Factors when Choosing Suitcases
How to make sense of all your different
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
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
In this second part, we look at
more of the factors you need to consider when choosing luggage
that best matches your requirements.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
I've measured handle heights
ranging from 37½" to 42½".
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.
bag handles have two positions, making them more convenient
for all members of your family to use.
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.
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.
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
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.
'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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
recommend using combination locks on your travels so that
you don't have to worry about losing the keys.
are some other features and issues to look for on checkable bags.
at Both Ends
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.
bags are designed better than others for balance and are less
likely to fall over when fully packed.
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.
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
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 2¾" - providing a valuable increase in packing space.
or six wheels
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.
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.
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.
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.
purpose convertible pack/bags
bags can do double duty as either a backpack or a suitcase.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Part 1 we discuss more
to consider when choosing checked luggage, including a
discussion of cost, size and capacity.
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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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.