Whether you’re a twice-a-year vacationer or a weekender with trips planned every other week, having the right luggage can make your traveling experiences painless or, well, the opposite of that. Of course, choosing the right luggage depends on factors beyond the length of the trip itself—are you going to a sunny beachside town and need to bring extra towels and snorkeling gear? Do your plans require multiple outfit swaps throughout the day? Will you have access to a washer and dryer? Read on to learn about the different types of luggage, and how to choose the one that best meets your needs.
An Overview of Luggage Types and Options
From backpacks to steamer trunks, today’s travelers have a wider choice of luggage options than ever before. You can choose from backpacks, carry-ons, suitcases, and trunks, with or without wheels, with straps or handles, with hard sides or soft. Your choices include collapsible luggage that stores away easily, and lightweight travel bags that roll up small enough to carry inside your purse. Each of these options makes sense for different types of travel and travelers, but all those choices can make it difficult to pick the best type of luggage for your needs. Here’s a quick rundown of different types of luggage, along with their advantages and disadvantages.
No longer just the province of hikers and students, backpacks are among the most popular choices for casual luggage. They come in a wide variety of sizes, with or without frames. A good backpack is a must if your travel plans include any type of hiking, including schlepping around the city for sightseeing. Most backpacks have multiple zippered compartments, which makes it easier for you to organize your packing so that items you use frequently are easier to reach.
A backpack’s main advantage is portability; they’re easier to transport and store than most other types of luggage, but you lose a bit of easy access to your things, especially that pair of slacks you packed at the bottom of your pack. They’re best for camping and hiking trips, and trips with a lot of stops, and they’re an excellent choice as carry-on luggage.
Suitcases are practically synonymous with luggage in most people’s minds. Essentially, they’re a rectangular bag with a large opening—either a hinged lid or a zippered top that opens to allow access to the entire inside. They’re generally roomy, often have multiple interior pockets, and usually include straps that will hold your packed items in place during travel. You can buy suitcases in plastic, metal, cloth, or leather, with hard or soft sides, handles and wheels to make them easier to transport.
Suitcases offer a lot of space and easy access for packing and unpacking at destination, but aren’t quite as convenient if you need access to your belongings during travel. If you’ll be spending a lot of time in one destination—say, a hotel room or honeymoon cruise ship cabin—a suitcase may be your best option.
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You may know them as ditty bags, gym bags, or kit bags, but whatever you call them, duffle bags offer a lot of advantages for budget travelers, college students who make frequent trips home, or for those who may need to pack an extra bag for their return trip. While the original duffle bag was just a big cloth sack with a drawstring closure, today’s duffles often have multiple zippered compartments, and may have handles, straps, and wheels to make them easier to transport. A well-made duffle bag is a good carry-on option, and is the ideal choice for an impromptu weekend getaway.
In addition to standard luggage options, you can also buy luggage that’s specially made for transporting delicate items. These include train cases for carrying makeup and grooming necessities, camera cases to protect your camera body, lenses, and assorted other photography needs, and garment bags, which keep your suits and dresses neat, fresh, and ready to wear.
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5 Important Questions to Ask
So, with all of those choices, how do you choose which travel bags are best for you? These five questions can help you figure out exactly what you need, and which types of luggage you should own.
How Do You Travel?
Do you travel by car, boat, or plane? According to Consumer Reports, if you travel mostly by car, you should invest in soft-sided luggage that will let you maximize your trunk space. For airline or cruise ship travel, consider flat, rigid luggage, which will do a better job of protecting your belongings.
What Size Luggage Do You Need?
Size really does matter, especially if you’re traveling by train or plane. Check the airline requirements for both checked and carry-on luggage before you buy, or risk incurring oversize baggage fees. Also, keep in mind what you’ll be packing to bring along. If you only take weekend trips, you can get away with a backpack or duffel bag. If you’re traveling for longer, consider one or more suitcases to hold all of the belongings you’ll need to cart with you.
Where Will Your Luggage Live?
Size also matters when you’re at home. If your home is short on storage space, collapsible, soft-sided luggage may be your best choice. If you absolutely need hard-sided luggage, shop around for a set of cases that can nest inside each other for storage.
Hard or Soft Sides?
Hard-sided suitcases offer excellent protection for your belongings, and are a good choice for any travel where you’ll be entrusting baggage handling to the airline, bus company, or railway staff. Soft-sided luggage is often expandable, giving you more room for packing, and is easier to store. On the other hand, soft sides don’t protect as well as rigid cases. Soft cases are a good carry-on choice, but may put your belongings at risk as checked bags.
Two Wheels or Four?
When it comes to wheels, your options include two-wheeled cases and four-wheeled cases, as well as fixed wheels and spinner wheels. Generally, two-wheel cases have fixed wheels—that is, they’ll only role in straight lines, which can make them more difficult to maneuver through busy airports, while those with four wheels have spinner wheels, which turn 360 degrees. That gives them a high degree of maneuverability, but also makes them more vulnerable to damage. Two-wheeled luggage is also generally more affordable, and better for traveling on city streets, where they maneuver curbs and steps more easily.
Pro Tips for Choosing Luggage
In addition to looking for the right size and type of luggage, these pro tips can help you avoid some of the most common luggage disasters.
- Pick an unusual or bright color. It will make it easier to pick out your bags on the luggage carousel.
- Check the stitching at zippers, and give the zipper the stress test. Busted zippers are no fun.
- If you frequently travel by plane, consider a luggage set with TSA approved locks.
- Choose luggage with a guarantee. A set of luggage is an investment that should last you a lifetime, so look for a company that backs up its product.
- Read the reviews. Marketing claims are all well and good, but the proof of the product is in use. Before you buy — even if you don’t buy online — take the time to read online reviews from verified purchasers. They’ll alert you to any problems — as well as surprising benefits — that come with a particular brand of luggage.
The Top Luggage Brands
Samsonite is one of the best known and most respected brands in the luggage industry, so it’s no surprise that Samsonite bags rate high in nearly every survey.
Briggs and Riley also scored high on both Consumer Reports lists, with their free repairs policy getting special note.
Choosing the best luggage for your needs may seem complicated, but taking a little time to define your needs and research the best brands can ensure that your luggage enhances your trip. Otherwise, your luggage just may take the starring role in a travel disaster story — and no one really wants that vacation memory.
Prices are accurate and items in stock as of time of publication.
Deb Powers is a freelance writer who specializes in home, education, and lifestyle topics. She draws on her experiences as a teacher, mother, grandmother, and all-around creative spirit to help others achieve their own goals.