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More Factors when Choosing Suitcases

How to make sense of all your different choices

Bags are available in all shapes and colors and sizes.

This page continues a discussion of the features to look for and consider when choosing a new suitcase.

.Part 2 of a 3 part series - click for Parts  One  Two  Three



In the first part of this series, we considered some obvious issues such as the size of different suitcases and the not so obvious implications of this, their cost, factors to consider in terms of your intended use, and what the different choices of suitcase actually offer in the form of ultimate value.

In this second part, we look at more of the factors you need to consider when choosing luggage that best matches your requirements.

Bag Construction

What is the bag made out of?

Leather is expensive and heavy, and also is more prone to show wear and tear.  Leather is a curious contradiction - it can be both robustly long wearing, but is also fragile and prone to showing scratches and other signs of wear.

Leather is ostentatious, and some people think baggage thieves are more likely to open and/or steal bags that look expensive.  Indeed, with the $1000+ prices of some leather suitcases, you can end up in a situation where the bag itself is worth more than its contents!

Woven nylon or polyester is the most common material in use.  This can be very resilient and resists being punctured or scratched.  If described as 'microfiber' then it is made of thinner finer strands (usually polyester) than normal woven or 'ballistic' nylon (which is also used in Kevlar bulletproof vests).  It is usually water resistant rather than fully water proof.  Some manufacturers add a Teflon and/or water resistant coating to the material.

Modern high-tech plastics are also being increasingly used.  These can make for a very light-weight bag which is semi-rigid and acceptably robust.

Is the bag a 'squishy' bag?  By this we mean is it possible to squeeze it into a tight space (ie if trying to get all your bags into the car's trunk), or are the external dimensions fairly rigid and fixed, making it harder to squeeze it into a space that is just a tad too tight?

Solid sided bags can be very strong, but may be heavier, and if/when they lose their strength, they then transition to being very weak, and are less commonly seen as a design style these days.

How is the general shape of the suitcase formed?  Is it by a thin sheet of plastic material that is likely to soften and deform, or is it by a more solid and thicker type of material that will help the bag maintain its shape and provide a limited degree of protection for its contents?

Can the bag be readily repaired?  Look for screws, not rivets, holding the bag together as a good sign of it being able to be conveniently repaired.

Color and Appearance

Some manufacturers try and promote their bags as fashion statements - either as a way to command higher prices, or as a way to make their bags more distinctive and perhaps more appealing.

Do you want to have a generic appearing bag or a distinctive one that draws attention to itself (and to you, too).

Generally we prefer to have generic luggage that doesn't proclaim ostentation or wealth as a result of its brand or its design.  We feel that makes a bag less of a tempting target for thieves whenever it is outside your control - and there are lots of times during your travels when you are trusting on the honesty of others.  Indeed, you don't want the bag to be a tempting target even when it is under your control for fear of attracting unwanted attention from beggars, pickpockets, muggers and everyone else.

On the other hand, you don't want a bag that is 100% generic seeming, for fear that someone else may mistakenly take it, confusing it with their own similarly appearing generic suitcase.

We think it appropriate to choose a bag in a muted color other than black so as to make it distinctive in a 'safe' way.  While we don't go to the lengths some people do of making their bags immediately seem well worn, we do like it when our bag no longer looks brand new.

Some bags are slightly differently shaped compared to the typical square rectangular boxy design that it most common; while the plain box shape is probably the most efficient for packing as much stuff as possible in a small outer container, a bit of extra shaping can again help you identify your suitcase compared to the flood of others appearing at the same time on the carousel.

Packing Aids

Few suitcases comprise nothing more than an empty case with wheels and a handle.  Others have a great deal of pockets and compartments.

While it seems nice to have lots of compartments and dividers, it can also restrict your ability to put things into the bag in the way you want them to be placed.  A better solution, for many people, is to get separate packing unit items and put them into your bag as you wish.  This does represent an extra cost, of course, but we like this concept because you then can do your packing more or less independently of the bag you are using.  It helps you plan if you have one container for shirts, one for undergarments, one for outerwear, one for toiletries, and so on.

Apart from the obvious - a divider between the upper and lower halves, and/or a couple of straps to fasten across the contents, here are some of the other things you might find inside (or outside) your bag.

Suit Carrier

Of course one of the standard fold-over-in-half suit carriers won't fit inside normal sized suitcases, so the designers got clever and designed a 'fold in thirds' type suitcarrier that you can fit inside your bag.  You'll probably only squeeze one or perhaps two suits inside the carrier, but it provides a convenient and easy way to fold and carry one suit.

I use mine to pack shirts in as well - saves folding the shirts.

Waterproof compartment

Some bags have a waterproof pouch - maybe small in size, maybe larger - into which you can put wet items.  Of course, don't leave them there for too long, or else they may go musty and mildewy.

This compartment can also be used to store items that may potentially leak.  Some sort of waterproof compartment is an essential item to have in your bag, either provided as part of the bag, or separately purchased.

Removable compartments

This is a nice feature - perhaps the bag includes a smaller bag that can be used for toiletries - you pack it in place in the carry-on for traveling, and then unsnap it and take it into the bathroom with you at the destination.

External pockets

Some bags have several external pockets, others have one or none.  External pockets can be convenient for putting frequently accessed items in, or (as is often for me) a place for last minute things that you nearly forgot!

Some external pockets work so that when you put things in them, they expand out, making the overall bag dimensions larger.  Others work so they expand into the interior of the case, keeping the external dimensions the same and using up internal space instead.

You might prefer one style or the other, depending on how often you have size problems with your bag (or with all the things you're trying to squash into it!).

Be aware that the external pockets offer the least protection against impact damage, so don't place anything fragile in them.


The bigger your bag, the heavier it will be (all other things being equal).

You might think that the weight of the bag is unimportant, because, after all, it is almost certainly on wheels.  And to a certain extent, it is unavoidable that a well constructed robust bag will weigh more than a thin flimsy bag.

But, wheels or not, you'll still end up carrying the bag some of the time - perhaps up and down flights of stairs.

But the biggest problem with weight is that with low weight limits per bag set by the airlines (typically 50lbs), each extra pound of bag weight is a pound less of contents weight.  If you have a 15lb bag, you can only put 35lbs inside it.  An 8lb bag allows for 42lbs - 20% more stuff you can take with you.  This weight saving may make all the difference between having to pay an extra $50 or more in excess baggage charges to the airline for each part of our journey!

Clearly it only takes a couple of such penalties to more than reimburse you in full for any extra cost associated with buying a modern light weight bag.

You can check what your weight allowance for checked items will be on airlines you're likely to fly, (and what the penalties for extra and heavier bags are, too!) using our page that summarizes this information.

Fragile External Bits

Look at the outside of your bag, and ask yourself if any of the parts of it run the risk of being damaged by rough handling.  Are the wheels partially recessed/guarded, or do they stand well clear of the bag?

Are there any catches or other pieces that might get caught?

Nearly all zips these days are of the self-repairing kind (ie nylon rather than metal).  Check also that the zipper pulls are strongly made - when these break off, the zips can become impossible to use (especially if they have the self-locking feature that only releases when the pull handle is tugged).

Some companies now use zippers with replaceable zipper pulls.  I find zipper pulls are often one of the first things to fail with a bag, so getting a bag with user-replaceable pulls can be a major plus feature.

Check for reinforcing around the corners so that the material won't wear through and the zips are protected.

Towing Handle Design

Look at the handle you'll use to pull the case behind you.

Is it solid, or does it wiggle from side to side?  If it already wiggles loosely in the store, it will only get worse as you use it, and the more it wiggles, the less stable your bag will be, so that it starts to get 'speed wobbles' as you pull it behind you.

How high does the handle go?  You want a handle that is long enough so you can have the bag sloped away from you on a comfortable angle as you walk along - what looks to be a high enough handle when the bag is stationary next to you is invariably too short when it is heavy and being pulled along.

I've measured handle heights ranging from 37" to 42".  For me (fairly tall) the shorter handle heights are too short for comfort, and mean the bag is closer behind me, sometimes causing my heels to collide with the bag.

Some bag handles have two positions, making them more convenient for all members of your family to use.

How is the handle at the top of the twin poles constructed and attached to the poles?  If this should break, all of a sudden, your bag ceases to be a towable wheeled bag and instead becomes a heavy bag you have to carry everywhere.

The handle should open easily with one hand, lock in place, and then retract back to a recessed position where it again locks in place and is protected from accidental opening and external damage.

Internal handle assemblies give you the most efficient use of the maximum amount of bag size.  External ones may be slightly more vulnerable to damage.

Some manufacturers are now offering what they describe as more ergonomic designs for their towing handles.  If you find a regular cross-bar awkward to grasp then these other styles might be appealing to you.  But beware that if you get a handle that swivels, while this might be ergonomically sensible, it massively reduces your ability to stabilize the bag if it starts to wobble.  Most of the time, you're probably best sticking to traditional handle designs.


Now you've looked at the top of the bag, have a look at the bottom - at its wheels.  Those small wheels, and the axles they're mounted on, will end up carrying the entire weight of the bag and its contents.

If you 'cheat' and pull (rather than lift and carry) the bag down stairs or over curbs, the wheels will be subjected to strong impact forces, and if they are not very solidly made, they are likely to become the first thing that fails on your bag.  And, just like a broken handle, when you lose a wheel, your piece of luggage changes from something you can conveniently tow along behind you to something you'll have to carry.

A few manufacturers have easily repairable/replaceable wheels.  I used to always travel with a spare wheel for my large Delsey hardsided suitcase, so that should it ever fail again, I could quickly and conveniently replace the broken wheel in a couple of minutes.


This is a feature which you probably don't want to see on your bag.  Unless the locks are conspicuously labeled as being the new TSA compliant type (which the TSA have master keys for) you run the risk of having the TSA destroy your lock (and perhaps your bag too if the lock is built in to the bag rather than an external padlock) if they choose to open it to check for explosives.

If your bag comes with locks, we suggest you throw them away immediately and instead replace them with TSA compliant locks such as the SearchAlert combination locks.

If you have a bag with a built in locking system, we recommend never using it, to protect against the TSA potentially destroying your bag during the process of forcing open its lock.  Only use external locks that can be cut off without damaging the bag.

We recommend using combination locks on your travels so that you don't have to worry about losing the keys.

Other Features

Here are some other features and issues to look for on checkable bags.

Handles at Both Ends

Some bags have handles at both ends, to make it easier to shove the bag into and pull it out of anywhere you might put it.


Some bags are designed better than others for balance and are less likely to fall over when fully packed.

Note that when packing your bag, it is a good idea to put your heaviest items at what will be the bottom when it is standing on its legs, and your lightest items at what will be the top.  This makes the bag both more stable and also gives it a lighter perceived weight at the end of the handle.

Hook for briefcase

Some bags come with a sturdy strap and hook onto which you can hang a briefcase or other bag.

Name and Address Tag

Some bags have a built in holder as part of the outside of the case, into which you can place a card with your name and contact details.  Others include a regular style tag holder that loops around one of the bag's handles, and some bags provide neither.

Stair Sliders

Some bags have one or two reinforced 'runners' on their back.  When you're climbing a set of stairs, you can (if you choose) simply pull the bag up the stairs by the handle, with it sliding up the stairs on these runners.


Some bags can be expanded by unzipping a gusset, or by opening an internal expander.

One bag tested expanded by a mere half inch - almost a waste of time.  But another expanded by 2" - providing a valuable increase in packing space.

Two, four or six wheels

The typical suitcase has two wheels, at two of the sides of the wide dimension of the bag.  This is probably the best general purpose arrangement.

Some bags are available with four wheels on the bottom, enabling them to be propelled both with the wide side or the narrow side spanning the width.  In such cases either two or perhaps all four of the wheels might be on pivots, enabling you to turn and twist the bag any way you choose.

If you're planning to push/pull a bag that is resting on four wheels, this will stress the handle considerably more - and in different ways - than if you have it tilted and towed behind you.  Make sure that the handle seems adequate for such a task, and make sure the wheels are free spinning and as large as possible, to make it a practical way of moving the bag.

A few bags even have six wheels - two for normal use, and four for pushing/pulling the bag in any direction at all.  This is probably overkill, and just more bits to be broken.

Dual purpose convertible pack/bags

Some bags can do double duty as either a backpack or a suitcase.

This concept makes some limited sense when being applied to a smaller carry-on style bag, but is of very little value for a full sized suitcase that potentially may weigh up to 50lbs (or more) fully loaded.  As a backpack, it is ungainly and uncomfortable, and as a suitcase, it is strangely shaped and awkward too.

Combination carry bag/backpack and suitcase

A variation on the preceding type of bag is a bag that has both a traditional suitcase part and a second part which is either zipped on as part of the suitcase, or which can be unzipped and then used as a backpack or carry-on.

Maybe you could use the backpack as a 'daypack' while traveling each day.  Or you can use it as another way to expand your total luggage capacity - start off with one piece, then, when you need more capacity, make it into two pieces that between them now hold considerably more things than before.

However, our feeling is that, in general, this is a gimmick rather than a valuable feature.  If you need both a day-back/carry-bag and a suitcase, it is usually better to get two separate pieces, each designed to be best at its primary purpose, rather than having to be compromised to be dual purpose.


The shorter life, limited functionality, and probable inconvenience when a low priced bag fails all encourage one to consider buying an upgraded quality bag to start with.

Mid priced bags (around the $200 - $500 price range) seem to be best value for money.  More expensive bags seldom give appreciably more features or longer life, and less expensive bags often represent false economy.

Most bag manufacturers will not repair bags damaged by the airlines.  But Briggs & Riley (and sometimes Eagle Creek) have an unlimited lifetime warranty policy and will repair your bag, anytime, for any reason, with no questions asked.

Decide the size and weight limits you'll settle for, and remember that size measurements may not accurately reflect the true external dimensions of each suitcase.

Understand the full range of features that are variously offered by the different bag manufacturers and make your informed choice accordingly.

Read more in Parts 1 & 3

In Part 1 we discuss more issues to consider when choosing checked luggage, including a discussion of cost, size and capacity.

In Part 3 we feature a range of comments from Travel Insider readers who report on their own experiences with the luggage they use.


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Originally published 20 Mar 2009, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

Related Articles
How to Choose a Checked Bag pt 1
How to choose a bag pt 2
Reader comments on their checked luggage experiences part 1
Reader comments part 2

Reviews :  coming soon

See also our series on
Wheeled Carry-On Bags

And still more things

Domestic Airline Carry On Luggage Policies
International Airline Carry On Luggage Policies
Domestic Airline Checked Luggage Policies
Your Rights if your bags are delayed or lost
Distinctive MyTag Luggage Tags
Luggage Transportation Services
Packing Tips


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