Searching for a new rollaboard

With several trips coming up, I’ve been looking for a new carry-on. I’ve been using a 22-inch 4-wheel softsided expandable rollaboard from Briggs & Riley for ten years. It’s served me well, but it nows needs its shredding wheels replaced. (While wheels for my model are not currently available, they do offer replacements for other models for about $30 per set).

The design of this carryon, once hard to beat, has become a bit unstable when the bag is expanded, with the two front wheels often collapsing and causing the bag to fall forward. And what was once touted as a feature – the telescoping handle on the outside – makes it difficult to slide the bag out of the smaller overhead bins on some planes.

I’ve looked at a variety of hard-sided luggage made out of polycarbonate, a durable and lightweight material that’s less likely to crack than other materials such as ABS. While less expandable than a soft-sided bag, it’s generally lighter. My goal was to find a bag that would be long-lasting, well-made with good fittings – especially the wheels, handle, and zippers – and easy to organize to hold as much as possible.

I visited a Samsonite store, but found their selection to be confounding and confusing with no consistency across their lines, and no way to compare the wide number of models, each with a different design and look. Their better models were in the $250-$300 range, all of which seem to be perpetually on sale.

I visited a Tumi store and found a couple of lines each of soft-sided and hard-sided luggage, but all mostly priced in the stratosphere, from $700-$1000. I used to be a big Tumi fan, but now find their prices to be prohibitively expensive. (Tumi is now part of Samsonite.) I stopped into a Rimowa store to look at their luggage. The German company makes iconic aluminum luggage and has expanded into plastic versions, priced simarly to Tumi.

Lastly, I visited an Away Luggage store in San Francisco. Away sells their own luggage direct to consumer from their website and through a few company run stores. They offer a line of hard-sided luggage that is priced between the very inexpensive bags from the Wal-Marts and the premium models from Tumi and Rimowa. While their bags look more like the inexpensive models, Away positions its products as a reliable brand with a lifetime warranty and a novel interior design. Their 22-inch models retail in the $300 range. All of their luggage have the same design language that’s attractive and easily recognizable.

Their 22-inch rollarboards come in four models, regular, bigger, and each with an expansion feature, ranging from $275-$345. The expansion is simply a zipper cloth belt that adds a few inches between the two halves. The rollerboards come in a variety of colors with a limited lifetime warranty and a 100-day no questions asked return guarantee. By selling direct, they likely have a large margin, allowing for the generous warranty.

Unlike conventional soft-sided bags from Briggs & RIley and Tumi, the packing volume is equally divided between the top and bottom halves. They recommended the bottom be used for items that can be compressed. A flat panel can be tightened downward over the items to compress the clothes. Larger, more bulky items are recommended for the lid side. While the design makes it more difficult to live out of the suitcase, I use these $20 packing cubes, which allows me to find things easily.

I had reviewed a sample of an Away bag many years ago when the company first began, and found the design to be much the same. One of their early features was a built in battery for charging your phone; that’s no longer offered, with the airlines’ new rules.

I bought their Bigger Carry-On Flex for $345. I found the bag to be at the sweet spot between the bargain luggage with unknown reliability and a costly bag with unquestioned longevity. And that positioning seems to have contributed to Away’s success: not offering a mishmash of models like Samsonite, but offering one basic attractive design in a variety of sizes and options with a best in the industry warranty.

What about aluminum luggage?

I’ve always been attracted to the aluminum rollerboards from companies like Rimowa, mostly for its hi-tech look and design. It’s a hot category with Tumi offering its own design, as well. Models from each company are priced around $1500. But Away makes a version that’s very similar in look and construction, yet costs a more affordable $625. I checked it our while at their store and it looks very well made. But as appealing as it is, aluminum luggage has many disadvantages: it’s not flexible or expandable, it’s heavier than its plastic counterparts, and holds less than the expandable products. It’s also likely more attractive to thieves should the bag need to be checked and end up on a carousel. And as the image above shows, it easily dents.

What about cheap luggage?

Joe Brancatelli, who runs a popular travel site for business travelers takes a different approach to his luggage. He and his wife buy inexpensive, no-name products and simply replaces them as needed. They bought a bag for US$20 in China and it lasted for years. They now use a $69 Wal-Mart bag that has lasted for dozens of trips. Their new go to bag is a Heyes cheapo that he bought at a warehouse club. It points out something interesting about the luggage category: You can get the same functionality from a product from $60 to $1600 that are not all that different in design or appearance.

by Phil Baker