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?”
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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.
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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.
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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.
Travelpro Platinum Elite Spinner
Travelpro is frequently cited as a favorite of airline industry professionals. Wirecutter has stood by Travelpro in every update of their best carry-on luggage guide, and a slew of other publications agree that this brand is a go-to. They’ve received praise for the high-quality nylon construction, well-thought-out design, and lifetime warranty.
Briggs & Riley Baseline
Briggs & Riley have also won accolades from Wirecutter, Outdoor Gear Lab, and other extensive testing sites. Ballistic nylon and a fiberglass frame surround a compression system that should work for even the most enthusiastic overpacker.
Rimowa is known for its anodized aluminum construction and ridged aircraft-inspired design, accented on the classic model with two leather handles. If you’re looking for “spare no expense” style, this is it. Brad Meyer recommends Rimowa “if you want a carry-on bombproof aluminum case to show off that you have a bit of style.”
You can’t go wrong with Tumi in general. With their Tegra-Lite luggage line, they obtained the rights to use the new Tegris material, a polypropylene thermoplastic compound designed for use in armor, race cars, and NFL protective gear.
Delsey Helium Aero
This popular luggage brand got thoroughly put through the wringer in Skyscanner’s “Suitcase Must Die” testing, surviving even a car being dropped on it. If it can take that, it can likely handle any TSA bag handler short of the Hulk. It also has an external pocket with a laptop sleeve, a rarity for a hardshell model.
Founded by Tumi and Louis Vuitton alumni, direct-to-consumer brand Arlo Skye has honed their luggage design with accents like aircraft-grade aluminum alloy and virgin polycarbonate. Rather than potentially weak zippers, the aluminum frame closes with two combination locks and forms a cap over the corners to prevent them from caving in.
“Samsonite is a brand I keep returning to,” says Leora Rothschild, president of Rothschild Safaris. “I stray… but haven’t found a bag that really can out-travel my trusty Samsonite. And my luggage must look and feel indestructible. All the moving parts (telescope handle, wheels, zippers, and grips) must move smoothly, solidly and with little or no noise, and continue to do so year on year.” The full SxK line features backpacks, duffels, and a wheeled carry-on reinforced with Kevlar.
To buy: samsonite.com, $360
Tortuga Outbreaker Backpack
This durable backpack, also exceedingly popular across other review sites, has the same rectangular shape as your favorite carry-on plus the portability of backpack straps and a slew of interior organizational pockets. It’s designed from flexible, waterproof sailcloth and seals with coated YKK zippers to protect the interior no matter the weather.
To buy: tortugabackpacks.com, $299
Osprey has long set the bar for backpacks, whether you’re navigating the trail or the airport. The Farpoint and its companion Fairview (the latter specifically designed for women) are some of the best travel backpacks out there based on both extensive reviewer praise and personal experience. You can get them in 40, 55, and 70-liter models for however many souvenirs you expect to bring home.
Kosan Travel Pack System
The founders of Kosan set out to design a bag that would merit a lifetime warranty and minimize the frequent “pregnant turtle” backpacker look with a hands-free two-bag system. Both the daypack and larger backpack can be worn in their backpack or messenger/duffle configurations.
To buy: kosantravel.com, $365 (originally $429)
Don’t call it a backpack. This Special Forces-approved rucksack company provides a lifetime warranty for all of their gear, and the GR1 is their classic flagship model.
To buy: goruck.com, $315 (originally $395)
Patagonia Black Hole Duffel
Outside, Gear Patrol, and Outdoor Gear Lab all subjected duffle bags to some rigorous stress testing and the Black Hole received consistently high marks across the board. With capacity from 45 to 120 liters, there’s a Black Hole to hold your belongings for a trip of any duration.
To buy: ebags.com, $80 (originally $99)
Fjallraven Duffel No. 6
These duffels are made of the Heavy Duty Eco version of Fjallraven’s G-1000 fabric, comprised of recycled polyester and organic cotton, over a base layer of polyurethane-treated nylon for extra protection.
To buy: amazon.com, $180
Sea Bags Duffel
Feeling more nautically inclined? Sea Bags makes their duffels out of recycled Dacron sails and marine-grade zippers, all handmade in Portland, Maine.
To buy: seabags.com, $250
Paravel Mainline Duffel
Paravel uses a treated woven cotton canvas in their lightweight, stylish bags for water and spill resistance while minimizing any excess load. Co-founder Andy Krantz believes luggage should be “a steadfast traveling companion that brings the excitement of the journey to the moment you start packing.”
To buy: tourparavel.com, $285
Tom Bihn Aeronaut 45
The Aeronaut is a minimalist packer favorite, especially given its ability to be worn as a backpack or duffel and organized interior pocket system, with Aeronaut priding themselves on their lifetime guarantee because “true love lasts forever.”
To buy: tombihn.com, $295