Tips for Buying A Suitcase

Rejected and Retired Suitcases

I’ve been putting off shopping for a new bag for a long time, as in years. Up until a few months ago, I was using a vintage Swiss Army black roller that still sported the Vietnamese and Hong Kong customs stickers it picked up in 2008. A few years ago, I’d retired it in favor of a grey Samsonite bag, but had to force the old vet back into service when the Samsonite’s rollers got wonky — the rubber wore off and the wheels splayed out after 2½ years of trundling across New Orleans sidewalks.

But then, right before Thanksgiving, the old Swiss guy resigned, rendering itself unusable when its retractable handle stuck in the extended position. I was still able to avoid luggage shopping, though. I  pulled out the Bluesmart smart bag I’d bought from their Indiegogo fundraising campaign. I recharged the battery, updated its iPhone app, and put it back into service — only to read the next week that it was about to be banned by airlines because its lithium battery isn’t removable.

With nothing left in the attic, I was finally forced to shop for a new suitcase. But what to buy? I started with a survey of fellow travelers. Actually, it was more like stalking; I eyeballed every piece of luggage that passed by me for two weeks. Then I wandered through the basement luggage departments of a couple of Macy’s, opening bags and waving off clerks. After all that, I gave into my OCD and built this prioritized list of suitcase shopping evaluation criteria:

  1. The bag has to be a carry-on. Now that may seem a bit of a “duh”, but there is some ambiguity; the approved height of a carry-on bag varies by airline between 19 and 22-inches. If I want to play it safe, I’d go for a 20-inch bag, but then I also want to maximize my carry-on space. Most US carriers accept a 22-inch bag and that’s mostly what I fly, and even when I’m on European carriers I usually have enough alliance status to glide past the baggage sizer. So I tilt the balance in favor of maximum packing volume and go for a 22-inch bag.
  2. It needs to be black. As I said in my Ruthless Packing Tips post, black not only makes you look thinner, it makes your bag look thinner to gate agents scanning for bag-sizer bait. Black also doesn’t show stains. My grey Samsonite bag, after 3-4 months of my travel schedule, started to look a lot less non-black. Smudges from grease on overhead bin hinges, muck from taxi trunks, muddy water from New Orleans gutters, spilled coffee…. It’s why I can’t have nice luggage.
  3. Two wheels, not four. This is more of a personal preference. My Bluesmart is a 4-wheel spinner and my wife swears by hers, but because the 4 wheels have to extend from the bottom of the bag, spinners sacrifice packing space for agility. Also, I find 4-wheelers have a tendency to wander off — rolling away down ramps or on uneven floors. I go for the 2-wheeler, and with the biggest wheels I can find to make it an easier, smoother pull. I was surprised how much this limited my selection. Spinners definitely rule.
  4. The inside of the suitcase has to be plain and empty. No clever collection of zipped compartments, or built-in suit hangers, or ratcheting clothes dividers; just a wide open box that I’m free to structure how I want for each trip. I was surprised how this also limited my selection. Indeed, in the end, I couldn’t find just a plain box, and settled for a bag where I could detach the suit hanger and clothes divider and stash that stuff up in Luggage Retirement Home next to the Bluesmart.
  5. Buy on-line. A recent study of 32,672 luggage price showed that you can save an average of $110/39% buying on-line. Walmart and Target’s on-line stores had the highest discounts. And while Amazon was in 10th place for average discount (in the 40% range), it was tops with the greatest variety — over 12,000 luggage items.
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3 Comments.

  1. I want a four-wheel spinner; my wife loves hers. But I won’t get one, because I believe that bags with only two wheels have a bit more interior space than four-wheelers of the same length.

    That’s because the spinners can’t tuck into the side of the bag so you’re losing the inch or two between the middle of the spinner wheel and the top of the stem that attaches the spinner to the bottom of the bag. How’s that for OCD?

    • I’ll see your OCD and raise you! I had plans to measure the difference in the ground clearance between my wife’s spinner bag and my new 2-wheeler and calculate the packing volume lost — but didn’t because I thought it was going too far down the rabbit hole. I’m now rethinking that… 💡

  2. My favorite bag was a Rick Steves 21” rollaboard that had just one compartment and two really good wheels. I used it for a decade and finally had problems with my wife’s equivalent bag (wheel fell apart) and the side of mine cracked from all the abuse. He doesn’t sell them any more, because it was a hair too big for European airlines. We are now using Samsonite spinners. They don’t hold as much as the old RS bags. We only check bags when we are staying in one place for at least a week. Carrying on is simply liberating.