The Brancatelli File By Joe Brancatelli
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A Babel of Bags and a Potemkin Village of Brands
Thursday, May 10, 2018 -- When I first became a frequent flyer about 40 years ago, I thought Boyt Luggage was hot stuff. Samsonite owns the name now. When I started making enough money to buy better bags, I switched to Hartmann. Samsonite owns the name now. In recent years, Tumi has been the brand that motivated business travelers to pay a bit more. Samsonite bought Tumi two years ago.
With $3.5 billion in sales, Samsonite controls many luggage brands whose names you may vaguely recognize. American Tourister is Samsonite. So is High Sierra, which affects an outdoorsy image. The French brand Lipault markets mostly to women, but also belongs to Samsonite. Ditto Gregory, whose backpacks are large enough to stash all your worldly goods.
My point? That luggage by many other names comes from Samsonite, the industry's leading player, or one of the hundreds of anonymous Chinese manufacturers you find on Alibaba. Everybody seems to slap their name on vaguely generic bags, including car makers Bugatti and Ferrari; Coleman, best known for beverage coolers and camp stoves; fashion designers Nicole Miller and Tommy Hilfiger; and even New Balance and Under Armour, the sporting-goods firms. For that matter, Amazon sells luggage under its Amazon Basics brand.
Online retailer eBags claims to carry about 700 brands of bags. Yet it also feels compelled to market its own brand. Oh, by the way, Samsonite bought eBags last year.
Given that Babel of bags and the Potemkin village of brands, how do you find the right luggage for you?
Simple, honest answer: How the hell do I know? No sane person would attempt to match you with an "ideal" bag. But what I can offer here are some sane guidelines for refining your thinking and ferreting through the fusillade of real and imagined choices.
BEWARE THE FADS
Trendy doesn't work in luggage. Case in point: Bluesmart, so-called smart luggage with a built-in battery and its own app. The company raised millions on Indiegogo in 2014. Its first bags shipped in 2016 and became an Internet sensation. But it went belly up last month because the airlines last year banned bags with lithium-ion batteries. And remember Road Warrior Luggage? Its claim to fame was that it was collapsible, a full-sized rolling bag that telescoped down to six inches. It was all anyone was talking about six years ago. Now the company doesn't even exist.
ROLLING INTO HISTORY
I'm a dinosaur. Not one of my bags has retractable handles or wheels. (I carry the amazing handmade creations of Glaser Designs.) But I get that you'll probably want wheels on your bag. The question, however, is how many wheels are enough?
Until recently, the standard was two wheels, especially for luggage considered carry-on compliant. But "spinners"--the bags with four wheels--are beginning to dominate. Spinners are more stable and stand upright. They can also be turned sideways and effortlessly wheeled down narrow aircraft aisles. But pulling a two-wheeled bag is often faster as you trot through long airport corridors. Another concern: Wheels are fragile. The more wheels your bag has, the more likely one gets damaged.
WEIGHTS AND MEASURES
Size and weight are crucial for both carry-on and checked luggage. The problem? The airline industry has no standard of weights and measures.
An attempt to create an international carry-on baseline three years ago was met with scorn. But I assume that abandoned global standard (21.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 inches) will eventually be adopted. After all, the U.S. carriers have been shrinking carry-on sizes for years. The current standard is basically 22 x 14 x 9 inches. Keep that in mind when you're in the market for a replacement. As for weights, U.S. carriers generally don't impose a limit on carry-on bags. But many international airlines do and they often rigidly enforce a 15-pound maximum. Purchase and pack accordingly.
Bags you buy to check must navigate a similar grid of conflicting airline rules. Although most permit 50-pound bags before imposing "excess weight" fees, some airlines surcharge any checked bag weighing more than 40 pounds. Size limits vary, too, although U.S. airlines have generally coalesced around a maximum of 62 linear inches. (For a bag's linear dimensions, add the length, width and height.) If you frequently travel with international airlines, consult their checked-baggage rules for anomalies.
The old argument--hard-sided or soft?--is just that: old. It has little relevance in a world of super-strength nylons and ultra-light composites. Fret less about the hard versus soft rule of olden days and focus on the material used.
Ballistic nylon, a predecessor of Kevlar, is the current coin of the realm in many of the best soft-sided bags. It is tough and durable. But it's heavier than Cordura nylon or polyester, the materials used in the least expensive soft bags.
Leather is almost always heavier than nylon. It's almost always more expensive, too, and requires substantially more care. That's why all-leather luggage has fallen out of favor. But I'll surrender my 17-year-old Glaser Designs Transaction Bag when you pry it from my cold, dead hand. It's my go-to carry-on and has weathered my post-9/11 life on the road much better than I.
Molded plastic bags are the current rage, of course. Acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene--that's ABS for us non-scientists--is a cheap and inexpensive thermoplastic. It dominates the lowest-priced segment. Polypropylene is the lightest of the polymers and makes more durable bags, but they will cost more. Meanwhile, polycarbonate is light and strong and it lends itself to a wide range of designs. Polycarbonate bags will generally be the most expensive models in this category.
Aluminum cases, originally pioneered by Zero Halliburton, are a nearly perfect combination of jet-set style, light weight and sturdy construction. The problem: price. They are extremely expensive.
POCKETS AND PRACTICALITIES
I prefer bags with several external pockets, hidden internal compartments and plenty of organizational accoutrements and cues. Others prefer just one external pocket. Still others want their luggage to be open space unfettered by zippers, snaps, straps and nooks. There are even folks who prefer to roll their belongings in the appropriately named SkyRoll. There's no right or wrong, just personal preference.
BRAND NAMES WORTH NOTING
Two luggage makers stand out for admirable lifetime guarantees: Briggs & Riley makes traditional-looking business travel cases while Red Oxx builds soft-sided cases with a less conventional look. Mid-range buyers tend to find exceptional value in luggage produced by Delsey, a French company, and Eagle Creek, a U.S. firm owned by the parent of Lee and Wrangler jeans. Germany's Rimowa invented the distinctive grooved bags that dominate the higher end of the market. ECBC makes a range of backpacks and carry-on styles designed for travelers who carry a lot of technology. And Victorinox crafts bags that many frequent flyers consider as practical and ingenious as the firm's Swiss Army knives.
THE EXISTENTIAL QUESTION
There are two kinds of business travelers: Those who buy cheap bags and replace them without worry when they break a zipper or throw a wheel and those who invest in high-quality luggage, care for it and expect a long and fruitful relationship with it. You probably should decide where to plant your emotional flag because there's no definitive right or wrong. I love the cheap, molded plastic stuff and the devil-may-care approach. But I have never, ever regretted buying Glaser Design's fabulous bags and traveling with them year after year.
As a JoeSentMe member, you receive a 10 percent discount on Glaser Designs luggage and a 30 percent discount on ECBC bags. Plus CircaTerra Travel Outfitters offers JoeSentMe members a 15 percent discount on its extensive luggage inventory. Check your member packets or surf here for details. And remember: I negotiate discounts strictly for your benefit. I receive no payment, commission or consideration of any kind if you purchase bags from Glaser, ECBC or CircaTerra.
This column is Copyright © 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.