We hope you enjoy this guest post by frequent Brand g guest and world traveler (with his husband, John Berger), Neal Williams. It’s filled with incredibly useful tips!
I don’t remember the first overnight trip I ever took as a child with my family, but I do remember the one suitcase I shared with my brothers. It was tan, constructed on a wood frame covered by compressed paperboard laminated over thin plywood panels, held together by pitted brass hardware and a buckle. The leather handle eventually dried out and broke completely, probably from baking the bag in our attic in the Midwest summer heat.
That bag was replaced by the first “modern” polyethylene suitcases that we bought from Sears Roebuck & Co. in the 60s. Next came cases with two wheels, but both were mounted on the narrow side corners of the bag, which meant that it flipped over every time I tried to turn too quickly.
When my husband, John, and I got together almost four decades ago, we started traveling the world, even visiting all seven continents in one year (two years in a row). We will visit our 100th country next year. We have never stopped traveling—or changing our luggage. We’ve gone through countless sets of luggage: checked bags, rollaboards, backpacks, duffles, rolling duffles, day bags, camera bags, golf club bags, hard sided luggage, soft sided luggage, two wheels, spinner wheels, no wheels.
Our bags have broken, been stolen or permanently lost, wore out, or simply been dumped when confronted with the allure of some flashy new tart with better curves and a hot set of wheels. It seems that we change luggage almost as often as we update our cameras. Sometimes updating our photography equipment is all the excuse we need to update our luggage again.
So, here are the most important things I’ve learned about luggage:
- Price: Cost is not a terribly good indicator of quality or durability once you get over a certain price point, which for me is a crazy on-sale price of about $100 for a rollaboard and $130 for a checked bag, although I have spent double those prices for just the right bag. The sweet spot for both rollaboards and checked size bags is $100-200. The really sweet spot is when you can snatch one of those on sale for less than $100.
If you are upset with my opinion because you just bought an ultra-premium brand bag for far more than that and have never—never!! – heard someone insinuate that you didn’t buy absolutely the best, then just relax. I don’t disagree that your bag is the top of the line. But that just doesn’t matter once stolen by thieves, or folded, spindled, and mutilated by airport sorting robots, or end up in the disgruntled-employee-of-the month bag toss competition on the tarmac in Caracas, particularly since you never flew to Caracas yourself. You flew to Rio. (See Brands and Warranty below.)
Tip: If shopping online (for anything), check to see if you can get additional discounts, rebates, points or miles by “laundering” your purchase through a shopping portal. Your friend here is cashbackmonitor.com. Just enter the name of the merchant in the search window. There are times we’ve earned 20 airline miles per dollar at ebags, plus the points or miles we earn on the credit card.
- Where to Buy: My favorite places are eBags, Amazon, Costco, Macy’s, and TJ Maxx. Good choices are always on sale and a high number of positive online customer reviews for a bag can be reliable.
When we needed an extra bag to take all our cold weather gear and a collapsable Christmas tree to Antarctica for the holidays, we obviously needed an extra checked bag. TJ Maxx had a large Delsey Paris spinner with built-in TSA lock for only $60. The downside was that the color was fluorescent hot pink. The upside was that it was fluorescent hot pink. No self-respecting thief would ever steal it off the luggage carousel because (1) the security cameras would pick up the color and go, “Whah?,” (2) nobody would buy it at a thieves’ market if they weren’t stoned, and (3) their fellow thief friends would think they were gay and not in a good way.
- Brands: Designer brands do not perform any better than brands that sell only luggage without the implied promise of a luxurious existence. You are buying a portable box for your stuff – not a lifestyle. Besides, once you have packed your dirty undies for the return trip home then your beloved top brand suitcase is defiled forever. Oh sure, maybe those around you in the airport will gaze with envy at your suitcase, then at you, then back at your suitcase. But you will know, deep in your heart, how your suitcase lost all respect for you having seen what you were doing on that cruise when you removed your racy underwear with abandon and tossed it into a puddle of beer, nacho chips, and lasting regret. Your expensive bag has been dissed and will never love you like it used to. Quite frankly, it will wish that it was back at the mall in the store window.
We have used many good brands over the decades. When in a pinch for shopping time, the TravelPro brand will rarely let you down. Just ask your next flight crew – it’s their preferred brand. Samsonite, Delsey, and Victorinox are also sound value choices that come with worldwide networks of repair facilities.
- Construction and Materials: Soft side or hard side? This is entirely a personal preference. Soft side bags protect your stuff with their flexibility. Plus, they usually have outside pockets that you can put things in, like spare plastic zip lock bags, maps, books, jackets, and your stack of Bed Bath and Beyond 20%-off-any-single-item coupons in case you have OCD and need to properly equip your AirBnB’s kitchen before you can truly unwind. The downside is that they can be slashed open and are hard to clean. We used to have soft side bags but have gravitated to polycarbonate hardside luggage for the light weight, crush resistance, and ability to protect our electronics, photo equipment, and liquids.
Polyethylene and ABS hard side plastics are also available, but they weigh more and are subject to cracking when taking a hit in freezing weather. Aluminum looks pretty and is prestigious, but it weighs more and dents easily. Hard side luggage is available in bold molded patterns, colors and prints that can make them easier to find on the carousel.
Avoid luggage that is totally riveted together. Look for quality luggage whose critical components are mounted with screws. That means it can be repaired.
- Weight: All airlines have weight limits for bags and some of the foreign airlines can be brutal with their passenger cabin limits for shorter connecting flights. We’ve been on some flights where the limits for both rollaboards and personal items were as low as 4 kg (about 8.8 pounds) per bag. If your rollaboard weighs 6.8 lbs empty, then you can only pack a change of underwear, some hopes and dreams, and that’s about it.
Tip: What you wear when boarding doesn’t count. So, wear your hat and heaviest jacket and stuff the pockets with all your electronics and other heavy objects. A book to read also doesn’t count, so carry it on board. We also carry a plastic shopping bag to transfer and carry on our valuables just in case we have to gate check our rollaboards. We also pack a small electronic luggage scale to verify the weight of our bags before we leave for the airport or if we need to transfer stuff between bags at check-in to meet surprise weight requirements.
- Size: Like weight, airline size dimension rules are all over the map, particularly for carry-ons. What is acceptable for a US airline may be too big for a foreign airline. We have downsized a little to the international size of rollaboard and have never had another problem. Many bags that advertise they are 22” are actually 24” with wheels and top handle and that means you may have to check them at the gate. Most rollaboards are advertised as airline size compliant when in fact they are not. If you are looking for a rollaboard that will truly be allowed on most airlines and flights, don’t go larger than 9x14x22 inches, including handles and wheels. When you go shopping for luggage, take a tape measure because even the manufacturer tags on the display luggage often do not include the wheels and handles in their dimensions.
- Wheels: Two parallel wheels or four spinner wheels? That’s entirely your personal preference. Four-wheel spinners need a little more clearance under the bag, which means the box has to shrink a little. But we have changed to them anyway for the ease of maneuvering sideways down plane and train aisles, and because they take all the torque off of the wrists, shoulders, and neck when navigating through airports, parking lots, and streets. I can lower the handle to a comfortable height for my posture when walking with the bag at my side. They are harder to roll on carpeting, but if I just lengthen the telescoping handle all the way out and drag the bag behind me, then it becomes a two-wheeler and works fine on carpeting. Every four-wheel spinner then converts to a two-wheel model on demand.
With that said, the sturdiest models are ones with just two wheels that are built into the bag. Those large, external wheels found on four-wheel versions can snap right off when your suitcase is being flung by that baggage dude in Caracas.
- Locks: When you buy a new bag, make sure it includes a built-in TSA combination lock for convenience. Detached small padlocks that hold zippers together can get caught and damaged in the conveyer belts and may become very difficult to remove.
Also, there is an easy, undetectable, method that thieves use when breaking into padlocked luggage: By merely poking the tip of a ball point pen through a closed nylon zipper (which most bags now use) they can work the pen back and forth and pry open the zipper completely. After removing your valuables, the thief simply re-zips the bag shut by pulling the locked-together pulls from one end of the zipper to the other and back again. You will not know that your bag has been opened until you reach your destination. However, if your bag has a built-in TSA lock into which the pulls are secured, this trick won’t work because the pulls do not move and the thief can’t zip the bag back shut.
Tip: It’s a good idea to open and inspect your bags when you retrieve them from the carousel (but who has time to do that?). You have a much stronger claim for stolen items if you make it before leaving the airport. Before final pack, we also lay out all of the things we are packing and take a photo of the whole bunch, just in case we need to make a claim.
- Appearance: Forget beauty as your top priority. The first time you retrieve your super shiny new designer luggage from the carousel, you will be very sad because the finish is forever ruined. Sorry, but that’s not a defect. The luggage did its job and sacrificed its life to save your stuff. That’s why you claim your bags in the “terminal.” It where your luggage goes to die.
We prefer luggage that either is not black, or if black it includes some feature that sets it apart so some jet lagged passenger doesn’t grab it by mistake from the carousel. Another reason we like hard side luggage is that they can appear more distinctive and easily identifiable because their colors and patterns can look like anything nowadays. You can even get cases custom printed with your own photo. (Like I said, you should forget beauty as your top priority.)
- Warranty: A long warranty from a reputable company can be an indicator of quality, but may still end up being useless when you really need it. You will find your bag broken when you you pick it up at baggage claim. Briggs & Riley makes excellent luggage that comes with a lifetime warranty that covers airline damage (most brands exclude such damage). But a B&R bag can also cost $800 and they don’t have repair facilities at baggage claim. You still have to take time out of your travels and go to an authorized repair facility—if there is one where you are going.
Most luggage companies make you send the bag back to them at your own costs for repair or replacement. Some even require that you pay them a non-refundable fee just for them to examine your bag to see they will cover it! The logistics are never going to work for you when you are traveling. You can replace a cheap $100 bag while traveling seven times and still come out ahead of the $800 Briggs. Lost and stolen luggage is never covered by any manufacturer.
Tip: The number one thing that breaks on a bag is a wheel. You can buy and carry a spare wheel replacement kit online or at a luggage repair shop, pack it, and replace it yourself while on a trip. If your luggage is a matching set, this makes it easy to travel with just one replacement wheel kit.
- Vermin: Bedbugs — yuck! Never had them and don’t want them. Bedbugs just love to migrate from one location in the world to another via luggage. They can migrate in the overhead bins, the luggage hold of a plane or bus, and particularly in hotel rooms and cruise ship cabins. They can work their way through zipper gaps or ride home in the puffy seams of soft side luggage.
You can, however, drastically cut your risk of bringing bugs of any kind home. First, search online for videos about how to inspect your guest room for bed bugs and what to do if you find them. When you first arrive in your room, keep your luggage closed and put it in the bathtub or shower until your inspection is complete. Keep your luggage zipped shut when you no longer need immediate access to your stuff. When you get home, do not take your luggage to your bedroom to unpack. Instead, take it immediately to your laundry area to unpack and wash your clothes and to inspect your luggage.
Tip: Treat the zippers of your bags (plus all seams of soft side luggage) with a permethrin-based insect repellent spray, such as Sawyer Premium Insect Repellant Treatment for Clothing, Gear & Tents. (Available in outdoor sports stores and on Amazon.) It’s effective for up to six months.
- Luggage Damaged by Airlines: Most luggage warranties do not cover damage by the airlines. But the airlines themselves are liable for damage in transit. Inspect your luggage before you leave the terminal. If anything is broken, missing, cracked, ripped, or wet, go directly to luggage services and file a claim. Take photos of the luggage and of your claim forms. At major airports, the airlines have contracted with some local luggage repair service to repair or replace your bag. They often have replacement bags available at luggage services, and that may be your only realistic remedy if you are under a time constraint.
But be careful. The new bags they have on hand at the airport luggage service offices are often very cheap and may not have all the the features of your broken bag. The new bags may be smaller, larger, not have a built-in lock, not the same number of wheels, a cheaper material, etc. Once, my bag arrived at baggage claim with a shattered wheel. I filed a claim and was immediately offered a new replacement bag that was larger than my normal checked bag, and was outside the maximum size limits for our regular airline. If I had accepted the bag, from there on the “free” replacement bag would have cost me an extra $50 as an oversized bag every time I checked it in. Fortunately, we were in a major international city for a few days and I held out for a repair, even though the repair company came to my hotel to offer me even more cheap replacement bags. I realized that they didn’t make much money replacing a wheel. They make their money by getting the airlines to pay for new, cheap bags at highly inflated prices.
- Lost or Delayed Luggage: There’s a lot of good advice available online about what to do if your luggage is delayed or ultimately lost, so I’m not going to repeat it here. Your credit card may also offer coverage. Each airline has its own rules, but in general the airline that checked your bag is responsible. One thing we always do is to photograph the contents of our luggage before we do a final pack. We just lay it all out on the floor and take a snapshot. We also pack a copy of our itinerary and contact information on top of the contents. Then we take a photo of the closed bag. The photos will be very helpful in finding our bags or getting proper compensation for the contents if the bag is delayed, damaged, or we never see it again.
In addition to compensation from the airline, you may also be covered by your homeowner’s insurance policy and by the credit card that you charged your trip to. Even when flying using frequent flyer miles, our Chase Sapphire card covers us with travel insurance even though we only paid the taxes on the ticket with the card.
We also use Tile and Trackimo electronic tracking devices to better help locate delayed bags. And the major US airlines now allow you to track your bag on their apps – so you can see that it was loaded in your departure city, unloaded at your connecting city, reloaded, etc. This can be immensely comforting when taking two or three flights to get to your destination.
- Personal Carry on Items/ Day Bags: Again, check the airline size and weight limits, particularly overseas. We have a preference for the Pacsafe brand of bags because of their anti-theft security features such as slash proof sides and straps, and clever options to secure the zippers shut, and even to lock our bags to immovable objects, like to a chair in a café. Our lockable backpacks can double as a room safe for hotels that do not provide their own. We often lock the bags to the closet rod. Pacsafe makes a large range of day bags, purses, backpacks, camera bags, and travel safes in all sizes. You can find their products at Pacsafe.com, eBags, Amazon, and better independent luggage stores.
Final thoughts: If you are just starting to travel, I don’t want to scare you off by making it seem that something as basic as luggage is so complicated. It’s not. Even a simple duffle bag will hold and protect your stuff as long as you pack it properly. No doubt you will meet other travelers who have even better advice and tips than mine. Travel is one of the most rewarding parts of our life, and any activity worth doing is more enjoyable (or at least less complicated) when we have the right tools—such as the right luggage. Just be sure to pack an open, friendly disposition, and allow a little extra time in case you break a wheel.
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