Travel Resources

Making Smart Luggage Choices

By Michele Marini Pittenger
President, Travel Goods Association

We’re often asked how travelers should choose their luggage and it’s an excellent question, given the variety in how and where people travel, and the breadth of what’s available in the luggage market. And just like choosing a car or clothing, it all boils down to what you want, and where you’ll use it.

Get expert advice
There are a lot of options out there, and most of them will work for most people. But for every person there’s an ideal solution, one that will work the best. And that’s why we always recommend visiting a travel goods specialty retailer.

Today’s travel goods retailers aren’t just luggage sellers – they’re travel outfitters, able to assess your needs and match you up with the perfect solution for you.

Big-Picture Stuff

Where to? And for how long?
What type of travel will this luggage be used for? Is it business, a European vacation, an African safari? How long will you be gone? And how will you get there – by air, sea or rail?
Answering these questions will help establish your big-picture luggage parameters like size, whether your focus should be on carry-on pieces and airline-friendly luggage, business-oriented cases and overnighters, or duffels and backpacks. In all likelihood you’ll end up cultivating a “wardrobe” of luggage from which you’ll pick and choose to meet your personal needs.

Size matters
How much stuff are you bringing? And for how long? If it’s a quick overnighter or weekend trip you may want to go with a 20-22″ case which meets most airline carry-on requirements and dodges checked bag fees.

Airlines are now levying fees for oversize and overweight bags, with standards that vary by air carrier. Visiting a travel goods specialty retailer who’s familiar with these ever-changing standards can help you zero in on what’s best, and help employ space-saving strategies with travel-specific items that reduce luggage weight and bulk.

To wheel or not to wheel?
There’s no question wheels help lighten the load in paved situations – airports, cities and cruise ships are more wheel-friendly than adventure travel in the Australian Outback.

Four-wheelers are extremely popular because they carry the entire load, and can be easier to maneuver down narrow aisles. Two-wheelers afford more tip-over resistance and stability over uneven surfaces, but you’ll be shouldering some weight since it’s distributed between the handle and those two wheels. There are also four-wheelers that can be tipped and rolled as two-wheelers, giving you the best of both wheeled worlds.

Weighty considerations
With strict enforcement of airline weight limits, it definitely pays to get the lightest luggage you can. Granted, lighter luggage tends to cost more, as it uses more high-tech materials, but dodging overweight fees on just one round trip could make that price difference moot.

Hard or soft?
It used to be you went with hardsides for protection, and soft luggage for weight, but the standards have shifted. High-tech materials like polycarbonate – the tough plastic used in bulletproof glass – allows hardsides to be extremely light. And with the advent of internal frames, molded foam and other state-of-the-art materials, soft luggage can be super tough and protective. That said, hardsides probably have the edge when it comes to protecting fragile items. Because soft luggage easily conforms to irregular spaces like car trunks, soft luggage can be a boon when space is tight, like road trips and rail travel.

Types of Bags

Suitcases, pullmans or pullman suitcases
Suitcases range in size from 20″ to 36″ and are available in three main constructions: hard-sided, semi-soft, and soft-sided.

Hard-sided luggage provides maximum protection against impact from the outside, and generally has the added security of combination or key locks. Most hardsides have wheels and pull handles. Polycarbonate and other high-tech plastics allow hardsides to be extremely lightweight and tough.

Semi-soft cases
Partially framed with soft, slightly expandable tops and bottoms, they combine the moldable shape of soft luggage with some of the protective aspects of hard-sided cases. These, too, usually have wheels and pull handles.

Soft cases
Soft cases are lightweight and the most expandable, but offer less resistance to crushing or impact from the outside. Materials vary from the traditional canvas and leather to tough, abrasion-resistant fabrics like CORDURA® and ballistic nylon. Soft-sided cases are closed with zippers.

Carry-ons are designed to fit beneath airline seats or in overhead bins. They generally do not exceed 22″ and are designed for short trips. Carry-ons typically feature more organizational features like dedicated pockets for phones, tickets and laptops. Most incorporate shoulder straps as well as handles, many have wheels, and they may be of hardside, soft or semi-soft construction.

Airlines have differing restrictions for carry-on sizes, which vary by the aircraft type used en route, so check with the airline for specific carry-on restrictions. A carry-on that is less than 20″ will probably meet both U.S. and international standards, and is recommended if you frequently fly commuter-size regional jets.

Totes and casual bags
Casual bags are smaller than carry-ons, and come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Some are designed for travel and match a full line of luggage. The simplest totes look like open-top shopping bags made of fabric or leather. Others may feature zippered, waterproof pockets, expandable bottoms, shoulder straps and compartments for electronics. Totes can be used as everyday bags, and may also accommodate laptops and other electronic accessories.

Backpacks are increasingly popular, especially as day bags and carry-ons, and they’re available in a vast array of sizes. Many are convertible, with wheels and telescoping handles for urban travel.

Garment bags
Garment bags enable travelers to pack their clothes on hangers, reducing wrinkles. They’re popular for business overnighters and weekend trips, typically hold two to four changes of clothes, and will likely have wheels for better portability.

Fabrics and Leather

Natural or synthetic fabric?
Natural materials in luggage manufacturing include leather, canvas (cotton) and other natural woven fibers, like hemp. Synthetic materials are typically nylon- or polyethylene-based, the latter increasingly made from recycled plastic, primarily bottles.

Fabrics are graded according to thickness of fiber, or denier. Their resistance to abrasion and tears depends on the fiber’s material properties, and the type and thickness of weave. Many bags, especially ultra-lightweights, mix lightweight fabrics with heavy-duty materials reinforcing high wear areas like corners and bottoms.

Most synthetics feature a waterproof coating inside and many incorporate stain- and water-repellent coatings on the outside as well.

Premium leather is “top-grain” or “full-grain,” consisting of the outermost layer of hide, which is toughest and smoothest, and most desirable.

“Split” leathers are the under layers of hide, and may be polished or treated to simulate the color and texture of top grain.

“Processed” leather has been made to look like another type, such as calfskin with alligator markings.

There is also “bonded” or “laminated leather,” consisting of pulverized leather scraps bonded together with adhesive.

Plastics and Metals

Hardsided cases are usually made from plastics (typically polycarbonates, polypropylene or ABS), metal (typically aluminum) or, increasingly, carbon fiber. Traditional, box-constructed cases use metal or wood frames on all six sides, covered by leather, vinyl or fabric.

Modern hardsides can be extremely lightweight, and typically come with either two or four wheels for easy maneuverability.

Molded materials
Injection molded cases are made by injecting molten plastic into a mold to make a hard, seamless shell. Vacuum-formed cases use vacuum pressure to suck a heated sheet of plastic (usually ABS) down into a die, retaining this shape once the plastic cools.

Vinyl is a moderately-priced plastic usually used for covering and trim. It’s available in a tremendous range of colors and textures, with strong stain-resistance. Vinyl is often used to resemble leather — check the labeling to be sure.


Zippers are manufactured in three basic constructions:

Polyester coils – Made by weaving or sewing a nylon coil to the zipper’s base tape. The coils make up the zipper’s “teeth,” and can take a great deal of pressure. They’re often described as self-healing or self-repairing, because if they do pop open, running over the open area with the slider will reseat the teeth, restoring functionality.

Continuous molded zippers – Have individual plastic teeth woven or sewn onto tapes and are extremely durable.

Nylon zippers – Can be dyed to match luggage and leather.

Brass and other metal zippers – Feature individual metal teeth crimped onto the zipper’s base tape.

“TSA accepted” locks are best for checked luggage, as they can be opened by Transportation Security Administration staff using a special key or code, which prevents damage to the lock or your luggage if it needs to be inspected by security.

Many bags – particularly hardsides – feature built-in locks. Again, “TSA accepted” locks are preferred for checked luggage. How a lock is joined to the case is important – is it screwed-mounted, riveted, or held in place by folded-over metal prongs? All can be valid methods, as long as the lock is straight, firmly mounted, and its mating parts are aligned.

Wheels maximize maneuverability and minimize damage to the bottom of the case. Two- and four-wheeled systems are the most common – four-wheelers carry the entire bag’s weight, while two-wheelers share the load between the wheels and the handle, which means you’ll be carrying part of the load (but provide greater stability over uneven surfaces). Four-wheel “spinner” cases that rotate 360 degrees allow you to easily transport the bag down narrow aisles, and many four-wheelers allow you to tip the bag and roll it like a two-wheeler.

The handle is critical. Wide, padded handles are much more comfortable. Handles that can retract completely inside the bag are less likely to be damaged in baggage handling. In every case, the strength of the handle’s attachment to the bag is paramount – it should be rigidly attached, with a minimum of wiggling and rattling. Handles angled for a more natural wrist angle can greatly reduce fatigue in the arms and shoulders.

Corners and feet protect luggage from damage. They are often reinforced with metal, leather or vinyl.

Shoulder straps
Shoulder straps are often detachable, and should attach at a bag’s reinforced stress points. Strong hardware and reinforced mounting areas protect shoulder straps from tearing off or snapping out. Gripper pads keep straps from sliding off the shoulders, and wider straps enhance comfort with better load distribution.

Organizational Features

Outside-accessible pockets are a boon for carry-on and car travel, but a security risk on checked bags. Look for internal organizing features for checked luggage, which allows you to secure everything with a single lock, and gives the bag a smooth, conveyor belt-friendly exterior.

Many bags feature an accordion pleat on the sides of a case or pocket for expandability.

Wet compartments
Many bags, especially those intended for adventure travel, will incorporate wet pockets or sections that isolate wet and soiled garments.

Mesh pocket dividers
Internal mesh pockets provide more visible access. External mesh pockets isolate wet items from the bag’s internal contents, and allow them to drain/dry.

Outside pockets
Outside pockets allow travelers to reach items they need without opening the case and increase packing options.

Packing systems
Many packing systems improve organization and can help reduce bulk. Common systems consist of nylon and mesh envelopes and cubes in various sizes, and rigid folding boards for neat and wrinkle-free packing. There are even pull-out organizers and shelves that hang in the closet or over a door.