The First Time Luggage Buyer's Guide

Apartment Therapy's Annual Guide

Luggage can make a world of difference while traveling, either simplifying or complicating matters. But choosing the right piece balancing price, features, and durability can prove difficult for the first time buyer. I've leveraged my experience as a frequent flier with specific luggage pieces I've used myself to offer some shopping recommendations and tips below...

5 Things to Consider When Shopping for Luggage:

  1. Weight: Yes, the airline has the right to weigh your carry-on. A lighter weight bag also means the bag will be easier to lift into and out of the overhead bin before, during, and after the flight.
  2. Durability:. With planes getting smaller and smaller in efforts to cut fuel costs, your next flight might just be on a plane with much smaller bins than you anticipated. I have had gate checked bags destroyed before, so don't think gate checking is equated with greater care. Beyond how airline luggage handlers treat luggage, durability also includes the normal wear and tear of using the zippers, stuffing compartments, and the lifetime of wheels. Zippers, wheels, and the telescoping handles are the components most likely to fail. 
  3. Size: Before purchasing luggage, do a little legwork about the airlines you most commonly fly, and note their size and weight restrictions, both internationally and domestically. If you're not particularly loyal to a handful of airlines, grab the information from a large airline, a smaller budget airline, and an international airline. Shop with the most restrictive size guidelines in mind and you'll never be the person that has to check their bag due to it being too large.
  4. Warranties: Even the most conscientious and well-prepared traveler has been known to have luggage issues, so researching customer service is advisable. Brands like Tumi and Rimowa have offered great customer satisfaction, and a dear friend swears by his Briggs & Riley lifetime warranty covering airline damage. 
  5. Price: Like with many things, you do get what you pay for. And with luggage those extra dollars bring improved long term durability, warranties, and features. I'm not talking about luggage that's expensive because of a logo, but brands with a longstanding reputation in luggage quality and customer service. I'm not a wealthy person, but I knew because I travel frequently, and I wanted luggage that would last, I saved up and purchased luggage still serving me 10 years later. Remember to check retailers like Nordstrom Rack or Bloomingdales sales for excellent deals on premium quality brands at reasonable prices (I've picked up Tumi there at almost half the price!).

Below is a real-world mini review of a few luggage options I've owned and/or tried myself. To help you to get the most out of this humble guide, I've broken it down into 3 categories: Personal Item, Carry-On, and Checked Bag. 

Personal Item Bags:

This is the "second bag", also known as the "under the seat bag". Although "secondary" in name, the personal items bag can prove even more important than even primary luggage for certain travelers, because it has to be comfortable, yet expansive enough to house tech or any other items a traveler doesn't want checking in. 

Look for a bag: 

  • that works equally as well as a small weekend bag or briefcase 
  • small enough to fit well under the seat
  • offers a large opening to make access easy before and during flights

Avoid open style bags, as contents will spill out during flight! Since this is also the item that you will be accessing during air travel, check how noisy it is to access before purchasing, so you won't be "that" passenger making all the noise during a long flight.

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Recommendations:
My go-to personal item bag is the Lo & Sons OG ($295), pictured above. I like its spacious capacity, enough to provide me with everything I need for a short trip and with a laptop compartment. The smaller version, the OMG ($275) is also a great pick. 

Another personal item bag recommendation is the Tumi Voyager Cortina Boarding Tote ($395). While the Cortina does not have a laptop compartment, I love the shape, and its lightweight, yet durable construction wins points. 

For those who prefer a more masculine-styled bag and something that's much smaller, I've found the Tumi Alpha Bravo Essential Tote ($295) to be a great choice. The shoulder strap is a back saver when dashing around the airport.

A good budget pick for laptop protection (all under $25): Poppin laptop bags & totes.


Carry-On Bags:

Carry-on luggage is where travelers should invest the most consideration and money when purchasing new luggage. While designated as "carry-on", this type of luggage has to be equally capable of being stuffed into overcrowded bins or be checked-in occasionally like larger models. While some travelers may shoot for the largest allowable carry-on size models, I advise against this. It's never fun having to check a bag in at every turn because it does not meet international carry-on standards, which tend to be smaller than US domestic, or because it's too large for smaller domestic flights. 

The most important things to to look for: durability and overall weight. Avoid selecting a carry-on difficult to maneuver or lift comfortably when fully packed. No one wants to be that person struggling to jam a bag into an overhead bin while everyone watches. 

Another tip is to go for luggage with an open interior layout, offering space to fit items according to your specific travel needs. For example, I like to divide the interior of my bag up with amenity kits (my personal favourite are the ones from Qantas), which I use to store lenses and other items, along with the Hudson + Bleeker Vivant Poppy Red Voyager ($84) which can double as a purse at my destination. 

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Recommendations:
After going through several carry-on wheeled models, I grew weary of disposable luggage, and decided to make the investment in a quality piece. I wholly endorse the Rimowa Salsa Deluxe Hybrid ($695), pictured above. The bag is incredibly roomy, yet relatively tiny (and importantly fits international carry-on standards), with high marks in durability and finish. The Salsa has an open canvas interior with a protective hard exterior, with pockets on the outside perfect for storing tech items. While I was not much of a fan of 4 wheels before purchasing, this bag quickly won me over. 

Another bag that I've tried and liked was the Tumi Alpha Lightweight International Carry-On ($595), and also the Tumi Ducati Evoluzione International Carry-On ($995), a time tested favourite. 

Unfortunately, the affordably priced Lipault Plume 0% 20" Wheeled Duffel ($189) showed signs of wear after just two trips, with holes visible at the bottom. Instead, I recommend the Samsonite Hyperspace 21.5" Carry On Spinner (formerly $400, now currently on sale for around $100) if travelling domestically as it lasted two years before the telescoping handle malfunctioned. The Caselogic 21" Lightweight Upright Roller ($189) is another budget model which worked well for about a year and a half during domestic travels before the wheels malfunctioned.

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Checked Bags:

The biggest consideration when purchasing checked luggage models should be durability. This is the bag that will have to withstand the most amount of abuse. The challenge is finding a bag offering durability without adding extraneous weight. I consulted Alan Krantzler, SVP Brand Management for Tumi, and asked him which materials one should look for ideally in a durable, yet lightweight bag: 

"Tegris, a virtually indestructible material typically found in NFL protective gear and NASCAR race cars. Tegris is a stronger material than poly-carbonate which is what is typically found in other hard side cases. The overall benefit of using this material is an ultra-lightweight, yet highly protective travel case."

Another material he suggested for durability is ballistic nylon. It's rugged, highly durable, and available in both hard and soft options. The difference between ballistic nylon and denier nylon explains why my denier nylon Lipault bag easily tore from wear and tear after only a few trips, while the stronger ballistic nylon bags shows no such damage. 

Recommendations:
The Rimowa Topas 26" Multiwheel ($1,020) is the top choice in our household and is extremely durable. If looking for a bag made with the aforementioned Tegris, look no further than the Tumi Tegra Lite Extended Trip Packing Case ($895) shown above is also recommended, with the ballistic nylon covered Briggs & Riley Baseline Medium Expandable Upright ($499) an affordable option.

I've shared my luggage shopping tips and personal experiences, what are yours?



(Image: Joelle Alcaidinho, all other image credit as linked)

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