Luggage Recommendations?
June 12, 2016 9:12 PM   Subscribe

I've been using a set of $30 cheapo luggage bought on clearance for a few years now. It's starting to show its age, and one bag in the set's already been wrecked by airport baggage claim. So, I'm in the market for a new set. But the choices are overwhelming! Help me out?

I've never actually bought luggage before, and I have no clue even to where I should even begin looking. What brands are good? Is getting a set better or worse than buying pieces individually? What kind of wheels do I want? How light can I go without reducing sturdiness?

I travel by plane once a year with a checked bag, and another once a year with just a carry-on bag. I also do weekend trips and longer vacations by car 4-5 times a year.

Ideally, I'm looking for a larger 28"-30" or so piece, a smaller carry-on piece about 20"-21" in size, a wheeled duffle bag or other medium-sized piece, around 25", and a shoulder bag or backpack that isn't wheeled, and is maybe 15".

I'd like to keep it around $300-$400 for all or most of the set, especially since I'm looking for around medium-tier luggage, I'd guess, based on how rarely I travel with checked bags. However, I'm willing to splurge if it means I won't have to buy suitcases again for a while.

Hit me with your best recommendations, mefi!
posted by PearlRose to Shopping (18 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Costco. Look for a set with spinner wheels. Spinner wheels are the bomb.
posted by netsirk at 9:18 PM on June 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm in love with this carry-on sized Eagle Creek duffel. I got it for three months of touring in a van that I just finished last month and it served me very well, both in terms of ease of use and in terms of durability. Very light yet sturdy. I will be taking with me this Friday for two months on Warped Tour.

This may make you reconsider wheeled bags -- or at least alert you to their downsides so you can weigh them appropriately. The overall website has a lot of useful information about picking luggage.
posted by Gymnopedist at 9:44 PM on June 12, 2016

I've been so, so impressed with my Briggs and Riley bags. Spendy but we travel a lot with small kids (so packing light isn't an option) and it's shocking how much stuff you can fit in these bags. I've gone from "are we sure we can cram all this into our bag" to "are we sure the airline will let us check this bag". Because we can always fit what we need into these bags. They are magnificent.
posted by town of cats at 9:50 PM on June 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

A Macy's luggage buyer told me that TravelPro and Pathfinder are the way to go.
posted by jgirl at 10:34 PM on June 12, 2016

If you literally never want to buy bags again, Briggs and Riley is the way to go. Their warranty is no-questions-asked and covers wear and tear. My partner and I have used the warranty twice already; we travel fairly often and airport bag handling can be brutal. We consider each use of the warranty as "not having to buy a replacement bag" and by that metric we have come out the same as if we bought a string of middle-tier bags, except we get a nicer, more thoughtfully designed bag!

The only downside of B&R is that the base weight of the bag is somewhat heavy. As for other brands, I think only Eagle Creek's current warranty comes close to the Briggs and Riley warranty, but I don't own any of their bags so YMMV.
posted by melvinwang at 10:49 PM on June 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Wirecutter has a feature post on travel that discusses luggage options and things to keep in mind pretty well.
posted by yeahlikethat at 11:08 PM on June 12, 2016

eBags hardside spinners with packing cubes. These are great.

My family and I just got back from living abroad for 9 months. We had two medium spinners, one small carry-on size, and two other pieces of luggage (a soft-side spinner and a soft side drag-along). The hardside spinners were definitely superior. Lighter-weight (which is important when you're desperately trying to stay under the 23 kilo limit), much easier to roll, easier to pack using the packing cubes...they're very durable so far, after having travelled 6000 miles or so.

And buy a luggage gauge. You will not regret it.
posted by leahwrenn at 11:14 PM on June 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh, be careful about the 28-30" luggage. It's too big to use internationally, at least in some flights, and if you pack it full, it's likely to be overweight as well. We were perilously close to being overweight on some of our 25" bags, even, when they were packed full. (Seriously. Packing cubes are the best. Just get two sets today. )
posted by leahwrenn at 11:17 PM on June 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Macy's is good for looking at luggage and their prices are good. Before buying I price check against Amazon in case they are dong the same thing significantly cheaper, which has happened.

I find TravelPro stuff (with the Eiffel Tower symbol) to be good quality and classy looking, but still cheap enough that I am not heartbroken if a piece gets mangled by the baggage system.
Personally I prefer 2 inline-skate style wheels to spinners' 4 caster-wheels, as skate wheels roll better when you are dragging the suitcase while walking a real distance. Spinners are better when you are just nudging the suitcase along while in a line. TravelPro seem to do both kinds now, on different product lines.
posted by w0mbat at 12:39 AM on June 13, 2016

I've been travelling fairly often in the last few years. My experience:

Big box department store is where I go. You want to look at them in person, pick them up, roll them around a bit. Last four purchases: 3 Macy's, one Sears. I don't go down to Target or Walmart level when shopping for this. Macy's is usually my best value, but only when they go on sale--which is pretty often. Delsey is my go-to brand, but many brands are just fine.

Whether bags last is a matter of luck. I have inexpensive bags that have lasted for years. I've had baggage handling damage that would have affected expensive as well as inexpensive bags. The only thing that paying extra will get you in my experience is if you want a bag that is absolutely industrially crushproof. I get the impression that most people don't need to go to this level. Also, at a typical big-box retailer, paying a lot extra probably only gets you a more expensive brand name.

My standards for a checkable bag: hardsided lockable spinner with smooth sides.

I need a hard side because I tend to bring wine or liquor home in checked luggage, along with breakable items. (I don't travel with expensive camera equipment, sensitive instruments, etc.) With sensible packing and the regular hardsides you get in department stores, I've rarely had a problem. The only real issue has been if the corner of one side of the hardside can slip within the other, collapsing the item.

I want a lockable bag. This may not be that important to you, it's just a deterrent, not total security, and if the bag itself isn't lockable, you can probably get a separate lock.

Bags look alike. I insist on having a bag with perfectly smooth areas on it where I can put adhesive stickers. When my bag comes around the carousel, I see it right away. For me, this is another reason that I don't buy cloth-sided bags. This also eliminates a lot of hard-sided spinners for me, because a lot of companies have an annoying habit of texturing the plastic sides. You might or might not care about this.

The link above with info about problems with wheeled luggage is strange to me: nothing listed in that article has been a problem for me. Other people's experience may vary.

For carry-on luggage, my best choice has been a simple Under Armour gym duffel. What I look for: something that will fit under an airline seat, a rectangular body, and accessible pockets or compartments. The rectangular body is important: it lets you pack and organize a bit better. Round or shapeless bags are more likely to let things drift around and migrate, which is a hassle. It also makes the best use of space in general. Otherwise, it doesn't need to be fancy.

I don't bring a small spinner on the plane and try to wedge it in the overhead, because I hate it when the plane lands and dozens of people are in the aisle wrestling with pulling them back down, delaying everyone else. I grab my duffel from under the seat and go.

A luggage scale is a perfectly nice thing to have. I've never absolutely needed one--but I've been in situations where it would have given me some peace of mind.

Packing cubes have a good convenience value.
posted by gimonca at 4:42 AM on June 13, 2016

A general piece of advice about carryon luggage in general - get something that is soft-sided.

There is a standard "carryon" size, and all airlines list it by saying something like "the width plus the length have to add up to 45 inches" or something. But - each airline's own overhead compartment is shaped slightly differently, so one airline may have "30 inches long by 15 tall" as its shape, while another may have "25 inches long by 20 tall" or something. Those both fit the "45 inches" rule, but they are two different shapes. That's one reason why they have the little thing by the checkin counter for you to test your bag and see if it will fit - they're also checking whether you can check the shape of their carryon compartment.

A hard-sided carryon may be the right number of inches to qualify as a carryon, but it may be the wrong shape for a given airline, and if it is you'd have to check it. With a soft-sided carryon, though, you can squish it into the shape required by the unique airline and you'll be able to carry it on.

I try to travel exclusively using carryon luggage, and I use duffel bags and gym bags for this very reason. They're roomy, they can be squished into whatever shape you need, and they often have lots of pockets for you to sort your stuff with. If I think i'll be going somewhere where I'll be buying a lot of souvenirs, or a souvenir that may be liquid or gel, I'll bring an extra empty tote bag, and then for the flight home I'll check my carryon and use the tote bag as my "carryon" for the return flight.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:45 AM on June 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

No specific brand recommendations, but I suggest a few things:

-For wheeled luggage, you really want 4 wheels, not just 2. In my experience, 2 wheels are worse in a lot of situations than no wheels. 4 spinner wheels and you basically never feel like you are carrying or pulling a damn thing.

-Get the lightest thing that ticks all your other boxes. Most luggage--decent luggage at least--is pretty durable, even if it's very very lightweight, and saving the weight on the bag will make it so much easier to avoid overweight luggage fees at check-in.

-For stores, I find that most TJ Maxx locations (TK Maxx for the UK) have a decent selection of mid-range, fairly priced luggage, and it's nice to handle a lot of affordable options side by side to make the call.

One thing is certain, though: travelling with luggage that fits your needs nicely is entirely different from making do with something less than suitable. Night and day, and really takes some of the pain out of the inherently painful process of travelling.
posted by still bill at 4:47 AM on June 13, 2016

We were in the exact same situation a couple weeks ago. Went to Costco and picked up a pair of Samsonite soft shell 4 wheel rollers bags (one carry on, one bigger size) for about $120. The bags travel well.

The only downside (if that) is that they are generic looking black bags. So you would want to embellish them somehow to be able to easily pick them out. We put yellow shoelaces that were lying around on the handles.
posted by busybee at 7:57 AM on June 13, 2016 own brand (e.g. mother load) are designed super well, with lots of features that are clearly thoyght out, and have lifetime warranties. Mine started to develop a tear near the zipper that was non-cosmetic (i.e. could leak contents) 2 years after I bought it (maybe ~12 hard-using trips), I sent them pictures of the damage and they shipped me a brand new bag. I'm impressed!
posted by lalochezia at 9:59 AM on June 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm in love with this Travelpro spinner series. Very, very lightweight, lots of room, easy to pack and unpack, and looking good after lots of trips. I started with the 25 inch in purple, which will hold a ton, and now have acquired the 21 inch, which will definitely work as a carryon.
posted by bearwife at 10:31 AM on June 13, 2016

Oh, and in terms of a great shoulder travel bag, I got one years ago at the Hong Kong airport that I really love. I generally check my bag and take this one on the plane for things like my iPad and electronics and noise canceling headphones . I also use it as my everyday briefcase as it is light and easy to carry. I can't decipher the Chinese label on my shoulder bag, but this Skyway Sigma looks a heck of a lot like it. Also a nice option though spendier is Tom Bihn, for example his Maker's Bag.
posted by bearwife at 10:44 AM on June 13, 2016

I have found L.L. Bean's luggage to be very durable. Plus they have a no-questions-asked lifetime warranty, so that when they do break you can basically get new ones for free. This carry-on in particular is just about ideal for most short trips, and it comes in a set with other bag sizes.
posted by cubby at 11:02 AM on June 13, 2016

I travel/used to travel with whatever I found at Ross on clearance, and pretty much anything meeting that criteria has failed me in one way or another. The best holdout so far is a 25" Nautica bag, which I've used for light traveling (about 3-4 times per year) for about 6 years, but even then both of the front pocket zippers have broken pulls and it's obviously not carry-on sized, so I'm trying to use it less these days. (I've ended up flying Southwest or coughing up a fair bit in checked bag fees over the last few years because of that bag.) I'm also not in love with luggage sets; the large bag in the clearance set I bought during college ended up being used maybe a couple of times during a move and was far too unwieldy for me to want to use them anywhere else, and as capacious as it was, it also meant that it was very easy for me to pack them over the airline weight limit.

After reading this Wirecutter article and getting a bit of sticker shock at their recommendations, I looked into other TravelPro luggage options and settled on this TravelPro rollerboard bag which has worked well for me for the year or so I've had it so far. I personally don't like the spinner wheels on luggage today; yes, it's more convenient, but you're giving up a fair bit of capacity to those wheels, and I don't feel the convenience is worth that.

I also travel with a backpack as my under-seat carry-on. I find backpacks much more convenient to deal with in an airport, since I can keep both hands free and it doesn't dig into a shoulder and balance weirdly like a shoulder-bag. I have this Targus backpack that works pretty well for what I've thrown at it so far, though it's getting worn enough that I'll be replacing it soon.

My advice would be to take a careful look at your needs and buy luggage that matches those needs. Buying a luggage set seems like a great way to waste money on useless larger bags in my case, and I suspect that is true of most people.
posted by Aleyn at 6:12 PM on June 13, 2016

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