By Judi Dash
Whatever passengers’ feelings about TSA personnel getting more physical at security checkpoints, their luggage had better be fit for aggressive handling. A pat down? Shucks. Bring on a throw down, or a throw around. Just pile on the abuse. A bag on the move should be tough enough to take it.
Happily for travelers, the highly competitive luggage industry understands that success in the bag biz boils down to survival of the fittest – also, the lightest weight, the most versatile, and the easiest to haul around. And please, any color but black. Life is too short for an identity crisis at baggage claim.
Whether you’re looking for a high-flying holiday gift or luggage for yourself, check out the following. Prices are averages, with many bags available for less online or during frequent sales.
Best of the big guys
It should go without saying that any bag built for a bundle had better be on wheels. Luggage porters? Readily available carts? Don’t bet on it.
Fortunately, most quality bags are no longer decked out with heavy metal fittings and bulky leather trim. A universal obsession with weight-loss has democratized materials in favor of ever-lighter-weight synthetics without gratuitous doodads at all price levels. What sets the bags apart are styles and structures geared to user preference -- from big open spaces to multiple compartments for organizing contents. Bright colors and patterns add an element of fun and make spotting your bag on the luggage carousel a cinch.
• Delsey’s big Helium Fusion Lite 2.0, 29-inch Expandable Suiter Trolley makes good use of a fiberglass/graphite material to keep this tough, semi-rigid warrior to 13 pounds. There’s loads of additional room in the two giant outside zippered compartments, plus the bag expands an extra two inches. Filling it could bump it over weight limits, but Delsey provides a warning tool. When you lift a recessed handle at the top of the bag, a built-in overweight indicator button turns red if the bag is over 50 pounds -- the typical limit for checked bags before surcharges apply. Go for the bright blue color over the anonymous black option. Details: $107.99; (25-incher, $98.99) at www.ebags.com; 800-820-6126.
• International Traveler Luggage has pulled off a weight-watchers miracle with its 6 1/4 pound IT-0-1, 28.5-inch Packing Case – which as far as I can tell, is the lightest bag for the size out there. The secret is in the fiberglass/nylon blend frame. The company has dispensed with dividers and internal straps and pockets that might add incrementally to weight – but I think it’s a good tradeoff. The wacky option of purple with white circles won’t ever let you confuse this bag with anyone else’s. Details: $110 at www.luggagepros.com; 800-595-5456.
• After years as a leading online retailer of other company’s bags, eBags has entered the fray with its own line of rugged lightweight luggage. The biggest bruiser is the 12-pound Mother Lode TLS 29-inch Wheeled Duffel, which is loaded with roomy nylon and mesh pockets, convertible dividers and compression straps to keep everything tight and secure. The bright orange interior lining makes even small items easy to spot. The color choices set a playful tone: green envy, sinful red, and blue yonder. Details: $219.99; (25-incher, $169.99) at www.ebags.com; 800-820-6126.
• Who says big can’t be beautiful? Artsiest of the biggies is the Heys USA Britto Collection 30-inch Spinner, with a bold multicolored butterfly pattern designed by pop artist Romero Britto.. Although hard-sided and four-wheeled, the butterfly bag weighs in at only 11 pounds, thanks to the polycarbonate composite material. A built-in combination lock is TSA-friendly. Not into flying-insect motifs? Consider instead a 30-incher in a flower pattern or a bold geometric landscape design -- wild, but not winged. Details: $350 at www.heysusa.com; 877-276-4397.
The claim is in the name with wheel-aboard carry-ons. Monikers like “Helium,” “SuperLite” and “Explore” evoke images of bags that practically float. They don’t, but all of the following bags weigh less than 8 pounds and comply with standard airline carry-on dimensions.
• High Sierra bags have always been about adventure -- mainly of the giant duffel ilk, but the company has entered the carry-on market big-time with little wheel-aboards that have spacious compartments for organizing, and hideaway back straps for hoisting over rough terrain or up a flight of stairs. The new AT GO AT556 Carry-on Expandable Wheeled Duffel is a hybrid duffel/upright with a roomy main compartment, a drop-bottom compartment with hold-down straps for shoes and other bulky gear, and removable zippered divider panels. A jaunty touch: the bag is available in a black plaid or purple houndstooth pattern as well as royal blue. Details: $99.99 at www.luggageguru.com; 888-358-4878.
• Delsey’s 7.4-pound Helium SuperLite 21.5-inch Carryon Expandable Trolley is made of a newfangled nylon that incorporates fiberglass technology to create a sturdy, solid frame that provides protection similar to hard-framed bags. Available in black or mocha, the 21.5-inch by 14-inch by 9-inch-deep bag expands two inches, and has two internal and two external zippered compartments. Wheels are recessed to withstand rough handling and provide a smooth glide. Details: $95.99 at www.luggageonline.com; 888-958-4424.
• Briggs & Riley, darling of the discriminating business traveler, has shed its straight-laced style -- and most of its weight-adding accouterments -- and taken on a more adventurous identity, with its BRX Explore wheel-aboards, its lightest-weight line. New this season is the BRX Explore 20 Wide-body (20 inches by 15.5 inches by 8.5 inches deep), whose squarer-than-usual shape provides more efficient packing space, though it may have a harder time squeezing down narrow aisles. To create a flatter and more spacious packing surface inside, the company’s Outsider handle system places the bars on the exterior of the bag. The bag comes loaded with spacious featherweight pockets and pouches. There’s even a long, slim zippered pocket in the space between the external handle bars. Inside, a zip-off folding suit section with hangar bars minimizes wrinkling. Details: $290 at www.briggs-riley.com; 877-745-3978.
• The folks at Coleman turned to a polycarbonate blend to create the impressively light (6.8 pounds) Sedona 21-inch Expandable Spinner, a hard-case wheel-aboard that’s particularly durable during rough handling. The bag has four zippy wheels for strategic navigating (wide stance for stability, sideways for narrow spaces), and a handy built-in three-dial combination lock. It can be expanded via the zippered flexible midsection. The colors are fun too – bright yellow, red, or blue, in addition to more muted shades. Details: $120 at www.luggagepros.com; 800-595-5456.
Models of versatility
Innovative new breeds of bags can adapt to a range of situations – kind of like Clark Kent becoming Superman minus the telephone booth. These bags dispense with wheels in favor of other attributes at a lighter weight.
• Briggs & Riley’s swank carry-on Exchange 26 Duffle (BD126X) doubles as a backpack, making it a handy alternative – or addition – to a wheel-aboard bag. Zip away the back panel for access to the backpack harness. The 12-inch by 26-inch by 10-inch-deep nylon bag can be expanded an additional 3 inches via another zipper. It weighs only about three pounds and comes in classy muted shades: slate, ocean, and amber. Details: $160 at www.Briggs-Riley.com; 877-745-3978.
• Used to be, waterproof bags were mainly for boaters and campers. Big rubber sacks with complex seal-down systems, they kept clothes from getting soaked if you fell into the drink or your canoe capsized. Now waterproof has gone mainstream with bags to protect the gear of daily life – from laptop computers to business files – from less adventures elements, such as rain. SealLine has an equal-opportunity product in the WideMouth Duffle carry-on bag. Made of lightweight scrim-reinforced vinyl, the 22-inch by 12-inch by 12-inch-deep bag has a wide opening for easy packing and a simple roll-down closure that makes the bag airtight. An external zippered pocket provides quick access to keys and other small items. The bag has double carry handles as well as D-rings for attaching a shoulder strap (not included). Details: $74.95 at www.cascadedesigns.com; 800-531-9531.
• Backpacks designed for camera gear were a great weight-distribution improvement over the old shoulder bag models, which put neck and shoulder muscles at increased risk. The Airbak Focus Tech camera backpack adds another level of comfort with a built-in inflatable cushion at the lumbar region. The wearer inflates the cushion by mouth. The thickly padded bag is divided into a top section with multiple pockets for camera accessories; and a bottom section outfitted with adjustable Velcro-tab panels to protect lenses, flashes and camera bodies. Two deep pockets running the full length of the bag can hold a laptop computer, files and other gear. The 19-inch by 12.5-inch by 7.5-inches-deep bag weighs about 2 pounds. Details: $99.99 at www.airbak.com; no toll-free number.
• Portable electronic devices have become the Barbie and Ken dolls of the tech set, with a plethora of “outfits” for adorning, housing and transporting them. Now here comes Barbie’s – oops, I mean Techie’s – mobile mansion. The Mamba Shift L Backpack from Booq Bags is a sleek black nylon bag with a snazzy red lining and a slew of individually padded pockets for housing a laptop computer, an iPad, MP3 players, external hard drives, cables, and other electronic stuff. External side and front pockets and diagonally overlapping interior pockets make for loads of additional storage options. Elastic pop-out iPhone pockets (most small cell phones should fit) are integrated into the bottom of the wide back straps for quick access. Details: $149.95 at www.booqbags.com; 877-292-1773.