For the average American, airfare is expensive. In the first quarter of 2019, the average U.S. flyer paid $353.52 for a round-trip domestic fare, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That’s why many families prefer driving over flying, even on cross-country journeys, and why many frugal travelers devise complex strategies to save money in airports.
And baggage is an unavoidable air travel expense that quickly gets out of hand if you’re not careful.
Experienced flyers know the pitfalls of overpacking. Bringing even one too many bags than you need means incurring the checked bag fees charged by all major domestic carriers except Southwest Airlines. And if you exceed the standard 50-pound weight limit on domestic flights, you’re on the hook for the dreaded $100-per-segment overweight bag fee. Checking a bag is often unavoidable on longer trips. But efficient packers know how to travel light with minimal luggage and reduce those out-of-pocket surcharges.
Plus, the overstuffed personal item is fine for a quick weekend reunion in Chicago. And the compact spinner that fits in the overhead bin will probably get you through your monthly Monday-to-Thursday stay in Houston. But what about the weeklong camping trip at Yosemite? Or the European fortnight you’ve been planning for years?
Smart travelers also know what happens to their bags once they’re out of sight. Baggage handlers work hard and deserve our thanks. But their concern is getting your plane out of the gate on time, not gently placing the suitcase carrying your souvenir Italian wine in the softest corner of the cargo hold. Security screeners are even rougher, as anyone unlucky enough to experience a TSA ransacking knows.
Over the years, the abuse accumulates, leaving behind scuffs, scratches, tears, and broken zippers. Why buy a name-brand bag or suitcase, paying a premium for a label or fabric pattern identifiable only by a small minority of fellow travelers? A lower-cost, lower-cachet alternative holds up just as well over time.
With that in mind, it’s time to add to your luggage repertoire – without paying more than you should.
4 Essential Types of Luggage for Air Travel
Building a suitable luggage college on a budget isn’t hard. The vast majority of airline journeys are doable with no more than four pieces of luggage per person, representing four distinct types of baggage. Bought new or gently used, their cumulative cost should come in under the average cost of one round-trip U.S. domestic airfare. Adept bargain-hunters should have no problem coming in well under $350 by leveraging thrift store deals and sporting goods retailers’ used gear departments.
There are just a few things you need to know about each of the essential types of luggage for air travel to make the most of each type. The key is finding reasonably priced models to add to your collection.
1. The Carry-On
The carry-on is your luggage set’s linchpin. On shorter trips without special clothing or gear requirements, your carry-on is likely the only luggage you’ll need – though you may choose to bring a personal bag, such as a purse or satchel, that fits snugly inside your carry-on or under the seat in front of you.
The ideal carry-on is a softside or expandable hardside suitcase with four multidirectional wheels and dimensions just slim enough to meet airlines’ carry-on size limits. You occasionally see this type of suitcase called either a “wheelie” or “rollaboard.” But most luggage brands and retailers prefer “spinner.” Whatever you call it, your wheeled carry-on should move equally well in any direction for maximum maneuverability in airport terminals and public transit systems. Most spinners have telescoping (retractable) top handles for added comfort and flexibility.
Major U.S. airlines’ carry-on size requirements are about 45 linear inches, including wheels and handles. That translates to case dimensions of 22 inches high by 14 inches wide by 9 inches deep. Since wheels add an inch or so, the tallest permissible hardside carry-on body measures 21 inches high – though airlines frequently bend these rules. On full flights, chances are good you’ll be asked to check your wheeled carry-on anyway, so there’s little incentive not to max out its dimensions.
Budget-friendly suitcases that meet most airlines’ carry-on requirements include AmazonBasics’ 20-inch hardside spinner carry-on and the Samsonite Bartlett 20-inch spinner. The Samsonite Lift 2 21-inch spinner is also cost-competitive during Samsonite’s frequent sales.
If you prefer a non-wheeled carry-on, your best bet is probably a fabric weekender bag like Herschel Supply Company’s Novel duffle or the Beis Weekender travel tote. Look for bags with padded adjustable shoulder straps and multiple zippered compartments for organization. Most weekender bags fit easily into the overhead bin, even on smaller aircraft. Pay attention to your bag’s full volume, which you’ll find on its specs sheet. Smaller weekenders have just a fraction of the carrying capacity of a 20- or 21-inch spinner.
2. The Personal Bag
Your personal bag counts as the personal item the airline allows you to carry on the plane in addition to your carry-on. Pick whatever you want as long as it fits under the seat in front of you. For solo leisure travelers, it’s often a large strapped purse, small messenger bag, or multipurpose backpack like the eBags Professional Weekender. For parents with small children, it may be a diaper bag or small weekender. For business travelers, it’s likely a briefcase or high-capacity backpack-style laptop bag, such as the Herschel Supply Company Retreat Light backpack.
Unless you need something specific, such as a diaper bag, max out your personal bag allowance with a backpack, weekender bag, small duffel, or high-capacity laptop bag. They easily fit smaller items that qualify as “personal,” such as a small purse or slim laptop sleeve. My go-to personal bag is a beat-up Columbia backpack I’ve had for years. With room for my laptop sleeve, several changes of lightweight clothing, and toiletries, it serves as my only bag on warm-weather solo trips as long as four days.
Whatever the configuration, the ideal personal bag is hands-free – that is, worn on either the back or shoulder, ideally with adjustable straps. Though more affordable than backpacks or weekenders, basic duffels may not check both boxes.
3. The Full-Size Spinner – Checked Bag
On trips lasting more than a few days or requiring special wardrobe or gear, you need a larger suitcase that won’t fit in the overhead compartment. Make this one a softside or expandable hardside spinner measuring at least 25 inches high.
My family has two full-size spinners, one each for my wife and me: a 26-inch Chester Regula checked spinner and a 28-inch Samsonite Winfield 2. The differences between the two are less subtle than they seem. The Regula is more maneuverable and has a lighter empty weight, so it’s ideal for mid-length trips that require special gear – like our infant’s pop-up high chair and formula, which collectively add nearly 10 pounds to the case’s gross weight. The Winfield is a high-capacity beast that works best as shared luggage in place of one or both of our carry-ons – we recently used it to transport formalwear to a destination wedding, getting by with the Winfield and two larger personal bags.
For travelers without special needs, small children, or super-long itineraries, a 26-inch expandable spinner is probably sufficient. Though you don’t have to lug it through the terminal, you do have to lift it in and out of car trunks and luggage trays, and an extra 2 or 3 inches of height adds 2 or 3 pounds of empty weight. Larger suitcases typically cost more than compact alternatives, though budget-friendly options exist at any size.
4. The Large Duffel
A large duffle is the final link in the four-piece luggage chain. For most travelers, it’s also the least-used – though it’s useful for plenty of things beyond air travel, including car camping and recreational activities like ice hockey and going to the beach.
The value of the large duffel is twofold: light empty weight and high carrying capacity. On longer trips that require two checked bags, you can stuff your duffel full of lightweight clothing and accessory items without exceeding the 50-pound weight limit imposed by most airlines. The Patagonia Black Hole duffel can hold up to 100 liters of cargo but weighs in well under 4 pounds – 5 pounds less than the Regula, which is relatively light for its class.
Since you’ll check your duffel, you don’t have to worry about dragging it to your gate, though you still want an adjustable strap for comfort and leverage. If you plan to pack heavy, invest in quality material. Reinforced nylon is better for weight control, but traditional canvas is often stronger.
Even if you don’t need extra cargo capacity on your outbound journey, pack an empty folded duffel in your regular suitcase. It’ll come in handy for bulky souvenirs picked up on your trip and perhaps even eliminate the need for international shipping – the cost of which is likely to exceed any international checked bag fees. Alternatively, use your duffel as a hamper for dirty, wet clothing you’d prefer to keep separate from clean items.