For the average American, airfare is expensive. In the first quarter of 2019, the average U.S. flyer paid $353.52 for a round-trip domestic fare, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That’s why many families prefer driving over flying, even on cross-country journeys, and why many frugal travelers devise complex strategies to save money in airports.
And baggage is an unavoidable air travel expense that quickly gets out of hand if you’re not careful.
Experienced flyers know the pitfalls of overpacking. Bringing even one too many bags than you need means incurring the checked bag fees charged by all major domestic carriers except Southwest Airlines. And if you exceed the standard 50-pound weight limit on domestic flights, you’re on the hook for the dreaded $100-per-segment overweight bag fee. Checking a bag is often unavoidable on longer trips. But efficient packers know how to travel light with minimal luggage and reduce those out-of-pocket surcharges.
Plus, the overstuffed personal item is fine for a quick weekend reunion in Chicago. And the compact spinner that fits in the overhead bin will probably get you through your monthly Monday-to-Thursday stay in Houston. But what about the weeklong camping trip at Yosemite? Or the European fortnight you’ve been planning for years?
Smart travelers also know what happens to their bags once they’re out of sight. Baggage handlers work hard and deserve our thanks. But their concern is getting your plane out of the gate on time, not gently placing the suitcase carrying your souvenir Italian wine in the softest corner of the cargo hold. Security screeners are even rougher, as anyone unlucky enough to experience a TSA ransacking knows.
Over the years, the abuse accumulates, leaving behind scuffs, scratches, tears, and broken zippers. Why buy a name-brand bag or suitcase, paying a premium for a label or fabric pattern identifiable only by a small minority of fellow travelers? A lower-cost, lower-cachet alternative holds up just as well over time.
With that in mind, it’s time to add to your luggage repertoire – without paying more than you should.
4 Essential Types of Luggage for Air Travel
Building a suitable luggage college on a budget isn’t hard. The vast majority of airline journeys are doable with no more than four pieces of luggage per person, representing four distinct types of baggage. Bought new or gently used, their cumulative cost should come in under the average cost of one round-trip U.S. domestic airfare. Adept bargain-hunters should have no problem coming in well under $350 by leveraging thrift store deals and sporting goods retailers’ used gear departments.
There are just a few things you need to know about each of the essential types of luggage for air travel to make the most of each type. The key is finding reasonably priced models to add to your collection.
1. The Carry-On
The carry-on is your luggage set’s linchpin. On shorter trips without special clothing or gear requirements, your carry-on is likely the only luggage you’ll need – though you may choose to bring a personal bag, such as a purse or satchel, that fits snugly inside your carry-on or under the seat in front of you.
The ideal carry-on is a softside or expandable hardside suitcase with four multidirectional wheels and dimensions just slim enough to meet airlines’ carry-on size limits. You occasionally see this type of suitcase called either a “wheelie” or “rollaboard.” But most luggage brands and retailers prefer “spinner.” Whatever you call it, your wheeled carry-on should move equally well in any direction for maximum maneuverability in airport terminals and public transit systems. Most spinners have telescoping (retractable) top handles for added comfort and flexibility.
Major U.S. airlines’ carry-on size requirements are about 45 linear inches, including wheels and handles. That translates to case dimensions of 22 inches high by 14 inches wide by 9 inches deep. Since wheels add an inch or so, the tallest permissible hardside carry-on body measures 21 inches high – though airlines frequently bend these rules. On full flights, chances are good you’ll be asked to check your wheeled carry-on anyway, so there’s little incentive not to max out its dimensions.
Budget-friendly suitcases that meet most airlines’ carry-on requirements include AmazonBasics’ 20-inch hardside spinner carry-on and the Samsonite Bartlett 20-inch spinner. The Samsonite Lift 2 21-inch spinner is also cost-competitive during Samsonite’s frequent sales.
If you prefer a non-wheeled carry-on, your best bet is probably a fabric weekender bag like Herschel Supply Company’s Novel duffle or the Beis Weekender travel tote. Look for bags with padded adjustable shoulder straps and multiple zippered compartments for organization. Most weekender bags fit easily into the overhead bin, even on smaller aircraft. Pay attention to your bag’s full volume, which you’ll find on its specs sheet. Smaller weekenders have just a fraction of the carrying capacity of a 20- or 21-inch spinner.
2. The Personal Bag
Your personal bag counts as the personal item the airline allows you to carry on the plane in addition to your carry-on. Pick whatever you want as long as it fits under the seat in front of you. For solo leisure travelers, it’s often a large strapped purse, small messenger bag, or multipurpose backpack like the eBags Professional Weekender. For parents with small children, it may be a diaper bag or small weekender. For business travelers, it’s likely a briefcase or high-capacity backpack-style laptop bag, such as the Herschel Supply Company Retreat Light backpack.
Unless you need something specific, such as a diaper bag, max out your personal bag allowance with a backpack, weekender bag, small duffel, or high-capacity laptop bag. They easily fit smaller items that qualify as “personal,” such as a small purse or slim laptop sleeve. My go-to personal bag is a beat-up Columbia backpack I’ve had for years. With room for my laptop sleeve, several changes of lightweight clothing, and toiletries, it serves as my only bag on warm-weather solo trips as long as four days.
Whatever the configuration, the ideal personal bag is hands-free – that is, worn on either the back or shoulder, ideally with adjustable straps. Though more affordable than backpacks or weekenders, basic duffels may not check both boxes.
3. The Full-Size Spinner – Checked Bag
On trips lasting more than a few days or requiring special wardrobe or gear, you need a larger suitcase that won’t fit in the overhead compartment. Make this one a softside or expandable hardside spinner measuring at least 25 inches high.
My family has two full-size spinners, one each for my wife and me: a 26-inch Chester Regula checked spinner and a 28-inch Samsonite Winfield 2. The differences between the two are less subtle than they seem. The Regula is more maneuverable and has a lighter empty weight, so it’s ideal for mid-length trips that require special gear – like our infant’s pop-up high chair and formula, which collectively add nearly 10 pounds to the case’s gross weight. The Winfield is a high-capacity beast that works best as shared luggage in place of one or both of our carry-ons – we recently used it to transport formalwear to a destination wedding, getting by with the Winfield and two larger personal bags.
For travelers without special needs, small children, or super-long itineraries, a 26-inch expandable spinner is probably sufficient. Though you don’t have to lug it through the terminal, you do have to lift it in and out of car trunks and luggage trays, and an extra 2 or 3 inches of height adds 2 or 3 pounds of empty weight. Larger suitcases typically cost more than compact alternatives, though budget-friendly options exist at any size.
4. The Large Duffel
A large duffle is the final link in the four-piece luggage chain. For most travelers, it’s also the least-used – though it’s useful for plenty of things beyond air travel, including car camping and recreational activities like ice hockey and going to the beach.
The value of the large duffel is twofold: light empty weight and high carrying capacity. On longer trips that require two checked bags, you can stuff your duffel full of lightweight clothing and accessory items without exceeding the 50-pound weight limit imposed by most airlines. The Patagonia Black Hole duffel can hold up to 100 liters of cargo but weighs in well under 4 pounds – 5 pounds less than the Regula, which is relatively light for its class.
Since you’ll check your duffel, you don’t have to worry about dragging it to your gate, though you still want an adjustable strap for comfort and leverage. If you plan to pack heavy, invest in quality material. Reinforced nylon is better for weight control, but traditional canvas is often stronger.
Even if you don’t need extra cargo capacity on your outbound journey, pack an empty folded duffel in your regular suitcase. It’ll come in handy for bulky souvenirs picked up on your trip and perhaps even eliminate the need for international shipping – the cost of which is likely to exceed any international checked bag fees. Alternatively, use your duffel as a hamper for dirty, wet clothing you’d prefer to keep separate from clean items.
Tips for Better Portability – & Lower Expenses – Inside & Outside the Airport
As you assemble your luggage set and prepare for your first post-purchase trip, keep these considerations in mind too.
1. Look for a Matched Set
The practical benefit of a matched luggage set is compatibility. Matching carry-ons and full-size spinners typically fit securely together, allowing the carry-on to ride atop the spinner without increasing its width and freeing one of your hands.
The most common type of matched luggage set includes one full-size spinner and one carry-on, usually a compact spinner or soft-case weekender. This is the ideal configuration for individual travelers plotting longer-duration journeys, such as weeklong business trips or overseas vacations, and for couples who like to pack efficiently for short to mid-length trips.
Families usually need larger matching sets. For instance, the three-piece AmazonBasics Geometric expandable suitcase spinner set is ideal for a family of three, with the parents sharing the 28- and 24-inch spinners and the kid getting the 20-inch spinner. Sets of three or more rarely lock together as a single unit. But there are other advantages to buying in a set – namely, color coordination, which is essential for families navigating crowded terminals, and because they usually cost less when they come together than when you buy separate pieces.
2. Look for Multidirectional Wheels
These days, most wheeled suitcases have four multidirectional wheels (or “spinners”) that more or less deliver 360 degrees of motion. If you’ve ever tried to navigate a crowded subway airport terminal with a locked-wheel suitcase, you know how vital that full range of motion is.
Don’t be tempted by the name-your-own-price locked-wheel suitcase at your neighbor’s yard sale. Pay a few dollars more for a new off-brand multidirectional spinner and embrace the freedom to push, pull, and move side to side at will.
3. Spring for a Padded Handle & Side Handles
On non-wheeled bags, such as duffels and weekenders, a padded handle is also worth a few more dollars. While the handle won’t ice your sore arm after you’ve lugged a full duffel to the airport’s farthest gate, it will relieve the pressure on your carrying hand. In dry environments, that could make the difference between a bad case of cracked skin and an unscathed palm.
Likewise, side handles significantly improve full-size spinners’ ease of handling. Without its extendable side grip, our Winfield 2 would be a bear to hoist up into the trunk at full capacity – let alone carry up a flight of stairs. Not all full-size spinners have side handles. But they don’t significantly add to the cost, so they’re definitely worth it.
4. Make Sure Your Wheeled Suitcase’s Handle Telescopes Far Enough
Before you settle on a multidirectional spinner, make sure its handle telescopes far enough for your comfort and carrying preferences. If you prefer to pull your suitcase with a carry-on nestled on top, look for a longer handle that allows you to extend your carrying arm comfortably. If you prefer to push your suitcase, a shorter handle will often do. In either case, test your suitcase for balance with the handle fully telescoped; some inferior cases tip forward when packed to capacity.
These considerations apply to spinners of all sizes, from ultra-compact carry-ons to 29-inch behemoths, but there’s no correct answer here – your comfort is all that matters.
5. On Mid-Length Trips With Your Partner, Try for a Shared Suitcase
You should absolutely invest in all four of these luggage types. But you’re not required to take them all with you on every trip. Indeed, the large duffel should be a last resort for air travel. With careful planning, you and your partner or other traveling companion can probably pack most of your clothing and accessories for a few days away in a single suitcase, leaving two personal bags for overflow.
Sharing a suitcase dramatically improves maneuverability and reduces transition time before and after your flight.
Practically speaking, it’s easiest for U.S. travelers flying on Southwest Airlines, the only major airline that doesn’t charge for checked bags. Other airlines waive checked bag fees on economy fares for frequent-flyer status-holders and airline credit card users. But most coach flyers should expect to pay up. Baggage fees are more likely to be waived on transoceanic flights, though policies vary by airline.
6. Think Twice About a Charging Dock
Smart suitcases – cases with built-in batteries for on-the-go device charging – are awesome. But they require special handling and aren’t appropriate in all travel situations. Airlines generally prohibit lithium-ion batteries in cargo holds, so you have to carry on your smart suitcase or remove the battery before checking it. To preserve flexibility, don’t bother with nonremovable battery options.
Also, smart luggage is pricy. If all you care about is keeping your phone juiced on a long travel day, purchase a single inexpensive external charger or power pack and pair it with an old-fashioned spinner.
7. Make Sure Larger Bags Have Adjustable Straps
Avoid larger non-wheeled bags without adjustable straps. They’re uncomfortable, unwieldy, and may eventually cause injury, especially in those with preexisting arm or shoulder issues. Purses and other small personal items fit in larger bags and suitcases, after all, but duffels and most weekender bags don’t.
8. Plan to Keep One Hand Free From the Security Line On
Based on the duration and purpose of your trip and the weather you expect to encounter, you’ll take some or all of these four types of luggage on your trip.
Even if you must take all four, try to configure your bags and their contents so you’re able to leave the check-in counter with one hand free for your phone, tickets, wallet, beverage, and anything else you need handy on your way to the plane.
On a longer trip, bring a compact wheeled suitcase that carries a personal bag or second carry-on on top. Or carry your non-wheeled carry-on on one shoulder and wear a backpack, messenger or weekender bag, laptop case, or personal bag. If you’re bringing a stroller for a small child, use the undercarriage compartment for your personal bag or small carry-on. Leave larger luggage, like a large duffel or full-size wheeled suitcase, at the check-in counter along with special items like golf bags and infant car seats.
9. Take Drastic Measures to Limit Bag Weight & Be Ready to Repack
You don’t want to pay $200 round-trip – the standard overweight bag fee for domestic U.S. travelers – because your carry-on is a few ticks over the 50-pound limit. Nor do you want to have to frantically unpack and repack your bags before the check-in counter as bemused flyers look on in cold judgment.
When looking for luggage, prioritize empty weight over resilience. Most travelers don’t need impact-resistant luggage. Pack thoughtfully, leaving heavier items (like that extra pair of shoes and your electric razor) at home and making a list of inexpensive disposables (like diapers) you can buy when you get to your destination. And be prepared to carry a little extra weight in your carry-on or personal bag if it comes to that.
10. Check Your Itinerary for Special Luggage Restrictions
If your travel plans include smaller regional airports with short runways or unusual weather conditions, consult the local airport authority or your airline for special luggage weight or size restrictions. For instance, due to the airport’s exceedingly short runway, all airlines limit Key West passengers to one checked bag on inbound and outbound flights, regardless of fare class or frequent flyer status.
If you know one leg of your itinerary involves a very small plane, expect limited carry-on capacity, no matter the origin or destination. The most restrictive flight I’ve ever taken, for instance, was a dinky commuter shuttle between two major domestic hubs: New York-LaGuardia and Philadelphia.
We’re living in the golden age of low-cost luggage. Thanks to rapid growth in high-quality off-brand luggage options, travelers today have more cargo choices than at any point in history. While price point and durability remain correlated, bargain-friendly options abound in each of the four essential luggage categories. As long as you’re willing to forgo the designer label, you probably won’t spend more than $300 total to acquire four bags capable of enduring many years of regular use.
Do you use all four types of luggage, or do you get by with fewer?