To begin, recognize that getting a better bag won't make you a "one bag" traveller: there's little that the bag can do to reduce the amount of stuff you bring with you. Once you have acquired more efficient travel skills, though (and abandoned the notion that you need to pull a small trailer behind you), you will find that an optimally-designed bag can make a huge difference in your travel comfort and convenience.
The most important aspects to consider are:
because even non-checked luggage takes a beating, and because quality should always be an important consideration
because you will carry your luggage more than the carriers will (and yes, whatever your actual plans, you will carry it).
Airline carry-on limits.
Because most people who learn to travel light find that everything they need to pack will fit easily into one carry-on-sized bag (which is fortunate, as in the real world there are two kinds of luggage: carry-on and lost).
In addition to these basic concerns, there are several criteria pertaining to the design of the bag itself, including:
- Overall shape & balance.
- Quantity, volume, shape, & arrangement of compartments.
- Accessibility of those compartments in different stowage situations.
- Type & configuration of zipper.
- Availability of internal tie-down & external compression straps.
- Handle & shoulder-strap design.
Truly wonderful bags are few and far between: luggage design — like the design of anything else — is an exercise in the complex art of compromise, and the great majority of what you will find in luggage shops is influenced far more by marketing departments than by the needs of travellers.
Naturally, the principal use of the bag should be considered as well. This ultimately leads to an understanding that there are really two different solutions, depending on whether your primary goal is business travel in urban locations, or exploring Europe (or wherever) on vacation (or whatever). I do both kinds of travelling, so use both types of bags; I address individual aspects of the two categories on the associated pages of this site.
In both cases, however, you want a bag that's no larger than carry-on size (for aircraft, the most common rule is length + width + height = no more than 45 inches) with soft sides (which conform better to both their contents and the places you might stow them) and sturdy construction.
With respect to shape, look for a rectilinear design (i.e., like a simple box, with straight, flat sides and 90° corners). For any given length + width + height, a rectilinear configuration yields the greatest internal volume; the moment you start curving anything, you begin to lose storage space. (This is typically done to make a bag look more aerodynamic, though will have a negligible effect on your last-minute dash to catch a flight!) Stating this issue from the opposite perspective: for a desired amount of storage capacity, a rectilinear bag is the smallest (L+W+H) one capable of providing it.
What is a Carry-On-Sized Bag?
This site is about learning to travel lightly, not about refusing to check bags. The carry-on emphasis stems from the observation that most people can live indefinitely out of a single bag of this size or smaller. That said, I always advise that, wherever possible, you resist the temptation to hand your belongings over to others, and enjoy the increased security, economy, mobility, and serenity that this will bring. But remember, the goal isn't to see how much stuff you can carry aboard — it's learning to travel lightly, and happily. Fortunately, this can usually be accomplished with no more than will fit in a single bag of modest size.
I'm often asked to provide more detailed information on just what is — and what is not — permitted as aircraft carry-on baggage. Plus, more recently, what is charged for and what isn't. Unfortunately, attempting to maintain such a list would be a full-time occupation, as each airline has its own (often complex, and constantly changing) rules. The limits are sometimes based on weight, not size. Occasionally they are more constraining than you might guess: until they removed it in July 2006, British Airways was notorious for an economy-class carry-on weight limit of 6kg (13 lbs)! Further, enforcement of these rules is generally at the whims of gate personnel, and dependent on their moods of the moment. For what they're worth, you can generally find the current official rules for specific airlines using my fairly extensive list of airline Web sites.
I try to carry on, so I always take as little as I possibly can...
Jane F. Garvey
14th Administrator of the FAA
The FAA's Advisory Circular 121-29 requires FAA-certified air carriers to have a detailed carry-on baggage program (though it neither suggests nor constrains the substance of such a program). This does, however, allow the airlines to cite FAA authority when refusing to allow oversized bags aboard flights. The "45-inch rule" described above will satisfy most dimension-based regulations; this is the very largest bag size you should ever consider carrying, and smaller is much better. Soft-sided bags, especially those with external compression straps, are preferable, as you can cinch them down to minimal size once they've been packed. Appearances count: someone with a modest bag dangling from one shoulder is much less likely to be weighed and measured than someone with a wheeled suitcase, hanging bag, and giant purse! In all cases, however, you should be prepared for the occasional demand that you check your bag, particularly on smaller aircraft with limited cabin storage (I discuss this further on the "Checking Bags" page). Once again, though, travelling light is not about figuring out how big a bag you can take, or even what kind of bag provides the most storage; rather it's about determining the minimum amount of stuff you truly need to cart around with you, and then finding the smallest, best-designed bag that will comfortably hold it.
Quality Luggage Components.
Soft-sided luggage (constructed from modern, high-tech fabrics) is much to be preferred over the hard-shelled variety (fiberglass, metal, etc.). Hard bags are heavier and do not cope with the rigours of extended travel nearly as well as their more yielding counterparts; further, they do not conform to available storage spaces (where the abililty of a bag to "give" by even a fraction of an inch can often mean the difference between fitting in or otherwise).
High-denier industrial nylon fabrics are the way to go: in top quality luggage, the main choices are ballistic and Cordura® nylon, differences between the two being largely cosmetic in nature. Ballistic is a filament yarn, thus smooth and slick, with a very synthetic appearance, which some consider a "high tech" look (and which doesn't dye easily, so is often sold only in black). It is also two-ply, which gives it a slightly "nubby" texture. And it is the heavier (by 5%) of the two fabrics: 1050 vs. 1000 denier (be aware that denier is a measurement of weight, not strength or durability).
Some bags use an Asian-made 1680 denier ballistic cloth that is of very mediocre quality (which is why it's half the price of the standard 1050 denier ballistic). It seems to be made of a very heavy single yarn, one consequence of which is that it wears quite badly, and looks pretty ratty after even limited usage. It's also 60% heavier than the good stuff. I would avoid luggage made from this material: it suggests that the manufacturer either favours low cost over quality, or has a poor understanding of fabrics.
Cordura is a texturized yarn, very slightly fuzzy (actually discontinuous in structure) like a natural fiber, with the feel of cotton canvas. It takes dye easily, thus can be reliably manufactured in various colours. Cordura is more abrasion resistant, while ballistic offers higher tear strength. In both fabrics, though, these capabilities are considerably greater than actually needed, so one is unlikely to experience a notable difference (but given the choice, I prefer abrasion resistance over tear strength in luggage). Cordura is also less susceptible than ballistic to fraying at cut edges, though modern coated fabrics make this less of a concern (also, the better manufacturers finish exposed internal edges).
The most failure-prone components of a bag are its zippers (replacing broken zippers is the chief task at luggage repair facilities); consequently, a good place to begin inspecting luggage for quality is the zippers. There are two basic types: chain and coil (compare photos at left). Modern chain-type zipper teeth are made from injection molded resins (such as polyacetal and polyethylene), fused directly onto the zipper tape; they are incredibly strong (thus much more durable), more resistant to dirt & sand, and more secure (see "Luggage and Security", below). Coil zippers (the coil is made from extruded polyester and sewn onto the zipper tape) are less expensive, more flexible, and easier to install, which explains their preponderance on modern luggage. The best zippers (of both types) are manufactured by the privately-held YKK Group (consisting of 80 companies, which collectively make every single component of the zipper); they have been doing so since 1934 (the initials come from the original company name, Yoshida Kogyo Kabushikikaisha, roughly "Yoshida Company Limited"). You can be pretty certain that, when a luggage manufacturer switches from YKK zippers to its own in-house brand, it is on a mission to cut costs, not improve quality.
Leather looks, feels, and even smells nice. When wet, however, it is very susceptible to mold and mildew, and should be avoided when travelling in the more humid parts of the world. It is also much heavier than contemporary luggage materials such as high-denier nylon.
One final observation in this regard: The people who best know the quality of any particular piece of luggage are those who built it. So seek out — and patronize — those companies that offer the best warranty policies (i.e., put their money where their marketing is).
Luggage and Security.
Luggage is inherently not very secure. The hard-shelled variety is somewhat more tamper-resistant than the soft-sided versions, though most of the integrated locks that you'll find are easily compromised. And although zipper sliders can be locked together (with a hasp-style slider such as pictured at right, or simply by passing a padlock through holes in the slider tabs), this will prevent casual pilferage only; it presents little deterrent to the knowledgeable miscreant.
Such a locking mechanism, as it turns out, can easily be "spilled" — even with a hasp-style slider — as shown below: simply (1) grasp the fabric firmly on both sides of the locked zipper sliders, and (2) pull in opposing directions, perpendicular to the zipper track. It's then an easy matter to (3) reach into the bag and remove all but very large items. Positioning the sliders at a corner of the bag facilitates the initial separation step, and also permits a larger opening.
With a coil zipper (the most common type), bag entry is simpler still: push the slider(s) all the way to one end of the zipper track, then press the point of a ballpoint pen firmly into the centre of the closed track. This will separate the intertwining coils (without damaging them), making it trivial to open the bag fully by simply pulling the zipper track apart in both directions. Coil zippers are designed to self-heal easily, so can be restored to their original condition merely by pulling a slider backward (occasionally with a bit of help from you, holding the coils together), thus rejoining the halves. Both of these techniques, of course, are handy to know should you ever be stuck with a locked bag to which you have lost the key or combination, or that has become jammed or otherwise inoperable.
Shown at left is yet another zipper pull option; in this approach, the more common metal tab is eliminated entirely, and replaced with a loop of cord. Don't confuse this with the use of a cord loop to extend the regular zipper pull, making it easier to grasp (seen at right, with a loop in the process of being attached).
Eliminating the metal tab also eliminates any noise it might make rattling against the slider (which is why this style is often seen on military gear). It comes with a corresponding trade-off, unfortunately, as it pretty much rules out any simple method of locking/securing the zipper.
The truly determined thief, of course, may well not bother with any of this, but simply cut (or otherwise force) the bag open. Fortunately, the one-bag traveller has less to worry about in this regard, security being one of the reasons for not turning over your belongings to the custody of others. But you won't always have your bag right at your side, so be aware of the possibilities, and act accordingly.
But What About This Bag?
Elsewhere on these pages, I discuss requirements for different types of travel, address some design ideas I do not like, and suggest several specific bags. As a rule, I try to recommend one or two "ideal" bags for each scenario, rather than a lengthy list of alternatives. Naturally, this leads to folks asking me about other bags, and why I don't mention their favourites.
Alas, being just one guy running a non-commercial site — not selling products, having no subscription fees, etc. — I lack the resources to obtain and investigate the many varied bags on the market, thus am pretty limited in what I can report. Unless a manufacturer sends me one for review, I can only do what anyone can: check specifications on the Web, and apply my understanding of what makes a good design. To further complicate things, many of the larger manufacturers (particularly "big name" ones, with widely distributed products) change their designs frequently and without notice, which makes them very difficult to recommend (as a "Model XYZ" can be a substantially different bag from one day to the next).
Instead, I try here to explain as much as possible about what constitutes good bag design, so that people will be in a better position to evaluate bags on their own. Be assured that there are no free lunches (except for those rare instances when a good bag goes out of production, and you can find it at a clearance price somewhere). Many are built using poorer quality materials and construction than those of the bags I recommend; this is what makes them less expensive. Quite a few current bags, for example, are made of the 1680 denier Asian fabric that I mention above (the only reason to use such an inferior fabric is because it is cheaper than those I recommend). Some are not very rectilinear, or (for leisure bags) lack hip belts / suspension systems. As suggested above, a quick check of the warranty policy may well tell you all you need to know.
All that said, once you get beyond the basics, the bag doesn't have that much of an effect on the ability to travel lightly. As long as you like its design, and it's not too heavy (more than about three pounds), it will likely suffice for your current travel needs. It may not last as long, or carry as well, or hold as much, or be as organized, or have all the features of the bags I recommend, but by the time you come to appreciate that, you will have plenty of interesting travels under your belt, and be unlikely to feel that you wasted your money. Actual travelling is much more interesting than fretting over optimal bag design!
$150–250 may seem to some like a lot to pay for a bag, but averaged over a lifetime of travel, it comes to less per year than a couple of cups of "designer" coffee. With a little time spent exploring options, most people can save more than the cost of a decent bag on a single overseas airfare.