Choosing the Right Luggage

When planning for an upcoming trip, you will need to decide which luggage will best accommodate your belongings. Your decision now requires a bit more consideration, as airlines have increased the cost of additional bags and tightened up other requirements. While some people opt to see how much they can fit into a small carry-on to skip checking luggage altogether, others look for a high quality luggage set they can fit all their stuff in and keep track of easily. This ultimate guide to buying luggage will help you understand all the options you have available, the pros and cons of different luggage features, and the requirements you will need to keep in mind when making your purchase. By the end, you will have the knowledge you need to choose the perfect luggage for your travel needs.

Table of Contents

  • Carry-On Luggage
  • Checked Bags
  • Luggage Sets
  • Wheeled Luggage Types
  • Luggage Materials
  • Luggage Buying Tips by Trip Length
  • Luggage Buying Tips by Lifestyle...

Carry-On Luggage

First, we will start with carry-ons. A carry-on, as the name suggests, is a small piece of luggage that is allowed to be carried onto the airplane with you. It is free to take one carry-on item with you, which can be stored under the seat in front of you, or in the overhead compartment. Let's look at what dimensions qualify a piece of luggage as a "carry-on", which carry-ons will fit under the seat, and what the difference between a carry-on and a personal item is.

Domestic Carry-On Size

Most airlines in the United States allow carry-on luggage that measures up to 22 inches tall x 14 inches wide x 9 inches deep in size. These are the dimensions allowed by the three major US airlines: American, United and Delta.

However, most of the other airlines have their own dimension requirements. For example, here are the dimension requirements for some of the other US-based airlines.

  • Frontier Airlines allows for 24 x 10 x 16 inches.
  • Alaska Airline allows for 24 x 10 x 17 inches.
  • JetBlue allows for 24 x 10 x 16 inches.
  • Spirit allows for 22 x 10 x 18 inches.
  • Southwest allows for 24 x 10 x 16 inches.
  • Virgin America allows for 24 x 10 x 16 inches.

It is wise to check the carry-on requirements of the airline you will be flying with, to ensure that your bag will not need to be checked. Remember to include the wheels, any handles, and protruding pouches in your measurements.

International Carry-On Size

When it comes to international flights, carry-on luggage regulations can vary. If your flight originates or ends in the United States on a U.S. airline, then size requirements will be the same as those of domestic flights. Likewise, if you fly on a foreign airline partner of a U.S. airline, then the domestic size requirements are applicable.

When flights begin and end outside of the United States, it is essential that you check with the airline you'll be flying on to avoid having to check luggage you hoped to carry on.

Many foreign carriers require smaller bags! For example:

  • China Airlines allows for 22 x 14 x 9 inches.
  • Bulgaria Air allows for 20 x 17 x 8 inches.
  • Russian Aeroflot allows for 20 x 17 x 8 inches.

If you are unsure, be sure to do your research before you purchase your carry-on.

Which bags fit under seats?

Are you dreading standing in the aisle of the airplane and trying to shove your carry-on in the overhead compartment? If you are, you will want to know how large of a bag you can fit under the seat in front of you. Of course, this depends on the space afforded by the various seat dimensions found on different airlines, but here are some guidelines:

  • Delta Airlines seats allow for carry-on bags that are smaller than 20 x 17 x 11 inches.
  • American Airlines has no particular requirements for putting luggage under your seat other than it must fit properly and must be 45 linear inches or less.
  • Continental Airlines seats are small but allow for luggage that is 51 linear inches. If you place your carry-on luggage under your seat, it may protrude slightly.
  • Southwest Airlines does not allow carry-on luggage pieces bigger than 24 x 16 x 10. You may only place a piece up to 19 x 19 x 9.5 under your seat however.
  • United Airlines under seat space is limited to 17 x 10.5 x 20 inches.

These rules are strictly enforced, and physically limiting, so do take them into account when choosing your carry-on.

Personal Items

In addition to your one carry-on item, you are allowed to bring on one personal item. There are rules to consider for these personal items as well. What constitutes a personal item? Well, things such as a purse, laptop computer in it's case, camera in it's case, backpack, or briefcase, fall into this category. These items must also be able to fit under the seat in front of you.

Size limits here vary from airline to airline.

  • United Airlines allows for 17 x 9 x 10 inches.
  • American Airlines have no particular dimension other than it must fit under the seat in front of you and be smaller than a carry-on bag.
  • Delta Airlines have specific dimension but state that the item must be similar or smaller in size than a briefcase, camera bag, diaper bag or purse.
  • Frontier Airlines allow for a size of 18 x 8 x 14 inches.
  • Spirit Airlines allow for a size of 16 x 12 x 14 inches.
  • JetBlue allow for a size of 17 x 11 x 13 inches.

The following items are considered exempt from counting as your personal item: hats, coats or jackets, books, newspapers, pillows, blankets, medical equipment, canes and walking sticks.

If you are flying on less utilized domestic routes, remember that you may be in a smaller aircraft. This may require that your carry-on luggage be placed in the luggage hold. Again, research can help avoid any problems when boarding. Take note that airlines often change their rules when it comes to carry-on bag sizes, but will have the latest sizes on their website.

Interestingly, in the United States, 19% of travelers polled report that they use solely a carry-on for their travel, 28% said they check their luggage, and 28% bring a carry-on and check their regular luggage at check-in counters.

Checked Bags

Moving on to checked luggage. Any bags that are checked in to be placed in the luggage hold of the aircraft, are also subject to restrictions in terms of size and weight.

Size and Weight Restrictions

Checked bags are usually limited to 2 bags per traveler on domestic flights, and they may not exceed 50 lbs. on average. When traveling from the United States to an international destination, this figure drops to 44 lbs, again with a limit of 2 bags per traveler.

If you do suspect your bags are overweight, contact the airline you are traveling with before you fly. This will not only help when you check-in, but also will ensure that you do not pay an unexpected fee for overweight baggage.

Most major US airlines have the following rules in place:

  • American Airlines allow for checked bags up to 62 inches and 50 lbs.
  • Delta Airlines allow for checked bags up 62 inches and 50 lbs.
  • Southwest Airlines allow for checked bags up to 62 inches and 50 lbs.
  • United Airlines allow for checked bags up to 62 inches and 50 lbs.

There are exceptions with all these airlines however, especially when it comes to premier passengers connected to loyalty programs. For typical domestic travelers, however, 2 bags, 62 inches, and 50 lbs. is the norm.

If you decide you need a checked bag, no matter which type you choose, you will be joining the 55% of travelers who still check their luggage in when they travel.

Luggage Sets

Many travelers, instead of opting for different carry-on and checked bag styles, choose to purchase luggage sets. These sets come in a variety of configurations and are perfect for either frequent travelers, or families.

Three Piece Luggage Set

Although configurations can change, most three piece luggage sets include the following:

  • 28" suitcase
  • 25" suitcase
  • Carry-on bag

In most modern sets, both the suitcases will be either wheeled or spinner cases to help with mobility. For those travelers who prefer a duffel bag as a variation, three piece duffel luggage sets are available as well. Again, these typically include two wheeled duffel bags and a carry-on option.

Small three piece versions are also available and particularly helpful to business travelers going on a short business trip.

Three piece luggage set

Five Piece Luggage Set

A five-piece luggage set typically has two different configurations. Either it will have two or three wheeled suitcases. If it has two suitcases, it then will have three smaller bags (generally a carry-on bag, tote bag or something similar). If it has three suitcases, it will only have two smaller bags. Sometimes, suitcases fit into each other to make storage far easier when not in use. This is commonly called a nested luggage set. A standard configuration for a five piece luggage set is as follows:

  • 28" suitcase
  • 25" suitcase
  • Carry-on bag
  • Duffel bag
  • Tote Bag
Five piece luggage set

What to look for in a luggage set

Here are a few pointers as to what you should look for when purchasing a luggage set.

  • The amount of pieces in the set and their sizes.
  • Consider the weight. The lighter the set, the easier to travel with.
  • An efficient, durable wheel system is helpful to make pushing or pulling easier.
  • Look for telescopic, rubber gripped pull handles. They are essential to make the luggage easier to store when not in use, and are easy to pull along while on your trip.
  • Look at the overall quality of the materials used. Poorly made luggage will not last.
  • Do you have limited storage space? If so, consider a nested luggage set.
  • Choose a style you like and a price range you can afford, but bear the quality of the luggage in mind.

Wheeled Luggage Types

Today, virtually all modern luggage comes with wheels, as it is almost impossible to make it through an airport without them. All wheel systems are not equal, and this is a feature that you should check when buying a new set of luggage, or even when looking at a single piece. There are two basic wheel configurations to choose from; four-wheel and two-wheel.

Five piece luggage set

Four wheel spinners

Four wheel spinner luggage has a wheel at each corner of the piece of luggage itself. This allows for it to be pushed or pulled. Here are the pros and cons:

Pros

  • It is perfectly balanced, kept upright and cannot tip over by itself.
  • It has excellent 360-degree mobility on flat surfaces.
  • It can be pulled on escalators, travelators, in subways and on pavements.
  • It can be tilted and rolled like a two-wheel case.

Cons

  • Stated size may not include the wheels.
  • Wheels can wear unevenly.
  • Rough surfaces, such as cobblestones present a problem for the four wheel system.
  • It can be awkward when carried up stairs as the wheels often get in the way.

Fixed wheeled luggage (2 wheels)

Fixed wheeled luggage has two wheels and is pulled at an angle.

Pros

  • Smaller bags can be placed on the top section of the luggage (near the telescopic handle). They will be held there by gravity as you pull your luggage along.
  • Two wheels minimize the possibility of wheel malfunctions.
  • These are easier to navigate on stairs; one at a time.
  • You can run with it if need be, especially if you are going to miss your flight. It will remain easy to control.

Cons

  • Over packed bags fall over extremely easily. Getting the weight distribution correct so that the bag stands up straight can also prove difficult.
  • Wheels can be worn out due to use on rough services. Small stones and pebbles can also get stuck in the wheels and could ruin them if not removed.
  • This luggage can only be pulled and never pushed, causing strain on shoulders and arms, especially if the luggage is extremely heavy.

Travelers have reported to be far happier with four-wheeled suitcases than their older two-wheeled counterparts. This is probably because they are more easily pushed or pulled.

Luggage Materials

Durability of different materials

When purchasing luggage, you will want to consider the material it is made of and its level of durability. Damage can be minimized, or prevented, by choosing the right type of luggage.

Material Description

Hard sided luggage

Hard sided luggage is constructed out of aluminum, polycarbonate, polypropylene, or ABS materials. Let's take a closer look at some of the common materials used in hard side luggage, as these are generally less understood than soft side materials.

Polycarbonate

One of the most popular materials used in the construction of hardsided luggage, polycarbonate, is extremely durable and offers some flexibility and give. This makes it resistant to rough handling. It is also available in many colors and patterns.

Aluminum

One of the first hardside luggage choices which was available was aluminum. It is heavier than polycarbonate, and easily dented or scratched, and quite expensive.

Polypropylene

An extremely lightweight material, luggage made out of polypropylene, is the lightest available on the market. Although relatively resilient, polypropylene is not as flexible or damage resistant as polycarbonate.

ABS

Again, luggage made from ABS plastics are light, but not as durable as those made from polycarbonate. These are often the cheapest option.

Soft-sided luggage

Soft-sided luggage is often constructed out of ballistic nylon, cordura or polyester.

Material Considerations

Let's examine the many aspects important when choosing a luggage material.

Feature Considerations

Durability

Hard sided luggage offers more durability than it's soft sided counterpart, allowing it to stand up to the elements like abuse, water and dirt more effectively.

Accessibility

Soft side luggage offers excellent accessibility options. Many pieces have pockets on the front of the luggage itself; a perfect place to keep essential travel items that you might need in a hurry (like a rain jacket for instance).

Flexibility

Although not an obvious advantage, hardsided luggage options are far more flexible than they used to be. Many are made from polycarbonate that can flex and absorb an impact if dropped. Soft side luggage wins in this category though, as it can often be shoved into places and positions, not possible for hard sided luggage.

Protection

Clearly, hardsided luggage offers more protection for valuable items than any other form of luggage would. Again, this kind of luggage is mostly made out of polycarbonate, or other material that can absorb much of the force of an impact if dropped or handled roughly. The contents inside will be far less vulnerable than with soft sided luggage.

Cosmetic aspects

Of course, as a traveler you want to look the part! Hardsided luggage has a far greater aesthetic appeal. Though, if you are going for the backpacker or athletic look, a soft side bag may be what you are looking for.

Weight

As technology has evolved, hard side luggage has become lighter. This is because suitcases are now constructed from lightweight materials that remain extremely strong. Soft side luggage is and always has been a very light weight option as well.

When deciding on a material for your hardsided luggage there are a few questions you should ask yourself.

  • What are my budget limitations?
  • How often do I travel?
  • What distances do I travel?
  • Do I need to protect valuables in my luggage?
  • Will I be travelling in rough terrain where I can't roll my luggage?

For frequent travelers, a more expensive polycarbonate option might be best, while those who travel only once a year would probably opt for a cheaper alternative such as luggage made out of ABS. Ultimately, it comes down to personal choice, however consumer surveys have found that 62% of travelers tend to opt for hard-side luggage that offers the most durability.

Here is a quick breakdown to help you make your choice if you decide to go with the hard side luggage option.

Most durable

Aluminum, polycarbonate, polypropylene, ABS

Lightweight

Polypropylene, ABS, polycarbonate, aluminum

Price

ABS, polypropylene, polycarbonate, aluminum

Luggage Buying Tips by Trip Length

Often the best way to determine your luggage needs for traveling is by using the length of your trip as a yardstick. Here is a guide:

Trip Length Luggage Buying Tips

1 - 2 days

Here a small (18-20") carry-on and medium (23-24") checked luggage piece should suffice. You could even drop the checked luggage and just use the carry-on if you are a light packer.

3 - 4 days

A medium (23-24") checked luggage is perfect for trips of this length. Consider a carry-on if you need to bring essential items on the plane with you.

5 - 7 days

For trips approaching a week, a large (25-27") checked luggage piece is best. Again, a carry-on is purely optional.

8 or more days

Trips of longer than a week require an extra-large (28-32") checked luggage piece. Be warned, this is bulky and cumbersome when full, and you need to verify that it does not exceed weight and size restrictions of the airline you will be flying with.

Luggage Buying Tips by Lifestyle...

Travelling needs will vary depending on the purpose for travelling and the people involved. Here are some luggage tips for common travelling scenarios:

Business travelers

When it comes to luggage options for business travelers, practical pieces are the most sought after. You will want to consider the following:

Luggage Factor Luggage Consideration

Size and layout

Considerations regarding size and layout include internal design (including dividers, pockets for documents, areas for suits, dresses, and other important business wear).

Materials

The material used in the luggage construction is also important, especially if you need to protect its contents. Hard side luggage offers the best protection and is also available in lightweight materials.

Internal organization

Many luggage options now come with incredible innovations built in. These include mobile phone chargers, removable laundry bags, built in shaving kits, shoe compartments, hidden compartments and compression straps that allow you to pack in a little extra.

TSA approved locks

As all luggage is checked by the TSA on all United States routes, having TSA approved locks makes the process easier, while keeping your luggage secure.

Families

Families shopping for luggage will have a different set of concerns. Consider these tips:

Luggage Factor Luggage Consideration

Luggage set

Luggage sets are often the perfect way to ensure you have enough packing space for a family vacation. For bigger families, pieces can be shared between the Mom and Dad as well as the children.

Kids suitcases

Specific kids suitcases are a great way to get your children involved in your trip. Not only can they help pack, but you can put them in charge of their own luggage!

Hard side luggage

For extended vacations with multiple flights, consider spending a little extra on some hard side luggage to protect your belongings. These durable pieces will stand up to the rigors of an extended holiday.

Seniors/Disabled

When considering luggage options for either seniors or the disabled, there are some key points to contemplate.

Luggage Factor Luggage Consideration

Small and manageable

Small, manageable luggage pieces make the most sense for either seniors or the disabled. Bulky, heavy luggage is not an option.

Good manueverability

Luggage with wheels is essential. Consider four-wheel spinners as this is the most maneuverable and can either be pushed or pulled, which places less strain on shoulders and arms.

Personalized

Consider personalized or extremely colorful luggage that is easy to find at the luggage carousel.

When it comes to buying luggage for your travels, there are many options available. We have laid out the restrictions set by airlines for what you kind of luggage you can bring, examined the various aspects you should consider when choosing luggage, and offered recommendations based on trip length and lifestyle. Now you can take this information and apply it to your personal situation to find which luggage will best suit your needs. We hope you this ultimate guide helps you to find the perfect luggage and wish you safe travels!