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The wheel was invented in pre-history, but only in the last decade has it become common for carry on luggage to be wheeled.

This has encouraged a growth in both the size and weight of items brought on-board planes.

This series helps you choose the wheeled carry-on luggage best suited for your needs.

 
 
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Wheeled Carry On Luggage Tests and Reviews

What sort of bag should you buy?
 

These days you can choose from a wide range of different sizes, styles, and prices of carry on luggage.

Use the information in this series of articles to help you choose the type of luggage best suited for your needs.

Part 1 of a 3 part series - click for Parts  One  Two  Three

 

 

Wheeled carry-on bags range in price from a low of about $30 up to a high of about $750, and in size from uselessly small to illegally large.

Weight can also be a factor - some carryon bags weigh more, empty, than the total weight which some airlines allow you to take onboard with you.

The information below will help you shop more carefully for luggage and reassure you that you're making the right choice, whether it be for the $30 item or the $750 item.

Wheeled Carry On Luggage - A Recent Invention

It seems that almost everyone has some sort of wheeled suitcase these days, and the airplane overheads quickly fill up with all different shapes, sizes, and colors of wheeled carry ons, with plenty more to be seen on luggage carousels the world over.

Surprising as it may seem, the wheeled carry-on bag was invented only 15 years ago, in 1989, by a Northwest Airlines pilot, Bob Plath.  The carry-on he built in his garage for himself was greeted with enthusiasm by his fellow pilots and flight attendants, who kept asking if he'd make them one too, and so the Travelpro Rollaboard suitcase came into being.

You might remember in the early 1990s looking enviously at flight crew as they marched effortlessly through airline terminals, every one of them with a Rollaboard in tow.  You could always tell an airline employee, whether in uniform or not, because they had one of these marvelous devices which we ordinary travelers seemed unable to obtain.

How times have changed.  Today, Bob Plath's company - Travelpro - offers an extensive range of different sized carry-on luggage to the public through a wide range of retail outlets.  Travelpro estimate they have almost half a million airline employee users around the world, plus a vast number of members of the public, too.

Although Travelpro holds fifteen different patents on various aspects of their luggage, other companies have been quick to copy and extend the theme first pioneered by Travelpro, and you'll now find wheeled carry on luggage available in a broad range of stores, and at a huge range of different prices.

The Travelpro concept of two wheels and an extendable handle has now extended to every imaginable type of luggage piece, both big and small.

The rest of this article discusses the differences between roll-on suitcases, future articles in the series will contain reviews of specific suitcases.

Cost - and Value

Perhaps the easiest attribute to measure of any suitcase is its cost, and as already mentioned, there is an enormous spread in cost with carry-on bags.

It goes without saying that cheaper bags don't last as long as more expensive bags.  But is it better to buy three bags, each costing $100, and replace them as needed, compared to a single $300 bag which lasts as long as the three $100 bags combined?

If you use your carry-on only rarely (once or twice a year), then a poorly constructed inexpensive bag might still give you three or even more years of life and might be adequate for your needs.  But if you use your luggage regularly, you'll probably prefer something that will reliably last for a good number of journeys.

Value - Reliability and less hassle

We suggest that buying a longer lived bag is always better than buying several, cheaper and shorter lived bags.  Bags rarely fail at home between journeys.  Instead, they invariably fail at the least convenient moment, somewhere on your travels.  Worse still, whereas a robustly made bag might give some warning of pending problems, cheaper bags are more likely to suddenly fail without warning.

Put it another way - how much would you pay to reduce by at least two thirds the hassles associated with unexpected bag failures?  When you factor this into the cost equation, buying cheap no longer seems such a good strategy.

Warranty and Repair

A related issue is that of warranty coverage.  Almost without exception, all bag manufacturers exclude any type of airline related damage from their warranty coverage.  Which means that if your bag fails while sitting untouched in your closet, and it is within the bag's warranty period, then the manufacturer will probably repair your bag for you.  But start actually using your bag as it is intended to be used, and all of a sudden, most suppliers refuse to help if your bag suffers any damage.

There is one shining exception to this - Briggs & Riley.  They offer a no questions asked lifetime warranty, and will repair or replace your bag, no matter what the cause of the problem, or how old it may be.

This is a very positive feature to keep in mind when considering their products.  Because of this, a Briggs & Riley bag can be considered to have a substantially greater life (and with less maintenance cost) than most of their competitors.

On the other hand, if you never check your bag, but always hand carry it yourself, maybe it will never suffer from 'airline' damage.

If you need to have a bag repaired under a manufacturer's warranty, do you need to send the bag back to their warehouse or do they have contracts with luggage repair stores around the country?  You might find it more convenient to simply drop off or send your bag to a local repair store than to ship it across the country.  On the other hand, of course, there is surely nothing simpler to ship than a suitcase - simply put a label on it, with no need to worry about protective packaging or anything else!

Beware of diminishing returns

There seem to be three general types of pricing levels for most bags.  The first level is the under $100 level, which is where you'll find discount store and no-name bags priced.  In general, we tend to avoid these bags.

The second pricing level is in an approximate price range between perhaps the low $200s and the mid $300s.  These bags tend to be robustly made and fully featured, with no compromises in quality or functionality.

The third pricing level is anything over $500, where you're paying a premium for what appears to be little more than the brand name.

Is a $600 bag twice as good as a $300 bag?  Is a $750 bag three times as good as a $250 bag - and 25 times better than a $30 bag?

Although we haven't reviewed any of the most expensive bags in detail, it seems fair to say that the mid-priced bags impress us as 'adequate for all ordinary requirements' leaving only the doubtful added value of a brand name for the highest priced items to claim as their own.

Cost/value sweet spot

It seems that the bags presenting the best compromise between ridiculously high price at one extreme, and poor quality at the other extreme, can be generally found in the $200-400 price zone.  That is not to say that you won't sometimes find a good value sturdy bag available at $150, but you'll rarely find good values (for ordinary users with normal requirements) much above $400.

Discounted luggage

You'll sometimes see luggage offered for sale that is described something like 'recommended retail price $400, special sale price $200'.

This does not mean you're getting a $400 piece of luggage at a great price.  It usually means you're getting a $200 piece of luggage that has a pretend $400 price but which no-one ever pays.

For some strange reason, luggage is often sold on the basis of setting a ridiculously high original pretend selling price, then offering what seems to be a huge discount off that.  Concentrate on the final price and use that to base your evaluation on, ignore any other prices.

Intended Use

This might seem obvious - you buy a rolling carry-on bag so you can carry it onto the plane with you, right?

Maybe.  Some people buy these items for other purposes, and some people will frequently choose to check their roll-on bag, even though they could in theory carry it onto the plane with them.

Will you pack mainly light items into your bag - ie mainly clothing - or will it have heavier items, too, such as a computer and books?

If you're going to be limiting your use to only carrying the bag onto the plane, then you don't need quite as robust a bag as if you might sometimes check it - you probably will look after your bag more carefully than airline baggage handlers!  And if the bag will only hold a small weight of contents, it is again less stressed.

But if you're going to be transporting bricks or other heavy objects, and if you may occasionally check your bag, then you should give more attention to the strength of the bag and its ability to withstand wear and tear.

Size

Perhaps the most visible feature of a bag is its size.  Surprisingly, bigger is not always better.

If you're planning on carrying the bag on board flights with you, you'll need to ensure the bag does not exceed the maximum size that airlines allow.  Click on the links in the top right of this page to see the size (and weight) restrictions imposed by domestic and international airlines.

The most commonly accepted maximum size is a bag measuring 22" x 14" x 9".  This is often referred to as a 22" bag by manufacturers.  Anything larger than this will be theoretically oversized and illegal on just about every airline.

A bag measuring no more than (or even slightly less than) the maximum size of 22" x 14" x 9" is not without potential problems.  Here are some potentially nasty surprises :

  • Firstly, the maximum size of carry-on that an airline will accept does not necessarily guarantee you'll actually be able to get your bag into the overhead above your seat.

    The overhead might be full, or you might be on a plane with smaller than standard overhead bins (for example, the upper deck on a 747 almost always has very shallow overheads that won't fit full sized carry-ons).

  • Secondly, you'll often find that you can't fit a maximum sized bag under the seat in front of you.  This is perhaps the only situation where it pays to have a middle seat - typically you have the most space underneath a middle seat.

    Even the middle seat space might not be sufficient, especially if you're on a plane that has added electronic boxes under the seats (these control the seatback videos and other in-flight entertainment).

  • Thirdly, in a rare exception to the often found situation where manufacturers exaggerate their claims for their products, you'll often find that carry-on suitcase measurements are less than the actual outside measurements of the bag.  The kindest way of explaining this would be to say that the measurements relate to the net usable space inside the bag, but often fail to allow for extra external space used by wheels and handles.

    If you have the rare bad luck to find yourself forced to try and fit your bag into a sizing template by an airline, you might find that the bag you thought was legal won't actually fit into the sizing template!

  • Remember that if you fill an external pocket with extra things, the overall bag size may well increase by another two or three inches, making a bag that was legally sized grow to over-sized.

These factors all argue in favor of considering a bag that it perhaps a little smaller than maximum sized.

Capacity

This refers to how much of the bag's size is actually available for you to use storing things.

A bag with rounded corners will hold less than one with more squared corners.

A bag with an elegant tapered profile will hold less than a boxy one.

A bag with an internal handle mechanism will hold less than one with an external mechanism.  But in terms of overall maximum external dimensions - which is, after all, the major limiting factor both in an airline official sizing template and when trying to squeeze a bag into a narrow space, the internal handle mechanism represents more efficient use of total space - when on the outside, there is a lot of empty space just exposed to air that is not used.

Wheel recesses can further reduce internal space, but wheels that stand a long way outside of the case still count toward the total dimensions of the bag and, same as external handles, take a lot of effective space away.  Smaller diameter wheels take up less overall space than larger ones.

Surprisingly, a bag with many internal compartments can also end up with less net space to store things than a bag that is just one big empty container.  Some internal compartments can help you in your packing, but too many can take away from practical packing space, and the bulk (and weight) of the internal packing aids can detract from their marginal value.

On the positive side, external pockets and or zip expanders can enable you to stuff more into your bag in an 'emergency', although be aware of potential problems if you go over the maximum size limits.

Read more in Parts 2 & 3

In Part 2 we detail many other factors to consider when choosing carry-on luggage, including weight, wheels, and overall construction.

In Part 3 we feature a range of comments from Travel Insider readers who report on their own experiences with carry-on luggage.

 

If so, please donate to keep the website free and fund the addition of more articles like this. Any help is most appreciated - simply click below to securely send a contribution through a credit card and Paypal.

 

Originally published 3 Sep 2004, last update 02 Jul 2017

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
Related Articles
List of Carry-on Bags Reviewed
Our Favorite Carry-on Bags
How to Choose a Carry-on Bag pt 1
How to choose a bag pt 2
Reader comments on their carry-on luggage experiences
Reviews pt 1 :  Briggs & Riley
Reviews pt 2 :  Heys USA
Reviews pt 3 :  High Sierra
Reviews pt 4 :  Samsonite
Reviews pt 5 :  Swany
Reviews pt 6 :  Travelpro
Reviews pt 7 :  Lower priced bags
Reviews pt 8 :  Unusual and specialty bags

See also

Series on larger checked bags - reviews, buyer guide, reader comments, etc

Other related topics

Domestic Airline Carry On Luggage Policies
International Airline Carry On Luggage Policies
Domestic Airline Checked Luggage Policies
Your Rights if your bags are delayed or lost
Luggage Locator review
Distinctive MyTag Luggage Tags
Luggage Transportation Services
Packing Tips
 

 

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