If you haven't shopped for luggage in a while, you may be overwhelmed by the variety of new options — and the wide range of prices you'll have to pay. Where to start? Here are a few tips to help you buy the right stuff for your travel needs.
1. Consider your travel style
If you travel a lot, tend to check bags on planes, or often pack electronics or other fragile items, buy luggage that's hardy and sturdy. Although hard-sided luggage is heavy, it can take more abuse than fabric bags and still protect the contents. Just be sure that you can lift your luggage. Soft-sided luggage and backpacks are a good choice for car travel and for carry-ons, as such bags are lightweight, more flexible (i.e., can be squeezed into the overhead bins) and can be expanded. Just be sure to know the carry-on size restrictions, which vary slightly by airline. Garment bags, although not very popular these days, can be good for transporting dress clothing for special events.
2. Be picky about materials
For years, leather was the top pick for soft-sided luggage. But leather can be heavy and may become moldy in tropical and humid climates. Popular today are ballistic nylon and Cordura nylon. Both fabrics protect your bag's contents by being resistant to sharp objects, and they generally have a waterproof seal. Hard-sided bags made of polycarbonate material are also both light and durable. Finally, look for bags with distinctive colors or patterns so you can quickly spot them in baggage-claim areas. Alternatively, customize your generic bags with colored tape, bright luggage tags or decals.
3. Inspect the construction
Make sure zippers have taped seams (strips of cloth reinforcing the connection between the zipper and the bag). Exterior seams should be covered with leather, nylon piping or welts to reinforce them and help absorb shock. The seams should also be lock-stitched — that is, each stitch is reinforced, or locked, so that if one breaks, it won't unravel the next and undo the seam. Be sure handles are attached with screws (easy to repair) as opposed to rivets (not so easy). Check that telescoping handles can be locked into place, and that you can live with the loss of space inside the bag. In order for garment bags to allow for layering, hold clothes in place and reduce wrinkles, it's best that they have two brackets for clothes hangers, two upper cross straps and a center cross strap. The hook you use to hang the bag should be strong and retractable.
4. Focus on comfort
Handles with underside padding are a plus. Shoulder straps should be adjustable; made of wide, padded webbing where the strap rests on your shoulder; and reinforced with box and cross-stitching for durability. Four-wheel suitcases are sturdier and easier to roll than two-wheel models. Make sure the wheels are at least 2 1/2 inches in diameter, can spin 360 degrees, are spaced as wide apart as possible, and are recessed into the bag's frame for protection (this also makes wheeled bags easier to stow in overhead bins).
5. Check out the warranties
Before you buy luggage, make sure the manufacturer covers accidental damage, not just manufacturing defects. Remember that price doesn't guarantee a better warranty. For example, Tumi, an expensive brand (ranging from $400 to $1,400 per bag), offers a warranty of only 12 months for in-transit damage and wear and tear. L.L. Bean, on the other hand, has inexpensive duffel bags (starting at $20 per bag) that have unconditional lifetime warranties.
Also of interest: What to do when your suitcase goes missing.