Choosing the Right Luggage

What's Right for You?
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Choosing what to carry your gear in as you wander the world is an important decision. My criteria for luggage are transportability, durability, accessibility, and security. With these in mind, let's review the strengths and weaknesses of various types of luggage: hard-sided, soft-sided, duffel bags, backpacks, daypacks, and the accessories that go with them.

Hard-sided Luggage
After watching poor quality, overstuffed luggage disintegrate in transit, baggage handlers recommend hard-sided luggage because of its durability. Of course, durability is important partly because of baggage handlers. However, I don't recommend a standard hard-sided suitcase for anything but a trip where you go to one place, stop, and return—a typical business trip. Weight is the major reason. A hard-sided suitcase adds an extra ten pounds or so beyond the weight of soft-sided luggage. When it's dead weight dangling at the end of one arm, you'll be ready to abandon it after the first mile.

Soft-sided Luggage
My first choice, and that of many travelers, is to carry the weight on my back. Nevertheless, some people cannot or prefer not to carry a backpack. Maybe it's a back problem, maybe an image problem, maybe just habit. If that's the case, look for soft-sided luggage made of 1,000-denier Cordura nylon or polyester. If it has wheels, make sure they are wide and sturdy, partly recessed or protected by housings (dainty little wheels won't stand up to rough surfaces and long distances), and make sure the luggage comes with a strong leash or handle. Look for a waterproof pocket and compression straps inside (to keep your gear from shifting). Good construction is important. Rivets are more durable than D-rings or screws for connecting shoulder straps and handles. Seams are usually encased in plastic for water-resistance, but casings of leather, shell fabric, or wide woven tape resist abrasion better.

The Lark E-Z Traveler Soft Piggyback (call 800-421-5275 for information) and the Samsonite Silhouette Piggyback (call 800-262-8282) have durable wheels, a retractable handle, and a strap. They're sturdy but expensive. The Lark, for example, can cost $300-$400, depending on size. An alternative is the Travelpro 727 Rollaboard (about $150), a soft-sided, roll-a-long bag small enough to be carried aboard. The Travelpro 777 (about $200) is a larger, check-in version. Although Travelpros are used by many airline crews, they have small wheels, which allow the bottom of the bag to scrape. If you'll be using the bag beyond the confines of plane and hotel, I'd consider something else.

Consumer Reports has given "Best Buy" status to the Samsonite Oyster ($90) and the Airway Atlantic Concept (also $90), even though the shells of both are only 600-denier. The TravelSmith Turbo Transit ($159) has something for everyone: 1000-denier Cordura, sturdy rubber wheels, a strong nylon strap for pulling, a leather handle, a pair of hidden shoulder straps so you can sling the whole thing onto your back, and a small pack that zips off the side for day trips. With the daypack zipped off, the Turbo Transit meets carry-on limits. Call (800) 950-1600 for the catalogue.

When you're shopping, picture yourself pulling the suitcase uphill on a winding lane in Greece. Are the wheels so thin they can't handle the cobblestones? Is the suitcase so high and narrow it will tip over every few feet? A suitcase that works fine for a European destination where it will be hoisted about by taxi drivers, porters, and bellmen (assuming you're willing to pay for their services) may be much less satisfactory where you are handling it yourself on subways and in bus stations. As you explore more deeply into the Third World, distances grow longer and the sun hotter.

Carefully examine brand name bags on sale in discount stores. Those bags are often inferior in quality to similar models sold in luggage shops. If you choose a shoddy bag, then stuff it to its limits, don't be surprised if it fails along the way. Improve the odds a bit by securing cheapo luggage with a couple of tough webbed luggage straps.

Duffel Bags
A duffel bag with a broad shoulder strap works well for some people, although, because it has no frame, it offers little protection for the contents. Consumer Reports gave a perfect rating to the L.L.Bean Sportsman ($109). It's made of 1,000-denier fabric and weighs only half as much (4.2 pounds) as most soft-sided luggage. Call 800-221-4221.

Eagle Creek (800-874-9925) cargo duffels and cargo gear bags are much less expensive than a good pack. Made of Cordura nylon, they range in size from 2,000 cubic inches up to 12,100 cubic inches and come with a good shoulder strap. The Eagle Creek Toy Chest (5,850 cubic inches, $149) has expandable side pockets, a comfortable shoulder strap, and lots of other goodies.

The BAD (Best American Duffel) Bag has some of the best workmanship I've seen in duffels. BAD Bags (call 800-424-2247) come in four sizes from 3,000 to 8,000 cubic inches. The 5,200 cubic inch bag sells for $104. Made of 1,000-denier Cordura Plus with a one-ounce urethane coating for water resistance, BAD Bags have two inside pockets, an outside pocket, a leather handle, a seat-belt nylon shoulder strap, two grab loops, and heavy-duty hardware. BAD Bags look great and are built to handle hard wear on the road. One model was chosen by Will Steger for his seven-month dogsled trip across Antarctica in 1990 and an Outside magazine writer wrote that "BAD Bags are the best all-around duffel bags available."

Because duffel bags hold so much, they can get very heavy. To address that problem, an interesting hybrid developed that has recessed rubber wheels on one end and a leash on the other (which, of course, makes them heavier still). If you go in this direction, I recommend getting one that has a shoulder strap. The L.L.Bean Large Ultimate Rolling Duffel (6,220 cubic inches, Cordura Plus, $140) is well made and comes with built-in fiberglass stays around the bottom. The Eddie Bauer textured nylon duffel bag with wheels has shoulder and waist straps (5,800 cubic inches, about $200; call 800-426-8020). The Briggs & Riley version looks very businesslike (about $180; 415-728-2000).

Backpacks
The days when backpacks were carried solely by hardcore hikers or hippies are long gone. They are now carried by travelers from across the entire economic spectrum. I've never grown fond of carrying a heavy weight on my back, but I consider a backpack the best choice for the type of travel I enjoy. It keeps me mobile, able to take my gear where I want to go without pulling my arm off. Using its harness, I can go farther, easier with a backpack than with any other form of luggage.

A good pack is made of tough fabric, provides easy access to its contents, can be locked up tight, and stands up to the rigors of any trip. For ten years, I had not one problem with my Kelty Kathmandu. When the main zipper finally failed, Kelty took the pack and replaced all the zippers and the back panel without charge. That's standing behind a product. To meet the criteria of durability, accessibility, security, and transportability, I recommend a convertible, interior frame backpack. "Convertible" means that the harness suspension system can be zipped out of sight behind a zippered panel. In that mode, resembling normal luggage more than a backpack, you can walk into a hotel or a bureaucrat's office without being stereotyped as a backpacker. Oh, the concierge in a five-star hotel will probably notice, but if he's as good as he should be he'll never raise an eyebrow. Besides, who wants to plan a trip around the expectations of a concierge?

If you're going on a lengthy wilderness excursion, you may prefer a backpack with an exterior metal frame to which a sleeping bag, climbing equipment, and other odds and ends can be attached. Otherwise, an interior frame pack is superior. It's lighter, less susceptible to damage, and less likely to get hung up on an airport carousel.

just GO! magazine (which has evolved into EcoTraveler) gave the Eagle Creek Continental Journey pack its highest rating: sturdy construction, 3,900 cubic inch capacity, Cordura Plus nylon, internal frame, lockable YKK zippers, and a zip-off daypack (4.3 pounds, about $170). The Eagle Creek Transport I backpack ($180) is very similar, except that it's a little heavier and more upscale in appearance. Another very popular Eagle Creek model is its smaller convertible called Solo Journey (about $100). Eagle Creek's most recent products are the Switchback ($195) and Switchback-Plus ($245). The former is a convertible backpack with built in rubber wheels and a pull-frame. The Plus version adds a zip-off daypack. Consumer Reports liked the L.L.Bean Travel Pack ($99) and the Jansport China Clipper ($140). The Jansport Vagabond Travel Pack (6,240 cubic inches, $150) also gets good reviews. REI and Kelty packs also receive consistently good reviews from travelers.

Daypacks
In addition to one principal piece of luggage, I use a daypack to carry a book, journal, pens, maps, fruit, sunglasses, camera and film, medical supplies such as band aids and sunscreen, and, usually, a bottle of water—things to which I want easy access. I do not use it for carrying things that belong in my money belt. My daypack has one main compartment and two smaller ones, all with lockable zippers. It's a dark color and leaves home well treated with Scotchgard. Apply the same standards of quality for a daypack as for a backpack. You'll rely on it for years, so go for quality.

Some women prefer, especially when traveling in Europe, a purse-equivalent to a daypack. If that's your choice, be sure it is sturdy and defensible, with a secure clasp and a tough strap. If you can do without a purse, you should.

That leads to the topic of a fanny pack. It should never be used as a storage place for valuables. It's probably better for carrying non-valuables than a purse, but a thief may strike anyway since he won't know what you have in it. If interested in a fanny pack, they are sold everywhere. Some of the most ingenious are offered by L.L.Bean. To show how far uptown they've come, there are now modular system fanny packs with zip-off gear pouches, mesh water bottle holsters, urethane-coated packcloth for water-repellency, external tie-downs (for things like a wind shell), a padded back panel, and a Scotchlite reflective strip on the back. What would Daniel Boone think?

Baggage Limits
Not surprisingly, airlines limit the size and weight of luggage they permit passengers to check or carry aboard. Since luggage is more secure and protected from loss and rough handling if you carry it aboard, you need to know carry-on size limits. Further, you need to know check-in limits so you aren't forced to leave a bag behind in some remote airport. This information should be one of the factors affecting your choice of luggage.

The bad news is that because rules differ from airline to airline and change frequently, I can only give you guidelines. You need the facts applicable to your specific trip. Learning weight and size limitations will save money. If your luggage is overweight at the airport, a point at which you have little bargaining power, you may pay a stiff penalty. Penalties for excess baggage start at $45 per bag and increase from there.

As a general proposition, the cheaper your plane ticket (relative to other tickets for the same flight), the more strict the limits on weight, size, and number of pieces. In the United States, weight limits are seldom a problem, except on small planes taking you to small places. Most airlines will accept bags weighing up to 70 pounds. Typically, you are permitted to check two pieces of luggage and carry one aboard. Sometimes you're allowed to check a third piece in place of the carry-on. A briefcase or collapsible luggage cart could technically count as part of your allowance but seldom does. Reading material, 35mm cameras, binoculars, and similar items are not counted.

There are no standardized international weight or size limits, but a maximum of 44 pounds is not unusual. For checked luggage, a total size of 62 inches (length + width + height) for one piece is common for economy class (with a total of 106 inches allowed for two pieces). Enforcement is erratic. In Bangkok, I've watched many passengers check four to six heavily strapped bags, each large enough to conceal a small water buffalo.

Carry-on luggage is often limited to a total of 45 inches for under-the-seat (9 + 14 + 22), 60 inches for overhead (10 + 14 + 36), and 72 inches for a garment bag (4 + 23 + 45). Some airlines have a wonderfully simple solution. They place a wooden box near the gate. If you can cram your bag into it, you may carry it on board. If not, it doesn't go. I've listened to passengers scream in rage when told their bags were too large to be carried aboard.

If you're about to get socked for an overweight penalty, be creative. Reclaim your luggage. Unpack and dress in as much as you need to (there is no limit on that yet). Load up your daypack. If nothing else works and the circumstances are right, leave a little currency in your ticket envelope (this is not recommended in the United States, Canada, and most of Europe).

© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press. All rights reserved.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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