Buying a new Suitcase

My suitcase broke on the way back to Japan from Australia, so we decided it was time to buy a new one. As usual, the geek in me meant that we could not just run down to the local Yodobashi Camera and purchase the first one we found (although I did spend a lot of time prodding the ones there). I need facts and information to make the right decision. Here’s how I chose the one I purchased.

My requirements for the new suitcase are for a medium sized suitcase (as the old one was this size), roughly 70 to 75 liters capacity (7 - 10 day trip) with a minimum of 60 cm inside to fit a rolled yoga mat. Good wheels for dragging on trains and a TSA compatible lock are a must, as well as a more unique design so that we can easily pick it out on the luggage carousel at airports. And it must fit within the budget.

But a few more decisions needed to be made as well. Do we go for the traditional soft cloth case that most Westerners use or the plastic hard case preferred in Japan? 50 mm or 60 mm wheels? Integrated drag handle or ‘flat inside’? Do we go el-cheapo and use it for a few trips, buy something more solid for longer term use, or find something in the middle that’s affordable? Expandable or fixed size?

Many of these turn out to be moot decisions. The largest limitation we face these days when buying a suitcase is its size and empty weight. You see, most domestic airlines have a 23 kg limit on laden bag weight, and these days it’s getting harder and harder to find an international flight that allows more than one bag per person in economy (making the 23 kg a hard limit). So if you buy a good 70 liter Samsonite hard case for many year’s use, you’re giving up at least 6 kg of that 23 kg in the case weight alone, just for durability! That leaves you only 17 kg of contents. Go for a much lighter cloth suitcase that weighs maybe 4 kg and you get 19 kg of contents, this is good, in a suitcase that may survive only a few fights before getting torn (as my old bag did). Heavier, more durable cloth brings these bags into the 6 kg range. Of course, if you fly business or better, bag weight really does not matter.

You could, of course, go for the premium brand suitcases that do go down into the 4-5 kg bag weight range. These use exotic materials and are just way too expensive.

These days, there is also talk that the airlines are also going to limit checked luggage size as well. I don’t know why but assume to enable them to squeeze more into their holds, or fly lighter or save baggage handler’s backs. Which means that a big trip (10+ days) 90+ liter suitcase that we all used to use may no longer be accepted in future on flights. Then again, the 23 kg limit implies only clothing can be placed in a 90 liter bag before it becomes too heavy anyway.

So, I added the requirement for the suitcase to be light, yet reasonably durable, aiming for a maximum of 4.5 kg bag weight. In order to get durability at that weight class, within budget, the clear choice is a Japanese style polycarbonate ‘hard’ case. Which throws out expandability, but again the weight limit makes that decision moot too. But it did add more choices: Zipper or Clasps to close the case? Japanese durable casters or cheap knock-off casters? And what color?

The zipper choice was easily rejected. All the cheaper polycarbonate suitcase models have zippers that circumnavigate the bag to enable them to open widely for packing. But these zippers are attached to the hard shell using flexible cloth or rubber that is glued on, reducing the structural integrity and durability of the bag to the strength of the glue. In testing, these suitcases tend to bend and stress where the zipper joins the polycarbonate shell, increasing stress on these glued joints. The zippers themselves seemed quite strong.

With clasps however, each suitcase has a more solid polycarbonate ring where the clasps and hinges are, with riveted in metallic or polycarbonate hinges, making the structure that much sturdier and durable. Testing these did not bend or stress in the middle.

We also decided to choose the more durable Japanese-made casters as they seemed to have longer warranties and better recommendations.

So my geek choice for a 7-10 day approximately 75 liter reasonably durable suitcase that maximizes content weight boils down to a polycarbonate hard case, minimum 60 cm internal height, 4.5 kg bag weight, TSA compliant clasps, Japanese casters, standing (4 wheel bag) suitcase.

A quick search on Rakuten found 60,000 suitcases, dropping to about 9,000 in the 71 - 80 liter range. We threw out the super-expensive suitcases, cloth bags (there were very few in Japan), zipper bags and the knock-off caster bags which dropped the count by half. Most of those that remained, however, were on average 5.5 kg unladen, too heavy for our needs.

Drilling through the results, we found a few in the 4.1 and 4.2 kg ranges (and oddly, nothing between 4.2 and 5.5 kg). How do they get these suitcases so light? By thinning the polycarbonate to the absolute minimum, then ribbing it to create external structural strength, use polycarbonate hinges and clasps, use lighter grease packed casters and removing most of the internal cloth, flaps, pockets and covers to create the lightest, yet still theoretically durable suitcases. The catch being that these suitcases should always be packed sufficiently full, so the contents themselves also provide some structural support - I would never recommend traveling with one of these empty, or even half full. And the plastic clasps can be opened with a screwdriver!

In the end, we chose the GMA-5212 (Japanese link) from Global Master Air/Wings, a 77 liter case weighing 4.1 kg unladen measuring 67 cm by 47 cm by 27 cm inside in Dark Purple because the lovely Burgundy was out of stock. It carries four star recommendations on Rakuten and Yodobashi. It’s all polycarbonate to get it so light, which means that it will wear and tear faster than the heavier or more expensive suitcases, but enables us to pack up to 19 kg of contents in it. It arrives tomorrow and I’ll be using it to fly from Tokyo back home to New York in economy, using rail transport to and from both airports, next week, fully laden. We’ll see then if I made the right purchase decision, or whether the suitcase is just too light to be as durable as advertised.

Aside: In order to meet Japanese garbage requirements, we also have to saw our old suitcase into quarters in order to fit it into the local bins. That’s going to be fun as my in-laws have a handheld electric band-saw. A boy, a toy and something to destroy, what could possibly go wrong!

I’m @hiltmon on Twitter and @hiltmon on App.Net. Follow me and let me know what you think.

Posted By Hilton Lipschitz · Sep 19, 2012 6:18 PM