The subject of luggage is something that most people care about, even if they use it only a few times per year. Of course, if you’re a business traveler, it’s a big deal because the cost of replacing luggage can add up fast. If you’re shopping around for some fresh travel gear, which should you go with – the cheap stuff, or designer chic? Even if you take your carry-on only.

Key Takeaways

  • Luggage seems like an expensive purchase, especially for infrequent travelers or those who think it will quickly wear out and need to be replaced anyhow.
  • Business travelers, however, will soon recognize that high-quality luggage along with the customer service and repair warranties offered by leading manufacturers.
  • Scientific research comparing high-end to budget luggage, however, shows that the most important factor for keeping things safe on a flight is careful packing.

How Much Do You Travel?

This has to weigh into the discussion, right? We talked to people who travel varying amounts and surprisingly, frequency of use didn't often play into their luggage choices. Trumeter Regional Sales Manager and frequent business traveler Ron Kendzior, of Sarasota, Fla., says, “I don't buy expensive luggage. I think it is a waste of money. I buy something that will fit my needs and will be able to survive at least two years of travel. I believe the last roller bag I purchased was actually bought on sale at Wal-Mart.”

Kendzior isn’t alone. There's a big frequent-traveler contingent that thinks, "Why put the money into expensive gear? It'll only get torn up anyway."

Others disagree. In a story on the popular finance site Get Rich Slowly, one writer says, “I travel for work nearly every week and have been doing so, on and off, for 20+ years. I purchased good luggage as soon as I could afford it. My first TUMI Alpha roll-aboard, purchased from a TUMI outlet store for about $300, lasted for over one million air miles of travel. TUMI provided repairs when needed, under warranty, with only a $15 service charge.”

So, clearly, the amount of time spent on an airplane doesn't necessarily influence a traveler's thinking on the subject.

But maybe it’s part of the bigger designer vs. knockoff faceoff that has produced heated, first-world debates for decades. Proponents of designer anything play the quality card. Because the workmanship is better, the goods last longer, look better, and, of course, make you look better, they proclaim. And indeed, that’s a common argument with luggage.

But others resist the lure of the prestigious label. They argue that, unless you have your own plane, expensive-looking luggage is simply more likely to be stolen – especially if it has an easily recognized logo (à la Louis Vuitton). And a prestigious suitcase, garment bag or carry-on doesn’t really last that much longer than its cheap(er) counterparts. (For related insight, explore these 5 websites where you can book a private jet.)

A Scientific Approach

We could talk to people all day long, but we’ll be right back where we started. Is there any science we can apply? Has anybody really studied this issue? You know, with data and stuff? In fact, they have.

Popular Mechanics took a smart approach a few years back. Instead of just looking at price, it measured how well one cheap bag held up against two top-shelf bags at protecting your valuable cargo. To test it, they wrapped bottles in towels, put them in each bag and dropped them 40 times onto a concrete floor. They also tested the general quality of the wheels, handles and other components.

The results? "While the high-price suitcases did more to protect their contents, price had nothing to do with how well the cases themselves handled abuse," the report concluded. "Expensive luggage ... is no substitute for careful packing."

In other words, if you’re regularly traveling with bags full of towel-wrapped bottles, you want expensive luggage. If that’s not you (and why would it be?), your cheap bag will probably hold up to wear and tear as well as the ultra high-end models. 

A Professional View

What about those airport employees say who actually handle the bags? They obviously have a lot of experience with luggage. Here’s the word from one of them: “Cheap bags that you buy at the discount store break very easily. If your handle is sewn on or is very flimsy, it's probably going to break. Look for well-designed handles that are attached with rivets. If you travel a lot or pack heavy, make sure you buy a quality, durable bag.

"The best bags to get are the 'spinners' with four wheels on the bottom," he continues. "We like these because we don't have to throw them when loading. We just roll them down the belly of the plane so your bag and its contents will suffer much less damage.” 

The Bottom Line

So what have we learned? According to Popular Mechanics, how you pack is more important than what you pack things in. If our baggage handler is to be believed, craftsmanship does matter, but style matters more – not in the fashion sense, but in the technological sense. Whatever you get, go with a four-wheeled model.

Remember that there’s a lot of middle ground in terms of luggage pricing. Many of the business travelers we talked to said that they go with something in the mid-range: neither the $35 Target suitcase special nor the $1,395 Ghurka leather duffel, but maybe the $615 Samsonite Spinner.

Finally, whatever your spending level, learn how to shop for travel insurance to get protection for that suitcase – and all it contains.