7 suitcase shopping tips that'll help take the lug out of luggage

Lisa MacLeod is such a frequent traveler that she's been nicknamed 'The Bag Lady'. Here's her guide to picking the perfect suitcase, carry-on and laptop bag

27 October 2019 - 00:00 By Lisa MacLeod
Image: Piet Grobler

I work in an industry where travel is often part of the job. Reporting gigs, resort reviews, conferences, study tours and more recently my role as an office bearer with an international publishing association mean I have, over the years, clocked up more than your average number of airmiles.

Also, I live in Cape Town, and the headquarters of Tiso Blackstar, where I work, are in Johannesburg. You do the maths.

"Gosh, how glamorous," people say. Er, not quite. It's a huge privilege to see new places and have amazing encounters, but getting there and back is often less than salubrious. And transporting all the stuff you think you might need can be a minefield.

I am so constantly on the go that I have been nicknamed "The Bag Lady" by my colleagues and friends. I have, however, a wealth of tips and tricks perfected over years of travelling - more than 90% of which, incidentally, has been in economy class.

Here's my handy guide to taking the lug out of luggage when you fly. 



Luggage can be horribly expensive but, to be honest, some of my best suitcases have been reasonably priced, or even better, bought on sale. I'm not a Louis Vuitton type of gal, and if you don't want to lose your belongings in transit, it's not an excellent idea to flash the cash.


Decide if you prefer hard-shell or soft: I am a fan of soft luggage - if you've ever witnessed baggage handlers flinging cases onto a tarmac, you'll know why. The carapace cases crack and dent, and the leftover shards tear your shins open later. They are also less flexible when you are trying to squash in a few more kilograms.

Hard-shell cases are less flexible when you are trying to squash in a few more kilograms

On the negative, I've received a soft case back with a long, perfect craft-knife slit in the side, and a few items missing.

Worst-case scenario (see what I did there?) is an ancient, heavy leather bag with no wheels and giant buckles, lent to you by your mom. Good luck with that one.


If you're buying new luggage, always test it out for mobility first. It should move smoothly standing upright. I bought a big, heavy case a few years back: it's nice and roomy but only wants to be dragged. Very unsatisfactory.

I also once purchased a very tough and practical-looking overnight bag with big chunky, corrugated wheels. The thing was so loud that people used to turn to watch me walk through airports, dragging my clacking, rattling embarrassment behind me. I mean, did nobody actually test the thing in the factory first?

I also prefer a case with a handle that pulls up in the centre of the case so I can drape my handbag handles over it and push both. Try to avoid those with the handles that stretch the width of the case because you can't do this.


Most new cases have a little contraption to click in the zippers and lock them with a combination code. I love these because I have had to break into my suitcase a number of times after losing the teeny-weeny keys to a lock. I now keep keys in the zip of my wallet, by the way.

Combo locks are best, but do try for something other than "0000" as the combination (note to self).

Cable ties are fine for the desperate, and usually available at check-in, but easily defused with a ballpoint pen and a few firm twists, so don't rely on them.


Speaking of baggage handlers, I recently had to replace a bright red suitcase after it came back to OR Tambo somewhat lighter with all the zips and clasps broken. I bought an on-sale bag that is bright peacock blue with orange trim. Hard to miss.

Black bags may be chic, but there are two reasons I don't like them: they are so common that you have to have a grip on small details to identify them on the carousel (and why make life harder?).

The second is that other people don't know their bags either, so will happily take the first bag that looks sort of like theirs. You can, of course, tie a ragged red ribbon to your case - but a) that nullifies the chic somehow, and b) everybody does that too.


For handbags, you must have a bag that closes and clasps, rather than a floppy tote for the plane. There is nothing worse than having your personals rolling around your feet after a flight. Otherwise, the size and style are up to you.

Just remember it's sharing your economy-class space with you, and will be dragging down your shoulder on the long treks through airports, so make it a reasonable size, and don't overfill.


For many years I did not take my own advice and used a very beautiful Country Road leather tote as my laptop bag. It was terribly heavy to carry on one shoulder, and we finally parted ways when I replaced it with an (eye-wateringly) expensive Samsonite backpack instead.

I know I'll get the ROI, but good backpacks don't come cheap! There is room for all my plugs and converters, notepads and pens, my book (yes, no Kindle), a 13-inch laptop in a padded case, and comfortable shoulder straps. Not quite ready for the frow (that's Front Row), but practical trumps fashion every time.

• Lisa MacLeod is head of digital for Tiso Blackstar.

• Have you got any great luggage tips to share? Mail us at travelmag@sundaytimes.co.za