New hard-sided luggage tells hard truths about air travel

If you’re looking for new luggage, I have good news and bad news.

The latest travel bags, available just in time for the holidays, are the most exciting ones I’ve seen in years. Thanks to tracking technology, they’re harder to lose. They weigh themselves with integrated digital scales. And they’re loaded with innovations that help you save space and time.

The bad news? Most of the latest and greatest bags are hard-sided, which suggests a change in the air — and on the ground.

Hard-sided luggage accounted for almost 8 percent of the U.S. luggage market by volume in 2010, according to the Travel Goods Association, a trade group. By 2015, that figure had doubled to slightly more than 16 percent. No one knows exactly why hard-sided luggage is gaining in popularity. But some see it as a symptom of a decline in civility.

“The trend towards hard-sided luggage — and away from more compromising, soft-sided luggage — isn’t just about protecting what’s inside,” says etiquette expert April Masini. “It’s a way for passengers to mark their space and get as much of it as possible when it comes to coveted overhead bin storage.”

The number of violent in-flight confrontations is on the rise, according to the International Air Transport Association, a trade organization. It reported a total of 10,854 air-rage incidents last year, up 14 percent from 2014. Crew members tell me one of the biggest flash points is carry-on luggage, particularly arguments about overhead bin space.

“Hard-sided luggage comes across as unyielding, more powerful,” says Diane Gottsman, founder of the Protocol School of Texas.

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Whatever the cost to civility, today’s hard-sided luggage is more artful and creative than ever before. Case in point: The new Bluesmart Black Edition ($599). Bluesmart is the gold standard in the emerging smart luggage field. The Black Edition is a thoughtfully designed carry-on that allows you to access your laptop without opening the entire bag. But it does much more, including weighing your checked luggage, tracking it and remotely locking it via a smartphone app. The Black Edition has rubber wheels and a double layer polyurethane coating for extra scratch and water resistance as well as a polycarbonate exterior hard shell. The only drawback: It’s a little pricey.

Raden’s A22 ($295) will speak to your inner minimalist. It offers many of the same features as the Bluesmart, including tracking, a built-in digital scale and charger, but with a sleek design. Everything about the Raden is understated, including the wheels, which are small but glide effortlessly on almost any surface. The interior design is something to love, with separate compartments that eliminate the need for luggage cubes. I also really liked the oversize laundry bag. Downside: The black exterior scuffs easily.

True to its Swiss Army heritage, the Victorinox Spectra Expandable Compact Global Carry-On ($379) hard-case design looks both functional and menacing. If you want to claim more space, no problem; just unzip it and it expands from a depth of 7.9 inches to 9.1 inches. Take that, bin hogs. But the Spectra’s insides, with its practically designed, interchangeable electronics pouch, make it a work of art. My only criticism: The zippers can be a little sticky.

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The Away Carry-On ($225) offers many of the features you would expect from the next generation of hard-sided carry-ons, without the steep price. It comes with a built-in combination lock, a removable battery and two USB ports. The premium German polycarbonate shell takes a great picture and doesn’t pick up dirt and debris the way some of the more expensive models do. The inside is spare, but if you use luggage cubes to scrunch your clothes into a small space, it’s perfect. Away based its internal luggage design on frequent-traveler surveys that asked how people pack and what could make their travel experience “more seamless.” The wheels offered a little resistance when I used the bag, but I expect they’ll loosen up with some use.

If you need even more room, you might try the Samsonite Stryde Glider Long Journey ($289). With its futuristic, almost paramilitary exterior design, this luggage looks like it could withstand a drop from 36,000 feet. Samsonite widened its handle system and lowered the bag’s center of gravity for extra maneuverability. At 22.25 by 24.25 by 13 inches, the Long Journey must be checked, but your baggage handlers will give this hard-sided bad boy the respect it deserves. The interior features several useful pockets and double cross straps, so your clothes don’t come tumbling out when you open it. Still, I’d recommend using a cube system to keep everything organized.

Don’t want to go with hard-sided luggage? There’s one soft-sided bag that you should consider. The Barracuda Carry-on ($349) is a collapsible bag made of polycarbonate ballistic nylon and aircraft-grade aluminum. The flexible round “halo” handle makes it look like no other luggage you’ve seen, and the bag comes with many smart-luggage features, such as a recharger and location tracking. And get this: The handle extends into a combination laptop table and cup holder. Awesome. Downside: If you’re looking for maneuverability, note that this bag only has two wheels. But it’s a smooth ride.

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If you’re planning to fly anywhere in 2017, you’re already an unwitting participant in the space wars. Multifunctional luggage will offer a small but important advantage. These carry-ons can do everything except find an empty overhead bin. But I’m sure they’re working on that, too.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • sirwired

    You’ll pry my Briggs and Riley carry-on out of my cold, dead, road-weary hands. An Everything Guaranteed Forever warranty, and quality construction that ensures you are unlikely to need it. (Over a decade, and I haven’t even had to replace so much as a zipper pull.) Many otherwise-good (and expensive!) bags exclude airline damage and zippers, and many lousy bags “pay” for a lifetime warranty by being overpriced for the bag you get.

    One thing to note about hard-side luggage is that it’s more vulnerable to being damaged itself, and if your valuables are in contact with the shell, the shell provides no more protection than soft-sided luggage. (If the bag is dropped, the shock has to go somewhere, and if your fragile item is right up against the shell, your fragile item will be taking the hit along with the rest of the bag.)

  • Jeff W.

    You didn’t even review the Modobag, the new bag that you can actually sit on and ride. Why walk between gates when you can sit on your luggage and drive there? And it still is small and light enough to be used as carry on.

    Not sure I really need such a feature, but that just goes to show you that there are new things coming to luggage all of the time.

  • disqus_00YDCZxqDV

    Bags with wheels on are a relatively new innovation. How on earth did they not get invented earlier?

  • Bill___A

    When I am putting a bag in the overhead bin, it takes up whatever space it needs, hard sided or not. I have never heard (before) of overhead baggage space being a reason to have a hard sided piece of luggage. It certainly wouldn’t be on my list. As far as the Bluesmart bag is concerned, mine sits at home most of the time My Bluesmart bag needs to be charged frequently, and rather than it being a spare battery that can be used to charge a mobile phone, it is merely something else that needs to be charged. I have to set it up in the hotel room near the charger so I can attach the charge cable. I found I prefer to leave it at home. One of the USB ports inside is a lug that uses far too much space.

    The luggage tracking, although perhaps more valuable than not having it, is useless to me due to the limited amount of times it seems I can use it.

    I had great expectations of Bluesmart, but I’ve been disappointed. It is too big and not heavy enough to use as a book end, too light and big to use as a doorstop, and too poorly designed for me to use as a suitcase.

  • AJPeabody

    In the interest of transparency, did you purchase the bags yourself or were they donated by the manufacturers?

    And, in the interest of useful knowledge, what do each of them weigh empty? Those of us who are faced with 8Kg carry-on weight limits don’t want to use a large portion on the bag itself.

  • If you are traveling carry on only, soft sided is best. You don’t need hard sided because you are handling your own luggage. And as stated by others, the extra weight cuts into the weight allowance. Storing hard sided luggage under your seat or in the overhead also becomes more difficult, as it won’t yield to all the odd shaped spaces that appear all over the airplane.
    That means hard sided is only useful if you are checking your bags.
    I personally travel with lightweight carry on bags that weigh under a kg.

  • Noah Kimmel

    for anyone on this site, Briggs and Riley is 100% the BEST bag I have ever had with customer service that would pass the Elliott test – repair or replace, even if accidental damage, no questions asked.

  • Noah Kimmel

    I’ve had all kinds of bags…some of the hard ones are lighter than the soft ones that need plastic or cardboard sides to stay in place then covered in fabric. It’s about the specific bag! I’d recommend a bag with strong nylon on the outside – waterproof, soft, lightweight. I like a 4 wheel spinner and prefer one that is expandable with handle stuff outside the packing compartment to maximize space

  • greg watson

    I paid $49 at Bentley for my carry on. It has been perfect for 3 day or 2 week trips. I have had it for about 10 years. I really can’t get excited over these, especially at those prices. I still would prefer a few nicer
    meals, or another glass of wine. I guess someone is always re-inventing the mouse trap ?

  • PsyGuy

    Here in Japan, almost everyone travels with hard sided luggage. It’s seen as more durable, but more so it’s a style issue.

    I prefer soft sided for my carry-on it can flex a little more when going into a bin. The checked baggage I do have though is a set and it’s hard sided, though I rarely use it.

  • PsyGuy

    Who would put anything valuable inside a checked bag?

    I like your taste though, B&R makes some very good baggs though, I loved mine until it was stolen.

  • PsyGuy

    Would agree, but thieves seem to know that too.

  • PsyGuy

    You’re not on the road all the time. For those of us road warriors your bag is your home, your car, and over a lifetime you can feel every once, every turn that doesn’t require a pivot point. The organization can save you years in packing and unpacking. Things like the handle it’s texture design materials literally can save your hands or destroy them.

  • PsyGuy

    Yeah but they look stupid, and they are slow, and did I mention they look stupid.

  • PsyGuy

    Had to wait for the wheel.

  • PsyGuy

    Soft sided bags also squish better into bins. I also got to use the word “squish” today, so there’s that.

  • PsyGuy

    Well yeah, that’s how you get a better mousetrap, a better meal, and better wine is reinvention.

  • greg watson

    I guess that some people are just spending money, that they have too much of, or spending money that they don’t have, to be ‘trendy’. I love bright colours, but if black is cheaper { for the same item}, then black it is. It’s all about functionality for me.

  • RightNow9435

    Exactly right——-even the lowest-priced bags are well beyond what I would pay. The bags I have now cost a fraction of that, get a lot of use, and hold up well. And I don’t have to worry that my “$300 bag got damaged by the airline/TSA”.

  • Annie M

    The plus of hard sided luggage is that for a carry on, you can’t overstuff it so it should always firbas a carry on providing you bought a carry on size. Some soft sided luggage is so overstuffed that it no longer fits in overhead.

    All my luggage is hard sided and I don’t know that I’d buy it again when it’s time to replace. I miss having outer pockets for travel documents and if it cracks its good for nothing. I bought a cover that I put on it when traveling to prevent scuff marks.

  • Hanope

    People used to check more luggage and use the airport luggage carts (which also all used to be free, years ago). Once checked luggage became an extra fee, more people brought carry-ons, which meant they had to drag them through the entire airport. hence wheels.

  • bpepy

    I don’t like hard sided luggage because it doesn’t fit on luggage racks! With soft sided, it has a zipped cover (or flap) which is the opening. You put it on the rack, zip it open and there are all you belongings. With hard sided, you open it in the middle and have two sides to put on the rack. I have a very nice Triton spinner hard sided which I almost never use. It’s fine if I’m going somewhere where I will stay awhile, but going from place to place and living out of my suitcase, I use an old Atlantic that’s beat up, but no one would steal!

  • DChamp56

    It wasn’t clear to me until late in the article that you were talking about carry-on bags.
    I was actually excited about the features, until I found that out. Personally, I fly with one large checked bag, and a backpack that easily fits beneath the seat in front of me. Watching the people scurry for open space above is comical, and a bit sad when you see the size of some of these things.

  • I watched the entire Barracuda video and found it amazing. I would seriously consider it, but I live in Europe, so shipping would be an issue. However, the secondary issue is that every airline has different measurements for a carry-on. Some are quite frugal. It would be horrifying to spend this much on a carry-on only to have to check it at the airport, where many airlines (Europe) are now charging an additional fee is you have not declared your intention online.

  • just me

    The real problem is that there is no set standard for the carry-on bag size.
    Airplanes are virtually the same (safe for some exceptions) and we all know that the carry-on bin can handle a lot of load. But size and weight limits set by airlines and enforced by underpaid contract employees in most of the world.
    There are normal airlines that allow total of 3 dimension at 45 inches and pack as much as you can. And than you have super idiotic 17 lbs limit set by LOT. Mind you the shell itself weights about 8 lbs.
    When asked – with straight face they give super rational safety answer: “When bags start flying inside th airplane you’ll appreciate that they are light”. Right on.

  • ctporter

    I have a 21.5″ BR carry on that I have flown over 550k miles with and it still is great. I can attest to not needing the warranty. No torn zippers, lost pulls, cracked handles or wheels, tears in the fabric, or other damage. It gets checked about half of the time. No other bag has held up as well for me. I have been looking to see if Costco would carry it again without success ever since I bought it there (for about half of what they normally cost). The thing that I most appreciate is the “sweet spot” of balance it has whether I am teething a backpack or smaller bag or using it solo, it remains very easy to tow. Some bags never have that sweet spot for weight balance, making your arms sore dragging them through carpeted hotel hallways and long airport terminals. I have a hard time thinking that people would buy those hard sided bags to ensure they have overhead space? That seems a bit far fetched to me. I would believe they bought the hard side type after using an inexpensive fabric style and noted how poorly they hold up even on just a very few flights.

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