Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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How to Make Sense of a Babel of Luggage Brands
March 31, 2016 -- When I first became a frequent flyer almost 40 years ago, I thought Boyt Luggage was hot stuff. Samsonite owns the name now. When I started making enough money to buy better bags, I switched to Hartmann. Samsonite owns the name now. In recent years, Tumi has been the brand that motivated business travelers to pay a bit more. Samsonite bought Tumi last month in a deal valued at $1.8 billion.
With $2.5 billion in sales, Samsonite owns a lot of luggage brands whose names you might vaguely recognize. American Tourister is Samsonite. So is High Sierra, which affects an outdoorsy image. The French brand Lipault markets mostly to women, but it also belongs to Samsonite. Speck, which makes protective covers for electronics, is Samsonite, too. Ditto Gregory, whose backpacks are large enough to stash all of your worldly goods.
My point? Only that luggage by any other name often comes from Samsonite, the industry's leading player, or one of the hundreds of anonymous Chinese manufacturers you find on Alibaba. Everybody seems to slap their name on vaguely generic bags, including car makers Bugatti and Ferrari; Coleman, best known for beverage coolers and camp stoves; fashion designers Nicole Miller and Tommy Hilfiger; and even New Balance and Under Armour, the sporting-goods firms.
Given that Babel of bags, how do you find the right one for you? Simple, honest answer: How the hell do I know? Nobody sane would even attempt to match you with an "ideal" piece of luggage.
"Luggage is such a barrel of snakes!" admits Susan Foster, who wrote a book on the subject — or, at least on how to pack the bags you do buy. "People pack and travel so differently that it is really hard to recommend" a one-size-fits-all solution.
What I offer here are some sane guidelines for refining your choices and ferreting through the barrage of battling brands.
Rolling into history
As a frequent-flying dinosaur, not one of my bags have retractable handles or wheels. (I continue to carry the amazing handmade creations of Glaser Designs.) But I get that you'll probably want wheels on your bag.
The question, however, is how many wheels are enough?
Until recently, the standard was two wheels, especially for luggage considered carry-on compliant. But "spinners"--bags with four wheels--are beginning to dominate. Spinners are more stable and stand upright. They can also be turned sideways and effortlessly wheeled down narrow aircraft aisles. But pulling a two-wheeled bag is often faster. Another concern: Wheels are easily damaged. The more wheels your bag has, the more likely it is to get dinged.
Weights and measures
Size and weight are crucial for both carry-on and checked luggage. The problem? The airline industry has no standard of weights and measures.
An attempt to create an international carry-on baseline last year was met with scorn. But I assume the abandoned global standard (21.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 inches) will eventually be adopted. Keep that in mind when you're in the market for a replacement. As for weight, U.S. carriers generally don't impose a limit on carry-on bags. But many international airlines do and they often rigidly enforce a 15-pound maximum. Purchase and pack accordingly.
Bags you buy to check must navigate a similar grid of conflicting airline rules. Although most permit 50-pound bags before imposing "excess weight" fees, some surcharge any checked bag over 40 pounds. Size limits vary, too, although the U.S. industry has generally coalesced around a maximum of 62 linear inches. (For a bag's linear dimensions, add the length, width and height.) If you frequently travel with international airlines, consult their checked-baggage rules for anomalies.
The old argument — hard-sided or soft — is just that: old. It has little relevance in a world of super-strength nylons and ultra-light composites. So fret less about the hard versus soft rule of olden days and focus on the material used.
Ballistic nylon, a predecessor of Kevlar, is the current coin of the realm in many of the best soft-sided bags. It is tough and durable. But it's heavier than Cordura nylon or polyester, the material used in the least expensive soft bags.
Leather is almost always heavier than nylon. It's almost always more expensive, too, and requires substantially more care. That's why all-leather luggage has fallen out of favor. But I'll surrender my 15-year-old Glaser Designs Transaction Bag when you pry it from my cold, dead hand. It's my go-to carry-on and has weathered my life on the road much better than I.
Molded plastic bags are the current rage, of course. ABS, an acronym for acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene, is an inexpensive thermoplastic. It is light and inexpensive and dominates the lowest-priced segment. Polypropylene is the lightest of the polymers and makes durable bags than ABS, but they will cost more. Meanwhile, polycarbonate is light and strong and lends itself to a wide range of designs. Polycarbonate bags will generally be the most expensive models in this category.
Aluminum cases, originally pioneered by Zero Halliburton, are a nearly perfect combination of light weight, sturdy construction and jet-set style. The problem: price. They are extremely expensive.
Pockets and practicalities
I like bags with several external pockets, hidden internal compartments and plenty of organizational cues and accoutrements. Others prefer just one external pocket. Still others want their luggage to be open space unfettered by zippers, snaps, straps and nooks. There are even folks who prefer to roll their belongings in the appropriately named SkyRoll. There's no right or wrong, just personal preference.
Brand names worth noting
Two luggage companies stand out for their admirable lifetime guarantees: Briggs & Riley makes traditional-looking business travel cases while Red Oxx builds soft-sided cases with a less conventional look. Mid-range buyers tend to find exceptional value in bags produced by Delsey, a French company, and Eagle Creek, a U.S. firm owned by the parent of Lee and Wrangler jeans. Germany's Rimowa invented the distinctive grooved luggage that dominates the higher end of the market. EC-BC makes a range of backpacks well designed for travelers who carry a lot of technology. And Victorinox crafts bags that many frequent flyers consider as practical and ingenious as the firm's Swiss Army knives.