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updated 8/4/2009 9:25:51 AM ET 2009-08-04T13:25:51

You're standing in the airport terminal, watching a line of luggage move toward you on the conveyer belt. You eye each bag carefully, searching for your own and dreading two distinct and disappointing outcomes: your bag could either appear dented and mauled with your underwear hanging out of a gaping tear, or, like a blind date gone horribly wrong, it could simply fail to show.

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Choosing the right luggage can help prevent these minor tragedies, in addition to other inconveniences like pesky baggage fees for an oversized piece or the embarrassment of trying to squeeze your massive nylon duffel into the overhead compartment as impatient passengers struggle to get by. Pick the right carry-on and experience the freedom of traveling without checked bags — you won't have to worry about lost luggage or extra fees if you can pack what you need in a good-sized carry-on. If you do check a bag, you'll feel confident that it will remain intact if you select a sturdy, reliable brand.

Q. What are my options?
A. Most bags, from backpacks to larger luggage pieces, can be purchased with wheels, back straps or retractable handles. While handles and back straps are consistently useful features, some travelers get frustrated by stiff luggage wheels, which can inadvertently lead a heavy bag across the foot of an innocent bystander. If this sounds like you, look for luggage with rubber spinner wheels that can twist 350 degrees, allowing for greater control and ease of movement.

Backpacks come in a variety of sizes, both with and without frames. They are a good option for anyone planning to camp, hike or do other outdoor activities. Even large luggage pieces can become backpacks when they have padded back straps. We love these bags — but make sure to tape down any wayward straps if you check your backpack to keep them from getting entangled in the baggage carousel.

Duffel bags are no longer just a device to cart your sweats to and from the gym. Modern duffels often have accessories like wheels or a retractable handle; these bags are often sold as "travel duffels." While a traditional small or medium duffel bag will fit nicely in the overhead compartment, it may strain your arm or shoulder if you have to carry it for long distances. For extensive travel, always go for a piece that has wheels or back straps.

Traditional luggage comes in two models: hard-side and soft. Hard-side bags are molded from hard-to-pronounce materials like polypropylene and polycarbonate. Soft bags can be made out of fabrics such as microfiber, leather, nylon, PVC or polyester. Some soft bags are expandable and can accommodate up to 25 percent more if you need the space.

Q. Should I choose a hard or soft bag?
A. Soft bags are more common than hard-shell luggage and are easier to squeeze into overhead compartments. These bags also absorb shock better than their molded counterparts. Soft bags are available in a wide variety of models; for example, you can purchase a carry-on with a zippered backpack attachment, or a duffel that can be either strapped to your back or wheeled through the airport.

Most ultra-lightweight luggage pieces are hard-side and may help you meet weight requirements for checked luggage. If your tightly packed bag often weighs more than you do, look into purchasing a lightweight bag, which can save you a few pounds. Hard-side bags also protect fragile items better than soft bags.

Whether you opt for a hard-side suitcase or a soft one, be sure that you're paying for good quality. Flimsy hard-side luggage can break or crack under pressure, while cheap soft luggage can tear.

Q. What size bag should I buy?
A.
As a general rule, go for a carry-on no larger than 45 inches (length plus width plus height) and a checked bag no larger than 62 inches (length plus width plus height), which are the standard for most major airlines. Although you may want bring as large a bag as you can on the plane, remember that if you can't lift your carry-on bag above your head, you will not be able to place in the overhead bin.

Check your airline's Web site for information on what size bags you can check or bring onboard, and keep in mind that many airlines have different size requirements for international and domestic flights.

When flying on a smaller airline in a foreign country, acceptable baggage weight and size requirements can be a crapshoot. You don't want to discover that you have to leave behind one of your bags or pay extra fees when you attempt to board a 20-seat plane for a domestic flight in Costa Rica. Check baggage requirements for each flight on your itinerary.

Q. Where should I buy my bag?
A. You will find a great selection of all types of travel accessories, including luggage, at Magellan's. If you prefer mail order, you can request a free catalog online.

L.L. Bean is another luggage retailer you won't want to miss. They're reputable among frequent travelers and carry a full line of luggage, garment bags, briefcases, duffel bags, carry-ons and more.

Q. What else should I keep in mind?
A. Here are a few other tips to consider when choosing a bag:

  • Select a bag with a bright color. Purple leopard print may not match your business suit, but you will always be able to spot it quickly on the luggage carousel.
  • Compare different luggage interiors to see what suits your style. Lots of pouches and belts are great for the super-organized packer. And features like a plastic waterproof pouch can hold wet swimsuits or leaky shampoo bottles.
  • Bags with a detachable piggy back clip, a looped clip on the top of the bag near the handle, allow you to clip a second bag onto a larger one. When you pick up your checked bag, clip on your carry-on and presto — you have a free hand!
  • Test, test, test — that's the beauty of shopping in a real store instead of online. Walk around for a bit and see if the handle is long enough for you, if you like the feel of the fabric, if the back straps are comfortable, and if the suitcase feels sturdy and durable. If you do shop for a bag online, order it at least a month before your trip so you can send it back if it doesn't feel right for you.
  • Designer luggage is a more a fashion symbol than a travel tool and is not the choice of most experienced travelers. A $1,000 piece of luggage will likely be less useful than a good-quality $200 or $300 bag. You'll look hot carrying your sexy Vera Bradley duffel or Diane Von Furstenberg luggage set through the airport at the start of your trip, but you definitely lose some sex appeal if your bags are held together with duct tape on the flight home.

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