Not all luggage is created equal. Even bags of a similar type vary tremendously from manufacturer to manufacturer, so when you’re buying one you should always look closely at how it’s made. Here are some things to check:
Fiberglass inner frames ensure both strength and light weight. Inner structures may also be made of aluminum, wood, durable molded plastic compounds, or any combination of the above. A weighty frame will make a case heavy even before it’s packed. Frame materials are often listed on the luggage tag; your luggage salesperson should also be able to tell you what they are.
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On cases with zippers, look for taped seams, in which a strip of cloth reinforces the zipper and bag connection; this prevents fraying. On the outside of the bag, joints should be covered with leather, nylon piping, welts to reinforce the seams and absorb wear and tear. Also, seams should be lockstitched — a method in which each stitch is reinforced, or locked, to stay in place and stand alone. This way, if one stitch happens to break, it won’t take the next one with it and unravel your seam.
Fabric counts for a lot in luggage. Leather luggage can be very durable and looks marvelous, but it is often too heavy to be carried even when it’s empty. Top-grain or full-grain leather, the outermost layer of the hide, is stronger and more durable than leather made from splits, the layers of hide that are split off from underneath the top grain. Luggage made from splits costs less but is more likely to show wear.
Among the various fabrics available, those that are heavier protect the bag’s contents better and stand up to sharp objects that might cause tears or rips in transit. Popular these days are ballistic nylon and Cordura nylon. Ballistic nylon is a bit more expensive but worth it. The same bag made of Cordura or Cordura Plus costs less and is still pretty sturdy. Although tweed and brocade bags may appear sturdier than nylon ones, they are slashable and the thicker fabric adds weight.
There are some other unusual fabrics that are perfect for the traveler concerned about the environment. These include Fortrel EcoSpun, a durable material made from recycled plastic bottles, and fabric woven from hemp.
Whether you’re trapped in an Indian monsoon or a heavy downpour, waterproof luggage comes in handy. The best all-around fabric is a Cordura or ballistic nylon with a waterproof seal — most bags are not waterproofed on the outside, but treated on the inside with a moisture-resisting sealant. Check the informational tag on the luggage, or ask the salesperson to explain how the bag has been waterproofed. If you require special protection from water for camping, rafting, or some other adventure expedition, buy at a store that specializes in more rugged gear.
The simpler, the better. If there’s a zipper, it should be tough and run smoothly. Zippers should also be double-stitched (stitched on both sides of the zipper) and self-repairing or large, very sturdy, and smooth-running. Zippers made of polyester coils that have been woven or sewn to tapes can take a lot of pressure and can be fixed if they pop open. Large zipper pulls are always easier to work with.
Handle construction may well be the most overlooked detail, and yet it is crucial — whatever the style of luggage. Be sure to pick up the suitcase, and make sure that it’s comfortable in your hand.
On a pullman, and on garment bags (at the fold), look to see whether the handle is attached to the bag with screws or with rivets. (A handle attached with screws can be replaced; when a riveted handle comes off, it can’t be easily fixed.) Also note whether the handle is padded on the underside, and whether it’s covered with leather or only sturdy plastic.
Most suitcases with wheels are equipped with a telescoping handle that pulls out of the case when needed. Some handles can be locked in place, whereas others remain free to slide in and out at random. The handle system should be well protected, whether it’s housed inside the bag or outside. (Not all handles measure up, however. Be sure the handle is sturdy, especially if you plan to hang a briefcase or tote bag over it.) Pull the handle out and tilt the bag; watch to see whether it stays rigid. If it bends at all it is probably too weak to take any more weight. In addition, handles that run inside the bag can take up some of your precious packing space. How much this matters depends on how big your bag is and how much space you’re giving up.
7. Straps and Webbing
Shoulder straps for duffels and garment bags should be made of wide webbing, and ideally they should be padded where they rest on your shoulders. Note how the webbing is attached to the bag. Is it reinforced with box and cross stitching? Choose a duffel with a shoulder strap in addition to two center handles — this increases your carrying options for times when you’ll need your hands free. When shopping around, spend some time adjusting the straps and handles to suit your size. If the duffel doesn’t hang well from your shoulder, or seems unwieldy when held by its handle, you’ll want to know now, not the day of the trip.
On pullmans, notice where the handles are placed. It is helpful to have both side and top handles, for easier portability. It’s equally important for the straps of travel packs to be padded, because they will be resting on your shoulders for long periods of time. Look for a padded waist or hip strap as well, to steady and center the bag on your body. All straps should be adjustable for height and weight.
If the wheels don’t work on a piece of wheeled luggage, you might as well have bought a regular pullman. Four wheels make a suitcase more stable and easier to roll than do two wheels (think car versus motorcycle). The wheels should be spaced as wide apart as possible and they should be recessed into the bag’s frame so that it provides some protection for them — an exposed wheel can be neatly severed from your bag by a pothole, an uneven cobblestone, or a seemingly innocuous curb. Large, sturdy in-line-skate wheels provide the ultimate in rollability and performance. Insist on smooth-rolling wheels that are firmly bolted in place.
In garment bags, pay special attention to the brackets that hold the clothes hangers in place. Some bags come with two brackets, which allow you to form alternative layers of clothing and cuts down on wrinkles. The hook that you’ll hang the bag from should be well secured when not in use: Does it retract into the bag, snap tight to the bag, or dangle uselessly? Is the hook itself strong or flimsy? Remember that it must bear the weight of the entire bag when hung in a closet. Also consider the clothes hangers. Are there enough of them? Or can you use your own? It’s handiest if you can move your garments straight from your closet into the bag, without having to switch hangers.
One last thing to look for: Are there straps to hold clothing in place? In garment bags, look for models that have two straps that crisscross over the top half of the clothing as well as a center strap. These really do keep your things from sliding around and wrinkling.