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Searching for a new rollaboard

With several trips coming up, I’ve been surveying new carry-on luggage. I’ve been using a 22-inch 4-wheel softsided expandable rollaboard from Briggs & Riley for nearly ten years. It’s served me well, but it nows needs its wheels replaced as the rubber tread is shedding. (While wheels for my model are not currently from the company, they do offer replacements for other models for about $30 per set).

The design of this carryon, once hard to beat, now suffers from an instability when the bag is expanded, with the two front wheels often collapsing and causing the bag to fall forward. And what was once touted as a feature – the handle on the outside – makes it difficult to slide the bag out of the new smaller overhead bins on some planes.

I’ve looked at a variety of hard-sided luggage made out of polycarbonate, a durable and lightweight material. While less expandable than a soft-sided bag, it’s generally lighter. My goal was to find a bag that would be long-lasting, well-made with good fittings – especially the wheels, handle, and zippers – and easy to organize to hold as much as possible.

I immediately dismissed those designs with interior hooks, sleeves and compartments for hanging suits and shirts, as I don’t travel with a suit and the design is an inefficient use of space. I visited a Samsonite store, but found their selection to be overwhelming with no consistency across their lines, and no way to compare the wide number of models, each with a different design and look. Their better models were in the $250-$300 range, all of which seem to perpetually be on sale.

A visit to a Tumi store offered a couple of lines of soft-sided and hard-sided luggage, but all mostly priced in the stratosphere, around $800-$1000. I used to be a big Tumi fan, but find their prices to be prohibitively expensive these days. Of note, Tumi is now part of Samsonite.

While visiting San Francisco, I went into an Away Luggage store. Away is the company selling their own luggage mostly direct from their website. They’ve created a line of hard-sided luggage that is priced between the very inexpensive bags from the Wal-Marts and the premium models from Tumi. While their bags look more like the inexpensive models, Away has successfully positioned its products as a reliable brand with a lifetime warranty and a design that makes efficient use of its space, while retailing in a more reasonable $300 range for its rollarboards. Their luggage all have the same design look that’s attractive and easily recognizable.

Their 22-inch rollarboards come in four models, regular, bigger, and each with an expansion feature, ranging from $275-$345. The expansion is simply a zipper that adds a few inches between the two halves. They come in a variety of colors and offer a limited lifetime warranty They also offer a 100-day return guarantee, no questions asked. By selling direct, they likely have a large margin, allowing for the generous warranty.

Unlike conventional soft-sided bags from Briggs and RIley and Tumi, the packing volume is equally divided between the top and bottom halves. They recommended the bottom be used for items that can be compressed. A flat panel can be tightened downward over the items to compress the clothes. Larger, more bulky items are recommended for the lid side. While the design makes it more difficult to live out of the suitcase, I use these $20 packing cubes, which allows me to find things easily.

I had received a reviewer sample of an Away bag for many years ago when the company first began, and found the bag to work reasonably well. At that time they had just introduced their first bag with a built-in battery for charging phones, etc.

I bought their Bigger Carry-On Flex with a few inches of expansion for $345. I found the bag to be at the sweet spot between the bargain luggage with unknown reliability and a costly bag with unquestioned longevity. And that positioning seems to have contributed to Away’s success: not offering a mishmash of models like Samsonite, but offering one basic attractive design in a variety of sizes and options with a best in the industry warranty.

What about aluminum luggage?

I’ve always been attracted to the aluminum rollerboards from companies like Rimowa, mostly for its hi-tech look and design. Apparently it’s a hot category with Tumi offering its own design, as well. Models from each company are priced around $1500. But Away makes a version that is very similar in look and construction to each and costs a more affordable $625. I checked it our while at their store and it looks very well made. But as appealing as it is, it has a couple of disadvantages: it’s not flexible or expandable, is heavier than its plastic counterparts, and holds less than the Carry-On Flex. It’s also likely more attractive to thieves should the bag need to be checked and end up on a carousel. And as the image above shows, it easily dents.