(Tribune Media Services) -- It's been almost a year since American Airlines started charging passengers for their first checked bag, a move that every other legacy airline quickly followed. It's taken almost that long for the luggage industry to catch up to that unfortunate new reality.
The Travelpro Platinum 6 offers "pure eye candy," says reviewer Christopher Elliott.
But it was worth the wait. Consider the standard 21-inch wheeled bag, the carry-on of choice for anyone trying to avoid checked luggage fees. Not since Travelpro introduced the first Rollaboard in 1987 have there been so many changes in its design.
The post-fee models feature all kinds of compelling innovations, including larger, more durable wheels, the use of lightweight materials and clever designs that let you stuff more of your belongings into less space.
"They're pushing the limit," says Pamela Pekerman, a luggage expert who founded the site BagTrends.com.
But what to buy -- and when? Luggage sales dropped by 21 percent last year on sales of $1.8 billion, according to the Travel Goods Association, which represents manufacturers and retailers of travel products. That probably means there'll be some attractive deals on this new, must-have luggage.
Answering the "what" question is not as easy. I've been evaluating the best of the new wheeled bags, and I'm hard-pressed to declare a winner. In fact, most luggage experts I consulted with agreed on two things: There is no one-size-fits all wheeled bag and quality matters.
"You don't need to buy a $600 suitcase," says Michael Hess, the chief executive of business luggage manufacturer Skooba Design. "But you shouldn't be too cheap either. In this business, like many, you absolutely get what you pay for, and cheaply-made bags will simply not hold up."
Before I get to the candidates, I wanted to give a shout-out to two pre-fee bags that I'm in love with. The first is the Helen Rae wheeled bag. Yeah, I know, it's for women, but it's so maneuverable and fun to use, and I'm secure enough in my manhood to fly with one. The other is Lowepro Rolling CompuTrekker Plus, which can accommodate my laptop, camera, lenses and a change of clothes. Plus, it rolls like a dream on oversized skate wheels. Both of these bags were ahead of their time.
As you ponder these new bags, what should you be looking for? That all depends.
"You need to try to understand where you stand in the continuum of light-as-a-feather-so-I-can-pack-more versus rugged-road-warrior," says Peter Cobb, the co-founder of eBags.com. "The person interested in light-weight values -- being able to pack more, easier to fit in an overhead -- may trade off durability."
Patricia Lorenz, a professional speaker from Largo, Florida, told me luggage with "high-quality, large wheels and plenty of pockets" gets her vote. Monica Ricci, a professional organizer, likes carry-on luggage that can be used on any plane, or even checked. "I like to buy flexible luggage," she says. "Some carry-on bags are even too large for small commuter planes, and will end up being gate-checked as you board. So choose a carry-on bag that you'd feel comfortable checking if you absolutely had to, because sometimes you will have to."
Another thing to keep in mind: bigger isn't necessarily better. And that's particularly true for international travelers, says Vijay Melwani, the president of Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based luggage retailer Premier Travelware. "Each international airline has certain size and weight restrictions for carry-on luggage that should be researched before traveling," he warns.
I haven't taken any of these bags on the road with me -- yet. But I will, and I'll report back when I do.
(Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. This column originally appeared on MSNBC.com. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org).
© 2009 CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.