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In The News

The quest for the perfect suitcase

Make sure you find the bag that best suits your needs

By Teri Goldberg
Shopping columnist
MSNBC

Updated: 4:05 p.m. ET Sept. 7, 2004

By the time the Republicans convene in New York City, I'll be out of here. My biggest dilemma this summer was not which candidate to vote for in November, I, like most Americans, have made already up my mind, but what bag to take on vacation.

The funny thing is I have more bags than most people. I stopped counting at well, never mind, it's too embarrassing. Yet every vacation involves a reassessment of the goods on hand, and some times, well most times, at least one new bag purchase. Sometimes, two. I have to get the carry-on to match. This year, I thought, why not share my bag angst with the MSNBC.com readership and maybe, we'd both learn something.

If it was up to me, I'd take a steamer trunk on wheels. I want the same options I have when I travel as I have at home, even if I only use a small percentage of what I own on a daily basis.

I have no problem minimizing what I take in terms of clothes. It's the other stuff that bogs me down. I'm the type who takes the pharmacy along with them despite that most places I travel have drugstores. And then I have to pack snacks, water, notebooks, a red, blue and black pen, a yellow highlighter, pencils, pencil sharpener, pocket knife, flashlight, compass, scissors, camera, film, alarm clock, first-aid kit, tick tweezers, reading material, everything I haven't read in the last year that somehow I think I'll read on vacation and never do, and more.

The search begins
The last trip I took I bought a 22-by-14-inch expandable TPro on wheels from TravelPro. At the time, I chose the TPro because it was the lightest regulation-sized carry-on in the store; and it had a strip of mustard yellow on the front, which would help me distinguish it among the others on the baggage carousel. I also love that the bag opens up into big empty rectangular cavity, which I could fill how I want rather than fit into predetermined compartments, common in many carry-on bags these days.

I was truly impressed with the TPro. It did the job and more. But this trip, I needed something just a little bit bigger. And that's where the journey begins.

To help me decide which direction to head, I talked with luggage experts all around town and in cyberspace. At first, I thought about buying another TPro in a bigger size, especially since it was highly recommended by Tim Jacobsen, vice president of e-commerce at one-stop luggage shop luggageonline.com. "For the money, TravelPro is the best quality," he said. As a matter of fact, TravelPro was founded by a former Northwest Airline pilot who invented upright, soft-sided rolling luggage, said Jacobsen.

The problem with the next size TPro bag was it measures 26-by-20 inches, which is too wide for train and bus aisles. I favor public transportation when I travel as I do at home.

I wanted taller, not wider. "Unfortunately, the width of a 26-inch suitcase is almost always larger than a carry-on," said Shelley Huber, a luggage buyer at cyber-only ebags.com. "Most travelers want the flexibility to put a lot of stuff in there, rather than navigate public transportation systems," she said.

Factors to consider
Consumers these days are primarily concerned with the weight of the bag because they do not want to pay overcharges. In the last year, many airlines started to enforce baggage weight restrictions, said Huber. Some airlines even have reduced the limit from 70 to 50 pounds.

Travelers also want to recognize their baggage easily at the baggage claim. "Red has been very hot in the last 3-4 years," said Huber. "Now there are so many red bags, consumers are looking for new colors," she added. Purple, blue and sapphire hit the runways this year.

In addition to style and weight of the bag, luggage shoppers should look at the wheels and zippers carefully, said Bernard Majeau, who manages the private line of luggage at eBags.com. Zippers and wheels are the most likely to break. Wheels blow out and zippers break when travelers over pack.

In the end, there is no perfect bag. The trick is to find a bag that fits you," said Majeau. "If you're tall, you better get a tall handle," he explained. "Other questions to think about are: Can you unlock it when wearing gloves? Will you break a nail?"

Make sure it fits your needs

Majeau recommended that I try a bag from eBags.com's private label. After much deliberation, the company sent me an expandable 22-inch carry-on to test. I didn't have to test the bag, when I lined it up next to the TravelPro, I was ready to box it up and ship it back. The bag looked like the TravelPro but it was no TravelPro. The eBag bag weighed a lot more; titled back slightly; had an extra strap which I couldn't figure out what it was for; and oddly enough, the zipper was really stiff. Next.

Tim Jacobsen of luggageonline.com had said, "If you want the best, Tumi is a great choice." So I arranged a visit to the Tumi showroom in Manhattan. "Tumi is built to last," said the Tumi company representative. The bags are made from "only the best materials," she said several times. Unfortunately, only time and a rough road trip would determine if that is the case.

I didn't see any luggage in the showroom that fit my size criteria. But I did notice a very clever bag, which I thought might work for another occasion (and I didn't buy it!). This past spring, Tumi introduced a 3-in-1 duffel, made up of a 25-inch duffel on wheels, a medium-sized backpack and a fanny pack. All three components neatly zip together into a nice lightweight package on wheels. The bag, which retails for $350, also comes in red and teal in addition to Tumi's traditional dull gray.

Still searching, I stopped by discount department stores TJMax (downtown) and Filenes (uptown.) At Filenes, I eyed a 24-inch Kenneth Cole suitcase on wheels. I liked the look; simple, boxy; I liked the color, red; the size was right at 24-by-16 inches; and I loved the fact there was a matching tote with a Velcro strap that hooks the tote onto the suitcase handle. I still, however, had a few other options to consider. Onward.

The final decision

In the last couple of years, the word "Swiss Army" and luggage has come up in conversation closely associated with the word "best." The company just started making luggage four years ago but already has a great reputation. So I contacted a spokesperson at Swiss Army and once again, after much deliberation on my part, she sent me a sample to test.

At about the same time, I noticed a khaki-colored, army-type duffel bag on wheels, made by a company called Union Bay. The 25-by-12 inch, was on sale for $63.99, reduced from $79.99, originally $200. I placed an order. I then asked Huber and Jacobsen about the Union Bay bag. Both company representatives said the bag had no track record, since it's only been on the site for about two months. I was on my own.

Then the Swiss Army bag arrived. It was love at first sight. It's a backpack. It's a duffle on wheels. It's so lightweight. The material looked sturdy. The size was right at 24-by-13.5 inches. I wasn't particular fond of the ergonomically correct mono-pole handle, an innovation the company prides itself on, but I could probably get used to it.

What did I learn? Majeau was right. There is no perfect bag. And as with all life's adventures, it's really about the journey not the end result. Happy trails!

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