We have updated this list for 2014. Read Fodor’s Approved: Best Checked Luggage for 2014
As travel editors, checking a bag is very nearly sacrilege. Our water cooler conversations often include bragging about how one of us recently went away for two whole weeks with just a small carry-on. But there are some trips for which a carry-on is merely supplemental to the checked bag—families traveling together, getaways that require extra gear (skiing, say), holidays with tons of outfit changes, and long-term trips to far-flung places. And there are some travelers for whom checking a bag is simply the only option, additional fees be damned.
With that in mind, we took on the task of reviewing the cream of the crop in checked bags. We dragged them onto the subway, traveled with them, packed, and unpacked them just to bring you our honest takes on what makes a great piece of (big) luggage. (We also successfully squeezed one of our travel editors into a bag.) Do you see your favorite bag on the list? Are you a checked luggage traveler or a carry-on-only type?
Want more Fodor’s Approved? Check out our reviews of the best carry-on bags money can buy.
1. Rimowa Salsa Deluxe in Chocolate Brown
"Both my husband and I tested and traveled with this bag and ultimately fell in love with it despite some quibbles," said Linda Cabasin, Fodor’s Editorial Director about the Rimowa Salsa Deluxe in a deep chocolate brown. This was one of the few bags in our bunch that was lightweight when empty, which was a big plus particularly considering the weight restrictions on checked bags these days. The look, too, was a plus for Linda who felt the "high-tech ribbed polycarbonate exterior is super sleek and stylish with a high ‘wow’ factor. It’s definitely a statement bag."
She and her husband found issue with the bag for its too small and too few separate compartments, noting that they were too shallow to really figure out their various purposes. Once they got used to the Velcro straps for suits, though, the garment bag got to stay home.
Verdict: "The cost ($600) means you’d really have to check luggage a lot." Cabasin called the bag "fun." "stylish," and "practical" giving it a thumbs up for both business and leisure travelers.
2. Briggs & Riley, Transcend Expandable 24" in Rainforest
Briggs & Riley is a favorite of the Fodor’s team, so we were excited to see how their larger bags would fare compared to the carry-ons many of us own. Off to a good start, Travel Editor Caroline Trefler noted that it was "light and super easy to carry when empty—even on the subway in busy rush hour." Easy, too, was the packing process since the bag has so much room; the only complaint was that the "mesh packing panel that divides the main compartment made things difficult because it doesn’t detach." It was a great spot for her snorkel fins, but it took some effort to get them in there.
The other compartments proved more convenient, like the easy garment hanging part as well as several different sized interior compartments. Caroline also loved the look of it, saying that it would be easy to snag from baggage claim with its unique color.
Verdict: Caroline gave this bag an "enthusiastic yes" when asked if she’d buy it or recommend it. For trips that need more stuff, this is the bag to bring. Bonus points for its reasonable price point at $379.
3. Tumi Tegra-Lite Medium Trip Packing Case, Indigo Blue
Another favorite luggage brand, this hard-sided blue case from Tumi got high marks from Marketing Coordinator Rachel Tripp who particularly liked how lightweight it was when empty, how easy it was to roll, and how simple it was to pack. She did wish for more and better compartments, though, saying "there was a garment bag attachment, which was functional and a nice feature, but there were only two other pockets inside…The pockets that do exist weren’t tremendously functional." She liked the look, but wondered if perhaps the hard-side material made it look less like a high-end Tumi.
She put it to the ultimate test, though, successfully wheeling it through Times Square and putting to use its convenient 360 degree wheels. That it was also easy to store in a NYC apartment was a big bonus, and when she took it to a dinner, it slid easily under the table.
Verdict: Rachel highly recommended this bag ($795) to any traveler who likes to or must check their bags. For business or leisure travel, Rachel felt it was "excellent" and "agile."
4. T. Anthony 29″ Wheeled Wardrobe, Black with Brown Trim
This bag was big enough to fit one of our editors semi-comfortably. Fun though that was, this bag is for a very specific kind of traveler—namely one who doesn’t mind starting with a fairly heavy bag to begin with. Special Projects Editor Margaret Kelly found that she’d only want to travel with this bag to "one destination, not on a trip where I’d be boarding many trains or planes because it was so heavy to carry…Stairs are also an issue when it’s full and heavy." Despite its prohibitive weight, it was easy to pack and large enough to fit plenty of items, though its separate pockets were too small and not entirely user-friendly.
The look of the bag certainly fits some travelers well—the black fabric with brown leather trim has a sleek, if old school look.
Verdict: Not the right bag for a light traveler or someone who’ll be moving around a lot. If you have someone else carrying your bags or are heading on a long haul trip to one destination, you’d want to consider this bag ($795).
5. REI Wheely Beast Wheeled Duffel, Eclipse Blue
And here, we found that a theme began—some bags are too heavy when empty. Salwa Jabado, Countryside/Adventure Editor tested the REI Wheely Beast and found that while it was heavy before she put anything into it, the two grips made it easy to "tote it up subway stairs," while the "wheels and telescoping handle made it easy for pulling in the airport."
"It has one main compartment which zips open like a duffel bag. It was easy to throw things into and the sides had a surprising amount of room once I had stacked my clothes in the middle…I packed my husband’s clothes as well, so I think it could reasonably fit about 6 days worth of clothes," Salwa said. She also felt the compartments were generally easy to use and intuitive and appreciated the rugged look of the bag (complete with "yellow safety straps for bungees or carabiners").
Verdict: "It would be a great bag if it didn’t weigh so much when empty." Salwa said this bag ($199) would be a good long-weekend away bag for travelers who like the rugged, duffel look.
6. Briggs & Riley Baseline CX Medium Expandable Upright
When empty, this bag weighs in at 10 pounds which isn’t too heavy to carry, but does somewhat limit what you can put into it to comply with weight restrictions. Having said that, Senior Editor Douglas Stallings thought the bag was "easy to pack, with a nice compartment in the lid and a hanger that can accommodate a suite and probably a couple extra pairs of pants." While Douglas didn’t mind the simple, black look of the bag, he noted it has "the best expandable feature I’ve seen…the sides of the main compartment actually extend up giving you more actual storage space." Other bonuses? "The TSA-approved lock was a nice surprise, and there’s an actual pocket on the bag to store the strap when you’re not using it…and a small pocket on the side suitable for travel documents."
The space is nice for bringing all you need, but when full, Douglas found it difficult to wheel up stairs. "It rolls very easily, but the bag weighed more than 30 pounds, so it was a lot of weight to carry."
Verdict: Douglas recommended the bag strongly, noting he’d think it best for "a cruise if you had to carry suits for formal occasions." It checks in at $499.
7. Victorinox Spectra 32 in Red
This bag was so large it was frankly a bit intimidating. The dark red color looked lovely though, and despite its enormous size, it was lightweight, which let my test start off on a positive foot. The bag opens up to two large, (almost) equal sized compartments, which is a huge plus—a large top compartment allows for better organization when it can fit more than just undergarments and small toiletries. The bag has very little in the way of other sections that are particularly useful. Put plainly, packing this bag with shoes and toiletries required shoe bags, my own toiletry bags, and still more bags for belts and other accessories.
I had two simple issues—the size and the wheels. First, you’d need a good sized closet to store this bag because it doesn’t collapse. Then, there are four wheels that spin 360 degrees, making it smooth to pull when upright, but really awkward to pull at a diagonal on just two wheels. When full, this would make it a challenge to drag it up stairs. All in all, the first trip that came to mind with this bag is a long ski holiday—only one resort, and all my gear in one case.
Verdict: This bag is great for the traveler who’s hitting the slopes or going somewhere that requires many a costume change. But be aware: that traveler should be a very organized one, or packing this large suitcase ($379) could become unwieldy.
8. Lipault 28" 2-Wheeled Foldable Packing Case, Red
The first thing to love about this bag? It’s chic pop of red. The soft case makes for an easy to pack and lightweight bag that’s a delight to carry, according to Special Projects Editor Margaret Kelly. The softness of the bag also makes it "pliable and easy to stuff into a small closet space…[the softness also means] the pockets are flexible and can be easily stuffed." Despite the lack of four wheels and a hard shell, the bag still stands upright easily and has good balance when empty and full; the many handles (on top, side, and bottom) make it easy to wheel or carry upstairs.
Margaret’s biggest concern was that she would be wary of bringing too many breakables ("bottles of olive oil, any type of ceramic") back from her holidays in the bag for fear of not enough support. Having said that, she loved the bag for its versatility and light weight, and would travel with this on any trip that required lots of clothes.
Verdict: One of the reigning favorites of the group, this bag ($249) comes highly recommended. It’s easy to store, easy to carry, and easy to pack—what more can you ask for? The red color also makes it distinct and attractive enough to claim it with pride from the carousel.
Photo Credits: 1. RIMOWA North America Inc.; 2. Briggs & Riley Travelware; 3. MMXIII Tumi, Inc.; 4. T. Anthony; 5. REI ; 6. Briggs & Riley Travelware; 7. Amazon.com, Inc.; 8. Lipault.