It's been almost a year since American Airlines started charging passengers for their first checked bag, a move that every other legacy airline quickly followed. It's taken almost that long for the luggage industry to catch up to that unfortunate new reality.
But it was worth the wait. Consider the standard 21-inch wheeled bag, the carry-on of choice for anyone trying to avoid checked luggage fees. Not since Travelpro introduced the first Rollaboard in 1987 have there been so many changes in its design.
The post-fee models feature all kinds of compelling innovations, including larger, more durable wheels, the use of lightweight materials and clever designs that let you stuff more of your belongings into less space.
"They're pushing the limit," says Pamela Pekerman, a luggage expert who founded the site Bagtrends.com.
But what to buy -- and when? Luggage sales dropped by 21 percent last year on sales of $1.8 billion, according to the Travel Goods Association, which represents manufacturers and retailers of travel products. That probably means there'll be some attractive deals on this new, must-have luggage.
Answering the "what" question is not as easy. I've been evaluating the best of the new wheeled bags, and I'm hard-pressed to declare a winner. In fact, most luggage experts I consulted with agreed on two things: There is no one-size-fits all wheeled bag and quality matters.
"You don't need to buy a $600 suitcase," says Michael Hess, the chief executive of business luggage manufacturer Skooba Design. "But you shouldn't be too cheap either. In this business, like many, you absolutely get what you pay for, and cheaply-made bags will simply not hold up."
Before I get to the candidates, I wanted to give a shout-out to two pre-fee bags that I'm in love with. The first is the Helen Rae wheeled bag. Yeah, I know, it's for women, but it's so maneuverable and fun to use, and I'm secure enough in my manhood to fly with one. The other is LowePro Rolling CompuTrekker Plus, which can accommodate my laptop, camera, lenses and a change of clothes. Plus, it rolls like a dream on oversized skate wheels. Both of these bags were ahead of their time.
- If looks mean a lot to you, you have to check out the Travelpro Platinum 6. This bag is pure eye-candy, with ample chrome and big wheels that seem to beg for custom rims. There's also room for an oversized laptop computer and the inside organizes smartly. My favorite feature is an extension handle that goes up to 43 inches -- so tall guys like me don't have to hunch over when we're walking through the terminal.
- For hard-core adventure travelers that travel with a laptop, I can't think of a better wheeled bag than the Pelican 1510 Laptop Overnight Case. I'm fairly certain this waterproof, crush-proof, dust-proof luggage would survive a plane crash. It feels like a rolling bank vault. At nearly 14 pounds, it isn't the lightest of the luggage that I tested, but then, none of the other carry-ons have an automatic pressure equalization valve or an O-ring seal.
- If you're looking for something adaptable, your bag's the Travelon wheeled carry-on. I tested the 20-inch version, and really liked the way its design tried to accommodate the limited space in an overhead compartment, as opposed to trying to wedge a square design into a rounded space. The polypropylene back panel made this among the lightest but sturdiest bags I tested.
- The Halliburton 21-inch polycarbonate Zero Roller is a guy's version of the Helen Rae carry-on. Its sleek, black design is an eye-pleaser, and its four-wheeled construction makes it exceptionally easy to push around. For extra security, there's a combination lock on the zipper. But my favorite Zero feature is a compartment just below the handle that holds tickets and valuables. How nifty.
- There are three wheeled carry-ons in the "sporty" category that are worth recommending. The Fishpond Lariat Carry-On Rolling Duffel has a rugged ballistic nylon design with extra-large zippers that are perfect for gloved hands. I wouldn't hesitate to take this one on my next ski trip. The Ogio Layover is a no-nonsense overnighter, which has one of the largest capacities of any of the luggage I evaluated. And the Eagle Creek Tarmac Plus One has an innovative zip-off daypack for items like paperwork, PDAs and laptops.
As you ponder these new bags, what should you be looking for? That all depends.
"You need to try to understand where you stand in the continuum of light-as-a-feather-so-I-can-pack-more versus rugged-road-warrior," says Peter Cobb, the co-founder of eBags.com. "The person interested in light-weight values -- being able to pack more, easier to fit in an overhead -- may trade off durability."
Patricia Lorenz, a professional speaker from Largo, Fla., told me luggage with "high-quality, large wheels and plenty of pockets" gets her vote. Monica Ricci, a professional organizer, likes carry-on luggage that can be used on any plane, or even checked. "I like to buy flexible luggage," she says. "Some carry-on bags are even too large for small commuter planes, and will end up being gate-checked as you board. So choose a carry-on bag that you'd feel comfortable checking if you absolutely had to, because sometimes you will have to."
Another thing to keep in mind: bigger isn't necessarily better. And that's particularly true for international travelers, says Vijay Melwani, the president of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based luggage retailer Premier Travelware. "Each international airline has certain size and weight restrictions for carry-on luggage that should be researched before traveling," he warns.
I haven't taken any of these bags on the road with me -- yet. But I will, and I'll report back when I do.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2009 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.