Luggage is so personal, particularly for travel. It is frankly impossible to name one suitcase that is THE best travel luggage. Not to mention since the companies change them nearly every year so what may be the best luggage this year for airplane travel may not be available next year.
Our team spends many days out of the year living out of luggage of all makes and sizes, so here’s our view on what makes the best travel luggage for trips that require an airplane (or boat or train for that matter) to get there:
- Do you want to carry it on or check it? How long is your trip? Carrying on a suitcase and living out of that on a trip is a great ideal. We know all the travel gurus who claim they do it. We at HI Travel Tales travel very light – mixing and matching and hand washing all along trips of several weeks. The problem is, we are active, athletic and adventurous, so packing running shoes, trekking poles, a pack, and the gear needed (even lightweight gear) in a carry-on is near to impossible. That means our best travel luggage pieces tend to be 25-26-inch pieces. These offer in our opinions just enough room for that other gear while still being manageable on DIY trips on and off trains, planes, ships, buses and autos.
- We firmly believe in wheels. Getting between buses and trains, around towns and through lodging hallways is a whole lot easier when you can roll the bag — unless you are going straight to a resort with valets. We prefer hybrid suitcase-duffels rather than pure duffels that are one shapeless huge compartment. And those wheels better be durable to handle gravel, cobblestones, banging down steps in the Paris metro or whatever you deal out. On our last trip, I actually saw an American couple in Europe roll a rather large suitcase off an escalator, there was a CLUNK, they stopped to look at the bag and then I heard him say, “Well, three wheels are better than none.” I suppose,… but to be a best travel luggage piece we want to come back with all the wheels we left with.
- Housing tubes for handles. Wherever there are wheels, there are handles and wherever there are handles there are housing tubes that are an integral part of the frame running down the back of the bag. There are two schools of thought: Put them INside the bag to protect them from breakage. Or put them OUTside the bag to save room inside the suitcase. We have mostly had them inside the bag and believe that will indeed save you from breakage mid-trip and having a bag without a handle. You just have to pack smartly in this case by putting things, like soft jackets or long Eagle Creek packing cubes (we mention here in our Packing Tips story), between the frame tubes to not waste space.
- Soft or hard. Our best travel luggage is without a doubt soft-sided. It allows more flexibility in packing. You can compress it if you have less and let it bellow out if you have more (like for all those presents you will buy us and pack on your return trip).
- Secure compression straps. If you have soft luggage, there will (or should be) compression straps. Most best travel luggage will have compression straps both inside and outside to help you secure items and to press them down to save space. Make sure the material and buckles are super secure and very durable. No straps on luggage? Find another.
- Durability is key. You want that King Kong luggage agent to be able to throw it around and have your best travel luggage survive. Can you really tell when you buy it? Suppose not. But then again you will have a gut feeling. Listen to it. If it feels cheap, well, it likely is. If it feels flimsy, well, it likely is. If it feels wobbly, well, it probably is. Do not try to save money on this piece that will hold your life for a few weeks or more. Make sure you will love it for years.
- Top brands in reliable stores. In choosing a piece that you hope will become your best travel luggage, let’s not go to the lowest-end store around, ‘kay? This is an investment. You do get what you pay for when it comes to luggage. Stick with reliable brands that have been around for while. For example, our favorite travel brands include Eagle Creek, Briggs & Riley, Pacsafe and of course Samsonite. And when it comes to adventure, we love luggage produced by outdoor-oriented brands like Osprey, Patagonia, The North Face or Thule since these brands do know how to manufacture adventure-durable gear.
To make your decision, visit a few travel and outdoor stores – both reputable chains and specialty stores – and try the luggage. Wheel it around the store. Open it and close it. See how workable and intuitive straps and handles are. Back that up with online comparisons. But we will tell you from years of experience that seeing a piece is worth its weight in gold.