Having been full-time travelers since 2011 we know what makes the best 4 wheeled suitcase. We show you what to look for–and what to avoid when choosing spinner carry on luggage and more.
We literally live out of our suitcases. My husband and I have been full-time travelers since 2011, so luggage plays an important role in our lives. I’ve learned to be efficient in my packing, using luggage that’s functional, sturdy and not too big. And that comes in handy when taking an Arizona Road Trip. (Or any other road trip for that matter 😉)
Here are some guidelines to help you do the same:
Which is better: a 2 or 4 Wheeled Suitcase?
For several years we used 2-wheeled suitcases (some people call these “Rollaboard” suitcases, a brand name trademarked by TravelPro.) Two-wheeled suitcases work well, but you must “tilt and pull” them along behind you. This is fine for short spurts, but eventually that motion was wrenching on our shoulders. Additionally, adding an extra bag (such as a tote or computer bag) was cumbersome. Stacking it on top of the main bag changed the ergonomics (trust me on this one), making it super-heavy to pull. Using an “add-a-bag” strap made pulling the bags along easier, but the bags were out of balance when standing still and had a tendency to fall over.
When it came time to upgrade (after a particularly shoulder-wrenching sprint through an airport to catch a connecting flight, we investigated 4-wheeled models. We ultimately opted to upgrade to these 4 wheeled suitcases, also known as “spinners.” The name “spinners” comes from the fact that the suitcase can spin around on its wheels. The transition has been much easier on our joints. Spinners are terrific on smooth surfaces, such as airport floors and parking lots; even densely packed bags glide along with very little effort.
Note that spinners can get difficult to maneuver on carpeting or rough surfaces, such as cobblestones. During these instances it’s best to tilt the bag so it works like a 2-wheeled suitcase. Shop for spinners whose rear wheels rotate smoothly and are sturdy enough to handle this conversion. Otherwise you’ll be dragging along a bag that behaves like a reluctant shopping cart (no fun at all!).
All that being said, all 4 wheeled suitcases are NOT alike. Following are points to consider when choosing a 4 wheeled suitcase:
Size and Weight of 4 Wheeled Suitcases
Most people have a tendency to overpack. A good rule is to bring along less (or smaller) luggage than you think you need. Overly large suitcases encourage packing unnecessary extras, which adds weight that you’ll have to heft around. Even if your cruise or tour includes luggage transfers, you still have to hoist your baggage to the airport and in your hotel or stateroom. These are the awkward moments when backs get wrenched.
Size limits for carry on bags vary by geographic location. If not checking your bags is important to you, be sure to check with the airline you’re flying regarding their carry on size limitations. For example, United Airlines carry on policy allows for a bag as high as 22″ to fit in the overhead bin. Whereas your Southwest Airlines carry on can be up to 24″.
Overall weight is also an important consideration. You might think, “but these things are on wheels, isn’t that the point?” Then answer to that is “yes, BUT . . . ” Even though you’ll be breezing through airports and down hotel corridors using the wheels, you still have to lift your 4 wheeled suitcase into overhead bins. If you’re taking a Route 66 road trip in Arizona you’ll likely be taking your bags in and out of your car every few days.
There’s no sense starting with a heavy bag, then packing it with even more weight. Look for luggage brands that offer a “lightweight” line and purchase the lightest bag possible—without sacrificing sturdiness. My main suitcase is a 21-inch model that weighs just under 6 pounds. It’s small enough to fit in most overhead bins, yet large enough to hold what I need.
Spinner suitcases: External Features
Hard Shell vs. Soft-Sided
There are two distinct schools of thought when it comes to exterior materials: hard shell vs. soft sided (fabric). Both come in lightweight versions. I prefer the soft-side fabric exterior as it has a little extra “give” in case I need to cram in a few more items (also known by the highly technical term, the “squishy factor” 😉).
Soft-sided luggage is also more forgiving for the inevitable times when your luggage bangs into your shins. Fabric 4 wheeled suitcases also offer exterior zip pockets that are handy for stowing tickets or often-used accessories.
Some people prefer the hard shell version of a 4 wheeled suitcase. The hard shell case is more resistant to moisture (if you spend a lot of time traveling in rainy climates this might be a consideration) Many of them come with built-in locks, a handy feature if security is an issue.
Both hard shell and soft sided varieties are available with zippered expansion panels, allowing you to add a few cubic inches of packing space without moving up to a larger size bag. This feature comes in handy for any souvenirs that are picked up along the way.
When shopping for soft-sided luggage, look for rip-stop fabric, which resists punctures and minimizes tearing. Cheap luggage is often made of basic canvas fabric, this allows tears to “bloom” along the width of the suitcase. If you prefer hard-shell cases, look for lightweight material that is flexible (think of that old TV ad with the gorilla stomping on luggage); bags that are too stiff are prone to dent or, worse yet, crack.
Handles on 4 Wheeled Suitcases
Examine the handles carefully. Quality luggage will have sturdy telescoping handles that adjust to different heights. Inexpensive pieces have flimsy handles (usually just a single metal tube) that aren’t height adjustable. Some (good quality) 4 wheeled suitcases have handles that are a single central bar that telescopes up. They are sturdy, but we’ve don’t like them because they make stacking tote bags on top of the luggage difficult. A traditional dual pull-up handle acts as a brace for any smaller back you might like to stack on top. It also serves as a more secure anchor if your totebag has a trolley strap.
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Interior Features of a 4 Wheeled Suitcase
Open Suitcase: single compartment or half & half?
Think of where a suitcase will be placed when it’s opened—likely on a luggage rack in a hotel room, on a bed, or on a floor. A single large interior compartment works best for maximum storage. A single zip compartment in the suitcase lid is useful for separating accessories or dirty clothes; look for models where the zippered side faces upward when the open case is propped up against the wall. This allows you to access items in this pocket without them slithering onto the floor.
Most hard shell luggage opens “half-and-half” style, where the zipper that opens the luggage basically slices the luggage in half, leaving you two equal compartments on the top and bottom. Some people like natural organizational ability of this half-and-half configuration. However, the tradeoff is that, when opened, this type of 4 wheeled suitcase will be too large to fit on a luggage rack. (And one half will be too heavy to prop up against the wall). In most cases you’ll need to keep the suitcase open on a hotel room floor.
4 Wheeled Luggage: Price Range
We prefer moderately-priced suitcases, generally $125-$250, depending on size and brand; all the features described above can be found in this price range. Avoid those cheap “4 bags for $100” sets sold in discount stores. They are poorly made and unlikely to withstand the rigors of travel. Expensive designer bags may look stylish, but they scream “expensive items are packed inside” and are a magnet to would-be thieves.
Once you’ve chosen a suitcase, test pack it at home and put it through its’ paces. If it’s too heavy or some feature doesn’t work, exchange it. There are plenty of variables when traveling. Your suitcase shouldn’t be one of them.
Our Choice for a 4 Wheeled Suitcase?
Based on all the features discussed above, we like the Travelpro Maxlite soft-sided series. We’ve had them for a few years now, and can attest to both their functionality and durability. We like the 21″ carry-on version, (more about packing that in a future post!), which is also sturdy enough to withstand being checked. This series also comes in 25″ and 29″ checked baggage versions, if you really insist on packing a lot. I purchased my suitcase on Amazon.
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