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Choosing good rolling luggage

by , June 21, 2010

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Choosing good rolling luggage

When traveling, a good bag is one you don’t notice. Your trip should be all about your trip, not dragging a failing bag through customs as the zips split, the wheels seize, and the seams fall apart.

But picking good luggage is not an obvious thing. Small details can grow to be big issues half way through a round the world ticket.

So we’re going to talk about wheeled luggage for traveling to paved areas, and we’ll try to pass on some of the tips we’ve learned working in this game for so darn long…
When buying luggage, you’re basically looking to score positives while avoiding negatives:

Scoring positives includes getting features and construction that will give you maximum freedom in your travels.

Avoiding negatives is about reducing your chances of things going wrong (quality failure, theft, unexpected issues).

While Go Lite crew like OneBag.com recommend avoiding the weight of wheels & handles, we’ve found that for big trips, wheels can save your back, neck and marriage (and are a must if you’re lugging sports gear). We also love hybrid bags (straps & wheels) if you’re going to get off the track, but that’s another post…

Score: Sandwich construction (a bag that opens into 2 halves) is great for organizing your gear. Some of these bags will also then split in half and let you check them separately to sneak under the 50 lbs (22 kg) per bag limits many US airlines have for check in.

Avoid: Weight matters. The more the bag weighs, the less you can carry before hitting weight restrictions.
Corners get trashed on luggage, so the rounder they are the better (but that starts to compromise on your internal space). Make sure the corners look protected and strong.
And make sure the bag stands upright even when loaded. Luggage that keeps tipping over will drive you mad.
Hard cases suck when you need to squeeze in to a tight trunk or overhead bin, and they suck in storage, and they generally have really small wheels (which sucks). We’re not big fans of hard cases.

Score: For wheels, bigger and softer wins every time. They roll easier, are less likely to get jammed on rocks (scratching the floor), and don’t clatter like hard wheels on tiles. Skate or inline wheels are usually pretty good (bonus if they are replaceable), but we’re waiting for someone to innovate more in this space.
Zips should be bigger, and preferably a known brand like YKK. Bag companies can save loads using cheap generic zips, but you’ll be cursing them very soon.
Look for a long warranty with your travel bags – at least 3 years. Most people only use a big bag once a year, and so if it goes wrong on your second trip, you’ll be spewing.

Avoid: It’s cheaper for a brand to stick telescoping handles on the outside of luggage, but any knock on the housing can dint it, and stop the handle opening. Go a handle that is inside the bag.
Locks generally don’t work, but if you really want them, get locks that are fixed to the bag rather than just fixing the zip heads. At least then when someone does pop your zip open, they won’t be able to hide their entry as easily.

Score: Internal straps and compression to secure your clothes help. Otherwise your luggage can do a washing machine with your contents.

Avoid: Some luggage over compartmentalizes their internals, which stops you fitting large items. A 2/3 and 1/3 split is usually a great compromise.

Score: Nylon (the shinier woven fabric) is generally stronger than polyester, and larger weave (denier) is also generally stronger. However the backing (the material laminated to the back of the woven stuff) makes a big difference. Thicker backing holds up better… but this is all getting a little complex. Just go for a good brand, and they should have worked all this out.

Avoid: While hard cases offer a little more protection (but fail more radically), and generally offer better security, they also come with big compromises. They are heavier, and if you need to jam it in to a taxi boot, squeeze extra content in, or store it when not travelling – they suck.

That’s probably the major points. If in doubt, try to stick with a brand that makes sense for your pursuits. Hopefully they have thought about all the weird bits that will help. And if still in doubt, give Victorinox a try. They have an awesome warranty and some great designs.

Bargain basement: We’re noticing that with almost every post we do, we come across something stupid or irreverent. This one is the elephant luggage test.

  • http://brianbeaver.com Brian

    I’ve been using the Muji “wheel carry” suitcase for close to a year now (acquired in Tokyo when my Tumi bit the dust). I’ve been exceptionally pleased with its light weight, flexible layout, durability and best of all, its FOUR wheels. Don’t underestimate the value of four wheels over two until you’ve tried to hop a crowded train with your bag, makes life so much easier.

    It’s practically a steal at under $150. Now MUJI has an online store for US customers:

    • http://www.bellroy.com ando

      Ahhh, Muji. Soooo good.

      While modernism originally aimed to make design accessible for the masses, IKEA and Muji seem two of the few that actually went ahead and made good design affordable.

      My old design professor also rates the IKEA family range of bags – crazily affordable but still well considered: http://www.ikea.com/gb/en/catalog/products/40171698

      And good call on the crowded train Brian… being able to wheel a case sideways is a big plus there. It’s just a bother getting those little wheels down to the train in the first place.

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  • Ryan Fernandez

    Great tips! One point where I’d beg to differ with the author is putting the telescoping handle on the outside. I own a few pieces of Briggs & Riley rolling luggage and one of their biggest USPs is the Outsider handle. As a frequent user of these bags, I’ve had absolutely no issues with the handle being outside, especially if it’s a checked bag; I guess the quality of the material used makes all the difference. But the author is spot on about looking for a long warranty. Here Briggs & Riley not just scores, but actually wins the game with the offer of lifetime warranty on their entire collection.

    • http://www.bellroy.com ando

      thanks loads for your input. You make some great points.

      You are right that Briggs & Riley are one of the few exceptions that manage to make the outside handle work. They generally do this by creating a pretty strong shield around the telescoping housing. This works, but does have a small compromise on weight.

      And what a warranty! There’s a few brands now offering solid lifetime warranties (some Victorinox, Boyt, Pathfinder, etc), but the fine print shows Briggs & Riley to be one of the best for sure.

      I’d love to see what this costs them in repair bills, but it certainly incentivises them to make bullet-proof bags.

  • Joshua Dror

    Hey guys, working with a design team and in the process of launching an exciting new brand of luggage, backpacks and messenger bags and found this article very insightful. Thanks and keep up the good work.

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  • Angel C

    You guys have almost drawn the Bric’s Bellagio trolley bag in the sketch above. It’s a great bag and has four wheels.

    • TeamCarryology

      Angel C, ha you could be right! And the Brics looks pretty cool too.

  • Mara

    I can’t stand “sandwich construction” and want the opposite — but what would that be called?


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