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Lightweight Luggage

A Guide to Must-Have Lightweight Luggage
by Denise McCluggage

In the days of steamer trunks, grand tours by rail and an abundance of porters, nobody cared about the weight of the luggage (except perhaps the porters). Rugged durability and good looks were what counted in those days. That meant sturdy leather, brass fittings and locks worthy of a bank vault.

With the norm now being air travel and do-it-yourself toting, weight ranks high on the list of considerations when choosing luggage. Covering long gate-to-gate dashes with your bags is relatively painless when they are on wheels, but lifting is involved when you encounter stairs, a common occurrence if a commuter flight or international travel is involved. And even if you roll your bag directly on board there's that lifting it into the overhead.

What is lightweight?
Don't just see the word in the blurb and believe it; look for the actual weight. I put the top limit to qualify as lightweight at nine or ten pounds for a maximum-sized carry-on (21- 22 inches long).

Although leather is still a favorite for good looks, long life and resistance to damage, we are dealing here with weight. Leather is heavy. So are hard-sided bags whether ABS, aluminum or other material. If you seek lightweight look to nylon and its various manifestations. Nylon and honeycomb frames have helped lean out luggage while retaining ample strength and resiliency for long use.

Lightweight luggage is available in many configurations and means of transporting it from point A to B such as top and/or side handles; over-the-shoulder strap; backpack straps; built-in wheels, and slip back (a wide belt that allows a smaller bag to slip over the pull handle of a larger wheeled bag.) Most bags have a combination of these. (I'm partial to backpacks with a grip handle at least on top that also have a telescoping handle and wheels.)

To meet today's travel needs with its strict limitations I suggest a baggage wardrobe built around a core of two pieces with maybe two others added for those who do a lot of varied traveling. All the pieces are ideally lightweight, expandable and have wheels. (Their pull handles, by the way, should require only one hand to open or close them and should be adjustable in length to accommodate users from short to tall.)

A 22-inch upright suitcase.

Bag One: The basic core bag is a 22-inch upright (sometimes called a "vertical Pullman") with inline-skate wheels and a telescoping handle. It weighs not more than 10 pounds empty. This bag is an overhead bin bag and the largest that can be taken aboard a plane. (International flights may allow only 20" bags in the cabin. Always check the airline you are using for their regulations.)

For flexibility choose a bag that can be expanded in depth by some three inches either by unzipping or pushing buttons. Realize that in such an expanded state the bag is a check through only and not a carry-on.

Briggs & Riley Baseline Baisc Rolling Wheeled Tote

Bag Two: This bag is for easy under-the-seat storage which means no more than 20" and preferably less. It has wheels and telescoping handle for towing and concealed straps for backpacking. Some designs favor the trekking style; some look more like a vertical roll-aboard bag. My choice for a rolling backpack is either expandable or has a piggy-backing separate daypack to add to its flexibility of use. One pocket accepts my small laptop perfectly and is easily accessible to keep the computer handy for removal at security checkpoints.

Other pockets can be configured to hold a variety of electronics gadgets, business papers, camera etc. A sweater and compact rain gear fit easily. Outer zipped pockets have two zippers on each so they can be opened from the center thus limiting the risk of spilled contents. A small exterior pocket offers easy access to a cell phone and/or PDA. Another either swallows a small purse or holds the usual purse-y items.

Bag Three: For anyone given to extended travel requiring a wide variety of clothing I would add a larger check-through-only bag to the luggage wardrobe to meet those needs. Wheeled of course and expandable. There are some huge bags out there but keep in mind that anything larger than a 30" bag when full might be hard for you to cope with alone when loading it into ground transportation. (Prime rule of travel: never take more than you can handle alone.)

Bag Four: A fourth bag would be largely a sub for any of the others to vary the possibilities. (Flexibility is a virtue equal to lightness,) Maybe this is a 20" vertical wheeled bag for those trips on which that is the maximum carry-on size.

Other possibilities. Consider a wheeled duffel bag (if you favor that deconstructed style) either in carry-on or check-through size. Or a garment bag, wheeled or over-the-shoulder. I personally was never drawn to garment bags but some people swear by them. (Make sure they fit carry-on restrictions when packed. Many do not.)

A bag that appeals to me for the fourth member of a varied baggage wardrobe is the inventive Tutto with soft sides on a fiberglass frame. This bag rolls on four wheels like a wagon instead of being dragged on two wheels. The four wheels on the ground support all of the bag's weight and thus takes less effort to tow. The easy-to-handle Tutto is friendlier to the less than robust traveler, the arthritic or the merely weary.

Tutto Luggage

The ingenious Tutto, which comes in various sizes and outfitted for a range of specific uses such as a rolling office and a pet carrier (!) collapses to just three inches deep for storage. The emphasis on lightweight in luggage does not mean any sacrifice of style, but it can mean some compromises with longevity unless you choose the more expensive and hardier fabrics (such as Dupont's Cordura or ballistic nylon.) Actually the price of luggage rather well reflects its quality.

Details to check: zippers not too close to the edge where they are vulnerable. A #10 coiled nylon zipper is strong and will not open if a tooth is broken. Check for tight, double stitching and handles that are fastened with multiple rivets. Straps should be padded and reinforced where they are fastened to the bag. Protective covers on corners add weight but are useful for longevity.

To make the right choice of lightweight luggage and decide how much to pay to get what you want consider several things:

Do you travel closer to twice a week, or to twice a year?

Do you always carry your bag aboard or do you check it through?

Do you use a number of bags or always the same one?

Do you like to keep up with the latest luggage trends or are do you prefer to stay the tried and true?

Frequent travelers need sturdy luggage to withstand the rigors of the road, particularly if the bag is sometimes conveyed through those flapping strips into the unknown world of baggage handling.

If you travel infrequently or use a number of different bags and always roll them aboard then you can manage with less sturdy fabrics and thus less expensive bags. Some travelers prefer variety to quality anyway. They would rather pay less for a bag and buy new ones more often. They can thus change colors, style or models. Yes, the expensive bags will likely last longer, but if you're one who thinks that might be boring then bargain shop and take your chances. (Look for sales and Internet deals.)

Either way, it behooves the luggage shopper to know what makes one bag cost more than another and how to spot those details.

Put two bags side-by-side — same size, color and appearance yet one costs two to three times more than the other. Why?

Andiamo Valoroso Two Suit Journeyman Carry-On Garment Bag -- made with DuPont Bomb-Cloth ballistic nylon.

Read the tags: The less expensive one may be made of, 600 dernier Polyester. The other may be 1000 denier Cordura, a special Dupont nylon used extensively in luggage since the 1970s. Maybe it is a ballistic nylon. More expensive fabric promises far better wear quality.

If a trademarked name you no not recognize is used for a fabric ask a knowledgeable salesperson. Or type that name in a good search engine such as If you do you'll find, for instance, that Dukktex is a polyester fabric that Skyway uses a lot in its inexpensive though nicely featured luggage. However polyester is not high on the list of durable fabrics for heavy use.

The most serious enemy of a soft-sided bag is abrasion, and a bag gets lots of constant rubbing in the rough and tumble of use. Punctures and slashes are rarer but serious factors in damage. Cordura resists abrasion, puncture and general wear extremely well. Ballistic nylon performs as well or better and is smoother and less attractive to dust and lint. (Ballistic nylon got its name from its use with Kevlar in bulletproof vests.) Polyester is less durable.

The denier (sometimes represented as "d") is a measure of the fineness of a fabric. The higher the denier the stronger it is. An oft-mentioned rule of thumb is to look for a minimum of 600-1800 denier polyester toward the least expensive end of the curve and 500-1000 denier Cordura or 1800 to 2500 denier ballistic nylon at the more expensive end. (Andiamo uses something called "bomb cloth", a mix of Cordura and ballistic nylon, in one of its lines. It is stronger on wear quality than on lightness.)

When comparing bags in a store, read the tags to see what they are made of. Read the warranties to see what sort of damage is covered and not covered. On the Internet (suggested sources are listed below) note that some sites carry more detail than others. Some don't include a bag's weight. If they do not assume that lightness is not a selling point. Most bag manufacturers (another list below) have websites.

Do your homework, find styles and sizes that suit your needs, settle on a manufacturer or specific item and then surf the web or the mall to find the best price.

Some manufacturers to consider: Skyway; Tutto; Travelpro; Samsonite; Atlantic, Briggs & Riley; Eagle Creek; Swiss Army; Jourdan; JanSport; American Tourister; High Sierra; Traveler's Choice; Tumi; Atlantic; Andiamo.

Some Internet sources for luggage:;;;;;;

A simple approach is to go to, click on "shopping" and type in the search window what you are looking for, i.e. "wheeled backpacks," "lightweight luggage" for selection from many sources.

Note: When choosing the color of your new bag realize that red is the new black! It seems it struck everybody at the same time that red would stand out at the baggage claim. Colorful tags or baggage straps are still the best way to spot your bag.