Luggage 101

Picking out the best bag for you….

There’s a point in the Confessions of a Shopaholic series where Rebecca Bloomwood has an epiphany in the luggage department. “Luggage! Why have I never thought of luggage?” she screams, gleeful to discover a whole new world of things to buy. As somewhat of a hyper traveler, I’ve been in love with luggage ever since I got my first passport.

Walking back to my hotel in Tokyo’s Asakusa neighborhood a few months ago, I passed by a sign for “The World Bags and Luggage Museum.” How had I never heard of this? Intrigued, I entered the non- descript office building and was shown to the 7th floor to find what turned out to be hundreds of bags, the personal collection of Ryusaku Shinkawa, the founder of ACE, a Japanese luggage manufacturer. There were Louis Vuitton steamer trunks designed to float in case of emergency, rounded cases from the Wild West days (rounded to avoid rain penetration when traveling by open coach, and later so that they’d have to be stacked on top of trunks, thereby receiving less wear and tear), gorgeous Italian leather bags from the 1960s and even an old school Pan Am shoulder bag ― in short, a history of travel presented through luggage.


Seeing a display showing the dozens of pieces that go into making a modern-day suitcase proved the impetus for this month’s column: basic factors to consider when choosing your next piece of luggage.

Soft vs. Hard
For a recent around-the-world trip, I bought a beautiful piece of hard-sided luggage. It survived impossibly crowded trams in Istanbul, unforgiving train station stairwells in Rome and uneven pavement in the Caribbean. I loved knowing that my fragile souvenirs were safely tucked away and that the latches were much harder to open than vulnerable zippers (search for “zipper+suitcase+pen” on Youtube to see how frighteningly easy it is to open and re-close a locked, zipped suitcase with just a ballpoint pen). Unfortunately, on the very last leg of my trip, the hard plastic shell got cracked on the bottom which I sadly did not notice until a month later, making it impossible to seek compensation from the offending airline. It’s now a very expensive way to store my winter clothes. For now, I’m sticking with abrasion-proof ballistic nylon, which turns out is the trend for Asian travelers. Tom Nelson of TUMI (Asia Pacific), a manufacturer of luxury luggage, talked to Oi on the differences between Asian and Western consumers: “It is interesting to note that hard-sided travel cases were traditionally very popular in this region [of Asia]. However, we are now seeing a bit of a shift where Asian consumers are increasingly opting to purchase soft-sided travel cases. Business and day bags are very popular in Asia. Male consumers in Asia particularly like the messenger and cross carry style totes. Comparatively, men in the US, from what we have seen, prefer to carry backpacks.”


Two or Four Wheels?
Wheels have seen lots of improvements in the past few years, including bigger, more stable ones to what Tom describes as wheels “recessed into the body of the case to give it a lower center of gravity for stable multidirectional navigation and a more spacious interior compared to mounted wheels.” Personally, I look for sturdy spinner models (four wheels) for both carry-on and check-in which has saved my back/shoulder countless times when having to manage two big cases and a carry-on. With increasing fees for checked bags, both my travel backpacks are wheeled which makes them easier to overpack (but less likely to attract the attention of overzealous gate agents) but a breeze to move.


Design Aesthetics
While unusually shaped bags are cool, bags which are more rectangular (as opposed to having rounded edges) offer maximum space. Think also about getting a bag with a unique design or color. In a 2009 bust, police captured a US couple who had stolen almost 1,000 bags from a nearby airport, most of the bags black or dark in color with no identifying marks. If a thief is caught with a non-descript bag, it’s easier to say he mistook it for his own. But with everyone from high-performance vehicle manufacturers like Ducati and McLaren to fashion designer Alexander McQueen and home designer Jonathan Adler joining the luggage game, there’s no reason to be resigned to basic black.

For frequent travelers, there’s even more innovation on the horizon, either already for sale or in prototype, including suitcases that morph into kickboard-style scooters, strollers or seats (or all three!), self-weigh or have motorized wheels. Traveling has never been so fun!

Having visited nearly 60 countries as a travel writer and award-winning photographer, James Pham blogs about his adventures at

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