How to Choose the Best Travel Luggage
Packing,  Travel Tips

How to Choose the Best Travel Luggage

Luggage is an important aspect of any travel. If your bags are too large or bulky, they may be a nuisance. If you love fashion, you may want to have room for the latest trends. These are just a few of the many things to think about when deciding on a travel bag. While choosing luggage may seem like a simple task, it actually is a bit complex with many considerations. Do not under estimate the importance of your choice of luggage, as the right bag can be key to fully enjoying your travel. Use the following considerations to better understand how to choose the best travel luggage for your needs.

Step 1: Decide on Buying New versus Using Existing Travel Luggage

You are booked and going traveling. You may already have some suitcases from previous trips and may be choosing from them. Determining if you need new luggage and assessing your existing, is the first step of how to choose the best travel luggage.

Inspect Your Old Luggage

If the bags you own still meet your needs, then perhaps you are all set. However, if your luggage is old or starting to become worn, be sure to check it out closely.

  • Examine the wheels to be sure they are not broken and that they roll properly.
  • Pull the handle up and down to be sure it is functioning
  • Check hand held handles to be sure they are attached
  • Inspect the bag for holes or tears
  • Be sure all zippers are functioning smoothly
  • Put on and adjust backpack straps and check functionality
How to Choose the Best Travel Luggage
Photo by:  ConvertKit

If any of the above issues are identified, perhaps it is time to choose new luggage. Malfunctioning bags can really cause issues that take away from the enjoyment of travel. Additionally, it really stinks to be forced to purchase a piece of luggage out of necessity on the fly, without the opportunity to shop around.

It is also possible that the bag size, shape, or technology does not meet your current needs. So, if you think you need new luggage, it is an important part of travel planning to consider prior to packing.

For more travel planning tips, see Jenny In Wanderland’s How to Choose a Travel Destination.

Timing for Buying New Luggage

Obviously most people do not buy new luggage each time they travel, but if you do determine that you want or need to buy new bags, it is nice to time your purchase with an upcoming trip, to help ensure it fits your current needs.

Between the last time you bought luggage and now, your general packing style and needs may have changed, as well as designs and technology. By coinciding your new suitcase with a trip, you can take advantage of the opportunity to find the perfect bag for your current travel, keeping in mind that you will likely use it on future adventures as well.

How to Choose the Best Travel Luggage

There are many considerations when choosing your travel luggage. These factors are very similar whether you buy new luggage, or select to use a piece from your existing collection. The biggest difference if you elect to buy new bags versus use an old one, is adding any new technology characteristics, such as material changes in fabric or wheels, security features, updated organizational methods, or new designs. The process of choosing luggage is essentially the same.

How to Choose the Best Travel Luggage
Photo by: Caroline Selfors 

Step 2: Determine What Size Luggage You Need

Determine the size of bags you need.

In order to choose the right luggage, you need to consider the type of trip you have planned. Large, heavy, and cumbersome baggage may not be a problem if you go straight to your accommodation upon arrival at your destination, and stay there. However, your ability to carry your bags if you plan on moving around a great deal is an important factor.

The size of bags you choose is important if your rental car has limited trunk space, or if you need to use a locker. Consider if you will be getting on and off trains, boats, or walking distances or stairs. Even if you are staying put, the wrong luggage can be difficult to manage.

Luggage Locker Truck at the Ferry, Gran Canaria
Luggage Locker Truck at the Ferry, Gran Canaria, Photo By: Jennifer Barbaro

Sizes to Consider If You Are Buying New Luggage

If you are buying new luggage, you may want to consider a set of 2-5 pieces. It is nice to have a matching set (if this is important to you aesthetically). Matching luggage is also helpful to easily spot and identify your luggage when you have more than 1 piece traveling with you. Sets may include a large, medium, and small roller suitcase, a carry-on hand held bag (that fits a computer, cosmetics, medication, etc.), and a garment bag. It is also nice to own various bags to choose from for each future trip, depending on your needs.

The most popular size check-in luggage is 25- to 29-inches tall. These pieces vary in widths, depending on style and brand. A medium-sized piece of luggage is generally considered to measure around 25-26” tall and be about 18” in width. These bags tend to be checkable and manageable by you and the airline crew. However, note that if you are taking a train, helicopter, or have a compact rental car, they may be too large.

Carry-on Sized Luggage Considerations

If you can only afford to buy one piece, or only have room to bring 1 piece, consider a size that can be used as both a carry-on or checked piece of luggage. There is a huge advantage to the carry-on size. I find that on shorter trips, on airlines that are known to lose luggage, and in inclement weather where there may be flight cancellations, I may not want to check my bag. With a regulation size bag, I can make a last minute choice to carry it aboard. Additionally, this size is easily manageable on trains, ferries, and in small hotel rooms.

Although limits vary slightly between airlines and countries, in general, a standard carry-on luggage size is 22″ x 14″ x 9″, which includes the handle and the wheels. You may even get away with a bag measuring up to, but not exceeding 24″ x 16″ x 10″, but this may not be permitted. Therefore it is always important to find out the exact rules of the airline you are flying.

See also Jenny In Wanderland article on How to Choose Carry-on Luggage that includes a discussion on carry-on versus checked luggage.

Choosing the Size that is Right for You

If you are a person that travels often, you have an idea of what you normally pack for a specific climate, destination type, and amount of time. For example, my rule is to pack 1 weeks worth of clothes, worse case scenario, 2 weeks worth, (no matter how long I am traveling or whereto). By laying out a sampling of what I’d pack for 1-2 weeks, and evaluating the piles, I have an idea if my existing suitcase is sufficient. If not, I know ahead that I need to buy a new one, and what size.

If you are certain that you do not want to check a bag, or that your trip has a size/weight limit, then you are obviously restricted to a standard carry-on size. Remember that with your carry-on, most airlines permit a personal item in addition. Also remember that when checking luggage, some airlines have limits on number of pieces you can check, sizes, and weight. Often you can pay additional fees to surpass these maximums, but it can be extremely expensive. Be sure to check with your carrier to be clear on what you are permitted to check and the associated fees.

Also see Jenny In Wanderland’s 10 Tips on Simplifying Packing.

Step 3: Select the Type of Luggage that Best Suits Your Travel

Luggage comes in various types and shapes. There is the standard rolling upright suitcase with wheels and a pull handle, a duffle bag or weekender, a garment bag, an under seat roll bag, a tote bag, and a backpack. Each of these bags has their own features and set pros/cons.

Standard Rolling Upright Suitcase

Arguably the most popular type of luggage, these easy to pull, upright bags, have a retractable handle and wheels. This bag opens like a regular suit case, around the length. The zipper goes all the way around on three sides. In order to open this bag, you need to lie it down.

The two popular types differ in how they open. In one style, the zipper divides the luggage in half, so the suitcase opens flat. In the other type, the zipper sits on the top fifth of the suitcase so that the lid is more of a flap. These come in both the hard and soft shell variety.

How to Choose the Best Travel Luggage
Standard Rolling Upright Suitcase

Standard Rolling Upright Suitcase Pros

  • They come in a variety of sizes from extra small to over sized.
  • There is a size to fit every need, be it carry-on, or moving large amounts of personal items.
  • Most anyone is able to manage them because they are on wheels.
  • They tend to be protective of their contents because they have a pre-formed shape with a hard structure.
  • Many have pockets and compartments to be able to organize your stuff.
  • They come in a variety of styles and colors.
  • Option of a hard shell versus soft case
  • Expandable or not.

Standard Rolling Upright Suitcase Cons

There are very few negatives of the standard rolling suitcase. If you plan on staying in a small room, these types of bags have a fixed frame, so you cannot make them smaller than their actual size. They don’t fold. In order to store them upright on their wheels, you’d likely need to unpack because it would be a pain to have to keep unzipping it each time you needed something from your bag. They also can be difficult to fit into small cars or luggage racks on transportation.

Duffle Bag/Weekender

Duffle bags or weekenders can be a great choice for a short trip (as the name implies).

These bags have two handles stitched around the bag that are oval or tubular, and meet at the top. They usually have a zipper across the top. The straps are handheld. Some have wheels, but I find them to be heavy and pointless on this type of bag.

Duffle Bag, Photo By: Erol Ahmed

DuffleBag/Weekender Pros

  • Relatively small bag (although some duffles come in extra large sizes)
  • They come in various shapes to meet space needs
  • Easy to fold up and store when not in use
  • Can be placed on a chair, desk, counter, etc and therefore fit into small spaces
  • Fits easily on public transport and in small vehicles
  • Usually open from the top, so it is not necessary to unpack in order to reach its contents
  • Come in many colors, materials, and designs

DuffleBag/Weekender Cons

Really the largest con of this type of bag is that in usually does not have wheels, but has either 2 handles, a long strap to hang over yourself, or both. If you overpack or the contents are heavy, it may be difficult to carry.

Garment Bag

A garment bag is a specialized bag that can be laid flat, folded in half, sometimes rolled, or hung. It is meant to carry dress clothes and jackets. Without wheels, they are often awkward to carry, but can be folded up when not in use. These types of garment bags would likely not withstand the conditions in checked luggage compartments. Therefore they are usually carry-ons.

The garment bags that do have wheels and a handle, tend to fold in half. I find them to be a bit heavy and awkward in width. (They need to be wide enough to hang a suit jacket or formal gown). However, they do serve a specific need well. This style of garment bag may do ok checked, but if you are carrying this, you likely have an important event to attend upon arrival and may not want to risk checking this bag anyways.

Garment Bag

Garment Bag Pros

  • Ability to leave your clothes on hangers, so when you arrive, you just hang them and go.
  • Eliminates wrinkles since the clothes are hung and mostly flat
  • Great solution for dress clothes, suits, wedding attire, and formal wear
  • Protects clothing
  • Bag folds to fit small places and can be hung to get it off the floor
  • Can find a model that have wheels and a handle
  • Usually stores easily when not in use
  • Comes in a variety of colors and styles

Garment Bag Cons

Many garment bags are handheld or have a shoulder strap, so they can be heavy or awkward to carry. Some have wheels which resolve the weight issue, but make them less flexible and potentially more difficult to store. The wheeled garment bags often seem wide or awkward in shape. Also, depending on the style, you will most likely need a second bag for cosmetics, shoes, computer, etc.

Under Seat Roll Bag

I love this type of bag and find it to be a great substitution for a larger rolling suitcase if I am only traveling for a day or two, I often only bring this bag. For extended trips, I like this as my carry-on and second piece of luggage. What I call a horizontal pack, these carry-on bags are some of my favorites. They often have many pockets both in and outside. I find these very easy to organize my belongings. A good one should have a strap in back that allows it to attach to the telescopic handle of another pull bag. For me, that is a make or break feature.

Under Seat Roll Bag

Under Seat Roll Bag Pros

  • Small enough to fit under seat, but large enough to be sufficient for many items
  • Carry-on bag
  • Many styles offer multiple inner and outer compartments for organization and quick grab items
  • Usually have a laptop sleeve or can easily fit a laptop.
  • Easy to store
  • Fits in a small space
  • Most open from the top, allowing you to find items easily without unpacking.
  • Many colors, styles, and designs.
  • Rolls with a retractible handle making it easy for most anyone to manage.

Under Seat Roll Bag Cons

This bag will likely not make a good checked bag. Although it has a frame, the contents would probably get crushed by larger, heavier luggage. If you only want to bring 1 bag for multiple days, this may not fit everything. And although it is small, due to the frame and wheels, it is not foldable or collapsable like the weekender or duffle.

Backpack

For the purpose of using a backpack as your principle form of luggage, consider that there are 2 main types of backpacks, expedition and backpacking. In the context of buying a backpack as luggage in this article, expedition refers to rugged travel that will include hiking, for days, weeks, or longer in the great outdoors.

Backpacking bags refer to the act of traveling, utilizing a backpack as your form of luggage. Many people backpack when they are going to multiple destinations, doing a large amount of walking while carrying their bag, and taking various modes of public transportation. This is the bag people refer to when they say that they are “backpacking through Europe for the summer.”

Expedition bags are more specialized depending on the activity, it’s intensity, and the equipment you need. Here, we are focusing on general travel luggage. See Jenny In Wanderland article How to Choose a Backpack, for important information on choosing your backpack, including day packs and expedition bags.

How to Choose the Best Travel Luggage - Backpack
Photo By: Philipp Kämmerer 

Backpack Pros

  • Great for uneven surfaces (like cobblestone) where wheeling a bag is difficult
  • Easy to go up and down stairs in small villages or when there is no elevator/lift
  • Weight is distributed evenly on your back versus pulling or holding a bag with one arm
  • May fit more easily down narrow transportation aisles on busses, trains, and flights
  • Usually flattens or becomes smaller when you unpack which is great for both storage when not in use, as well as in small hotel rooms or accommodations.
  • Can be fitted to your body type to relieve aches from heavy bags
  • Choice between top or side loading
  • Many travel backpacks have exterior compartments to help you stay organized
  • Some backpacks offer a separated zip compartment for dirty laundry
  • The ability to be hands free

Backpack Cons

No matter how high quality and fitted a backpack is, it may just be uncomfortable for you to manage a heavy bag on your back. Sometimes you can sweat between the bag and your body which is unpleasant. Depending on the shape and zippers of your bag, it can be difficult to “live” out of a backpack. Due to many items being stacked versus laid out in a wider space in rectangular wheeled luggage, rooting through a pack to find your pair of jeans, can get old.

Also, if you plan on staying in luxury or upscale resorts, backpacks may have a perception of being for younger travelers, such as students in hostels and people “roughing it” outdoors. While this is not necessarily true, you may prefer a sleek bag on wheels for your fancy vacation. That part is really a personal choice.

Step 4: Other Considerations When Buying New Luggage

  • What is the purpose of your travel?
  • Where are you going and does the destination require special considerations?
  • Is there a warranty in case of abnormal wear and tear?
  • Is the Manufacturer a Reputable Brand with Decent Reviews?
  • Will the brand be around if you need a replacement part of repair?
  • Is the luggage structurally sound (good material, stitching, frame).
  • Does the handle feel sturdy and glide smoothly?
  • How many wheels are there?
  • Are the wheels good quality and seem to roll smoothly and easily?
  • Is the zipper quality okay and does it open and close without issue?
  • Will you be able to use this bag for a variety of travel in the foreseeable future?
  • Is there a computer sleeve or slot?
  • Is the luggage expandable?
  • Do you like the color and design?
  • Do you usually unpack your bag?
  • Will you feel organized with the piece of luggage?
  • What do you plan on packing?
  • Intended length of travel?
  • What is the overall quality of the bag?

Purpose of Travel

Consider the purpose of your travel when selecting a bag. If you are attending an upscale business meeting, you may want designer luggage that makes a statement. You likely would want to appear organized and perhaps be pulling one manageable roller bag, versus a backpack or duffle, especially when arriving dressed up in business attire.

On the other hand, if you plan on hiking the Albanian Alps and your luggage is being transported by rustic means, a backpack or duffle would be way more appropriate than a roller bag.

How to Choose the Best Travel Luggage - Theth Albania
Theth, Albania, Photo By: Jennifer Barbaro

Your Destination

When choosing luggage, thinking about the destination you are going to, or more broadly, the types of destinations you normally visit, may help you to narrow your search for your perfect luggage. Location is important for factors such as weather, wear and tear, and theft protection.

For example, if you are constantly arriving in areas that see a great deal of rain, you may not want a fabric outer because your contents could become wet if the bag is left outside during loading. Or, if you are landing in a country that has a small airport, where your luggage may be left unattended in baggage claim, you may want an inconspicuous bag versus a designer one. A backpack may be more conducive to rainforest areas, where insects tend to be. You may want the ability to hang your bag or place it on a shelf

Malinowski, Tambopata, Peru - How to Choose the Best Travel Luggage
Malinowski, Tambopata, Peru, Photo By: Jennifer Barbaro

Vertical Versus Horizontal Packing

The type of luggage you choose may be different depending on its use upon arrival. Picture yourself waking up on day one of your journey.

Will you unpack your luggage and get organized in your room? If so, then a vertically packed bag, or any shape that will hold all your packables is probably fine. But if you are moving locations daily, or are not in a position to unpack, a horizontal packed bag is easier. In this case, you want to easily grab what you need, without having to disturb the entirety. You will also want a visual of the contents.

Will the bag stay packed during your trip? If so, organization is extra important because you will be pulling items out as needed, and then placing them back into the bag.

In this case, you may want luggage with outer pockets and many divisions. You also may want a bag where packing is more horizontal versus vertical. Bags that unzip all the way, revealing each item more easily in a side by side fashion may be more desirable.

Packing horizontally in How to Choose the Best Travel Luggage
Sample of packing horizontally, Photo By:  Arnel Hasanovic

A backpack may be a more difficult choice in this scenario, as items are generally stacked vertically. Therefore if you want something on the bottom, you would need to pull everything out.

Are you planning on unpacking the bag and using it for another purpose during your travels? If so, then simply fitting everything, may be the most important function. Once you arrive, you will be unpacking anyway.

There are so many bags and styles to look at, it can be overwhelming. Determining how you want your bag to open is an easy way to initially rule out some of the luggage you are considering.

Quality and Price

Some may argue that a hard shell suitcase lasts longer and is more durable than a fabric one. In my experience, after many trips, both of my hard shelled luggage ultimately cracked, causing the pretty exterior to peel off. While the luggage itself was still functional, it looked terrible and the edges on the peeled coating were sharp. Now, I cannot speak for every brand, and this may have been a freak thing with mine, but the point is, I am not sure that I can say that one type of bag is definitively better than the other.

A bag, whether soft sided or hard, of reasonable quality, should perform well in most situations. But if you buy the least expensive luggage, you are bound to be in a give and take situation. Some features may exceed your expectations, but inevitably, anything made too inexpensively, usually has some flaw.

This is not to say that inexpensive luggage cannot serve a purpose or meet your needs for a period of time, but it may not hold up longterm. During the time I used my hard shell bags, prior to them cracking, I liked them. Cheaper luggage may have some features that aren’t quite as well made as you may want, but you may be willing to settle in order to get the cost down.

In the case that you are on a tight budget, look at the features most important to you, keeping your destination in mind. For example, if your first consideration must be cost, and you are going to a region with tons of rain, you may want to buy a hard shelled bag. While high quality soft sided bags have material that is weather resistant, and likely stay dry as well as their hard shelled equivalents, a cheaper material bag may become wet. Therefore if staying dry is your number one concern and you are going with a less expensive bag, maybe the hard shell is a huge consideration.

Also, look for luggage that is high quality, but on sale. Often you can find great bags for less money if you are not particular about color or design. To me, functionality always wins. Luggage sets tend to be less expensive than buying each piece separately. These high quality bags are my favorite travel brand and come in a set of three. I find them to be well designed with lots of organization and mine have always held up well. For a less expensive option, try this set that comes with 4 different sizes to meet the needs of a variety of trips.

Hard Shell Versus Soft Fabric

These days there are hard shelled luggage being made of materials that claim to be unbreakable and there are cheap shells that look shiny and pretty, but will not hold up to normal wear and tear. Remember that fabric can rip too or be high density. Therefore, I think that it really comes down to, like many things, price and quality. For the purpose of comparing features, here are some pros and cons of hard versus soft shelled luggage:

Hard shell Luggage - How to Choose the Best Travel Luggage
Hard Shell Luggage, Photo By: Jennifer Barbaro

Hard Shelled Luggage Pros

  • Protects from inclement weather
  • Protects Breakables
  • More difficult to cut or tear which may offer more security
  • Usually opens flat for organization and easily seeing contents of bag
  • Many have 2 compartments, one on each side, allowing you to separate shoes or toiletries from clothing
  • Easy to clean with a spray and wipe method.
  • Mostly 4 wheel style
  • Variety of styles and designs
  • Can opt for an “unbreakable” shell
  • Offered in high tech lightweight plastics

Hard Shelled Luggage Cons

  • Often takes up more space as it is not flexible/compressible for overheads, closets, etc.
  • Usually has no outer pockets for organization
  • Most models both sides must be laid flat when the luggage is open, taking up much space
  • 4 wheel style can take up more space in overheads and car trunks
  • The wheels depending on style can make the packing space smaller
  • Shell material can break or peel overtime
  • “Unbreakable” shells can be more costly
  • Can be heavy
  • High tech lightweight hard shells can be more costly
Fabric Material Soft Sided Suitcase - How to choose Travel Luggage
Fabric Material Soft Sided Suitcase, Photo By: Jennifer Barbaro

Soft Shelled Luggage Pros

  • Fabric is flexible and therefore may fit in tight overheads and spaces better
  • Usually offers various outer pockets for organization and quick grab items
  • Outer pocket can hold items, such as laundry, that you want separate from your bag’s main contents
  • Many models have a laptop sleeve
  • Props up and packables mostly all go in one side, so it does not need to be laid flat
  • Easily cleaned with a vacuum
  • Offered in 2 and 4-wheeled styles
  • 2-wheeled style takes less space in overheads
  • Often more packing space inside 2-wheeled styles
  • Material usually holds up well over time
  • Can buy high density material that offers more strength and durability
  • Option of high tech material that has waterproof coating to protect from weather
  • Material tends to be lighter weight than many plastics

Soft Shelled Luggage Cons

  • All packables are generally in one side of the bag, so possibly less organized
  • Material can be more difficult to clean
  • Generally less design styles
  • Delicate contents may not be as protected from breakage
  • May cost more for high density, good quality fabric
  • Possibly additional costs for higher tech waterproof fabric
  • May be easier to cut or tear

The Number of Wheels

Wheeled luggage usually comes with either 2 or 4 wheels. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. 4-wheeled luggage is usually extremely easy to pull because none of the weight is on you; It is distributed between the 4 wheels that are always on the ground. Of course you still need to be able to pull it, though. Also generally the 4 wheels turn and spin every direction, so no matter which way you pull or push the bag, it will go.

4-Wheeled Bag

Of course with a 2-wheeled bag, the wheels only roll forward and back, essentially in 2 directions. Also, a portion of the weight of the bag when you are pulling it, is on you. How much of that weight depends on how the bag is balanced.

2-Wheeled Luggage, Tenerife - How to Choose Travel Luggage
2-Wheeled Luggage, Tenerife, Photo By: Todd Gould

Having 4 wheels generally takes up some of the inner bag, so in most 2 and 4 wheel bags of the same size and style, the 2-wheeled bag usually has more packing space. Additionally, 4 wheels tend to take up more room on the outside of the bag as well. So, if there is a small luggage storage compartment, space in your closet, or trunk, the 2-wheeled bag may fit better.

Lastly, remember that not all wheels are created equal. Cheaper wheels may not roll smoothly (or at all) and may break more easily. Some wheeled luggage offer inline wheels, like the ones used on skates. This technology offers a smoother, easier rolling experience.

Damaged Luggage Wheels

Handle Shapes

Most pull bags have a telescopic handle. They usually come in a U or T shaped handle. Some people say the T shaped handles are easier to grip, but I personally have not found a big difference.

Again, it comes down to quality. A cheap bag may have a cheap handle. Eventually, pulling it up and down will break it. I have had a handle get stuck up in the airport, which was not fun, as you cannot bring it on the plane that way.

Expandable Luggage

Often you can buy bags that have an expansion component. Not all bags have it. I personally love this option. It is essentially a zipper section of the bag that when you unzip it, causes the depth of your bag to become greater, allowing you to pack more items. I like to travel carry-on only when ever possible. So, especially on a longer trip, my bag is filled to capacity. Sometimes after while traveling, I want to purchase local items or fashion. By expanding my bag, I usually have enough room to fit a few extras in my bag.

The danger of expansion is that when expanded, a bag can usually no longer fit as a carry-on. Also, depending on the bag style and amount of contents you add, the expander can cause a bag to become unstable, so it can topple over more easily. Overall, I like to have the feature just in case.

What are Professional Versus Consumer Quality Bags?

While there is luggage sold to the general public that is quality, it tends to be expensive and intermittent. A tip for the everyday jet setter is that some common brands make two sets of their luggage. One set is for the everyday consumer, and the other for industry professionals. Obviously pilots and flight attendants travel constantly and require luggage with high durability.

Some luggage lines make professional quality bags for the professional traveler. They are comparable to flight crew bags in functionality and durability. Some even come with built in organization and added pouches. They are a bit more expensive, but in my opinion, worth it if you travel often.

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