling, sometimes your luggage is just going to need to be stored when you’re not on the road. So when choosing bags, consider your suitcase storage capacity. 

This extends beyond just the size of the luggage. If you have to store luggage on its side and stacked on top itself, you’ll want to stay away from soft-sided luggage. But soft-side luggage also has a little extra give to squeeze into tight spaces—there’s a trade-off.

How Long Will You Be Traveling?

The length of your trip also makes a big difference in not only the kind of luggage you need, but how much luggage you need. 

If you mostly travel for business, be sure to find luggage that can accomodate business attire without turning it into a big wrinkly mess. A long weekend at the beach lets you choose from a much broader selection of luggage.

What Brand Should You Pick?

Now that you’ve got some groundwork laid, it’s time to consider luggage brands. We hear you. There are a lot, and they all tell you they’re the best. How do you know? Here’s how to evaluate a luggage brand:

A good place to start is consumer reviews. But this too can be overwhelming if you don’t know what  to look for. 

When reading luggage brand consumer reviews, keep an eagle-eye out for the following:

Wheels

Not just whether or not your luggage has wheels, but what kind of wheels and how durable are those wheels? Also, are the wheels covered under warranty?

Durability

Nobody wants luggage that breaks down right away (or worse, in the middle of a trip). So in addition to the overall durability of the luggage, there’s also how well important parts of the luggage hold up over time. Including:

  • Zippers
  • Handles
  • Fabric
  • Storage compartments
  • All other features

Mobility

Next, check out how mobile the luggage is. This means more than just whether or not it has wheels. How heavy is it when there’s nothing packed in it? After all, you’ll have to lug that thing up and into overhead luggage compartments or into and out of the trunk of your car.

Shopping Experience

Following mobility, check out the luggage brand’s overall shopping experience. In addition to warranties and return policies, ask yourself these questions:

  • Can you reach them by phone?
  • Are they online only?
  • Can you find their product at a local outlet for some face-to-face customer support? 

The last thing you want from a luggage brand is a runaround just when you need their help the most. 

Which Is Better: Hard or Soft Luggage?

The next thing to consider before buying luggage is whether you prefer hard-sided or soft-sided luggage. 

Here’s what you need to know about each type, as well as other kinds of luggage, including carry-on, checked luggage, and personal item bags.

For years, soft-sided luggage has been the go-to. But these days, hard-sided luggage is closing the gap with newer, lightweight materials.

But there are pros and cons to each style of luggage.

Hard-Sided Luggage

Once upon a time, hard-sided luggage was heavy and bulky, so naturally many consumers preferred the lighter and more flexible soft-sided variety. 

These days, however, hard-sided luggage is made from high-tech plastics like ABS and polycarbonate, which are much lighter and but just as durable as many older kinds of plastics. And the toughest—and heaviest!—hard-sided luggage out there is made from aluminum.

Most often, hard-sided luggage is made with a 50-50 split opening, sort of like a clamshell, and both sides can be packed equally with the contents held in place with something like an X-strap or divider. 

“Hard shell luggage can be a great choice for those looking for a strong and protective suitcase,” Anna Digregorio, operations manager with RockLuggage.com, tells RAVE Reviews.  “The hard exterior can make for a great way to keep your possessions secure and intact, with the ability to withstand hard impact,” she says.

An added bonus is that hard-shell luggage can be easily cleaned. “However, they can be heavier unpacked and harder to close if you’re stuffing in extra souvenirs,” Digregario adds. 

And since hardshell luggage can and face be made from a variety of materials, she has some tips for choosing:

 ABS 

Hard-sided luggage made from ABS is lightweight and durable, and it offers the best value for the money, Digregario says.

Polypropylene

Polypropylene, on the other hand, is lightweight and durable—a long-lasting and resilient material.

Polycarbonate 

And last, polycarbonate, a premium ultra-strong, heavy-duty material that’s slightly heavier than all the other options, Digregario adds.

Note: since most hard-sided luggage opens like a clamshell, it means you’ll need twice as much space when packing or unpacking. Keep that in mind before choosing hardshell luggage.

Pros of Hard-Sided Luggage:

  • Traveling with fragile objects? Choose hard-sided suitcases.
  • Stacks easily (good for cruise ships)

Cons of Hard-Sided Luggage:

  • Can’t be overstuffed (if you tend to overpack, this could be a good thing)
  • Gets scuffed pretty easily

Soft-Sided Luggage

Soft-sided luggage, on the other hand, is made from yielding fabrics like ballistic nylon, Cordura, or even sometimes ripstop nylon, or “parachute” material, which is among the heaviest but most durable options. 

Each of these materials have varying degrees of resistance to abrasion, and each will affect the weight of your bag, but all make soft-sided luggage much more durable than it once was.

As a rule, soft-sided luggage is lighter weight than hard-sided luggage. It can also flex and compress into tight spots like overhead luggage compartments. 

Anna Digregorio from RockLuggage.com says if you choose soft-sided luggage, be sure to check for a waterproof lining in order to keep your items dry. “The other area you will need to focus on is that even the most durable and resistant fabrics can rip,” she says. “Despite this being an easy fix, it can be frustrating.”

Note: Since soft-sided luggage has more flex, you can squeeze in extra stuff while you’re packing. If you tend to overpack, this might not help keep you in check. 

Pros of Soft-Sided Luggage:

  • Lightweight and flexible
  • Conforms to tight spaces

Cons of Soft-Sided Luggage:

  • Not as secure as hard-sided luggage
  • Rips and tears possible

With the pros and cons of hard-sided vs. soft-sided luggage out of the way, it’s now time to talk a bit about different types of suitcases.

In this next section, we’ll tell you what you need to know about carry-on luggage, a personal item bag, and checked luggage, as well as some pointers for deciding which kinds of bag you need to have available based on your style of travel.

What Are the Different Types of Luggage?

Before going any further, this next section assumes you’re traveling by plane. If you’re planning a road trip or perhaps a cruise, then you’re in luck! These guidelines are less applicable, but still worth bearing in mind.

Carry-On Luggage

The first type of luggage we’ll examine more closely is carry-on luggage. Perfect for air travel (carry-on meaning able to be carried on to a plane), the best luggage for carry-ons is smaller than other types of luggage. For domestic U.S. flights, carry-on luggage must conform to the following dimensions, in height, width and depth:

  • H: 22 inches
  • W: 14 inches
  • D: 9 inches

In addition, the maximum linear size is 45 inches. It’s also important to note that different airlines have different carry-on policies listed on their websites, so be sure to check with your specific airline before traveling. For international travel, carry-on luggage is often required to be even smaller. We’ll tell you more about how to measure luggage a little later on.

But no matter how carefully you measure luggage, there’s no guarantee you won’t end up having to check it. Some people purchase multiple pieces of carry-on luggage to try and get around the rules, but even that doesn’t always work. So be aware: carry-on luggage can turn into checked luggage with no warning and at the discretion of an airline.

There is also carry-on wheeled luggage that can convert to a backpack, offering the best of both worlds. Erin Andrews of Indichocolate.com travels the world to source her product, and she uses the Gear Warrior Convertible Carry On from Eagle Creek when traveling. 

The Gear Warrior is a carry-on-sized wheeled bag that converts to a backpack, and even has a 

small, detachable backpack for ultimate flexibility. “Everything fits inside the main cabin of the plane,” Andres tells RAVE Reviews, without the need to check bags.

“Having wheels when you want them and a real backpack with lumbar support when you need it will get you through most travel adventures with ease,” Andrews continues. 

“The double backpack keeps my hands free for whatever I have in front of me,” she says, while the smaller, detachable backpack is great for hiking to the remote areas Andrews visits while traveling, “as well as day trips wherever I go,” Andrews says.

Personal Item Bag

A personal item bag is small enough to fit under the seat of your plane. Think: briefcases, small backpacks, and laptop bags, among others. Most bags of this nature are designed specifically for the item they’re meant to carry, with extra padding to keep a camera safe and secure, for example. 

The advantages of a personal item bag include the fact they often offer lots of different pockets and other compartments to stash pens, wallets, and other small personal items. You might even be able to bring along a few items of clothing, but never more than what might be required for an overnighter.

But there’s no universal measurement for what fits under an airplane seat and what doesn’t, and it changes a lot from airline to airline—again, check the airline’s website before flying. 

It’s important to know that whether or not your personal item bag fits under the seat can even depend on where you’re sitting on the plane. Aisle seats are known for having less room underneath.

So before traveling with a personal item bag, check the airline’s website and also consider where on the plane you’re seated. It can make a lot of difference.

Tip: An airline’s guideline for pet carriers size will give you a rough idea of what will fit under the seat.

Checked Luggage

A bag that’s too large to fit in an overhead compartment or under the seat of the plane is called checked luggage. Because of its size, the suitcase must be checked by the airline and transported to your destination in the luggage compartment of the plane. 

This costs money, so many people try to avoid checking luggage, but sometimes it’s simply unavoidable.

Most often, checked luggage can reach up to 30 inches in height, but weight is also a factor. Overweight luggage will accrue additional fees, so it’s best to plan accordingly. And again, all this changes from airline to airline, so study up before you fly. 

What an airline charges to check luggage also varies a lot from airline to airline, ranging from as low as $10 on some budget airlines up to $150 with other airlines. That’s a lot, so do your research. But then there’s Southwest Airlines, which lets you check two bags free of charge.

Tip: Some airlines give customers a break on checked luggage fees if tickets are purchased with an airline branded credit card—something to consider if you’re a frequent traveler.

We’ve talked a bit about the weight of your luggage once packed, but what about the weight of your luggage with nothing in it? 

How Much Should My Luggage Weigh?

Buy luggage that’s too heavy without anything even in it, and you won’t be able to pack much without exceeding airline carry-on luggage limits. For this reason, It’s best to look for luggage that’s as lightweight as possible. But how light?

Here’s a breakdown by luggage type:

  • Non-wheeled suitcase: 2 to 4 lbs.
  • Wheeled luggage: Maximum of 7.5 lbs.

Stick within these guidelines and you should be able to pack adequately without the actual suitcase adding too much unnecessary weight. 

All that aside, though, any traveler should first ask themselves how much they’re physically able to carry when considering the weight of their suitcase—the perfect weight won’t do much good if it’s just too heavy for you to lift.

“Regardless if it has wheels or not,” says travel and food writer Mary Chong for the website CalculatedTraveler.com, “at some point on your journey you’ll have to lift a fully-packed suitcase up a set of stairs, or load it into a taxi unassisted.”

Chong suggests buying the lightest, most compact piece of luggage a traveler can afford for maximum freedom and maneuverability, “so that you don’t need a chiropractor visit upon your return home.”

Other Parts of Luggage to Consider

With luggage type and weight both packed and unpacked out of the way, further parts of luggage to take a hard look at when shopping for suitcases include zippers, luggage handles, additional compartments, luggage locks, and extra “smart” features.

Zippers

There are two common types of zippers: chain and coil. 

Chain zippers are usually made of metal and work with two sets of interlocking teeth. They’re much stronger than coil zippers. 

Usually made from polyester, coil zippers slide on parallel coils. 

Given the difference in construction, chain zippers break less easily than coil zippers, and coil zippers can even sometimes be opened with just a ballpoint pen—not very secure at all! 

Having a zipper give out on your luggage, especially while traveling but really any time in the life of a suitcase, but can spell disaster—or at least a massive headache.

In the event your zipper pull should happen to break while traveling, Erin Andrews from Indichocolate.com has a quick fix: a friendship bracelet.

“They make a great luggage pull for when your zipper pull breaks, she says, “and they will 

help you easily identify your bag wherever you are.”

Tip: To make sure you’re getting the highest quality zipper possible, look for a YKK zipper, widely believed to be among the most reliable zippers available. 

Handles

Now let’s talk about luggage handles. Most suitcases these days have retractable handles. For maximum comfort, look for a handle with the following:

  • Adjustable length
  • Soft-grip handle

Another advantage to retractable handles is that they’re less prone to damage, since they completely disappear inside the suitcase, 

Two-post handles, common in two-wheeled luggage, allow travelers to conveniently strap another small personal item, like a laptop bag, on top of the suitcase while in motion, or simply rest it there when not in motion.

Travel writer and journalist Alejandra Cerball  of AlexCerball.com says when it comes to handles, look for luggage with grips on the side as well as on the top. 

“Handles on the side and top to make it easy to pick up and store in the overhead bin compartment,” she says.

 “Some carry-on cases don’t have the side handle, which allows for a slimmer design, but I prefer one that does, so I can pick it up with ease.”

Additional Compartments

Additional compartments are also important when choosing the right luggage for your travel style. 

Some suitcases these days feature a spot for a laptop. And when traveling for business, it’s extra important your luggage doesn’t turn your clothing into a wrinkly mess. 

To avoid this, look for luggage with what’s called a suiter—sort of like a garment bag included inside your suitcase.

Sagar Sahay, travel writer and founder of the travel website AlphaRagas.com says he checks for vented sections in his luggage for better airflow. 

“And compression straps are a must,” he says, to maximize packing space and help keep items safe and secure. 

Ralph Cope, creative lead for the website The BrokeBackpacker.com agrees proper compartmentalization in luggage is crucial. 

“Having areas where specific items go is very important to keep all of your items organized,” he says.

In addition, Cope says the last thing a traveler wants is to spend hours packing all of their stuff nice and neat in their suitcase only to find it’s a mess once they reach their destination. To avoid this, he says, consider your packing system. 

“Having built-in compartments for different items, like a laptop sleeve, toiletry pouch, and removable cases, really makes packing and staying organized easier,” he says.

Note: compartments on the outside of your bag can affect the dimensions of your luggage and compliance with carry-on policies. 

The last thing you want is to measure your luggage prior to packing exterior compartments only to show up at the airport to learn you’ll have to shell out more money in checked luggage fees.

Locks

To help keep your personal belongings safe and secure while you’re out on the road, look for luggage with a lock. 

Many suitcase manufacturers build what’s called a TSA-compliant lock into their products. 

TSA agents can open TSA-compliant locks with a master key in the event a suspicious item is detected at security, all without having to cut or damage the bag. 

You can, of course, add additional locks to your bag, and some luggage brands offer additional non-TSA-compliant locks. 

For more information, check with the manufacturer. Just keep in mind, if TSA detects or suspects something suspicious in your luggage, they will cut off or force open non-TSA-compliant locks, which can permanently damage your luggage. 

Note: You can buy an aftermarket TSA-compliant lock, sometimes at the airport itself. Whether or not a lock is TSA-compliant will be listed on the packaging. 

“Smart” Features

Smart devices are everywhere these days. To help accommodate travel with smart devices, luggage brands are even adding smart capabilities to the classic suitcase. That can include the following:

  • Digital location tracking
  • Built-in digital scales
  • Digital locks
  • Proximity sensors
  • Trip tracking

Many modern suitcases even feature extra compartments to store devices, or attach a power source to keep all your electronics charged up while you’re on the move.

Note: On the subject of batteries and travel, Federal Aviation Administration rules prohibit lithium-ion batteries in checked luggage. Stash them in your carry-on luggage instead with the contacts covered to help prevent short-circuits. 

Alejandra Cerball has an additional, and often overlooked, luggage feature to suggest: color. “Opt for a colorful style or a neutral color, so it stands out, and you don’t have any missing luggage mishaps,” she says. 

“A lot of bags look alike, and if you’re sticking with black, add a colorful luggage tag so you can tell the difference,” she continues. “There is nothing more annoying than getting off a long flight and realizing your suitcase is not on the carousel.”

How Many Wheels Should My Luggage Have?

Of all the luggage features, perhaps the most important is wheels. There’s two-wheel, four-wheel, and no-wheel. Here’s how to choose, with some pros and cons of each.

Two-Wheeled Luggage

Two-wheeled suitcases glide along on the same kind of wheels used on in-line skates. These bags only roll forward and backward, pulled along by an extendable handle. 

Pros of Two-Wheeled Luggage:

The wheels are recessed to protect them against snapping off over rough terrain. If you tend to travel a lot to urban areas, choose two-wheeled luggage, since this style maneuvers better over sidewalks and pavement. 

Cons of Two-Wheeled Luggage:

Pulling the suitcase can cause some arm and shoulder pain for some people. Recessed wheels also intrude on packing space, and bags in this style can also be a little tough to get around with in crowds because they require extra clearance. 

Four-Wheeled Luggage

Four-wheeled suitcases, also called spinners, boast four wheels that can each spin 360 degrees. This means these bags can go forward, backward, and side-to-side, and in all different directions. As you can see, these bags are mobile. 

Pros of Four-Wheeled Luggage:

This mobility makes four-wheeled luggage the best choice for crowds and small spaces. Also, if you need a large and heavy suitcase, it’s best to pick one with four wheels because you aren’t limited to pulling the bag; you can also push it. This also cuts down on shoulder stress. 

Cons of Four-Wheeled Luggage:

Spinner wheels aren’t recessed like rollers, so they are prone to snapping off. This also affects the carry-on-ability of spinners, since all measurements include the added length of the non-recessed wheels. So there’s a trade-off: recessed wheels literally cut down on the space with which you have to pack your stuff, but non-recessed wheels add length, which effectively cuts down on packing space.

The risk of wheels snapping off can be mitigated somewhat by choosing wheels attached with screws instead of wheels attached with rivets.

Another thing to consider about rollers is that on hills and inclines they tend to… well, roll. It’s best to lay a bag like this on its side or back to prevent it from taking a trip of its own. 

And remember, if you’re buying in-store and you’re testing the wheels, the floor in the store will likely be much smoother than almost any kind of surface you encounter while traveling, says Anna Digregorio from RockLuggage.com.

“A smooth shop floor will be far more pleasant to move around on!” she says. “You will need to take into account that your suitcase will be used on rougher ground, or ground with cobbles. So when considering the wheels, make sure to take this into account.”

No-Wheel Luggage

No-wheel luggage requires very little explanation: it’s luggage without any wheels at all. 

Why on earth would anyone want luggage that doesn’t roll, you ask? 

Turns out there are a few good reasons to choose no-wheel luggage. Chiefly, travelers can take full advantage of packing space without recessed wheels taking up space or non-recessed wheels adding length, among others.

Pros of No-Wheel Luggage:

You might also want no-wheel luggage if you’re traveling somewhere extra bumpy, or even slick—pretty much any surface on which wheels wouldn’t work very well anyway. 

Another possibility is if you need to pack as much as possible for a trip in which you won’t be handling your luggage much, like a high-end cruise, for example.

Cons of No-Wheel Luggage: 

No wheels means you’re carrying it, not pulling it. That can be less than fun.

Additional Luggage Shopping Do’s and Don’ts

Should I Buy Luggage Online?

There are lots of places to buy suitcases these days, both online and in traditional brick-and-mortar stores. 

How to choose? Buying in-store offers many of the traditional benefits of in-person shopping, like face-to-face customer service, including the ability to ask questions and talk to a real human. 

You can also return to the store for follow-up customer service issues.

Buying online, however, can sometimes offer better selection and more affordable prices. Be careful to read all product descriptions and customer reviews. 

On the downside, you have to wait for your luggage to ship (no immediate gratification) and all customer service issues will likely have to be addressed online.

Always Measure It Yourself

A big advantage of buying in-store is the ability to measure the luggage on your own. Because, let’s face it, luggage brands always claim their product is carry-on compliant but that isn’t always the case. 

So find out your airline’s carry-on capacity and measure the luggage for yourself. Here’s how:

  • Luggage height is always measured up and down
  • To measure the width of your bag, measure left to right
  • Luggage depth is measured front to back

You’ll then add all those numbers together to get the linear inches. To avoid any unpleasant (and expensive) surprises once you get to the airport, be sure to add the following into your measurements:

  • Soft and retractable handles
  • Wheels or standing pegs

Which brings us now to luggage construction material. 

The relative thickness of the material can make a difference in the thickness of the bag. Leather and nylon, for example, have about the same thickness, but many modern high-performance materials are much thinner. 

Your luggage frame can also add size, meaning two bags with pretty much the same exterior dimensions can actually be different on the inside in terms of packing space.

Note: your bag might meet carry-on size requirements, but it will still need to be shaped in such a fashion as to fit either under the seat of a plane or in the overhead compartment.

Test the Handles

Next, give that handle a test run.

  • If it’s retractable, see how well it extends and retracts
  • Test the comfort of the grip. How’s the handle construction seem to you? 
  • Is the handle attached with rivets or screws? 
  • Is it wobbly at all, or does it feel secure? 

Test the Wheels

Moving on to the wheels, wheel your luggage around and if possible over some variable terrain. Do the wheels roll smoothly? 

You don’t want the wheels giving out on you in the middle of the trip, or not be durable enough surfaces wherever it is you’re traveling to.

Take a Look Inside

So far we’ve talked a lot about the exterior of your luggage, but what about the inside? The inside is important because that’s where you actually pack your stuff. 

The thing is, luggage manufacturers don’t usually disclose the interior dimensions of their product, so it’s up to you to make sure it’ll work for you. 

Here’s what to check for on the inside of your luggage:

  • Are the interior edges square or rounded? Curved corners cut down on precious packing space.
  • Are the outer compartments integrated? If the outside zippered compartments of your luggage aren’t on the same geometric plane as the rest of your bag, it wastes space, so avoid protruding extra compartments whenever possible.

Of course, the best way to maximize the interior space of your luggage is to forgo wheels and handles entirely, but as we covered earlier, luggage with no wheels or handles presents its own set of challenges.

Check the Warranty

And last but perhaps most importantly, don’t buy luggage without first taking a close and thorough look at the warranty. 

  • A lifetime warranty to replace the bag is the best case scenario
  • What are the exclusions for airline damage or other kinds of specific damage that might void the warranty?

When buying luggage, you want to feel secure that the brand will stand by their products from beginning to end, with no nasty surprises if something should go wrong while traveling.

Which Luggage Will You Choose?

With this ultimate luggage buying guide you should be ready to choose the best luggage for your travels. Happy shopping, and may your new suitcases be the perfect companion on all your adventures!

William Kennedy

William Kennedy is a staff writer for RAVE Reviews. He lives in Eugene, OR with his wife, daughter, and 2 cats, who all politely accommodate his obsession with Doctor Who and The Smiths.