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So many suitcases to choose from, but how do you know what to look for? (Photo: iStock)

By Melinda Crow for Yahoo! Travel

I recently found myself in the unenviable position of having two luggage breakdowns at the same time. First, the wheel broke on my rolling carry-on, and then my favorite checked suitcase succumbed to frozen zippers after too many years of sand and salt traveling the Caribbean.


So, I needed to buy a new bag, and naturally I dug deep before making my purchase. I measured. I weighed. I read reviews. I consulted a business traveler friend, my sister-in-law the frequent tour bus traveler, and a long haul trucker who flies with heavy tools on a weekly basis. Here is what I learned from the experience.

Wheels are the first thing to break

Rough pavement, curbs, and dirt on the ground all grind down the life of the wheels and wheel housings. Then there are baggage handlers, who don’t always carry your bag with the delicate touch you prefer.

Having already been through wheel damage with past luggage, I was reluctant to embrace the four-wheel spinner trend. Those little wheels can rotate 360º to accommodate sudden changes of direction, but they seem spindly and far too exposed to handle airline abuse for a checked bag. However, after reading pro-spinner reviews on TripAdvisor, I leaned a little in that direction for the bigger piece I needed.

Four wheels are a great option, but if you plan on carrying a heavy load, two wheels might be better. (Photo: SwissGear)

A hands-on look at this SwissGear model at Academy almost had me convinced, but even those wheels seemed a bit flimsy for curb hopping with a fully loaded bag. My advice here is to think about your personal travel style before deciding between four wheels or two.

Two wheels are stronger for checked bags filled to the weight capacity, and are a tiny bit easier to manipulate over curbs and rough terrain because they’re tilted back like a furniture dolly. When I handled some large spinners, it seemed that often they were a bit unmanageable in that position. Also, remember that checked bags have a very short distance to go—parking lot to check-in desk. The smooth motion of the four-wheel spinner may be less important in that case. And of course, checked bags are subject to far more abuse than a carry–on, so you essentially lower your odds of broken wheels when your bag only has two of them.

With that said, smaller spinners are definitely on my radar for a carry-on because they breeze through crowded airports so smoothly. They zig-zag right along with you even on a frantic race to catch a flight.

Zippers are the second thing to break

If possible, zip and unzip all the zippers on a piece of luggage you plan to buy. If they are stiff when new, don’t be so sure that they will improve with use. Reviews like this one on Amazon make that point clearly.

Besides ease of use, consider the stitching that holds the zippers in place. Is it reinforced? And what is the zipper itself made of? While metal might seem sturdier, newer luggage models use coil zippers made of nylon that are resistant both to the elements and to stretching.

The little pull tabs are another matter. If you have ever had one break off, you know how important it is to take a serious look before you buy. The metal should be heavy and thick enough to withstand the pressures both you and risky conveyor belt rides will put on them.

Related: Goodbye Zipper! Say Hello to the Sleekest Suitcase You’ll Ever See

Consider repairing before replacing

Review after review on Amazon pointed out that luggage ain’t what it used to be. Even high-end products like Tumi get their share ofcomplaints about lower quality standards. Do-it-yourselfers can often replace wheels (look for in-line skate wheels) and even wheel housings. That is what I ended up doing (well, actually my DIY husband) with the rolling carry-on. He found parts online at Ohio Travel Bag.

An online search will turn up luggage repair businesses in almost any large city to handle the task for you.

Manufacturers and airlines have different measurement standards 

Manufacturers give you the measurements of the packable part of a suitcase, while airlines measure the overall exterior size.

This 29″ upright from Samsonite shows overall dimensions that add up to 60.5 inches — clearly under the 62″ allowed by United, for example. Perfect! Except that with the wheels, the pockets, and the expansion zipper, this suitcase actually measures 64″. It’s important to factor in the true size before you buy, to prevent yourself from encountering headaches at the airport.

Bigger is not always better 

“What do you want with a 29” suitcase?“ asked my travel savvy sister-in-law, referring to the above gargantuan I purchased. “Learn to take less and you save money all the way around,” she advised. This is certainly good advice… if you can manage it.

Besides the fact that the 29” bag exceeds airline size restrictions for carry-ons, the other problem is that you are likely to reach the weight limit before actually filling all that space. While airlines often overlook the extra inches of the wheels, they never overlook an extra ounce or two.

Lightweight is not always better 

I am a heavy packer, so I always look for suitcases that weigh the least.

However, that might not be the best method of operation. Hard-sided luggage is usually very lightweight, and seems sturdy, but if the bag gets thrown around, one hard blow on a corner is all it takes to leave a big dent — and do you really want to travel with a smashed bag?

Similarly, my trucker buddy travels with  tools, and has had issues with lightweight bags that are easily dented or torn by the contents. He finds that it’s actually cheaper to buy heavy luggage that won’t need to be replaced as quickly.

Related: Is This the Most Efficient Suitcase Ever?

High-end might be the way to go if you travel a lot 

Let’s be real, dropping $1000 on a Tumi bag seems crazy unless you travel enough to justify it. Even after factoring in the five-year warranty (that doesn’t include wear and tear or airline damage), you could buy a new mid-priced bag every year and still not spend as much as you would on the Tumi. The counter argument of course, is that the high-end bag may very well last your lifetime. The best advice here may be to buy quality, but shop for sales.

Think outside the box

The advice I got from all three of my diverse travel friends is to keep an open mind about the luggage you travel with. The trucker recommends looking at an actual toolbox like this one from Husky, the businessman likes tote bags when he doesn’t need to pack a suit, and my sister-in-law doesn’t let small luggage keep her from shopping during her travels — she ships it home.

If you have time to wait for production to ramp up, think way outside the box with luggage from a completely different source — crowd funding websites like Indiegogo. This smart carry-on called Bluesmart begins shipping in December, and the heavy-duty Trunkster expects to ship in January. On Kickstarter, the G-RO expects to ship in August of 2016. Simply by solving problems with wheels, zippers, weight, and size these three may be paving the way for luggage that we can only imagine in the future.


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