Tough Luggage

By tough luggage I mean luggage that will be with you for years and years and years. Luggage that will not fail on you during a trip. Luggage that will give you the ultimate convenience - and luxury - of getting out of your way so you can focus on your trip and not your luggage. That is what I mean by "tough luggage".

girl with with luggage

Tough Luggage: A Shortlist

The discussion here is fairly extensive but if you just want a quick selection of tough luggage here it is. All the luggage displayed keep a very compact silhouette - wheels and handles keep close to the frame to minimize the chance of damage. Plus, all these bags are made of one of the toughest luggage materials you can get: ballistic nylon.

Helium Sky 2.0 Trolley Garment Bag

Bringing formal clothes? This bag is designed to keep them wrinkle free.

High Sierra Pro Series Trapezoid Wheeled Duffel Bag

Designed to meet the demands of winter vacations.

Delsey Luggage Helium Sky Carry-On 2 Wheel Express Trolley

Carry it with you to the cabin. Aside from toughness, this bag emphasizes light weight and solid organizational features.

Tumi Alpha 2 International Zippered Expandable Carry-On

An evolutionary improvement in design, incorporationg 30 specific design points meant to make a great bag even better.

Delsey Luggage Helium Sky Trolley Tote

Lots of short business trips or overnights? You're looking at the ideal bag.

Want to know more about what makes luggage tough? Grab a seat and read on . . .

The Rough Life of Luggage

aircraft being loaded

Not to say that carry-on luggage has an easy time of it but checked luggage is the king when it comes to cruel and unusual punishment.

The Baggage Handler

Let's look at baggage handling from the point of view of the baggage handler. Everyday the baggage handler sees hundreds of pieces of luggage and helps move them about. He's under pressure to do his job fast and he gets progressively more weary as the day (or night) wears on. In front of this herculean, and daily, task, there's really nothing to spare by the way of dainty handling of luggage. Just try not to break anything is the rule of the day. And if something breaks just rope it around, duct tape it, or for minor damage - ignore it.

The Cargo Hold

You're checked luggage will be lifted out of cargo holds if you're lucky.If you're not lucky, you're luggage will be thrown out of the cargo hold on its way to the airport car. Whether lifted or thrown, you're luggage - you're overpacked bag - will be handled by way of its exterior handles. You're bag's weight will be lifted by the handles several times by people who are hurrying because they have a job to do.

The Airport Car

The cargo hold is just part of the journey. There's the airport car or trolley were you're luggage may find itself under a virtual mountian of other people's luggage. If it's lucky enough to be on top of that mountain it's in the perfect position to fall off the airport car onto a concrete floor or runway at which point it will be unceremoniously lifted and thrown back into the car.

End Of The Trip

By the time you see your luggage in the conveyor belt it has already gone through quite a lot. We are all familiar with the occassional gasps of surprise at the conveyor belt when people discover this or that damage to their luggage.

And this is just one one-way trip. Multiply this x times by the number of trips you take each year and you'll get an appreciation for the need for tough luggage. Alternatively, consider a situation when you just bought a new piece of luggage, you use it for just one trip, and it comes back to you with a major piece of damage. Just imagine your frustration, the hassle of having to buy a new piece of luggage in the middle of your trip - the simple difficulty of making your way through the airport with luggage that has refused to function - maybe a missing wheel, or a zipper failure, a cracked case - the possibilities are endless. Tough luggage is definitely something worth having.

But what makes a piece of luggage tough?

Tough Handles

luggage handles

Grab Handles

Considering that baggage handlers often grab bags by the handles, it is no surprise that broken handles are the most frequent kind of luggage repair.

Aside from breaking during handling, handles can also break by getting hit during random jostling with other luggage or hitting all sorts of other things during the course of a trip.

With handles, look for two things:

  1. Two-bar construction. Cheap handles are one-bar types, look for the sturdier two-bar handle.

  2. Look for recessed handles or handles that can cleave as close to the bag body as possible. This will lessen the chance of the handles getting hit and broken. One caveat though, sometimes recessed handles come at the price of taking some packing space from inside the bag - so there might be a trade off.

Telescoping Pull Handles

Also known as upright handles, these are the handles that you pull out into a locking position to maneuver your wheeled luggage.

The thing to note is that not all upright handles are created equal. Some of them are located outside the bag and some inside.

Conventional wisdom (and experience) dictates that upright handles located inside the bag body have less to no chance of being unduly damaged. But, since they are located inside the bag, they will also take up precious packing space.

There is a compromise: An externally mounted upright handle protected by a casing will give you the best of both worlds. Preserving your packing space and protecting itself from the inevitable ordeal of baggage handling.

Locking Mechanism

Aside from this, please also pay attention to the locking mechanism of upright handles. It's inconvenient for a handle to be stuck in a pulled out locking position when you want it retracted. It's a mini-disaster for for an upright handle to get locked in to the retracted position unable to be deployed, leavinyou with no easy way to wheel your luggage. Another situation is for the locks to fail in transit, say, inside the plane, where the handle can deploy during baggage handling, maybe when the bag is being thrown? Not a happy ending. Therefore, pay careful attention to the handle's locking mechanism.

Tough Zippers

luggage zipper

The zippers you use on your clothes should NOT be the same kind of zippers used on your luggage. Unfortunately, cheap luggage manufacturers don't care about this detail one bit.

The most common zipper breakage is not the zipper itself but the zipper pulls. Zipper pulls are the easy to verify visually. Pay attention to the pull itself - make sure that the material used isn't brittle or too thin. Then look at the point where the pull attaches to the slider, the mechanism that actually closes the zipper. This is the stress point. You want this to be very robust.

With regards to the zipper itself failing, the most common cause is overstuffing your luggage.

Self Repairing Zippers

When shopping for luggage you might come across the seemingly fanciful term "self-repairing zippers" or "self-healing zippers". I'm delighted to inform you that it's true. These zippers are called polyester coils. If the zipper teeth pop open, you simply have to run the slider over the teeth and they will be reset. You should definitely go for these kind of zippers.

Check out this selection of self-repairing zipper luggage from Amazon

Zipper Location

When you are in the luggage store or shopping online pay attention to where on the bag the designer located the zipper. There are two general locations: First, along the sides of the bag. Second, on the edges of the bag.

Try to avoid the second location. Zippers on the edges of the bag are subjected to all the stresses meant for the frame of the bag AND the stresses from the contents of the bag. It's really too much stress for your poor zipper.

Tough Locks

luggage lock

On the subject of locks I have only one thing to say and it concerns the popular "TSA accepted locks".

What are TSA accepted locks? It turns out that these locks have a special section in the lock where a member of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration can use a special key and open the lock to examine the contents of the bag at any time.

So aside from your key, another person, hopefully from the TSA, has another key to open your bag.

Think about it.

Tough Wheels

luggage wheels

Just like handles, wheels can simply be struck off your bag or hit and damaged. The loss of a luggage wheel, though, is a much bigger disaster then the loss of a luggage handle. Some of the airports out there make for very long walks. Not to mention sidewalks to and from hotels.

Wheel Design

In order to keep the wheels from being hit during baggage handling its best to keep them as close to the bag as possible. These are called recessed wheels. Because they are internally mounted, only the part of the wheel that needs to roll is exposed.

Luggage with recessed wheels from Amazon

Two Wheels Or Four

Let's tune in to the ongoing debate:

Most people rave about the convenience of having four wheels carry 100% of the weight of their luggage. These are not polite complements, these are raves, enthusiastic this-is-the-only-way-to-go recommendations. People cheer for a reason, so four wheels can never be discounted.

That said, conventional wisdom for larger bags - meaning full-sized suitcases - is that two wheels are better. Yes, you will carry part of the weight but travelers claim that for these big pieces the increased maneuverability of two wheels make the trade off worth it.

Tough Frames

Frames ar a soft-sided luggage consideration. For hardcases, the case is the the frame.

Ever had a suitcase get "bent out of shape"? That's the frame.

First of all: What to avoid. Avoid plastic frames. A hard enough hit can pulverize these frames and they are impossible to repair. Having said that, and going back to our definition of tough luggage, luggage that needs repairing are not considered tough. The thing about plastic frames is that they break where metal frames can bend - a bent frame is better than a broken or shattered frame any day.

So its a metal frame then? No. The modern world presents us with a better alternative: For tough soft-sided luggage go with a honeycomb frame. The honeycomb frame is a departure from both the basic metal and plastic frames because it not only relies on the material on the frame it also relies on engineering for toughness. An additional plus is that it's most likely to be a lighter frame too.

Honeycomb frame luggage from Amazon

Tough Stitching

What to look for:

  • Look at the stitches very carefully, they should be straight; the pattern should be consistent. Most likely, the luggage is machine stitched. Machines that are functioning properly produce perfect and perfectly aligned stitches.

  • Luggage stress points are the corners. Look for reinforced stitching or extra stitching at these places.

  • In general, it's good if the bag hides the stitches. If the stitches aren't exposed, they can't be damaged. I say in general, because hiding stitches is also a techniquie for hiding bad, low-quality stitching. This is somewhat related to the topic of brands of which I'll have more to say later.

Tough Material


Leather is the classic tough luggage material. Before the first polymer for hardcases was ever invented and before the first nylon, the world had leather - and only leather - for its top-of-the-line bags.

Leather is a fine choice for tough luggage. That said, let's look at the different types of leather:

  • Premium leather or full grain leather or top grain leather. Taken from the outermost part or layer of the hide. Toughest and smoothest. That bears repeating: Toughest and smoothest. When rich people refer to leather this is what they mean; all the other leathers are simply not leather.

  • After full grain Leather we have split leather which is the next layer of hide after full grain leather. Careful with this one because it is most often given a kind of treatment to pass it off as top grain leather.

  • That "alligator" carry on that happens to be leather? Or that "calfskin" backpack that happens to be leather? Those are processed leathers.

There is another kind of leather that I won't even mention in company with the other ones. This is the utterly despicable laminated leather. A "leather" that has been created by combining leather scraps with adhesive. If you happen to have a laminated leather bag and see someone with a damaged piece of luggage, don't pity him. Envy him rather, his bag is only being held together with duct tape, yours is being held together by glue - and has been from the start.

Leather is extremely durable, and because the material is pricey and has the most prestige of all bag materials, leather bags will most likely be well-made. That said, leather will show heavy wear and scratching in time - unless greatly protected and well cared for. The fact that leather can be marked by time is actually a plus for me. There is something deeply appealing about a well-travelled and worn leather bag.

Leather luggage from Amazon


Hardcases come with either plastic or metal material.

Plastic hardcases are either polypropylene or polycarbonate. Go with polycarbonate - it will dent but its much harder to crack. Dented though your case may be but it will still protect its contents. unlike a well-worn leather suitcase, a badly dented well-travelled hardcase looks rather depressing; the well-worn and scratched leather luggage beside it looks romantic.

So I'm still recommending leather right? No, yes, not really. It's . . . before we go to that part lets go through the other kinds of hard cases.

Metal hardcases are either aluminum or carbon fiber.

Going back to recommendations. There is a particular kind of need, that, if you have this need, you have no choice but to go the hardcase route.

If you are transporting fragile material, material that cannot bear to be wet, sensitive electronic equipment in bulk, you are greatly encouraged to do so using a hardcase as a second option. The first option being keeping the items with you on your carry-on.

A properly packed hardcase or hard-side luggage will prevent not only crushing but even creasing of clothing.

The downside is that these rigid luggage will dent or crack rather than give. So they are tough, but only up to a point.

Regarding carry-on hardsides,they are notorious for being hard to store in the overhead bin because they won't conform to the available space. This very characteristic makes them perfect for protecting bottles of perfume, porcelain knick-knacks and whatnot.

Hardcase luggage from Amazon

Ballistic Nylon

During World War II a new material for flak jackets was developed. Flak jackets had to protect airmen from flying debris caused by bullets hitting the plane, therefore the material had to be tough. This material was called ballistic nylon and it is touted as one of the best, some say, the best material for high end, top-of-the-line, durable, tough luggage.

Not all ballistic nylon are created equal. You have to pay attention to the denier, or the thickness of the nylon yarn used to make the fabric. And you have to consider the weave.

Here are the two things you want for really tough luggage:

  1. Double-ply 1050 denier. This is the original top-of-the-line flak jacket material.

  2. Single-ply 1680 denier. The new kid on the block has thicker yarn but the single-ply weave make it lighter, while, presumbly, maintaining the toughness of classic, high end ballistic nylon.

A lot of people get the wrong idea when they hear the word "ballistic". The conclusion is that the fabric is somehow bulletproof like Kevlar. No, ballistic nylon was meant to catch shrapnel during the air campaigns of World War II, a bullet will go through it.

You might also encounter the word "Cordura" when asking about ballistic nylon. From the point of view of the traveller looking for tough luggage, Cordura is just the same as ballistic nylon - just as tough, just as good. From the technical standpoint Cordura fiber is "fuzzier" compared to the ballistic nylon fiber which is "shinier". Fabric made from Cordura look more cottony and natural while ballistic nylon is more high-tech looking. Cordura fabric is also friendly to dyes and therefore, comes in a range of colors. The hard-to-color ballistic nylon usually comes in plain black or shades of grey. Bottom line, if its Cordura you can treat it as if its ballistic nylon.

Aside from the durability, ballistic nylon also boasts stain resistance and abrasion resistance and tear resistance. Part of why it is heartily recommended by luggage specialists is because it is a rare occasion when you hear ballistic nylon being torn.

Check out ballistic nylon luggage in Amazon

Don't Rely On Warranties

Please don't be swayed by warranties when making a buy decision on luggage. Lifetime warranty, ten-year warranty. It doesn't matter. The majority of customers are of the opinion that the combination of shipping, waiting, and somtimes unavailability of a convenient service center makes any warranty simply not worth it.

Warranties are specially useless for major repairs, the kind were you can't use the bag. Even though it has a lifetime warranty, you're not going to send it out and wait for it to be repaired and sent back. You are going to have to buy a new bag. Ergo, the warranty is useless.

The solution is to buy luggage tough enough so that is simply won't break and leave you hanging. To assist you in this endeavor we have the concept of brands.

Brands Matter

Yes, one way of looking at brands is not as a product but as a concept. The concept of brands is that a shared consistent system of manufacturing and quality control has been used to make a piece of luggage. The logo means that the company that created the product is driven by a singular intent and it has implemented this intent or vision in a repeatable, consistent manner among all its products. You buy a brand you are buying a quality standard. The standard could very well be bad quality, but what we're interested in is tough luggage. The highest level quality. So we want the best brands. But more than that. Under each luggage brand are several collections. One of those collections is the top-of-the-line collection - the very best that the brand has to offer. This is what we want.

To begin, let's take two of the most highly regarded brands in luggage: Briggs & Riley and Tumi. By highly regarded I mean consistently getting four and five stars in Amazon's customer review section.

For Briggs & Riley, the top-of-the-line collection is called Baseline. Here's a great example of luggage from the Baseline collection.

Briggs & Riley @ Baseline Luggage Baseline Commuter Expandable Upright Suitcase, Black, Medium

Material? Ballistic nylon. Here's the detail on the weave.

ballistic nylon weave briggs & riley

The frame of this bag is a high tech fiber glass hybrid.

The back part is particularly interesting:

handles briggs & riley

Note the handles, those are exterior handles to they have to be protected - look at those metal casings outside the handle. The handles are described as v-grooved, and they are both comparatively stronger than regular handles and more resistant to jamming.

Let's take a closer look at the wheels.

wheels briggs & riley

See those wheels? Big, recessed, and reinforced.

Here's a closer look at the zippers.

zippers briggs & riley

Definitely heavy duty. The best zippers are YKK and that's what we have here.

This bag is designed for short trips to other continents - sort of the perfect long-distance weekender bag. There are many more designs from the Baseline collection.

More, you say. Check out this video.

Look at all Briggs & Riley Baseline bags in Amazon

Now let's head over to Tumi and their top-of-the-line collection: The Alpha 2. Here's a wonderful bag from that line:

Tumi Alpha 2 Large Wheeled Split Duffel, Espresso, One Size

I know our topic is toughness but look at all this space!

lots of space tumi

Before we go back to features that make this bag durable, check out this split layout.

extra compartment tumi

Here's the deal: Going to the trip, you store your stuff in both panels. As you go through your vacation the second smaller packing area can serve as a hamper, keeping your soiled clothes away from your new ones. Genius. Now for the tough part. First, ballistic nylon material

weave tumi

Recessed wheels.

wheels tumi

Internally located handles.

handles tumi

Here's more about the Alpha 2 Duffel from Tumi.

Don't want a split duffel? Check out the other bags from Tumi's Alpha 2 line

Thanks for joining me in this look at tough bags. Remember, the whole point on focusing on getting a tough bag is so that you don't need to focus on your bag during your trip. Speaking of trips, have a good one!

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