Before buying your next suitcase, consider these important tips.

By Sara Reistad-Long
Updated February 29, 2008
Tara Donne

When you’re investing in a piece of luggage, the two most important things to keep in mind are:

  • Think small. A small suitcase (18 to 22 inches) will typically weigh less, and you’ll be less likely to get slapped with overweight-bag fees (applied to pieces 50 pounds and heavier). After all, “if you have a giant suitcase, you’ll most likely fill it up,” says Lisa Zaslow, the founder of Gotham Organizers, in New York City. Consider opting for a 22-inch Pullman, which will fit in most standard overhead compartments. (You’ll almost always have to check anything larger.)
  • Consider the bag’s construction. “Choose function over high fashion,” says packing expert Susan Foster, author of Smart Packing for Today’s Traveler (Smart Travel Press, $20, The more structured a suitcase is, the better it will protect its contents―not just from the elements but also from wrinkles, as items will move around less.

After taking the bag’s size and sturdiness into account, look out for these features:

  • Ballistic nylon: A fabric originally designed for bulletproof vests. For durability, it’s generally considered to be top-of-the-line. DuPont’s Cordura nylon―so strong it’s also used for tires―is a good, affordable bet.
  • Ball-bearing wheels: The same type of high-precision wheels used for in-line skates, meaning they’re built to withstand rough treatment. They should be partially recessed to keep the bag stable as you pull. Recessed wheels are also less likely to get knocked off.
  • Carry-on strap: Allows you to piggyback a second, smaller bag on your wheeled suitcase.
  • Expandable gusset: A zippered portion of a suitcase that, when opened, gives the case up to three more inches.
  • High-denier polyester: As a suitcase fabric, polyester doesn’t resist abrasion as well as nylon, but it’s a more affordable choice. To make up for the weaker material, choose a denier (thickness of fiber) with a count of at least 1,000.
  • Honeycomb frame: The lightweight plastic inner material that gives a bag shape and structure. It also offers shock absorption for the contents.
  • Kick plate/stair-climber: Located on the lower back of wheeled luggage, this plastic panel or covering provides additional protection from bumps and scuffs.
  • Microfiber: A soft and light synthetic fiber that doesn’t skimp on resilience. While not nearly firm enough for a suitcase, this is a good choice for duffels and carry-ons.
  • Self-repairing zipper: A zipper made of coils that, when broken, can fix themselves when the slide is moved back down over the teeth.
  • Spinner: A suitcase with four wheels, each of which has a 360-degree spinning range. The wheels make for easy maneuverability, so there’s less of a chance that your bag will flip over on the run.
  • Telescoping handle: A handle that can extend and retract for easy pulling. Make sure the extended position hits somewhere near your waist so you can grab it easily and won’t have to lean sideways as you pull it along. Additional handles on the top, side, and bottom of the bag will help you grasp it (and heave it overhead) from multiple angles.