Every time I take a flight that’s not on Southwest, I’m still amazed at the cluster%#@k we’re putting up with every time with carry-on luggage in the cabin. But the airlines make most of their profits from add-on fees in this current race to the bottom, so we’re probably permanently stuck with this inefficient luggage mayhem that frays nerves and delays flights time and again.
Since it costs real money to check a bag each way unless you have the right credit card or elite status, passengers are going to take the expected action and carry on whatever travel bag they can get away with. That’s why every travel magazine, website, and blog has articles telling you how to pack light for your next vacation.
The airlines brought this on themselves, but they’re not likely to get more lenient with their checked bag policies anytime soon. So the best way to navigate your luggage and packing options is to know the rules and dimensions well so you can be prepared.
Since I ran a travel gear review site for many years and tried out at least 20 different brands of luggage along the way, I’ve got a few educated opinions on this subject.
What Luggage Size is Going to Work?
First of all, there’s a real maximum that a bag can be to be considered a carry-on. Even if you fly on one of the no-frills airlines like Allegiant or Spirit where you have to pay to lug your own bag, the dimensions are relatively standard. If you go over this, the airline has every right to demand a fee and check it through.
Keep in mind the size includes the wheels, and wheels take up a lot of room. If you really want to get the maximum amount of stuff into a bag that will fit the regulation 9 X 14 X 22 inches, get tough and carry your suitcase, old school.
That’s depth by width by length. Make sure the measurement includes the wheels if you do go that route and remember, just because the bag has expansion space doesn’t mean you can use it. That turns it into a bag you need to check.
Besides the wheels, the telescoping handle adds weight and takes away packing space too. Now I’ll freely admit I usually travel with a carry-on that has wheels if it’s not an adventure trip, but then again I know how to pack for a week or two in that space and don’t try to push it. If I really need to cram in the max though, I use my Tom Bihn Aeronaut. There are others that will work like Red Oxx, but that’s my pick. Made in the USA, made to last.
Keep in mind though, some airlines do have a lower luggage size limit, especially domestic flights on other continents. So check the website if you’re flying on an airline you don’t know much about.
Most airlines have a general “oversized baggage” guide, but with any kind of standard suitcase you’re probably fine. What you have to worry about with a big one is weight. You are generally limited to 50 pounds with the big carriers (or the equivalent in kilos) or 40 pounds on the cheapo airlines. Yes, you have to pack lighter on RyanAir, Spirit or Allegiant or you’ll pay a hefty fee on top of your bag fee. Weigh it with a luggage scale! That purchase will be cheaper than the extra fees.
Is Your Luggage Made Well?
This point is all about buying smart and getting what you pay for. If you just take one vacation a year to go see the relatives or to stay at a beach resort, it’s probably fine to buy that cheap suitcase you found at Costco or TJ Maxx. One step up with even last you multiple trips a year for a while.
But if you’re a frequent traveler who takes a lot of flights, lay out the cash to get something with a lifetime warranty. Here’s a full rundown on 8 of those brands, but they include Briggs & Riley, Eagle Creek, and Osprey. Others (like Tumi and Samsonite) fudge on the warranty and some will exclude “wear and tear.” (Isn’t every suitcase going to encounter “wear and tear” more than anything?). If you’re going to spend a few hundred bucks you might as well go all the way.
I’ve tested the lifetime warranty with Eagle Creek. Once they sent me a whole new suitcase to replace the battered one. The other time I sent photos of a falling-apart wheel and they sent me a new set of wheels so I could make the replacement myself. See my Eagle Creek luggage post (with video) here.
Some more luggage advice you’ll be glad you listened to later:
1) Don’t buy a black suitcase. You’ll end up having to put duct tape on it or tie something on it to pick it out in the sea of other black bags. If it gets lost, “22 inch black bag with wheels” means they’re looking for one of 1,000 just like it.
2) Buy a hard shell if you’re tempted to overpack. With those, you can’t—especially if it doesn’t expand. Or get one without wheels that you will have to carry.
3) If you do get a suitcase with wheels, make sure they’re really good wheels. I’ve seen a lot of bags with broken wheels being dragged through airports. The cheapie 4-wheel spinner ones are especially fragile.
4) If you’re going backpacking around the world, buy a backpack. (Or raise your budget enough to cover frequent taxi rides.)
5) Make sure the materials are water-resistant. If it’s raining at the airport, your checked bag will get wet as it moves from terminal to cart to plane. If you have to walk four blocks to get to your hotel because the road’s under construction, ditto.
6) Learn to do laundry, either via a drop-off service or the sink. If you master this, you can travel for a week or even two months with nothing but a carry-on bag. You can decrease your overall luggage size too when you check something.
One last note on checked bags. I still have frequent traveler friends whose main reason to never check a bag is that they’re afraid it will get lost. With bar codes and advance robotics at work these days, a lost bag is getting quite rare. It has happened to me exactly once in the past 10 years of travel (8-20 flights per year) and that was just a 24-hour delay. I do everything I can to avoid fees though and that’s another story.
What should you put inside that luggage? Here are the travel gear brands that haven’t let me down.