A squeaky wheel gets the grease, except when it’s on a wheelie bag you’re pulling behind you.
“Nothing is as irritating as a roll-behind bag with one loose or squeaky wheel,” says frequent business traveler Ken Walker. “Rolling it into a meeting going ‘WEE-ki-da, WEE-ki-da, WEE-ki-da’ does NOT make a good first impression.”
Maybe you profess not to care what people say about your squeaky wheel or the bag it’s attached to, but chances are there are people on your gift list who do, whether it’s your bag or theirs. For them, and perhaps for you if you’ve been good this year, here are five bags worth carrying.
Best All-Purpose Carry-On: Briggs & Riley 20” Upright Bag, $235
When you buy a carry-on, especially for someone else, you need to answer a critical question: Can the bag actually be carried on the plane?
Lots of bags have “carry on” or “roll-aboard” in their titles, and the luggage salesman who isn’t already taking his cue from the manufacturer will assure you that almost any bag you ask about is indeed a carry-on. As you shop, rely instead on a rule of thumb: Most airlines require that a carry-on’s combined dimensions (length + width + height) not exceed 45 inches. This means that many bags you’ll be considering will fall within the 20” to 22” height range. Have a tape measure handy.
Many airlines also mandate that a carry-on not exceed 40 pounds, so keep in mind that most 20”-22” bags weigh between 8-10 lbs empty. Victorinox’s 20” model weights in at 7.8 lbs, London Fog’s 21” upright at 9.5 lbs, and Travelpro’s Crew 7 22” expandable roll-aboard at 9.7 lbs. These were my favorite bags in this category for their overall craftsmanship and useful features, but ahead of the pack was the Briggs & Riley 20” Carry-On Upright, 42.5 inches total (20” x 14” x 8.5”) and 8.7 lbs empty.
Thoughtfully, the bag’s retractable handle is attached to the outside, not embedded in the back of the case, affording more flat packing inside. Outside, nestled between the handle in what’s normally wasted space is a long, protruding zip-pocket that should be handy for something, though nothing too valuable, please. There are two more handles on the top and side and, smartly, another handle on the bottom of the bag. And if the bag is damaged - “even if it was caused by an airline,” per the company’s guarantee - repairs are free.
The bag’s a looker, too. Of the available colors, “sunset” is a better-looking and smokier red than images suggest, and the shade could skew masculine or feminine. Plus, it really can’t hurt to have a distinctive color carry-on crammed in the bin while fellow passengers are pawing for their black bags.
Coolest Suiter: The SkyRoll Garment Bag, $149.99
Let’s get something straight: “suiter” is not a real word. It was made up by the luggage industry to describe a bag designed to hold a suit. Several carry-ons have a suiter compartment or features - in some cases nothing more than a glorified hanger. Garment bags, of course, are primarily dedicated to suits, and the SkyRoll does the garment bag one better. Load in your suits as you would with any garment bag, and then roll it around and clip it to a provided cylinder, inside which you can pack other clothes and even shoes, assuming your feet haven’t grown above size 13. Once the two pieces are attached, you zip the sides and carry on the roll as a 22” long shoulder duffel bag.
Best Three-Way: High Sierra 22” Expandable Wheeled Duffel, $260
One of the truest tests of a good wheelie bag isn’t its ability to execute an R2D2-like twirl on multi-directional wheels or for the wheels themselves to be cute and unobtrusive; the wheelie’s moment of truth comes when you switch surfaces or pick up speed: Will the bag keep rolling or fishtail and topple?
I subjected several bags to the 'Race to the Gate' test and 'Wheeling the Bag Off The Curb to the Street' test, running with wheelies in tow and wrenching them on and off platforms, pleased for the sake of research that the store’s luggage department staff was ignoring me.
With its substantial, corner-mounted wheels, High Sierra’s AT556 Drop Bottom Expandable Wheeled Duffel performed well with a “Bring it, moron” attitude to my testing, which matches its unapologetic sports bag look. Thick exterior buckle straps aren’t pretty, but they’ll girdle the bag if you unzip the 2.5” expansion pocket; unexpanded, the bag measures 22" x 13" x 9”and is a shade under 9 lbs empty. Like many carry-ons, it can be wheeled vertically or carried horizontally, but it also has easily storable backpack straps. The “drop bottom” will extend if necessary to accommodate shoes, and there’s a simple soft-zippered panel inside that’ll capably quarantine funky clothes.
Best Guilt-Free Indulgence: J. Crew Da Vinci 72-Hour Travel Bag, $695
Leather detailing, two-tone zippers, and organic materials make the Want Organic for J.Crew Da Vinci 72-hour travel bag a chic and solid pick for the woman or man at the top of your gift list.
You’ll get several karmic brownie points for the bag’s organic Turkish cotton, sustainable Norwegian leather, and bio-colored zippers bag, but there’s also a high concept at work here: The bag was designed in partnership with Montreal-based bagmaker Want Essentiels de la Vie, which gears the size of its luggage toward the length of a 24-, 48-, or 72-hour trip. The Da Vinci amply accommodates a three-day jaunt and has several sturdy pockets inside. At 13" x 21" x 8 ¼ it’s also a qualified carry-on, and of course, at its current price, its recipient will want to keep it in sight at all times. The bag’s lined and finished with brass hardware and given J.Crew’s durability standards ought to hold up over time.
Laptop-Briefcase-Overnighter Hybrid: Kensington SaddleBag Notebook Carrying Case, $59.99
Some laptop bags are too small to be briefcases and vice versa, while some bigger briefcases are so multi-task resistant you wouldn’t dare try to cram clothing into one of its precious specialized compartments. The Kensington K64079 SaddleBag Notebook Carrying Case is the Trojan Horse of road warriordom, unofficially straddling the lines between laptop case, organizer, and change-of-clothes repository.
One of the self-described selling points of the bag, which I’ve owned for years, is that its nondescript, somewhat boxy appearance doesn’t scream out that there’s a laptop inside. That’s true - the bag effectively hid my spectacularly bulky 14.1 Mac G3 for years; you also can’t tell by looking that ample foam padding shores up the laptop compartment as well as the entire bottom of the bag.
It wasn’t until I switched to a smaller laptop that I realized the potential for cramming in clothes. A second roomy interior pocket has held clothing as well as sneakers. A third, exterior organizer pocket that's shielded by the saddlebag flap, forgivingly accommodates a lot of electronics and receipts. A zip-pocket in the front flap is an easy choice for magazines and a small umbrella, and the back zip-pocket has a nice surprise: backpack straps that attach to metal rings at the bag’s bottom. You can also carry the bag by its padded handle or shoulder strap, and the fact that the bag is designed vertically - it’s 14.25"L X 16.5"H X 6.5"W - means that its longest side is pointing south and won’t protrude as much when you’re negotiating a crowded aisle or street.
Kensington has discontinued its two-tone black with brown trim model, regrettable because that style has provoked many women travelers to ask where I got it. The basic black model is more aggressively masculine. So if you know a boy with lots of toys, including a laptop, this could be his brand new bag.