No matter where I travel, I’m amazed by how many people struggle with unwieldy and expensive luggage. Their fancy luggage will inevitably get scraped, scuffed, and abused by the airlines – if it doesn’t get lost in the first place. I’m left wondering, “Why bother investing any more than necessary to get stuff from one place to the next?”
I have had the same luggage set for the past six years, and I didn’t pay more than $150 dollars for all four pieces. I easily navigate airport arrival halls, hotel lobbies, and busy city streets, surviving on the road for weeks at a time.
You can be a frugal world traveler with luggage that lasts too. Just follow these four tips to maximize your carry-on and checked baggage allowances.
Essential Travel Luggage Items
1. The Carry-on
Though the carry-on gets the most use, it usually sees the least wear and tear because you’re the only one who ever handles it. This item is the top priority for travelers, and the best part is that you don’t have to worry about baggage handlers and other unseen airline staffers carelessly tossing your bag around.
The perfect carry-on will easily meet the limitations and restrictions of any major airline. If you have one particular carrier with whom you fly most often, check their rules about size. Look for a piece with heavy duty wheels, and make sure it has reinforcements in the area above the wheels to absorb impact from curbs and stairs. The latest carry-on designs even have four swiveling wheels that let you roll the piece in any direction.
A good carry-on will have plenty of exterior pockets for essential items and perhaps even your laptop. At the very least, you should be able to empty your pockets into an exterior compartment before going through security. You can find a carry-on with all of these features for less than $40.
Expert’s Tip: Many carry-on designs look fine in the store and work perfectly well when they’re empty. The real test is to fill it up and make sure that the retractable handle operates freely and it doesn’t easily tip over. If you need to take it home to test it out, make sure you’re buying from a store with a full-refund policy.
2. The “Personal Item”
In airline-speak, you are always allowed to carry on one suitcase and one “personal item” such as a purse, laptop bag, briefcase, or backpack. Really, that “personal item” can be anything you want, as long as it can fit under the seat in front of you. (And really, nobody will stop you from stashing it in the overhead compartment if there is room).
I use my old college backpack as my personal item on every flight I take. With my laptop in the padded outer compartment of my carry-on suitcase, I am free to utilize much more space in my backpack, and I avoid fees for checking bags on longer domestic trips where my carry-on suitcase just isn’t enough. A small gym bag or duffel bag will also work, but a shoulder strap is ideal so you can keep your hands free for other pieces of luggage.
If you haven’t saved your old backpack – or if it’s been a few years since college and it’s time for a new one – you can get a small, simple bag for under $30. A small duffel costs even less. As a bonus, women can briefly stash a purse inside of a backpack and bring two bags for the price of one. Total so far: $70.
Expert’s Tip: Even when you don’t need the extra capacity of a personal item, carrying an empty backpack may be useful for day trips at your destination or if you return with souvenirs or gifts.
3. The 26-inch Wheeled Suitcase
Like a scaled-up version of a carry-on, a large wheeled suitcase should have durable wheels and a retractable handle. But unlike a carry-on, your suitcase is not limited by the airlines’ size requirements. Since you’ll check this item, you need to worry more about weight than size.
A large 29-inch suitcase will often weigh more than ten pounds, taking up more than a fifth of the standard checked bag weight allowance of fifty pounds. You will find that a 26-inch suitcase costs and weighs less than a 29-inch model, and you can still pack all the clothes you want. Furthermore, it’s a lot easier to fit a 26-inch suitcase in the trunk of a compact rental car or a taxi. You should be able to find a 26-inch wheeled suitcase for under $40. Total so far: $110.
Expert’s Tip: Make sure you get a suitcase with an additional strap with a quick release buckle at the top. You’ll be able to attach your carry-on or a duffel bag, allowing you to move both with one hand. In essence, your large suitcase will double as a luggage dolly.
4. The Big Duffel
Hopefully, you won’t need a fourth bag on your trip. But it’s good to have a duffel in your arsenal as a last resort for a long trip, particularly when you’re worried about weight limits on your flight. A lightweight duffel bag will allow you to dedicate nearly the entire fifty-pound allowance to clothes and other items. When you’re shopping, remember that a good duffel bag is made of heavy-duty Cordura nylon and features seatbelt-like straps that reinforce its circumference. Even if you’re looking for the best fabric and strong reinforcements, you can find a great bag for less than $40. Final maximum total: $150.
Expert’s Tip: Like the small backpack, an empty duffel folds up to a small enough size to be worth bringing along for souvenirs or other unexpected needs (e.g. mid-trip damage to your suitcase).
Putting It All Together
If you’ve been shopping for luggage at the mall or at high-end stores, you might find these estimates unrealistic. Finding the best deal on luggage usually means going with a lesser-known brand. I’ve found that Ross, TJ Maxx, and Tuesday Morning sell high-quality, off-brand luggage pieces for remarkably low prices. For backpacks and duffel bags, check out discount sporting goods stores or even a good sale at REI.
You may find that to get the best value you’ll have to buy pieces separately, rather than together in a matched set. But since porters are expensive and not always around when you need one, try to get pieces that fit together so you can handle all of your luggage by yourself. Plan to wear your backpack and wheel your carry-on in one hand, while attaching your big duffel to the large wheeled suitcase and carrying both by the nylon strap.
For the smoothest walk around the airport, hang your carry-on and duffel from your suitcase, so you can wheel everything through the airport and still have a hand free for your phone, a cup of coffee, or reaching for your ticket or ID.
Luggage takes so much abuse from airlines, and wise travelers don’t waste money on recognizable fabric patterns and unnecessary frill. Airlines rarely accept liability for damage to even the most expensive pieces. So instead of blowing your travel budget on luggage, equip yourself with four smart pieces that hold everything you need and won’t wear you out on the walk through the airport. Resilient items from discount stores will last far longer than you expect, and by purchasing practical, low-cost luggage, you can use more of your money to enjoy your trip.
What’s the most you’ve ever spent on luggage, and how long did it last? What types of luggage do you typically bring around on your trips?