For most of my life, I’ve rarely known men who use more than a backpack to travel. One man I know uses a gym bag. Another stuffs his father’s army barracks canvas laundry bag. Others opt for a messenger bag and what’s basically a weekender bag — an updated field bag or canvas gym bag, possibly elevated with leather trim or handles.
I’ve always flown like this, too. I tend to use a combination of a tote bag and a backpack for everything. On the off-chance I have to cart around more, I still use the vintage 1970s Hartmann luggage I swiped from my mom that technically meets standard carry-on requirements. (Note: There is no actual standard for all airlines, but most of them are 22 x 14 x 9.)
But as I wear out one tote bag after the next and find the backpack embarrassingly bloated if I even want to pack an extra pair of shoes, I’ve realized it’s time for a change. It’s time to actually invest in something a bit more grownup. The question is, what does an investment in luggage look like?
Just like a good suit or a fancy dress, a decent suitcase may not be needed that often, but when it’s time to haul it out of the closet, it should still do its job (for a good long while, too) and look good while doing so. The former is intuitive; the latter is because Instagram has made us all feel really bad about ourselves, and suitcases are no exception. In the last few years alone, luggage has become impossibly, almost unbearably hip and photographing it no different than that plate of sushi, a Bali sunset or your Curvy Wife.
To be clear, what follows isn’t aimed at hardcore, veteran flyers who know what they need in a suitcase. It’s for the rest of us — leisure flyers who just want something to last that isn’t embarrassing. To figure out what that might be (and at what price point), be sure to consider a few things…
The cheaper that bag, the odds are it’s made like shit. And the shittier it’s constructed, the sooner it falls apart.
Sure, durability is less important if you intend to carry your baggage around yourself. But you’d still want that to be made out of something that will last and is easy to clean. And the intention to carry on doesn’t mean your baggage can’t get checked against your will if the overhead compartments are full and you’re the last one to board. Nor does it mean you won’t be hauling it all over a city and need to make sure it holds up on cobblestone streets, in dirty airports and/or up and down subway stairs.
If you do check your baggage, airport baggage handlers will most certainly beat the shit out of it almost for sport. And handles and wheels, they say, can break on impact after a single 50-foot toss. Not to mention, zippers and straps can get caught on something and snap off faster than you can detect an in-flight crop dust. According to one account from a baggage handler:
“Hard-sided suitcases will get less damage, but also look for well-designed handles that are attached with rivets and some sort of protection around the wheels. Speaking of wheels, the best bags to get are the ‘spinners’ with four wheels on the bottom. We like these because we don’t have to throw them when loading. We just roll them down the belly of the plane so your bag and its contents will suffer much less damage.”
It’s universally agreed upon that your luggage should have a YKK zipper, as well as a sturdy handle that doesn’t wiggle or rattle. Hard or soft shells are a values choice, but the value is clear: The harder the shell, the less damage. The softer the shell: the lighter and more stuffable.
Consumer Reports asked 65,000 flyers what they valued most in their luggage, and the answers were clear: Durability (again, see above) and wheelability, or how easy and reliably you can cart that thing around. (Funnily enough, wheels weren’t added to suitcases until the 1970s after mass air travel really took off, and initially, they were considered too effeminate for men; some stores even refused to carry them.)
If you are the wheels of steel type, as the baggage handler explained, four wheels has advantages when being checked, but also when maneuvering around, as they can spin 360 degrees. That said, two wheels are better for navigating curbs and city streets.
What Do You Consider Expensive?
You can buy the same luggage used by Queen Elizabeth and Winston Churchill (by GlobeTrotter) for $1,700 a suitcase. You can buy a top-end Briggs & Riley with a lifetime repair guarantee for $400. You can buy the popular, durable, extremely ‘Grammable Away suitcase for $300. Created by a startup after one-too-many broken suitcases, it also comes with built-in chargers for electronics. (Many newer suitcases include GPS trackers as well.)
Or you can be extremely pragmatic and buy the luggage flight attendants swear by: the Travelpro Platinum Elite. It’s the top-ranked suitcase by Wirecutter right now across all categories, has a lifetime warranty and can hold five days of clothes. Better yet, it’s only $255. Compared to the $40 piece of crap that will be broken before you arrive at your destination, that’s more than frugal.
I should note that many of these prices can be lowered by shopping online, where recent research shows a nearly 40-percent reduction in price compared to buying from traditional retail.
Do You Care How It Looks?
Of course you do.
Not because you’re shallow, but because you can. So at least get something that demonstrates your personality. Shiny, metallic hardshells in rose gold certainly telegraph something. Ribbed aluminum, like that of celebrity favorite Rimowa, can be had for $400. (They’re the ones who drove the internet wild with their transparent suitcase.)
Point being, if you want to buy the same suitcase James Bond would’ve carried in the 1950s, you can. If you’re into that sort of thing — and spending $1,640.
But if all that seems like far too much of an investment, try my original idea: The luxury weekender bag made of canvas and leather, which is easy to carry, easy to clean and easy to stow. You still did a grownup thing and bought yourself a nice thing, but you had to think about all of it a mere fraction as much, because you’re the type of person more interested in the travel itself, and not the pictures. Plus, many of them are also made by companies like Away:
Alternately, consider that companies are increasingly beginning to rent out carry-on suitcases for one-time use. So if it’s all too much to think through, yet you’re ready to upgrade, nothing says grownup values with zero commitment like renting your suitcase.