How to Pick a Suitcase

Buying a new suitcase? This will make your choice simple.

You don’t need a pile of suitcases to be ready for all types of trips. Luggage essentials can be three key pieces: a carry-on bag, a check-in suitcase and a duffel bag.

This trio, said Anne McAlpin — a travel expert, frequent globetrotter and author of the packing advice book “Pack It Up” — covers the bases for trips ranging from jaunt through multiple cities to a cruise to a nature-themed journey like a safari. “It’s unnecessary and expensive to have a big collection of luggage because most travelers tend to use the same pieces again and again,” she said.

Here’s how to choose within those categories:


Though most carry-ons and suitcases have boxy proportions and hard or soft shells, they can vary widely. That makes picking the best one more complicated than choosing a duffel bag. There are three basic variables to help guide your decision:

1. Two vs. four wheels: Which is the best way to wheel? Two-wheeled bags require you to drag them behind you in a straight line, and pulling heavy ones can be real chore. Four-wheeled bags, also known as spinners, rotate 360 degrees and are easier to maneuver; they can even be wheeled when they’re upright. But their design means that the wheels are more susceptible to damage.

2. Frequent travelers vs. occasional travelers: Travelers who are on the road several times a month need sturdy luggage that won’t fail even several years down the line. The more durable a bag, the pricier it will be — think $500 and up for a carry-on and $700 and higher for a check-in. But Lyle Saltzman, the director of merchandising for Luggage Factory, a Lambertville, New Jersey company selling more than 60 brands of luggage, said high-end bags come with generous warranties. “Many premium brands have a lifetime warranty policy that protects your investment, so if the bag gets damaged, they will repair or replace it for no charge,” he said.

Since occasional travelers don’t rely on their luggage nearly as often as road warriors, they can get by with a midrange bag, which will last them several years, and may have a limited warranty.

3. Soft- vs. hard-shell suitcase: There are benefits to both hard- and soft-side suitcases; ultimately the decision should be based on personal preference. Hard bags are aesthetically sleeker, said Dan Bettinger, an owner of Altman Luggage, a New York company that sells more than 100 brands of luggage. Hard bags also offer stronger protection than soft to the items inside and are less susceptible to wear and tear. As we mentioned earlier, a hard-shelled suitcase will also strictly limit how much you can stuff into your bag — a benefit if you tend to pack too much. And since the new models are made with lightweight polycarbonate, they don’t scratch easily and aren’t heavy. In fact, some models weigh less than soft suitcases, but be wary of a bag that’s too light: its frame may be flimsy.

The upside to soft bags: They tend to be light and have external pockets, which some travelers use to keep items like books or jackets handy. Many soft bags also have some give, a bonus if you like to cram as much as possible into a bag.