New hard-sided luggage tells hard truths about air travel

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Christopher Elliott

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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 the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Tokyo.

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