Well wheeled

Let the hipsters whine that it's out of fashion: Luggage with wheels is still the savvy traveler's choice.

Published August 4, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Three Fridays ago, I was happily ensconced on a Thai Airways flight from Los Angeles to Osaka, Japan, reading the Wall Street Journal.

I was feeling especially happy as I'd just checked my new luggage -- the first I'd bought in 25 years. Think of it: For a quarter-century I lugged around my parents' graduation present: a dirt-colored, hard-sided, scuffed and battered Forecast suitcase, which I had come to think of as the Fearless Forecast.

Fearless belonged in the Smithsonian. But we had bonded. I had a hard time justifying the expense of a box to throw my clothes in.

Still, I had grown increasingly uncomfortable with Fearless over the years -- kind of the way teenagers feel about parents who wear hopelessly outdated pants.

As sleek suitcases circled round baggage carousels, I'd wait until the last minute to grab my bag, hoping no one would see it belonged to me. At hotels, I'd wait until Fearless was swept away by porters before entering the lobby; I overtipped bellboys so they'd keep it to themselves. I consoled myself with the thought that no self-respecting thief would ever pry this bag open.

The justifications had begun to wear thin.

The final straw came last year, when a lock broke on a flight to Manila and I had to swathe Fearless in duct tape just to make sure she didn't pop open on the return.

So just before Japan, I went to Costco and bought a three-piece set of Ciao luggage for $99. What a bargain!

My Ciao Chariot -- as I immediately christened it -- was shiny and scuff-free and smelled like it had just come out of the box. And the best thing: The two larger pieces had wheels. Over the years in terminals around the globe I'd witnessed the evolution of luggage -- growing wheels like prehistoric fish lumbering on finny legs -- until I felt like I was the last person on earth who didn't have wheeled luggage. I would lug and tug and sweat and schlep my hard-sided suitcase along interminable Escherian corridors while others rolled effortlessly by me. How I longed for the insouciance of wheels!

And now I had it. I sat back in my seat, sipped a bit of champagne and opened my Wall Street Journal with a self-satisfied sigh.

So imagine my chagrin when I came to the Weekend Journal section and my eyes thudded on an article titled "Wheeled Bags Roll Out of Style." The subtext only added insult: "For the hipster traveler, those rolling suitcases are a bit too square."

Exc-u-u-u-u-se me, I found myself thinking in a fresh sweat, I'm a hipster traveler! And I just bought a set of the bloody things. Who are you, Ms. Michelle Higgins staff reporter of the Wall Street Journal, to tell me that my precious wheelies are suddenly a "fashion faux pas!"

Gulping champagne, I read on. The story began by quoting a 38-year-old Internet marketing consultant who had decided to closet his wheelie because "it was staggeringly not cool." Then it cited a VP for the Boston Consulting Group who said, "It's not fashionable at all."

Higgins did report that wheelies still compose an estimated 60 percent of the $10 million luggage market. But most of her article consisted of people whose parents had clearly been far too permissive whining about how their wheelies kept turning over, or how they had got whacked in the shins by someone else's wheelie, or how their wheelie looked too corporate or -- God forbid -- how the wheelie had seduced them into packing too much. Get a grip, I fumed, requesting a second champagne. But secretly I worried that overnight I had become a walking clichi.

During the course of my journey, I wheeled my way through five different airports. And at each one I took careful note of other people's luggage and of my own bag's performance. And here's what I found: Wheelies rule!

Virtually everyone -- probably about 90 percent of my fellow travelers -- was using wheeled luggage, and I didn't see any of them tipping over or whacking into other traveler's shins. The people who really looked ridiculous were the ones lugging, tugging, sweating and schlepping their unwheeled bags while I rolled by them.

In my own test, I found that my spanking new Ciao Chariot was infinitely easier to wield than my old Fearless Forecast. I could effortlessly glide it from counter to terminal to counter, could slip a carry-on bag onto its top and wheel both that way -- and it did in fact hold more clothing. Clearly, in the decade or so since its creation by an exasperated airline pilot, the wheelie's parts and design had been refined so that the wheels, handles and proportions all worked in harmony.

There were only two downsides: One was the rare occasion when I encountered a stair-only situation. No elevator. No escalator. Just me and those swimming stairs. At these times I did curse all those extra clothes I had been able to pack.

The other was when I went to proudly claim my shiny new Chariot at the Osaka luggage carousel -- and discovered that there is apparently a law decreeing that all wheeled luggage must be created black, identically shaped and as indistinguishable from its brethren as possible. This occasioned much indiscreet peering at baggage tags (next time I'm going to just attach a fire-engine red tag to mine); at one point a nervous Ciao owner even accused me of mistakenly pilfering her bag.

But these were extremely minor compared to the freedom I -- and my fellow hopelessly unfashionable wheelie-rollers -- was enjoying.

On my flight back from Osaka to Los Angeles, I found the Journal article stuffed in the bottom of my carry-on backpack and read it again.

In retrospect, the article was clearly a seductive idea in search of substance. It was the old Sacred Cow School of newspaper story: What editor could resist the notion that the luggage that had come to absolutely dominate the travel market was suddenly starting to falter? It was a great chance to poke fun at a product that was just too perfect.

But if you wanted to poke fun, all you needed to do was look at the luggage the Journal proposed as alternatives to the wheelie in a clunky photo-montage box accompanying the main piece. Here were carry-ons that cost from $159 to $3,600 -- much more than my whole set of Ciao Chariots -- and offered the advantages of having to be slung over a shoulder or held in a hand, thereby increasing arm length (especially recommended for basketball and volleyball players) and attractively pinching the neck, contorting the spine and steepening the shoulder angle.

If you want to look at these modern miracles, they were manufactured by Tumi, Coach, Samsonite, Victorinox, Ghurka and Hartmann's hStudio, and sported such au courant names as Greenwich, Hampton's Weekend, Hummer Duffel-Backpack, the Paratrooper, Raffles and Urban Suiter.

As for me, I wheeled effortlessly toward a waiting taxi in Los Angeles, folded my Weekend Journal into a shape somewhat resembling my old Fearless Forecast, flung it ceremoniously into the trash and uttered one simple word: Ciao.

Are you a wheelie-devotee? Do you think wheelies are "fashion faux pas"? Tell me what you think.

By Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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