Read the sidebar: It's in the Bag
Rick Austin used to envy travelers who toted Tumi bags. They looked so hip, he said, like something real road warriors would carry. That signature red tag on the discreet black bag was a de facto stamp indicating grade-A merchandise. It meant quality craftsmanship, discriminating taste. It also signified cutting-edge design and understated class in the copy-cat luggage industry. So one day, Austin, fed up with his shabby off-label tote, retired the bag and made his first Tumi purchase, thereby joining the elite club of high-end luggage carriers.
Four Tumi bags and a year and a half later, Austin, a television producer for the Sci Fi Channel in Los Angeles, is a walking advertisement for the luxury brand. He cares about Tumi's meticulous craftsmanship more than the average traveler, and he cares about image. "I really appreciate it when you look at a bag, and it's clear that the product has been designed by people who travel a lot. The details actually make a big difference," says Austin, 36, who points out that the small grooves for every single hanger on the suit holder in his garment bag keep everything snugly in place. (Though built-in shoehorns or a designated shoe compartment, he adds, would be a nice addition to the bag.) "Part of the allure is the quality. But part of it's having people look at your bag and think, 'Oh, I wish I had one.' It's like being a part of a club."
But in the low-tech world of luggage, where even expensive bags can be mistaken for the cheap stuff, does it really pay to be a first-class luggagehead? How do you distinguish between a good bag and a great one, and are those subtle bells and whistles worth the extra $300-plus?
To test this concept, we headed to Boston's Logan International Airport at the height of the business commuting hour in search of discerning travelers. What would distinguish the serious business traveler from the vacationing tourist? The bag, we thought. Most likely, the ubiquitous trolley case corporate roadies rolled behind them.
But we soon discovered that most bags, at least the bulk of wheeled luggage on Monday at 6:30 AM, really do look the same. Despite prices ranging from under $100 to upwards of $1,000, the carry-on trolley case is a black box usually wrapped in ballistic nylon, leather, or a low-grade combination of plastic and leather. Occasionally, one of Hartmann's handsome carmel-colored tweed bags would roll by, standing out in a sea of black. Oftentimes, however, we were hard-pressed to discern quality from schlock -- without hovering over unsuspecting owners. And painfully obvious standouts, such as floral-print luggage, were rarities at that hour. Still, we managed to waylay a selection of road warriors who appeared to care about maximum luggage mileage for their buck. Here's what they told us.
For Bob Hintz, the most visible difference between a good bag and a great one is not how it looks but how its owner looks. "With a quality bag, your suit comes out looking like a suit," says Hintz, 58, the head of avionics science and technology at the Naval Air Systems Command Research and Engineering Group in China Lake, California. "With this here," he says, pointing to his trolley case, "you end up with a suit that looks about as crisp as a crumpled paper bag." Recently, Hintz has been traveling with a cheap trolley case and matching computer bag while his two-year-old Ricardo Beverly Hills suitcases are being repaired. "In this bag," he explains, referring to his $87 Costco purchase, "the folding unit is an afterthought, and after a long day on the road, the last thing I want to do is spend 30 minutes steaming my suit." Until his designer luggage is fixed, he will continue to pack a travel-sized steamer.
Equally practical is Garry Vibert, 48, the vice president of new-business development for Fresenius Medical Care in San Diego. He has to be: He spends 50% of his time on the road. "It's about utility. I want something that best holds the stuff I use every day," he says, patting the top of his Samsonite business case as if it were a loyal pet. "I'm tickled pink every time I travel with the system I have in place.
"That's my home," he says, referring to his hard-covered trolley case. "And that's my office," pointing to the attached business case. For Vibert, the hardware comes first. The handle has to feel good and to stretch high enough, so that he doesn't have to bend his 6-foot frame over to pull the bag. The wheels have to be big and built to absorb shock. Beyond that, the internal and external organization system has to be intuitive.
Even the most practical business travelers say that the real test of quality remains more sensory than performance-based. Rob Noller, 47, a manager for SAP America Inc. in Waltham, Massachusetts, ultimately settled on an midrange Atlantic trolley case, because it "felt good." After a certain price point, it comes down to tactility, he says. "This feels better than most handles," he explains, grasping the soft rubber grip and then pointing out a couple of nearby bags that have a hard, plastic handle. But when asked if he would buy, say, luggage manufactured by Tumi, a company that recently spent $100,000 to add an insert to the mold of a new handle grip because the company's chairman wanted it to feel "softer and more rubbery," Noller laughed. "It's a question of degree. I'm not convinced that a top-of-line bag is worth the price. Besides, Tumi bags are practically on a hit list to be stolen. People see it, and they know it's expensive. It's like the Gucci or Prada of luggage."
Still, New York-based Accenture partner Scott Puopolo, thinks the high-end bag may be worth its premium price. Puopolo, 37, who travels every week and logs 250,000 miles a year, currently carries a company-issued computer tote and a Hartmann garment bag, which looks thoroughly thrashed after eight years of wear and tear. He's not image-conscious when it comes to luggage, he says. He simply wants a bag that gets the job done. Puopolo, who is admittedly tough on bags, says he gets by with the generic computer bag he's now toting, but he misses his Tumi case, which needs to be repaired. (The zippers popped off and ripped the nylon fabric.) "The Tumi's clearly a better, more durable bag in every way," says Puopolo. "But what really sold me was its lifetime guarantee." Today, almost every major luggage manufacturer offers a lifetime guarantee. Despite his fondness for the pricey line, however, Puopolo swears that the best bag he ever owned was a $30 suitcase he purchased in New York's Chinatown in New York. It lasted five years.
Christine Canabou (email@example.com) is a Fast Company staff writer.