Even the most minimalist packer would prefer to arrive at their destination with their belongings in their possession rather than splashed out across the airport floor after a busted zipper. And to do that, you need your luggage to hold up.
“Personally, I see durability in luggage to be trust,” says Paul Choi, director of men’s design and product development at Orvis. “How much do I trust this piece of luggage to fulfill its primary purpose of protecting my property safely through transportation, whether that be everyday carry to the office or travel for business and pleasure. How much do I trust this bag to last and continue to deliver on that purpose?”
According to the multiple experts we spoke to, there are a few key areas that you’ll want to consider when investigating a bag for durability. Outside attachments, like handles and wheels, as well as junctions like seams and zippers are your most likely fail points and where the construction difference on a better bag will really come into play.
“I would always look at the wheels first,” says Brad Meyer, co-founder and design director at Boundary. “This part gets abused the most, and when they break, it’s like driving on a flat tire.”
The number of wheels on your bag mostly comes down to personal preference. More important is that they’re made of rubber, rather than plastic, and can be replaced individually just in case you get a flat.
Look for a telescopic handle that can be extended and put away easily. It shouldn’t wobble when extended, and shouldn’t protrude or seem likely to snag on things when collapsed. Your side handles should be firmly attached and capable of handling the weight of the full bag when you’re carrying it. You’ll also want to aim for a self-sealing coil zipper and a well-known brand like Riri or YKK. Zippers are especially important on a hardshell bag, since they’ll be under more stress.
Ultimately, you’re looking for the perfect combination of materials and construction. “The most durable materials don’t matter if they are sewn together with weak seams,” says Jeff Rang, design director at OGIO. “Using an ultra-durable ballistic nylon doesn’t matter if the zippers are cheap and fail first. A piece of luggage is only as durable as its weakest point so it’s really important to choose a bag that doesn’t cut corners on either materials (fabric and hardware) or construction.”
If you choose a hardshell case, you’re getting better protection for the contents and likely a higher level of water resistance. In trade, you accept the possibility of it cracking or breaking when abused, more visible wear and tear if the finish chips or scratches, and less flexibility in terms of what you can cram into it. Though that does mean that overpackers won’t run the risk of overstuffing to the point of not fitting in the overhead bin. Aluminum and virgin polycarbonate are the most resistant to rough handling.
With a softshell case, your belongings don’t have the same level of external protection, but you can likely pack more of them. You’ll also be more likely to get exterior pockets and a longer lifespan. Think about the difference between dropping, say, a stuffed packing cube versus a plastic CD case. The more brittle CD case is more likely to crack or scratch, whereas the softer, flexible cube can absorb the shock of rough handling. Look for materials like Cordura or ballistic nylon, dense fabrics that resist abrasion and tearing.
“There is no such thing as indestructible luggage, if there were it would weigh a ton and cost more than anyone could afford,” says Don Chernoff, former materials science engineer and president of SkyRoll Luggage. Eventually, something can go wrong with even the best-made bag. You want a company that will stand by their products enough to fix it for you when that happens. Make sure your bag comes with a warranty you feel good about.
Almost all of these brands make far more models than we can highlight here, and their quality (and warranty) should carry across the product line whether you’re going carry-on, checked luggage, or searching for a full durable luggage set with matching color coordination.