How to Choose the Best Suitcase

Article By:
Dave Eyvazzadeh
Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Friday
February 23, 2018
Unless you are a glutton for punishment, we know you have more important and enjoyable things to be doing with your time than rifling through the seemingly infinite number of options out there for suitcases. We believe that when you purchase a suitcase, it should fit your needs, budget, and most importantly — make your traveling life more manageable.

Just like any product, there are those suitcases that offer loads of value for your money, and those that don't. So we've created this buying guide to ensure you're pulling your suitcase rather than pulling out your hair in frustration. There are a variety of factors that can play into what bag you decide to entrust your travel experiences with, but before you get started, it's wise to have an idea of what you're looking for. It will help narrow the field and make the selection process much easier.

Budget


Money is always a factor. Determining what is reasonable to you will help narrow down your choices. The more you're willing to spend, the more options you'll have. But don't be lured into thinking that a suitcase without all the bells and whistles will make your life a living hell. Some of our favorite bags are those that do everything right without the fanfare. But if you're planning on spending money on a bag, we recommend not setting the retail price bar below $200. If your eyes just got as big as dinner plates, don't fret — aside from a few key brands, the luggage industry seems to be in continuous sale mode. Seeing sales of up to 75% off don't even phase us anymore.

Our most expensive suitcase tested  the Baseline (left)  next to the cheapest we tested  the Maxlite 4 (right)  which won our Best Buy Award.
Our most expensive suitcase tested, the Baseline (left), next to the cheapest we tested, the Maxlite 4 (right), which won our Best Buy Award.

Type of Travel


Unless you're looking to amass a personal collection of checked luggage for a variety of purposes, you'll want to figure out what you're using your bag for. If you're a jet-setting business executive that needs a bag that will not only get your suit to your next meeting while looking professional, you'll want a "suiter" bag. These bags are specially equipped to keep your attire as wrinkle-free as they went in.

Backpacking or Business?
Backpacking or Business?

Hard Case vs. Soft Case


Quite frankly, from what we determined unless you're set on seeing your reflection in your luggage, avoid the hard-shell plastic cases. These cases seem like they'd be the best thing since sliced bread for protecting your valuables, but that isn't always the case.

Hard-shell luggage doesn't allow for much of features on the interior that would keep your things in one place as it gets tossed about in the hold of an airliner. And on top of all that, hard-shell cases show every scratch. So leave the hard-shell for carry-on if you must. For a bag that will be man-handled by baggage handlers, we recommend a textile-based ba that's designed to take a beating with a rigid frame.

Our Editors' Choice Award Winner (left) with a textile construction  and a hard-shell bag (right)
Our Editors' Choice Award Winner (left) with a textile construction, and a hard-shell bag (right)

Spinners (4 wheels) vs. Rollers (2 wheels)


Some particular features are useful on carry-on luggage, but simply don't carry over to checked luggage. We believe spinner wheels top that list. Now, before we go on about why spinner bags aren't right for checked baggage, these articles on two sides of the spectrum play the pros and cons to spinners when it comes to checking bags

To be fair, the reason we don't recommend the spinners has nothing to do with what happens between the moment you hand your bag to a check-in agent to when you pull it off the belt at your destination. It has to do with what you do before and after.

Spinner luggage is great for smooth, polished surfaces — like the floors inside an airport or down a jetway. Spinner luggage is plainly inferior to roller luggage when it comes to cracked sidewalks, navigating up and down stairs and curbs, as well as most parking lots. A spinner bag in roller mode will never hold a candle to a well-designed roller bag.

So in essence, you're paying more (spinners typically cost more) for a product with more parts which can break, while performing sub-par to what you want out of your bag.

Although both these are top performers  we prefer the roller over the spinner.
Although both these are top performers, we prefer the roller over the spinner.

Durability


If you decide to go with one of our bags that were well suited for durability, the work has already been done for you. But if you want to know how to assess the durability of a bag, you'll need to get hands-on.
  • Textiles: Look for a bag with a woven nylon material. If you can, look for the denier of the fabric used. The denier is typically noted as a number followed by the letter D. In general, the lower the number, the lighter it is in weight but, the more susceptible it is to abrasion and ripping, and the higher the number, the more durable the fabric is. But there are nuances to specific grades of textiles.

In short, aim for products made with 1000D, 1050D or 2520D fabrics and avoid those that use 1680D. If you want to learn more, check out this informative write-up.

The Difference Between Ballistic, 1000D Cordura, and Ripstop Nylon
  • Wheels: Go big or go home…or perhaps stay home. You'll want bigger wheels, preferably with a softer rubber where it meets the road. Big wheels help navigate obstacles like gnarly concrete curbs with ease without subjecting the back-face of your bag to a cheese grater. Soft wheels absorb bumps, cracks, and vibration.

And when you get hands-on, check the wheels for sloppy craftsmanship. A wheel that wiggles is a wheel that fails. It may be a manufacturer's defect, poor assembly, or just crappy design. Due to the nature of spinners and how they work, they are innately more wiggly and more likely to break.

The laughably small wheels of the Omni PC (left) compared to those of the Tarmac (right).
The laughably small wheels of the Omni PC (left) compared to those of the Tarmac (right).
  • Zippers: Cycle these bad-boys like you're trying to annoy someone. You're looking for a zipper that zips smoothly without any catch or hiccups. If you have to use two hands to zip the bag open or shut, you're likely barking up the wrong tree. In general, the beefier the zipper teeth, the better the zipper will hold up to abuse and overpacking. And while you're at it, pay proper attention to the zipper pulls. The sturdier, the better.

With twin rows of zipper teeth  the zippers of the Tarmac are unlike any other zippers we have seen.
With twin rows of zipper teeth, the zippers of the Tarmac are unlike any other zippers we have seen.
  • Design & Build Quality: Something you may not know, just about every bag has an inner fabric liner. And that inner liner has a zipper slider with its back-side facing you and often has no pull. Once you find the zipper slider, with some minimal effort, you can unzip the liner and take a peek behind the curtain. The differences between a well designed and built suitcase are stark in contrast.

Behind the curtain of the Lipault  we found some concerning craftsmanship
Behind the curtain of the Lipault, we found some concerning craftsmanship
  • Style: Both the least important and the most important factor all-at-once. Everyone has their own character and personal style. Don't be afraid to think outside of the box, some of our favorite bags certainly did. Others take traditional cues and give them a little modern flare.

We hope you find our tips and tricks useful for when you're buying your next piece of checked luggage. Once you've done your homework, you'll be confident in buying your next bag so you can focus on the important things — like traveling with a smile on your face. Happy travels!



You Might Also Like