Almost immediately after booking my fall trip, I realized that I needed to get a new suitcase. I mean, I knew that already, but there was never any urgency to it. I’ve got a few bags that have served me well, but they’re either slightly too small for this sort of trip, or starting to show their age, or… I’ve just outgrown them. (I’ve started to feel like maybe beat-up backpacks and duffle bags don’t quite suit me anymore, you know?)
The thing is, it’s been ages since I went looking for luggage, and the market has changed. A lot. And now airlines are starting to get really strict about enforcing carry-on limits, and… ugh.
Research was in order.
FYI: This is not an ad, or a sponsored post; I’m not being compensated in any way. Hell—I haven’t even used either of the bags mentioned in a real-world scenario (yet), so my opinions here are really just first impressions.
Carry-On or Checked Luggage?
In ideal circumstances, I would never check a bag. It’s expensive, it’s risky—bags are lost or damaged constantly, and things go missing from checked luggage frequently enough that I can’t imagine putting anything even a little bit valuable in a checked bag—and it’s almost always unnecessary. If you put enough thought into what you really need on a trip, what you can get at your destination (people need the same basic essentials everywhere, and you can generally buy what you need when you arrive), and how you pack your luggage, you can probably fit everything you need for two weeks (if not more) in carry-on. (Disclaimer: remember that I call myself a minimalist, and I’m a little obsessed with organization. Your milage may vary, but you definitely don’t need a huge bag, no matter how long your trip is going to be.)
That said, on this trip, I’m almost definitely going to be checking my bag.
For such a short trip, this is dumb and a waste of money. I feel dumb for admitting it in public. I shouldn’t check my bag. And the reason I’m probably checking my bag is particularly dumb—the two beauty products that I am especially picky about (the hair conditioner and gel that actually work for me) are not available in travel or sample sizes, and, since carry-on liquids have to be under 100mL and in the original packaging (as of the day I’m typing this… who knows what the rules will be in a year), if I don’t want to spend the entire trip fighting with my curls, I have to check my bag.
For a longer trip, I’d leave them at home, keep my bag with me, and just buy full-size bottles at my destination. But for three days, that’s a waste of money and perfectly good hair product. So, while I am going to spend the time leading up to the trip looking for alternatives, if I don’t find something, my bag is going in the hold.
But the bag isn’t just for this one trip—or, it shouldn’t be—and in other circumstances I’m still going to want to keep my bag close. And this trip is super-short, and I don’t need or want to be dragging too much stuff around with me. (Not to mention, I still dream of not having to check my bag unnecessarily.) So, for me, a bag that still fits nicely within carry-on limits is the best choice.
Hard-Shell vs. Soft-Sided (or Something Else?)
When I started looking for a new bag, this was the most confusing decision. The advice I found online was either contradictory, or it seemed like it was comparing apples to oranges, and, often, it seemed like the information was out of date. Most modern hard cases are just as lightweight as soft cases. Good-quality soft cases are nearly as durable as hard-sided cases.
Research suggested that a soft-sided case might be able to hold slightly more, because of the flexibility of the sides, but actually handling at the bags makes me doubt that. (The soft-sided bags that I looked at have a nicely rigid internal frame that isn’t going to flex much more than a hard-shell case will.) And, since I’m taking carry-on restrictions into account, a bag that actively discourages overpacking is a good thing.
In the end, it came down to this: both hard-shell and soft-sided bags have their pros and cons, and the best bag depends on what your priorities are. If you’re carrying something particularly fragile and have to check your bag, hard-shell is worth considering. If you’re looking for something with built-in organization, soft-sided bags are probably better.
Of course, standard suitcases—whether hard- or soft-shell—have two major flaws. The first is that almost all of them seem to come with wheels, which seem like a good idea, until you think about how much bulk they add to a bag. They add to the outside dimensions, the frame for the handle takes up valuable space inside the bag, they add to the overall weight of the bag, and, on top of all that, they just add another thing that can break or fail.
The second issue is public transportation, or just getting around town without a car; depending on your destination, standard luggage might not be permitted on busses or trains, and walking with a heavy hand-held bag (with or without wheels) is never fun.
A good-quality backpack or shoulder bag solves both of these issues, but is less than ideal for anyone with mobility issues or hoping to carry a larger bag. (And, in my case, a backpack is out for one big reason: my camera bag—which I’m probably using as my ‘personal item’ when I fly—is a small backpack, and carrying more than one backpack is a bit awkward.)
The Real World
I had one final criteria when I was choosing a bag: I wanted something that I could evaluate in person before buying. I wanted to get an idea of the size, and how comfortable it was to carry (and lift into an overhead compartment), and I wanted to be able to judge the quality of the bag for myself. Even if it was something I wound up ordering, I wanted to see it in real life first. (Which, given my location, significantly limits my options.)
So… what’s the perfect bag?
For me, the perfect bag is small, well-made, and easy to carry. Ideally, it’s easy to organize. I have no particular preferences when it comes to hard- or soft-sided, but I am irrationally drawn to bags that look good.
My dream bag is the Tri-Star by TOM BIHN. It fits all my criteria perfectly, doesn’t have wheels, and, to be honest, the demo video makes me swoon a little. (So organized!) I can’t look at one in-person, but I’ve read glowing reviews from sources that I trust, so I’d be willing to overlook that. The only trouble is that potential customs fees (it’s only available direct from the company, which is awesome, but means shipping to Canada) push it out of my budget right now.
Instead, I bought the Marcus Cabin Suitcase by Antler. It’s a fairly straightforward soft-sided suitcase, and I did have to compromise on the wheels, but otherwise I’m happy with it. It was lighter than the other carry-on size bags I looked at (sometimes by nearly two pounds… which is significant when you’re looking at a limit of 20 pounds), and at least an inch smaller in every dimension (which puts it well within the size limits for the airline I’m using—rather than just barely meeting the limits, which most of the other bags seemed to.)
I considered one of Antler’s hard-shell cases (the one I was looking at was comparable in price, roughly the same weight, and only a tiny bit bigger than the bag I wound up buying), but in the end, the extra pockets sold me. If I can sort out my other dilemmas and take it in the cabin with me, then I’ll appreciate having a few extra organization.
What’s your dream bag? What do you look for when choosing a new suitcase? I’d love to know. Comments will be open for 30 days, but you can always send me a note.