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Choosing a new set of luggage is a big decision. Wheeled suitcases and carry-on bags are not cheap, and ideally, you’ll be using them for years — so you want to make sure that whatever you pick, it’s durable and stylish enough to last. With so many options out there, some of which seem to generate endless hype on Instagram, how can you tell which are built for the long haul?
To help determine which bags are best for you, we’ve chatted with flight attendants about which affordable bags they recommend, how to tell if a set of luggage will be durable, and which brands actually live up to the hype.
What To Look For
When shopping for an affordable bag, it can be tempting to look for the cheapest option. In this case, however, that could be a bad idea. That lightweight plastic bag might look cute now, but you’ll probably like it less when it cracks after its first or second journey through the sky. As with most things, it’s all about striking a balance — in this case, between price and sturdiness.
For many of us, price will largely be a key factor in buying luggage. Thankfully, your bag doesn’t need to be a status symbol to get you where you need to go; plenty of bargain bags will get you to your chosen destination safely and in style.
If you plan to use your bags for long-haul trips, weight will be a crucial consideration. The heavier the bag, the harder it’ll be to lug around — especially if it’s a carry-on you intend to bring with you across multiple flights.
Flight attendants recommend making sure that on top of being durable and lightweight, your bag also includes a number of different compartments to keep you organized from your first departure to your final arrival.
“I love anything that has an abundance of pockets,” says Laura McDonald, a flight attendant coming up on 10 years of experience with Republic Airways. McDonald also recommends looking for bags with a dedicated space to carry a reusable water bottle — a feature she’s found on more and more new bags. (Remember to bring it empty to check-in and then fill up at a water fountain once you’ve cleared security.)
Hendel, a flight attendant for American Airlines, meanwhile, recommends looking for a checked bag with a separate compartment to store dirty clothes. “A laundry bag is just not going to cut it,” Hendel said. “I’m really looking for as many pockets as possible to store things separately from [everything else].”
How can you tell if luggage will be durable and won’t scratch or crack?
“Pull on the zippers,” Hendel recommends. “And really yank the slide of the handle, because that’s first to go.”
Jacqueline Bryant, a United Airlines flight attendant with nine years of experience, recommends checking out the handle for sturdiness and examining the bag’s materials and “cohesiveness.” After that, she says, take a look at the wheels and make sure that they seem solidly built, with a wheelbase that feels proportional and not flimsy.
As McDonald put it, “You want something that doesn’t feel cheap — like, the things that feel like plastic. I know we all want something that’s lightweight, but you have to consider it’s lightweight because it’s made out of plastic. It’s lightweight because it’s cheaply made. A lot of times, those lightweight bags are the first ones to go.”
As with most things in life, then, the balance between weight and durability is a balancing act.
How do you find luggage with sturdy wheels that won’t break?
In the case of hardside bags with four wheels, Bryant said, the wheels often “come with these plastic brackets that are connected to the plastic. So if that plastic or hard shell was to crack, then it just really screws up the entire luggage.”
For luggage that lasts, look for suitcases that feature sturdy wheels and brackets.
Which is more durable—hardside or softside luggage?
Those looking for an ultra-durable hard-shell bag to last a lifetime might want to spend hundreds on a metal bag, but the flight attendants we spoke with all agreed that softside bags tend to last longer.
What type of luggage is better—hard shell or softside?
The flight attendants we spoke with all recommended soft bags on the grounds that they’re easier to pack, can store more items with less weight, and are more likely to fit in overhead bins.
How can I protect my luggage while traveling?
Bryant advised that many travelers actually wear their wheels out by rolling their bags through the airport incorrectly. To protect the longevity of your rolling bag, make sure that you’re pushing your bag in front of you with all four wheels on the ground; dragging it behind you like an ordinary rolling bag will put excess strain on two of the wheels and wear them out faster.
To make sure the pull handle doesn’t break, McDonald cautioned that travelers should also avoid resting other bags against the handle while traversing the airport; instead, look for a rolling bag that includes a J hook, which can latch additional bags onto the top strap. (You can also easily purchase your own to attach to the bag.)
And finally, Bryant suggests that if you’ve purchased travel insurance, “Always ask the question: ‘Is my luggage covered? Is there any kind of insurance for that?” That way, if your bags get damaged during your travels, you’ll know your options.
Where is the best place to buy luggage that won’t break the bank?
All of the flight attendants we spoke with advised buying directly from retailers whenever possible to ensure the best possible warranty and coverage. That said, Bryant confessed, “I’ve gotten a couple of my travel pieces on sale at T.J. Maxx, which is always a great score.”
Our Recommendations for Best Affordable Luggage
1. Best Luggage Set — Samsonite Omni PC Hardside Expandable Luggage with Spinner Wheels, 3-Piece Set
Durability: Made from “Micro-diamond polycarbonate,” designed to resist scratches | Price: Reg. $285.00 on Amazon, currently on sale for $228.65 with 10-year warranty | Weight: 26.8 lb (20” Spinner 6.81 lbs; 24” Spinner 8.34 lbs; 28” Spinner 11.55 lbs) | Organization: Interior contains zippered compartments, dividers
When asked what luggage brands hold up the best over time, Bryant called out both TravelPro and Samsonite. “My brother worked for Samsonite for a really long time,” she said, “so I have quite a few of their bags that I’ve really enjoyed just for functionality and durability.” This set of three rolling bags comes at a nearly unbeatable price point on Amazon, and for a small price bump, it comes in multiple colors beyond the basic black — which might be worth the investment to make them easier to find on the carousel upon your arrival.
- Pros: Thoughtfully organized, More than 19,500 5-star reviews on Amazon, Excellent price
- Cons: Heavier than softside bags, Generic visual design
2. Best Softside Rollaboard Carry-on — Travelpro Maxlite 5 International Carry-On Rollaboard
Durability: Amazon users have praised this bag’s sturdy handles and zipper pulls | Price: Reg. $169.99, currently on sale for $135.99 (Travelpro) and $144.99 (Amazon) | Weight: An impressively low 5.4 pounds | Organization: Exterior and interior pockets
The efficient, lightweight design on these rollaboards is their greatest asset. The bag’s smooth, sturdy wheels are an added bonus, as is its Built for a Lifetime Limited Warranty. “I’m a TravelPro girl until I D-I-E,” Bryant said. “I will die on that hill, and I think a lot of other flight attendants would absolutely feel the exact same way. It’s just the quality of bags, the sturdiness of the bags, the wheels… All are really wonderful.”
- Pros: Lightweight, Clean and stylish, Sturdy wheels
- Cons: Minimal organizational features
3. Best Laptop Bag — Kenneth Cole Reaction Keystone 1680d Polyester Dual Compartment 17″ Laptop Business Portfolio
Durability: Made from sturdy 1680D polyester with PVC trim | Price: $130.99 on Amazon; $139.99 at Office Depot, Limited Lifetime Warranty | Weight: 3 lbs | Organization: Front exterior pocket contains an organizer for pens, travel documents, smartphone and more; TSA compliant, so laptop does not need to be removed from bag during check-in
While Hendel uses TravelPro for work, he’s actually not a huge fan of the brand after some bad experiences with their luggage including stuck zippers. (That said, he offered one exception to that rule, which made our list further down.) For personal use, Hendel prefers the Kenneth Cole bags he received through work earlier in his career. “I still have a Kenneth Cole attached bag… and that holds,” he said. In his book, “As far as carry ons, Kenneth Cole is the way to go.”
- Pros: Sturdy construction, Thoughtful design
- Cons: Slightly pricey, Heavier design
4. Best Backpack — Eddie Bauer Bygone Recycled Backpack – 30L
Durability: Made from 100% nylon with thick traps and metal buckles, with adjustable waist belt and sternum strap to prevent excess strain and stretching | Price: Reg. $149.99, currently on sale for $74.50 from Eddie Bauer | Weight: 2 lbs, 2 oz | Organization: Top-loading knapsack includes multiple interior and exterior pockets to organize travel accessories; outfitted to hold a hydration bladder for outdoor activities
McDonald recommends this bag as a carry-on and notes that it should fit in the overhead bin or beneath the seat (possibly after a little gentle shoving, depending on how much you fill it.) Eddie Bauer is a mainstay among outdoorsy types for a reason, and the abundance of pockets on this stylish pick are what put it over the edge into “must-have” territory.
- Pros: High capacity, Suitable for outdoors, Made from recycled materials, Fits in overhead bins, under seats
- Cons: On the smaller side
5. Best Underseat Bag— Travelpro Maxlite 5 Softside Tote
Durability: Made from polyester fabric and coated to resist water stains | Price: Reg. $99.99 with Built for a Lifetime Limited Warranty and 100-day trial allowance when purchased through Travelpro, currently $79.99 | Weight: 1.6 lbs | Organization: Comes with “quick-access front flap,” a spacious interior, and pockets for accessories on the front and side
Travelpro is the brand most airlines require their flight attendants use, and for some, it’s a go-to outside of work as well. The company’s multi-purpose totes, in particular, received a shout-out from Hendel — who admits he doesn’t always love the brand but effusively recommends its smaller bags for underseat storage. (The bags are also sizer bin tested, according to Travelpro, so they should fit in the overhead bins on most major U.S. airlines.) Best of all, there are multiple pockets to store all manner of travel must-haves.
- Pros: Moisture-resistant interior, Lightweight design, Multiple pockets
- Cons: Slightly pricey, More functional than stylish
Durability: Although the polycarbonate material might seem flimsy, reviewers love how well this bag stands up to frequent travel | Price: Reg. $269.99 with Limited 10 Year Global Warranty | Weight: 10.8 lb | Organization: Roomy interior allows for maximum storage
If you’re looking for a hardside suitcase for a long haul trip, this is your best pick for the price. Amazon reviewers love the bag’s sturdy construction and have also complimented the wheels, which move smoothly with little effort. Plus, its unique look will make retrieving it at the luggage carousel after a long flight even easier.
- Pros: Resilient material, Unique, pleasing design
- Cons: Lacks organizing compartments, Heavier than softside bags
7. Best Weekender Bag — Lo & Sons Catalina Deluxe Small
Durability: Made from recycled poly for more water resistance and structure than canvas | Price: Reg. $215, currently on sale for $86 | Weight: 2.6 pounds, with a memory foam shoulder strap | Organization: Multiple zippered and slip pockets, separate bottom compartment
Gorgeously designed and thoughtfully organized, this bag is a must-have for the organized traveler. “My favorite thing about this particular tote bag is that it has a zipper underneath so that you can have a place to put shoes,” McDonald said, “but if you don’t need to have that shoe space, then there’s a zipper on the inside of the top part that takes that bottom out—so you have the full length of the bag.” No wonder she’s noticed a fair number of these bags in first class.
- Pros: Durable, Well organized, Lightweight, Wide array of color options
- Cons: Not so affordable at full price
8. Best Stylish Pick — Béis The Weekender
Durability: Sturdy with good handles | Price: Reg. $108, currently on sale for $81 at Béis | Weight: 3.86 lb | Organization: Interior pockets, separate bottom compartment
Founded by actress Shay Mitchell, the Béis bag has quickly become a popular choice among young, trendy travelers. This one might be a bit more expensive than some more run-of-the-mill canvas weekenders you’ll find on Amazon, but according to devotees — as well as Bryant, who’s seen plenty of them at work — they’re worth the hype. “I really really like them because of their versatility and the aesthetic,” Bryant said. “Some of their bags are just absolutely amazing with how many compartments, and having the shoe compartment on the bottom. And so they’re not only pretty, they are also very functional.” If you want that “it” girl feeling at the airport, this one might be the way to go.
- Pros: Thoughtful, on-trend design, Sturdy, comfortable handles, Versatile
- Cons: Pricey
- Joe Hendel, Flight Attendant for American Airlines
- Laura McDonald, Flight Attendant for Republic Airways
- Jacqueline Bryant, Flight Attendant with United Airline
This story originally appeared on Don't Waste Your Money.