Flyin’ Friday: Packing The Proper Bag

Sometimes a simple backpack is all you need. Most times, it’s not. (Photo credit: Steven Lewis.)

By Sharyn Alden

It happens. You’re racing through an airport and suddenly, at sound-barrier-breaking speed, your luggage bursts open. There’s no time to scour the terminal shops to find a replacement bag, so you pull out the duct tape and bind up the fragments.

But when you settle into your seat with the taped-together suitcase in the belly of the plane, you start thinking, “I’ve got to get a new piece of luggage—and soon. But what should I look for?”

Shopping for a suitcase is sort of like shopping for a car. There are so many models at so many prices. The choices are dizzying.

A seatmate on a recent trip to New York put it in perspective. Well, she said, if she bought a super-expensive bag that does everything except drive you to the airport, she couldn’t afford to go anywhere.

“I’d just have to sit home and look at it,” she said.

If you’re planning to look for luggage instead of look at it, what should you look for? A lot of things boil down to plain old preference. Do you like a soft- or hard-sided case, or a combination of both? And then you need to combine that choice with how you intend to use your luggage.

If you’re a frequent traveler who makes numerous long-distance, many-legged trips, look for well-crafted bags with super-durable hardware and extra-thick coverings on corners and on any surfaces that impact the ground. So if a duffel is your bag of choice, buy one with a double-thick bottom.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for luggage that will get you through an airport more quickly, colors (more about that later), and wheel types can be deal-sealers.

If you’re looking for utility and versatility, you may want a “convertible” – luggage that can be converted to a backpack.

And then, finally, you have to consider size.

If you really want a nice carry-on bag, realize that airlines differ in their definition of “carry-on.” Last year many airlines, including United Airlines, Delta and American, changed their carry-on size requirements. Now the dimensions for a carry-on are nine inches deep by 14 inches wide by 22 inches long.

That’s a come-down from what it used to be. United’s old standard was overall dimensions of no more than 45 inches.

Some airlines have a bit more wiggle room. Southwest’s carry-on measurements are 24 inches long by 16 inches wide by 10 inches deep. And also remember there are weight limits to contend with.

If you’re buying a carry-on, don’t buy one that almost fits the new requirements. Buy one that meets them with room to spare. If you’re toting a carry-on, check your airline’s website for measurements and weights before you fly. If your flight is full and your bag is an inch over the max, you may have to check your gear at the gate.

“May” is the operative word. Airlines sometimes let people board with items that are only slightly smaller than a horse, but on full flights on popular itineraries like O’Hare to Reagan National over busy holidays like Memorial Day weekend, you might have trouble boarding with that same carry-on you easily hauled on another flight the week before.

Despite the travails, many people prefer to go strictly carry-on no matter the length of their trip, and good for them. The carry-on life has its limits, though. Even if you don’t fly very often, you should probably invest in a large suitcase for times when you travel by car or train and need to pack more than what a carry-on can hold.

When it’s time to buy, here are some things to consider.

  • Traditional luggage: Typically, traditional luggage is either hard-sided or soft-sided. A soft-sided bag is lighter and may give you about 25 percent more space for the same dimensions because of its expandability. And because of its compressibility, a soft bag might even be able to be squeezed into overhead compartments. However, the hardshell bag is a better option if you carry fragile items like cameras.
  • What about wheels? If your bag of choice has wheels, roll it around in the store. If the weight distribution feels awkward and the wheels feel stiff, it’s probably not going to be easier to roll once it’s fully packed. If you don’t like pulling a piece of luggage behind you, consider “spinner” luggage, with wheels that can be moved 360 degrees. Spinner bags can be pushed in front of you without tiring your hands and arms. Unless you have Shoulders of Steel, all your carry-on bags should have wheels.
  • A backpack-to-suitcase option. If you’re planning to camp, hike or backpack at your destination, consider making your main suitcase a backpack — with or without frames. Larger versions can be used as checked luggage, and smaller models can be used as carry-ons.
  • The duffel-bag option. Duffels are extremely versatile and come in all sizes – but so do their prices. If your duffel spends a good part of its life rattling around pickup-truck beds or doubling as a wood carrier, don’t buy a $1,795 Ghurka Cavalier III No. 98 Khaki Twill Duffel. Spring for the $185 Frost River Flight Bag instead. Word of warning: Cheap nylon duffels are like red meat to baggage handlers. For travel, look for models with retractable handles, wheels and back straps.
  • Piggyback clips. An essential if you have more than one bag, this clip is looped on the top of your checked bag, and then your carry-on bag simply clips on to the bigger bag. One (two-piece) bag is much easier than two one-piece bags.

No matter what type of luggage you buy, buy the best you can afford (with the above caveat) so it remains intact through multiple flights, cruises, buses, train trips, and road trips.

Now, colors, as promised. When you’re waiting at the baggage carousel, some bags automatically grab your attention. They’re hot pink, lime green, or purple; sport glittery, fashionista looks; or have a prominent Beverly Hills label. You think to yourself, “Oh, that’s smart; that person can recognize their bag immediately.” But if they caught your attention, might they not also catch the attention of a crook?

When buying bags, look for checkable bags that blend in. Learn to see your luggage as travel tools, not fashion statements. Still, there’s no reason to travel with a drab bag that is hard to identify. You can easily personalize it and find it fast by tying a piece of ribbon or a colorful tag on the handle.

With a new, durable, functional bag in the cargo hold, you can sit back and enjoy your flight knowing what’s waiting for you: Your bag and everything in it, just the way you left it. And not a smidge of duct tape anywhere.

Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, based in Madison, Wis.


Editor’s Note: Protect your Ghurka Cavalier No. III, and all your other valuable luggage, with travel insurance like ExactCare and AirCare from Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection. Get it here