Today I’m honored to feature a guest post by my friend Vanessa Perlman, who is a global health law & policy expert, avid world traveler & luggage guru. You can find more about Vanessa – and get more great travel tips! – on her website, Mockingbird Travel.
Since new luggage isn’t something we buy very often – and since it’s usually not cheap – there’s a lot pressure to get it right.
(Shown above: Map Print Washbag by Wild & Wolf, $44 from Burke Decor.)
With all the luggage options available these days, it can be hard to make specific recommendations. But, as someone who has field-tested more suitcases than I care to count, I can offer my take on some of the main luggage choices you’ll face. You can use these guidelines to pick a bag that’s right for you.
Alternatively, you can follow Commandress’ lead and jump to the end of this post to buy what I have.
The Basics – Ultralight Design &
The Two Pieces of Luggage Everyone Should Have
This is a travel truism: It is impossible to “travel light” with a large suitcase. Why? Because you will always – always – fill the space you have. Ergo, big bags get heavy fast.
I’ve heard plenty of luggage salespeople tell customers that it’s better to have a bigger bag “just in case” – but don’t fall for it.
And by the way, if you don’t already abide by the “travel light” philosophy, allow me to remind you of those hefty fees at the airport for overweight bags, not to mention what a pain it is to schlep a heavy bag full of stuff you don’t really need.
First and foremost, you should opt for luggage with an “ultralight” design; there’s no reason to weigh yourself down with a suitcase that’s heavy before you put anything in it.
Second, you don’t need a lot of different suitcases; you just need the right suitcases. (My mom says the same thing about pots and pans.)
Don’t be tempted by “specialty” bags, like rolling duffles or hanging garment bags. I have one of each, and inevitably they only come out of storage when I’m moving my entire wardrobe.
Expert Opinion: If you have only two pieces of luggage in your closet, you should have:
1. A carry-on rolling bag that’s around 20-21” tall. (Note that on U.S. air carriers, bags up to 22” tall will fit in the overhead bin, but some international carriers have smaller bins and a 22” bag might be juuust a little too big. For more details, check out this handy carry-on size chart from Flight 001).
2. A piece of rolling checked luggage that’s one size (maybe two) bigger than your carry-on – something in the 24-26” range. Anything bigger than that will be unwieldy.
(You can check out my specific recommendations at the end of this post.)
How Much Should You Pay for Good Luggage?
You do not need really expensive luggage. In this realm, cost does not necessarily correlate to quality.
Think about how your suitcase gets tossed onto the baggage carousel, and then know that it’s being subjected to much worse abuse behind the scenes.
If you can’t bear the thought of your new suitcase getting scratched or scuffed, you’ve probably spent too much on it.
On the other hand, a really really inexpensive bag may not hold up for long.
Expert Opinion: Look for a happy middle ground that fits your budget.
Softside vs. Hardside Luggage
Hardside luggage (also called hard shell) has become much more popular in the U.S. recently, though I can’t help but wonder if that’s mainly because they can be so much prettier than traditional luggage. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Shown above: HEYS 22” Novus Art Spinner in Peacock – currently available from Lord & Taylor for $100 (regularly $200).
A hardside bag offers the major advantage of protecting its contents much better than a softside. I once had a softside bag spend some quality time sitting on the tarmac in the pouring rain while it was being unloaded from a plane. Everything in the bag was soaked through.
On the downside, hardside bags lack the . . . flexibility of a soft bag. Hard bags cannot be overstuffed beyond capacity. If you are prone to acquiring new possessions during your travels, opt for an expandable version and be aware of the bag’s inherent limits.
A hard bag also can’t be squeezed and maneuvered into a crowded overhead bin. And of course, hard bags don’t have external pockets, which is a deal-breaker for me for a carry-on.
There are also “hybrid” bags that combine some of the best features of hardside luggage (extra protection on the corners) and softside luggage (expandable, plus external pockets). I highly recommend the Ricardo 24″ Crystal City Hybrid Spinner, which is featured below.
Expert Opinion: In the end, I’d consider hardside luggage (or a hybrid) for my checked luggage – but not for my carry-on.
How many wheels does your luggage need?
Well, certainly at least two. I can’t imagine why anyone uses luggage without wheels these days, unless it’s a backpack.
Four-wheeled bags – often called “spinners” – are a great evolution in luggage. Particularly in airports – on flat, smooth floors – it’s nice to push your bag along instead of pull it.
Outside of the airport, however, I find myself pulling a spinner as much as I push it. (Cobblestones and spinner bags do not mix.)
Spinners are less likely to tip over than their two-wheeled brethren, but they are way more likely to roll away. I was once trying to get on a bus with two suitcases, one of them a spinner; I lifted the spinner bag on first, then turned to pick up the other suitcase…and the spinner rolled right back off the bus. (Hasn’t anyone thought to put a brake on two of the wheels?)
Four wheels can also be troublesome when you’re trying to shove a suitcase into an overhead bin.
Expert Opinion: All in all, I’d go for four wheels for my checked luggage, but stick with two for carry-on.
Book Style Luggage – One vs. Two Main Compartments
Finally, I have to include my two-cents on the difference between traditional bags with one main compartment and “book style” bags that open down the middle into two equal compartments (hardside bags are generally of the book style).
For my first Big Trip to Europe, oh so many years ago, I used a book style suitcase and swore I’d never buy another one. My embargo on the book style has relaxed over time, as I’ve realized that for the right situation, this type of bag works well. The secret is in the details.
On the plus side, the book style is easier to pack and easier to live out of, particularly for longer trips. Because you pack it in two sections, you don’t have to dig through multiple layers of stuff to get to something at the bottom. And you can separate your clothes on one side from your toiletries and shoes and other clothes-unfriendly stuff on the other side.
But: This type of bag takes up a lot more space (two times more, to be precise) to open up on the floor. And you won’t be able to open the bag fully on a traditional luggage rack. If you’re traveling with more than one other person and know you’ll be sharing small hotel rooms, beware. This will be annoying.
Usually one of the interior compartments in these bags will have a zippered cover, so when you open the bag, everything in the top half doesn’t fall out. However, avoid a bag with a zippered cover over both compartments; this was one of the fatal flaws of the bag I took to Europe. Two zippered covers makes it impossible to get anything into – or out of – the suitcase without completely opening up the bag.
This might not sound like a big deal, but when you’re in the airport or the train station and all you want to do is stuff your coat in your suitcase but you can’t without basically unpacking on the floor surrounded by throngs of people . . . it will be a big deal.
Expert Opinion: For longer trips – particularly when I’ll be checking my luggage – I opt for the book style. But if I can fit everything I need into a carry-on, one compartment does the job best.
Best Luggage – My Recommendations
I’ll wrap up with my own favorites for checked and carry-on bags, starting with my most recent luggage purchase.
After years of trial and error, I’ve found that these two pieces of luggage will take me anywhere.
1. Checked Luggage: Ricardo 24” Crystal City Hybrid Spinner
I finally acquired a new book style spinner bag that’s actually part hardside (extra protection on the corners) and part softside (expandable, plus external pockets). I bought a 24” model, so this one always gets checked. It’s proven to be the perfect size for a two-week-plus vacation and has held up well under the stress of multiple flights.
Plus, it’s purple. More specifically, “Imperial Purple.” (Commandress took one look at it and bought the same bag for herself.)
Shown above: Ricardo 24” Crystal City Hybrid Spinner in Imperial Purple (also available in black) – currently available from Macy’s for $144 (regularly $360). The suitcase is also currently available from Amazon in Imperial Purple or Black for $108.30.
(You can check out a picture of this bag’s interior in the previous section on Book Style Luggage.)
2. Carry-on Luggage: L.L.Bean 21” Commuter Pullman
On the carry-on side, I’ve been using the same L.L.Bean rolling bag for at least five years, and it’s held up through a LOT of abuse.
It’s a traditional, one compartment, two-wheeled bag, but with some truly excellent external pockets, including one along the side that’s perfect for my one-quart bag of toiletries (though I’m pretty sure it wasn’t intended for such): the liquids are quarantined from my clothes, and it’s a breeze to get the bag in and out for security.
My exact model is no longer available, but this one looks like a close match. The new model even includes a specially-designated exterior “liquids pocket” (did they read my mind?) and a front pocket that’s big enough for a laptop. Now that’s carry-on perfection.
Shown above: L.L.Bean 21″ Commuter Pullman in Steel Grey/Black (also available in Citron/Black) – $199 from L.L.Bean.
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The remaining bags in my luggage collection unfortunately spend most of their time gathering dust – but they’re excellent for moving.
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Additional Resources for Researching & Buying Luggage Online
Check out complete luggage selections from: