It’s no secret that as an airline pilot, I’m always on the move. Having the best of suitcases is not just a desire, it’s a necessity.
We demand a lot out of our suitcases. Life on the road means our suitcases are constantly stuffed with everything we need to literally live out of them – even after we’ve used every airline crew hack in the books to minimize what we pack.
After being filled to the brim, we cram our suitcases into tiny overhead bins/lockers, cargo holds, and hotel shuttles with 20 other bags on top of them. Only then do we drag our suitcases through rugged terrain in remote places around the world, in every kind of weather imaginable.
When that’s all said and done, we do it again, and again, and again on a weekly basis.
So, let’s just say that we demand a lot from whichever suitcase we end up choosing. Through much trial-and-error, I’ve found which suitcases can sustain heavy use – and which ones don’t. Here’s how you can learn from my (good and bad) experiences and pick the absolute best suitcase for you.
Answered in this article:
- What are the factors pilots look for when deciding which suitcase to buy?
- The secret to easy travel: Should I pick a suitcase with 2 or 4 wheels?
- 5 Suitcases Pilots Use: Ranked & Rated
Size, Weight, Durability, and Price
When you boil it down, buying a suitcase comes down to these four things: How much can you stuff into it, how hard will it be to lift it into the overhead bin/locker, how long will it last, and how expensive is it?
(btw, please don’t actually boil down your suitcases)
These factors are all correlated. It’s usually true that you’ll have to pay more if you want a durable suitcase, but not always.
The question becomes: where are you willing to give in: weight, durability, or price? Fortunately, you have options.
Size becomes a factor for checking in your luggage or carrying it on. It’s well known that checking in luggage adds stress, time, and cost to every trip. I avoid it whenever I can. This easily can shave an hour off of check-in and 20-30 minutes after the flight.
Note: If you’re traveling on a low-cost carrier (such as RyanAir, Frontier, EasyJet, or Spirit) and you don’t want to pay baggage check fees, you should look at these airline-size backpacks instead.
2 Wheels vs 4 Wheels: The Secret to Easy Travel That Will Surprise You
In the last decade, we’ve seen the proliferation of 4-wheel suitcases, just like with shopping carts in Europe. An extra set of wheels means you don’t have to drag your luggage around. It just makes it easy.
So, why do I prefer having just 2 wheels? For one, the extra set of wheels takes up space. It’s the difference between a carry-on bag being too small or just right.
Take the example of a folded shirt. For a 22” carry-on, right at the limit at most airlines’ carry-on policies, you can just barely fold your shirt so it fits nice and snug in the suitcase.
When you take away the extra inch or two to add another set of wheels, it just doesn’t work. Your shirt needs an extra fold, it gets wrinkled, and you can’t fit as much into your suitcase.
The secret to easy travel that almost all airline crewmembers take advantage of is so much simpler than you would think. It’s having a J-Hook attached to your suitcase. J-hooks allow you to hang a backpack or briefcase off your suitcase.
The balance of having a bag hanging off your suitcase kind of works like a seesaw. With just enough weight hanging, you can pull your suitcase, no matter how heavy, with just your fingertips. Once your bags are in balance, there will be no weight pushing down on the handle.
Next time you’re in a terminal and you see pilots, check it out. Look how effortlessly they roll their suitcases. That could be you!
With a J-Hook, you get the best of most worlds: easy rolling and maximizing the room available in your suitcase. You may be able to downsize to a carryon and no longer need to check in your baggage.
It’s what I personally use to maximize what I can pack, and you can do it too.
The Top 5 Suitcases Pilots Use: Ranked and Rated
From best to still-pretty-freaking-great, here’s a convenient ranking of the suitcases pilots use on their adventures galavanting around the world.
1. Briggs & Riley Suitcases: Simply the best quality
I just switched to a Briggs & Riley 22” Spinner as my full-time carry-on, and you can read the full review here.
The first and most important fact is that they come with a lifetime guarantee. Briggs & Riley is known for its quality, and their suitcases last. This is why they’re willing to back them up for life.
Briggs & Riley suitcases are relatively light, tough, and expandable. They are on the more expensive side, but worth it – considering how many suitcases you would otherwise have to purchase during your life.
- Size: Global and Domestic Carryon Offered (10/10)
- 2-wheel or 4-wheel (spinner)
- Most Expandable Suitcase Available (Ratcheting CX technology)
- Weight: Light – 9-10 lbs. (9/10)
- Durability: Very durable. (9.9/10)
- Lifetime guarantee means they don’t skimp on anything.
- Price: On the expensive side (6/10)
Overall Rating: 8.9/10
My Briggs & Riley luggage looks like the day I bought it. The quality is great and it will last you a long time.
2. Travelpro Suitcases: Lightweight with great amenities
I will start out by saying one thing: Travelpro does make a special crew suitcase, but it’s more expensive and not worth the extra cost.
Travelpro suitcases tend to be light, stylish, and have awesome reviews on amazon, but they’re just not durable for the intense travel airline crew do. They’re popular for their amenities – but often times need replacing after about 5 years of airline usage.
That being said, if you aren’t often on the move as often as a pilot, they are perfect.
- Size: Variable (8.8/10)
- Comes in 2-wheel and 4-wheel options,
- Carry-on or larger
- Weight: Very light (9.1/10)
- Durability: Not the best (6/10)
- Price: Relatively cheap, starting in the $100s (9/10)
Overall Rating: 8.2/10
I personally have 3 Travelpro suitcases at home, so I’m very familiar. They’re light and very plasticky (yes, that’s a word), so I wouldn’t trust them with extremely fragile or valuable items. Then again, why are you putting those in a suitcase anyways?
The wheels don’t roll quite as nicely as with other brands; there’s a bit more drag. This can be remedied with aftermarket wheels on eBay.
I use my Travelpro suitcases for short, easy trips where I don’t need to carry as much and I don’t want to check in any luggage.
3. LuggageWorks Suitcases: Super durable for frequent travelers
Most of us in the airline industry travel with LuggageWorks suitcases. They’re durable, maximize what you can carry, and come with a great (but not lifetime) warranty.
But they’re also heavy, expensive, and not great looking (unless you opt for the carbon fiber option). I’ve had mixed experiences with their suitcases, but they have survived so much trauma over the years, and still function perfectly.
- Size: Perfect for carry-on at 22”, or larger at 26” to carry clothes without them getting wrinkled (8.5/10)
- 2-wheels only
- Comes with a J-Hook built in
- Weight: Very heavy (11-12 lbs.) (7/10)
- Optional lighter, expensive carbon fiber option (9-10 lbs.)
- Durability: Incredible. Plus, everything is easily replaceable. (8.8/10)
- Price: Starts at reasonable prices (~$200) and goes up to $700+ with options (7.8/10)
Overall Rating: 8.1/10
I’ve dragged these suitcases through the sand of the Sahara, snow in the Alaskan hinterland, across cobbled streets in Bucharest, in pelting rain during two hurricanes in Mexico, and over dirt mountain roads in Chile. They’ve survived years of commuting to New York City on regional jets and being checked in on low (and high) cost carriers all around the world.
It took a head-on crash to destroy one of my Luggageworks suitcases. Not just any head-on crash, one that also broke my back, my leg, and some of my ribs. Considering the shape of my car and myself, I can see why my suitcase didn’t make it through either.
4. Sterling Pacific 35L Cabin Travel Case: The Ultimate Luxury
This is the bag for those who aren’t willing to compromise and want a bag that will always be ready.
The newest addition to my repertoire of suitcases, and my new favorite, the Sterling Pacific 35L Cabin Travel Case is la crème de la crème of suitcases. It’s the best I’ve ever had.
- Size: Carryon or checked (8.5/10)
- Weight: Lightweight (9.1/10)
- Durability: Excellent but scratches easily (9/10)
- Price: Most expensive (4/10)
Overall Rating: 7.7/10
After years of switching around between suitcases, I became tired of having to choose between weight, durability, and overall quality. The only logical way to have a light but strong suitcase was to switch to aluminum. When I heard about Sterling Pacific and their lightweight suitcases featuring A380 Aluminum, I decided to take the plunge.
And I haven’t looked back. Sterling Pacific makes the perfect travel companion.
5. Samsonite Suitcases: Almost hitting the mark
Samsonite tends to make decent, high-quality luggage, especially their larger suitcases.
Their larger suitcases are a great option if you’re looking to pack for a long trip and are willing to check-in your luggage on each flight. Samsonite’s carry-on bags tend to be just a bit too small to be very useful.
- Size: Variable (6/10)
- 2 wheels or 4 wheels
- Design is tailored for larger than carryon especially – not great for frequent travelers
- Weight: Usually light; plastic (8/10)
- Durability: Pretty good. The hard shell is great for valuables, and rugged. 10 year warranty. (8.5/10)
- Price: Similar to TravelPro; pretty cheap. Good deals available. (8.5/10)
Overall Rating: 7.7/10
I like the Samsonite hard-shell larger suitcases for trips where I’m transporting a lot of cargo. They’re great for moving, or if you plan to check in a lot of valuables.
For example, the hard-shell larger suitcases are of great use to bring back some Malbec from Argentina, or a new set of glasses you don’t want crushed.
Let’s Make Your Life Easier
I’ve listed a couple things that will make your life easier when packing:
- As I talked about previously. This will balance your life! Ok… maybe just your suitcase.
- Packing Cubes
And of course, here are the top 10 packing essentials airline crews use to minimize what they need to pack. Even when I travel for months on end, I never need more than a carryon.
Make sure to check out the Ultimate Short Layovers section to make your next trip unforgettable from the start to the finish.
As always, thanks for reading!
Note: as an affiliate, I can receive commissions, at no charge to you, if you clink an above link and purchase any product listed. My reviews are 100% honest; I own/have owned every single type of suitcase listed above and do not compromise.