A Guide to Buying Luggage – Featuring the Best and Most Lightweight Luggage for International Travel (Carry-on and Check-In) 2024

A Guide to Buying Luggage for International Travel in Brief:

  • Luggage has come a long way since the 1970s, when someone had the bright idea to add wheels and a rope to a suitcase. Now there is so much variety on the market, which type is best? The answer: it comes down to the kind of travel you typically do and your travel personality.

  • Types of luggage: Hard shell, soft shell, backpack and duffel (skip to the best luggage for international travel). 

  • When choosing carry-on luggage, bear in mind the most common size restriction for airliners: 56cm x 36cm x 23cm

Is this the best luggage? Packing Suitcase

How to find the best luggage? We all worry about what to pack when it comes to international travel. But what about the thing that carries our things? All our bare essentials, including stuff that’s a pain or downright impossible to replace if lost, stolen or damaged, needs a secure place to be transported.

Good luggage can become your travel companion for many adventures, lasting you for years on end – not to mention saving you money by not needing to be frequently replaced. Even more important than this, it can make all the difference when it comes to having an easy transition from place to place (in terms of both organisation and agility) and keeping precious items secure from theft or over-zealous baggage staff working on their shotput form.

With more variety and availability than ever on the market, just what is the best kind of luggage? Does type and style really matter? Should you spend big or can you go cheap? Here’s where it can get a bit overwhelming.

To make your choice easier and to put your mind at ease about the eventual decision you do make, let’s start with a lesson in luggage. After all, you shouldn’t make an investment decision with no background knowledge.

The Evolution of Travel Luggage

Ancient Traveller with Bag

From antiquity up until the 19th century, trunks in one form or another were the only way to transport valuables. And those ancient historians, wanderers and tellers of tales, were perhaps the first to travel with only hand-luggage in the form of their swags. The steamer trunks of the 19th and early 20th centuries were built to be packed in the hold of a ship. Made of wood and leather, they were meant to withstand weight and damp – not to be moved with any kind of ease.

At the beginning of the 20th century, new companies such as Samsonite and Rimowa began using more lightweight and strong materials like magnesium and aluminium to manufacture their trunks. Then, with the advent of air travel, the way we moved from place to place changed dramatically – it meant that our luggage had to dramatically change too. Cases that were designed to hold suits and other clothing accessories such as hats gradually become more popular as the need for them rose.

By the 1920s, thanks to their inclusion in literary works and films, suitcases became a kind of symbol for mobility. This was perhaps the point in travel history where a suitcase needed to be more than just a container – it was also your identifying symbol as a worldly traveller.   

In the 1970s, a bright spark named Bernard D. Sadow while on holiday with his family, watched someone push suitcases on a wheeled trolley and had the idea to combine the old suitcase with small wheels and a rope for pulling. It was a small adjustment that proved revolutionary. By the end of that decade, wheeled luggage was the standard in travel luggage. Then, in 1987 Travelpro, a luggage company founded by an air steward, made the first 2-wheeled suitcase with an extendable handle. Travel luggage had reached an all-time evolutionary high.   

As for carry-on luggage, the Tumi company would influence that game in 1975 with their soft nylon backpacks, made for international business travel. Just try and spot someone without some kind of backpack or shoulder bag at airport security today. 

How to Know What Type of Luggage to Choose

Thanks to the evolution of the suitcase, we now have more variety than ever before, with more innovative adjustments being made every year. However, the multitude of choice and rapidly changing technology can paralyse decision making. As we saw with the evolution of luggage, keeping it simple is best.

Luggage on Airport Trolley

So, when it comes to investing in luggage, there’s no right or wrong type of luggage – it’s what suits the individual traveller that matters. It will come down to personal choice as much as practical considerations.

Travellers, when deciding on a type, consider the kind of travel you will typically be doing and also your travel personality – that is to say, are you an adventurer, resort goer, a heavy packer or a bare essentials packer? Determining your travel personality will enable you to know what luggage features are a must and which you can do without.

Ask yourself:

  • Do you typically travel light no matter what?

  • Do you end up buying a bunch of souvenirs every time?

  • Do you mind/are you able to carry heavy luggage on your back?

  • Will you always travel where there are trollies available to carry all your stuff?

  • Do you like to be super organised with a place for every little thing?

  • Do you travel solo and need to carry everything on your own?

Once you’ve determined the kind of travel you do most and your travel personality, you will be able to choose the basic type of luggage you will require. All brands and variations with all their bells and whistles, stem from a few basic types.

Types of Luggage

Here is a list of the different types of luggage according to basic style:

  • Hard shell
    Best for checked luggage. It can withstand the blows of transportation from plane to airport conveyor belt and hold a generous amount.

  • Soft Shell
    Best for carry-on. It can easily flex to the small confines of an overhead bin.  

  • Wheels
    It won’t get any easier to move heavy luggage than with wheels. Even cavemen knew this.

  • Backpack
    Best for carry-on. Although there will be times in our travel history where we want to make ourselves the symbol of a worldly traveller, to look like we do it for a living and that we’re so hard-core, the backpack is nothing but a pain to carry if it’s the big variety and it’s full to the brim. Hostels pose no significant problems to the modern, agile, lightweight wheeled suitcase. Unless your trekking up Everest, wheeled luggage is still the way to go for ease of transportation. Our tip is to keep backpacks small.

  • Duffel
    Best for carry-on. Obviously, there’s not much protection provided by a soft duffel for breakables. However, they’re good for carrying mostly clothes or for carrying any specialty gear like sporting items. And, similar to the soft-shell suitcase, they are flexible.

  • Expandable
    If your travel personality means you’re likely to pick up a few souvenirs or shop till you drop while overseas, then consider ensuring that your luggage has an expandable zipper. Most hard and soft shell suitcases have one. 

What Size Should My Carry-on Be?

Carry-On Luggage in Overhead Bin

When it comes to weight restrictions for carry-on luggage, a maximum of 7kg is by far the most common across nearly all airlines.

Although weight isn’t so much a problem as size for carry-on luggage – it needs to be able to fit in an overhead bin and more often than not, be placed there yourself. The most common maximum size for carry-on is: 56cm x 36cm x 23cm.  

Basically all airlines will also allow you to take on and additional personal bag, either a handbag or laptop bag.  

As judged by experts and used by travellers, the current best of the best in travel luggage for durability, organisation, weight and style. Price ranges vary, but all are relatively inexpensive compared to the quality and features included.

  1. Carry-On Hard Shell - American Tourister Curio Spinner

  2. Carry-On Soft Shell - Samsonite Underseat Carry-on Spinner with USB and Travelpro Maxlite 5 29” Expandable Spinner

  3. Carry-On Backpack – tomtoc 40L Travel Backpack. The best for organisation and for negating the need for checked luggage.  

  4. Checked Hard Shell – Samsonite Omni a good, mid-range price point and high quality. 

  5. Backpackers – Osprey Fairview 70L

  6. Duffel - The North Face Base Camp Duffel. Comes in a number of sizes, from XS to L and there's also a version with wheels. Makes this series perfect for either checked or carry-on. It also has shoulder straps which, as any seasoned traveller will know, is a life saver when carrying isn't the best option.  

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