It doesn’t matter what kind of traveler you are, you need some kind of luggage - it’s the one thing we all have in common, whether on business or pleasure, long trip or short, by car, bus, train or plane, near by or to remote corners of the globe.
I’ve spent the last 25 years visiting places around the world, traveling light, heavy, with skis, bikes, golf clubs, tuxedos and sometimes little more than the shirt on my back. I’ve tried just about every style of luggage, talked to fellow road warriors, industry experts, and frequent travelers from just about every walk of to narrow down the best options for different needs.
The good news is that luggage keeps getting better and more well-designed, and 2019 is a great time to be packing for a trip. Here is the best of what’s new out there.
The "One Bag Life": Could it actually be possible to get all this stuff into a normal sized carry-on backpack?
For The Never-Ever Checker: There is a common type of traveler obsessed with carry-on only, who feels about going to the baggage carousel to retrieve checked luggage the way other people do about getting teeth drilled at the dentist. I have to say I am definitely not one of those obsessed with not checking bags, but if you are, especially in a day and age where most airlines charge hefty fees, you simply cannot do better in terms of a one bag solution than the Knack Bag. Just when I thought no one could cram more features into a single backpack, this came along.
I was turned onto this by a friend who is a lawyer frequently traveling from New Hampshire to DC, and he can go down to the nation’s capital, stay a couple of nights, work out at the hotel, go to the office, and testify before Congress in a suit and tie, and do it all easily out of this bag -while carrying laptop, tablet and files to work on the plane. Knack Bags founders include former Tumi, Coach and North Face execs, and CEO Chad Mellen calls this the “One Bag Life.” He told me that “Knack’s key point of difference is that we eliminate the need for most people to have two bags: a work bag and a travel bag. We offer a collection of stylish, lightweight everyday business laptop backpacks that also have a hidden, expandable travel compartment that packs just like a suitcase.”
It looks like a streamlined commuter/computer backpack, but opens in butterfly fashion to reveal a separate spacious expandable main compartment with a see through pocket, compression straps, and concealable shoulder straps if you want to carry it like a briefcase. It’s packed with thoughtful touches like a zip-away side water bottle pocket especially designed to carry today’s popular larger metal versions such as S’well or 24-ounce Hydro Flask - and they won’t fall out if you turn the bag over or as you pull it out of the overhead bin. It’s got a hidden padded computer slot pocket, easy access to business items like pens and cards, a fleece protected tablet pocket and just tons of organizational features, all perfectly located and ultra-accessible. If you love traveling light and/or love brilliant design, the Knack Bag is for you. In two colors and two sizes, medium (17-31 liter) and large (22-37), $175 & $195.
Can you believe this garment bag and sharp leather duffel are the same piece of luggage? It's brilliant, and one of the coolest luggage designs on the market!
For The Sharp Dresser: Like I said, great new designs and features keep rolling out in the luggage market, and this is one of the coolest I’ve seen. Hook & Albert is a high-end designer and manufacturer of quality, great looking luggage with a focus on hand work and the best materials. They make a dizzying array of products, and they are all gorgeous, but the one that wowed me was the Garment Weekender, which they call “the perfect duffel,” and they are right.
You really have to see the site and very short video to fully appreciate its genius, but I’ll give it a try: It’s both a classic bi-fold garment bag and a duffel. You lay it flat, open the long center zipper, pop in your suits or shirts or dresses, then zip it up. Two shorter wings stick out either side and your shoes go in these. Then it sort of rolls into a duffle shape and the end wings zip closed, leaving you with a roomy center compartment for all your other stuff, from laptop to books to toilet kit, whatever. You get the packing power of a duffel with the wrinkle free functionality of a great garment bag, all in a piece of easily carried-on luggage that looks good checking into the world’s poshest 5-Star hotels. There are several color and material options, including ballistic fabric, twill and all-leather, as well as two-tone leather hipster style models, with or without extra outside accessory pockets, from $440-$640. Unlike most companies, they also make a dedicated women’s model, larger capacity and more fashionable ($640). Watch the video and then try not to order one - it is brilliant!
Thule's new Revolve spinner lets you pack everything you need, keep it orderly and neat, and move it easily and stylishly.
Luxury For The Long Haul: Sweden’s Thule has spent three quarters of a century carving out a reputation for design and manufacturing excellence in all things storage when it comes to automobile travel (ski racks, bike racks, rooftop cargo boxes), so it made sense for them to expand from rooftop luggage to all luggage, with decades of expertise and a sleek, aerodynamic-driven Scandinavian design aesthetic. Thule started several years ago with backpacks, computer bags, camera bags and a slew of organizers, and they’ve done very well - I’ve used their amazing Aspect DSLR camera backpack on assignment for years. But for 2019 they just took the plunge into the top tier of today’s luggage, the 4-wheel upright spinner market, where they stand toe-to-toe with the luxury giants of the industry. For those who want to bring a lot of stuff that is very well protected, organized and kept neat in a light package that is super easy to roll and transport, 4-wheel spinners are the way to go, and this is why the category has been so hot for years.
I’ve been testing Thule’s largest checked new Revolve domestically and abroad, I’m impressed. Because I already have half a dozen other brands in this style, I can note the often subtle differences that matter, like the internal corner protectors adding rigidity and soft protective felt lining rather than simple exposed plastic. It’s sleek, it’s good looking, and it’s more rigidly protective at the same light weight than most other spinners. It has great heavy-duty double wheels (so actually it’s an 8-wheel spinner), bigger in the back for stability on rough terrain or when you go to 2-wheel mode, while the handle is very strong and well-integrated, so it disappears completely when closed, and is extra-long when fully up, to support pretty much any size duffel on top for easy rolling. It’s got an adjustable compression strap system on one side that actually keeps stuff in place when you flip it open, unlike many other models, and a full zip barrier to enclose the other side, with mesh pockets for organizing small items. The built-in TSA combo lock is nicely recessed to prevent damage, a neat snap-shut edge design makes closing the zippers faster and easier, and it’s just a very solid all-around piece of engineering. The new Revolve line is available in four sizes, from carry-on to a big checked version, and in several colors ($400-$550).
A do it all, hold it all, move it all machine, Kathmandu's 100 L Split-Level Trolley rolling duffel is also a great value.
For The Globetrotter/Adventurer: Who says you can’t have it all? Sometimes you travel heavy, and when I load up for a long trip, tough environments, or have a lot of sports gear such as ski stuff, I go rolling duffel. You get maximum packing volume at minimum weight while still enjoying the benefits of wheeled mobility and long-term durability. You also get a lot of bang for the buck, and this is especially true of my current fave in this category, Kathmandu Outdoor’s 100L Split-Level Trolley. If you travel a lot you will recognize the brand, as Kathmandu was founded more than 30 years ago in New Zealand, and is now one of the most popular outdoor gear brands in Australasia and Europe, with full-service retail stores and complete lineup of adventure, camping and travel clothing, packs and more. They just started selling online in the United States, and they make great stuff at great prices.
As the name suggests, this bag is a bit of monster with 100-liter capacity, about as much as you’ll get in any bag (though they make an even bigger 120 liter rolling duffel, the “Super Tanker”) but still at a very light weight. Unlike most duffels it has a three-sided zipper lid and opens like a book to make access and packing much more organized than a normal top loading duffel without sacrificing space. The main compartment is deep and perfect for sports travel, where you can stow gear like ski boots, bike shoes and helmets, hiking boots and more, while the lid has several deep and spacious organizational zippered packing cells built into the inside. It’s got smooth rolling large wheels, a telescoping handle and easy access documents pocket on the outside, both internal and external compression straps for really packing things in, and six different grab handles for lifting, carrying or securing it any way you want. With lots of space, features, and durability at $240, you won’t find much more value in luggage than this one.
YETI is world famous for its coolers, but also now makes great totally waterproof, ultra-durable duffels in three large sizes.
For When You’ve Got To Stay Dry: YETI built a cult following for its amazingly efficient and incredibly tough coolers, and has more recently expanded that into over-engineered water bottles, drinkware, coffee cups, thermoses, and all things insulated, watertight and built for abuse. YETI fan are obsessed with the company’s quality, and I’ve tried a lot of their stuff, from hard coolers to portable soft ones, amazing insulated bottles, the best car coffee mug on the market and especially their total overkill beer can cozies. Even the lids of their cups and bottles are inventively engineered new designs. YETI coolers have always been the gold standard of river guides, rafting trips and commercial and amateur fishermen, so it makes sense that they’ve expanded into waterproof luggage. The Panga 100 is their largest model, an utterly waterproof soft duffel that features a molded EVA (synthetic rubber) base, multi-layer laminated high-density nylon “thickskin” shell, YETI’s proprietary hydro-lock zippers (same as on the amazing soft coolers), plus two easy access mesh pockets, lash points for securing to cargo racks, boats, trailers or even saddles, and dual straps that work as backpack or on the shoulder, with ultra-heavy duty metal clips. The 100-liter model ($400) is a very large capacity duffel, but the Panga also comes in 50 ($300) and 75 ($350) liter versions, and they are light enough to also use even when waterproofness is not an issue. Then again, if you’ve watched them load planes in the bad weather, with carts full of luggage sitting out on the tarmac in pouring rain, you’ll know it’s always an issue for travelers.
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I am the NY Times Bestselling author of Real Food, Fake Food and have been traveling the world as a journalist and passionate fan of all things fun for 20 years. I have ...
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