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- A Buyer's Guide -

(This is an excerpt from an article appearing in Travelware magazine in 1998.  It's still valid today.)

How should a traveller select among the many available styles and prices of luggage? Many pieces, may appear to be similar until the price tag is examined. How does one tell the difference between a $200 garment bag and one that costs $90?

Michelle Marini Pittenger, of the Travel Goods Association (TGA), offers some advice for travellers: When purchasing luggage, consumers need to make informed decisions about the materials used in constructing a piece, the type of hardware used, and the organizational features which give a piece versatility. They may also want to consider new design aspects of luggage, such as "transformer" bags which begin as one bag and end up as another, piggyback bags where one bag is attached to another by a zipper, or special luggage packing systems which are designed to organize clothes and keep them wrinkle-free. A purchaser will also need to consider whether they prefer soft or hard-sided luggage. This choice may be a personal preference, but the decision may be influenced by what the traveller intends to pack. For example, if fragile items and breakable equipment are frequently packed, hard-sided luggage may be the better choice. Travellers, though, should also be aware that soft-sided luggage is available in puncture and tear-resistant fabrics, such as Cordura nylon and ballistic nylon.

Below is a list of items to consider when purchasing luggage.

Suitcases, Pullmans or Pullmans Suitcases range in size from 24" to 36" and are available in three main constructions: hard-sided, semi-soft, and soft-sided.

  • Hard-sided -- Providing maximum protection against impact from the outside, they generally have the added security of combination or key locks. Many hard-sided cases have wheels and pull straps.
  • Semi-soft cases -- Partially framed with soft, slightly expandable tops and bottoms, they are lighter in weight than hard-sided cases, yet offer good protection of contents. These, too, often have wheels and pull-straps.
  • Soft-sided cases -- Shaped by the way they are cut and sewn, but usually with stiffeners or partial frames to help them hold their shape, they are lightweight and the most expandable, but offer less resistance to crushing or impact from the outside than cases with more solid construction. Soft-sided cases are closed with zippers.

Carry-ons are small suitcases, sometimes called "underseaters" because they are designed to fit underneath the seat on a plane. Carry-ons vary in size, but generally do not exceed 22" and are designed for short trips. Many feature inside and outside pockets, more than one packing compartment, and shoulder straps as well as handles. Carry-ons are made in any of the three suitcase constructions.

Totes and Casual Bags are casual, all-purpose bags which are smaller than carry-ons and come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Some totes are designed for travel and match a full line of luggage. The simplest totes look like open-top shopping bags made of fabric or leather. Other totes might feature zippered, waterproof pockets, expandable bottoms, and shoulder straps. Totes can be used every day, as well as for carry-on necessities, as beach bags, or as day bags while travelling.

Garment Bags are designed to enable travellers to pack their clothes on hangers. Garment bags are designed to hold two to four garments. Garment bags range in length from 40" for men's suits, to 54" for women's dresses, and many can expand to 60" for evening clothes.

Nylon or natural fibers -- Is nylon, vinyl, or natural fibers used as the primary covering and trim? How strong is the fiber? What is the denier of the bag? Which urethane coating has been applied to protect the bag? Is the nylon supported by other material such as nylon taffeta or vinyl? Is the bag constructed of ballistic nylon?

Nylon is a strong, light-to-medium weight abrasion-resistant material used for both coverings and linings. The fabric is marked according to thickness of fiber, or denier. The higher the denier, the stronger the fiber.

For durahbility, nylon luggage should be a minimum 400 denier, woven in a tight construction. If the denier is less than 400, other material such as nylon taffeta or heavy-duty vinyl (to add to its strength) should support it. Nylon has great fashion versatility as it can be woven in many patterns, including tweeds and jacquards. Urethane coatings--water and stain repellents--are applied to the nylon fabric surface to sustain the bag's appearance. Ballistic nylon is a durable and tear-resistant fabric commonly used in better luggage. The term ballistic connotes a sturdy nylon weave that is similar to the fabric used in bulletproof vests.

Leather -- Is the bag "top-grain" or full-grain" leather? Is the leather less expensive because it is "split" or processed leather? Leather is widely used for luggage and business cases and comes in different qualities. Less expensive leather is more likely to show wear and have more finish to hide imperfections.
  Leather is used in luggage construction both as coverings and trim. It comes in different types, with different names and expectations.

Genuine Leather -- Top grain or full grain leather is the outermost layer of the skin. It is the most desirable material because of its durability, strength and ability to take finish. Plus, the original animal grain markings craft a distinctive personal piece.

Splits -- The underlayers of a hide are known as "splits" because these layers are split off from under the top grain. They usually have a surface treatment simulating the color and grain of top grain. Processed -- Processed leather is one type of skin or hide made to look like another type, such as calfskin with alligator markings. Leather scraps that are pulverized and bonded with glue are sometimes called "bonded leather" or "laminated leather."

Plastics and Metals
  Hard-sided cases are usually made of materials such as polypropylene, ABS plastics, or metal; or box-constructed cases with metal or wood frames on all six sides, covered with leather, vinyl or fabric.
  Molded Materials -- Injection molded cases are made by pouring molten plastic (usually polypropylene) into a cavity to make a hard seamless shell. Vacuum-formed cases take a sheet of plastic (usually ABS, or Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene), heat it, and suck it down into a dye. These cases usually have a vinyl copy sheet which allows for greater variety in surface appearance and are extremely durable.
Vinyl -- Vinyl, a moderately priced plastic material, is used for both coverings and trims. Available in a wide range of colors, the material has strong stain-resistance, and can be wiped clean. Vinyl is sometimes treated to resemble leather--check the labeling on the product.
Edges -- Are the edges turned, bound, welted or burnished? Does the edge offer protection and attractiveness to the bag?
  Edges protect the sides of a piece of luggage. There are four basic types of finishing edges, offering both good protection and an attractive appearance.
    Turned edges -- One surface where materials meet is turned completely over all the other edges.
Bound edges -- A separate material is sewn completely over all the edges.
Welt edges -- A material is sewn between the seams and covers all edges.
Burnished edges -- All edges are cut off uniformly, then colored, and polished.
Zippers -- How is the zipper constructed? Is it manufactured using polyester coils, continuous molding, or brass? Will it self-repair? How is the zipper applied to the bag? Is the size of the zipper relative to the size of the bag? How durable is the zipper?
  Construction, application and size are important elements in zipper longevity. Zippers are manufactured in three basic constructions:
    Polyester coils -- Made by weaving or sewing the nylon coil to the tape. These zippers do not have individual teeth and can take a great deal of pressure. If they do pop open, they can be rezoned and "healed."
Continuous molded zippers -- Which do have teeth, are also woven or sewn onto tapes and are extremely durable.
Nylon zippers can be dyed to match luggage and leather.

Brass and other metal zippers -- Made by feeding a woven tape through a chain machine that crimps individual teeth onto the tape.

Locks -- Is the lock made of plastic or metal? Is there a built-in combination lock? Is the lock mounted using a prong screw, or rivet?

Built-in combination locks are most often found on hard-sided luggage. Padlocks and key locks that attach to zipper pulls are used on soft and semi-soft constructions. To determine a lock's construction, open it and look at the underside; if it is stamped, you will see the places where the parts are joined.

The way a lock is mounted on a case is an important element of its durability. Locks are mounted in three ways: with prongs, screws, or rivets. The more screws or rivets used, the more stable the application. Locks should also be mounted straight so that the two parts meet properly.

    Metal lock constructions include:
  Solid brass -- Solid mass of metal often plated for appearance or durability.
Die-cast locks -- Metal such as zinc or steel, often plated for appearance and durability.
Stamped hardware -- A flat piece of metal that is bent into a desired shape.
Plastic locks -- Made of polypropylene or nylon, plastic locks have become popular for their durability and rust-resistance.
Wheels -- Are the wheels retractable or removable? Do the wheels provide stability and improved handling? Does the bag offer ball-bearing wheels? How are the wheels attached to the bag? Do the number of wheels correspond to the bag's size?
  Wheels maximize maneuverability and minimize damage to the bottom of the case. They are attached to frames with metal backplates and rivets or screws. Wheels are sometimes retractable or removable. Two and four-wheeled systems are available to ensure rolling stability and improve handling.
  The handle on a piece of luggage is one of the most important elements. The most durable handle -- mounted using metal or metal-reinforced bases with a number of rivets, screws, or prongs attached to the frame of the case itself --increases the load-bearing area. Handle systems housed inside a bag are least likely to sustain damage. Some companies offer recessed handle systems that include single-handed push button release and a recessed handle cup that reduces the possibility of damage.
  Corners and feet protect luggage from damage. They are often reinforced with metal, leather or vinyl.
  Pull-straps are frequently attached to suitcases with wheels. These, too, should be mounted with solid hardware and reinforced backing to prevent damage.
Shoulder Straps
  Shoulder straps, many of which are detachable, are mounted at a bag's stress points. Strong hardware and reinforced mounting areas protect shoulder straps from tearing off or snapping out. Gripper pads keep straps from sliding off the shoulders.
Is there an accordion pleat or gusset on the sides of the bag for more flexibility and accessible storage space? Are there outside pockets? Does the bag or case contain a packing system for neat and wrinkle-free packing? Are mesh pocket dividers available? Does the bag have wetpacks for storage of wet and soiled garments?
  Luggage is designed to anticipate a variety of needs. One of the keys to satisfaction is the extent to which each item helps travellers organize, and get ready access to their possessions.
  • Gussets -- An accordion pleat on the sides of a case or pocket creates more flexibility and accessible storage space.
  • Wetpacks -- Wetpacks allow easy storage for wet and soiled garments.
  • Mesh pocket dividers -- Accessibility and visibility are two advantages of using mesh pocket dividers.
  • Outside pockets -- Outside pockets allow travellers to reach items they need without opening the case and increase packing options.
  • Packing systems -- Nylon and mesh envelopes in various sizes include rigid folding boards for neat and wrinkle-free packing.
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