Blame it on those stylish, uber-cool period dramas. As much as we all know how much of the joy has been stripped away from air travel, Mad Men, Pan Am and other series set in the 1960s remind us of how elegant and luxurious flying once was. What’s needed is an antidote, especially to luggage-related stress.
Leave aside the worries unrelated to luggage, for – short of buying or leasing your own plane – you can do nothing about the indignities of security checks, strikes, the weather, queuing or astronomical airport parking fees.
But you can derive much joy from the small pleasures, and your choice of hand luggage is one of them.
Think about what your luggage does for you, beyond merely holding your clothing and toiletries. A fine shoulder or roll-on bag can make you feel good in the way that a particular wristwatch enhances your life whenever you check the time, or how a superior fountain pen makes the writing of a cheque somehow ceremonial. Luggage, though, is also one of the prime areas of vulnerability when travelling, and quality luggage Invites theft and vandalism – from the luggage handlers themselves.
Theft is far more rife than the airlines would have you believe, both of complete pieces of luggage and of objects from within. Any seasoned traveller can regale you with stories about items stolen from their checked-in baggage, but they’ll also tell you that only a fool would pack anything valuable – computers, iPods, cameras and the like should never travel in any piece of luggage that leaves your sight.
With this in mind, you should choose your checked-in bags for wholly utilitarian purposes – I’m partial to the robustness of plain, black Victorinox and Tumi suitcases, which boast superb quality without calling attention to themselves in the manner of the logo-laden Louis Vuitton or Goyard cases. With Victorinox’s and Tumi’s tracking programmes, too, you have the added sense of security of (possibly) finding your luggage should it not make its way to the conveyor belt.
Because hand luggage doesn’t go into the hold, it is immune to the other bane of travel: the physical abuse of the luggage. One need only look on the conveyor belts to see the broken wheels, bits of straps, forlorn handles and luggage tags in permanent rotation. It has been confirmed by more than one study that expensive luggage – especially bags decorated with unmistakable logos and patterns – invites resentment from the luggage-handling crews. They’re more likely, for the sheer, demonic, resentful pleasure of it, to batter the hell out of a piece of Vuitton than a non-descript hold-all made of black rip-stop nylon. The latter is egalitarian; the former reminds them that they’re not the ones quaffing Krug in First Class.
What remains, then, is style. This is where hand luggage provides a particular joy bound by only two limitations: size and weight. Depending on the class of ticket you purchased, there are restrictions including the rather ill-defined international bag dimensions, which demand that you check first with your airline – they differ by as much as four inches in some dimensions. We’ve all seen travellers hassled over bags that clearly fit into those ominous frames placed near the check-in desks; at the same time, we’ve hissed to ourselves about the passengers who somehow managed to force their way on with bags that wouldn’t fit into the overhead bins if crushed by a steamroller. It’s one of the gambles we undergo every time we travel: did the staff member checking you in have a bad day? Will your bag pass muster?
Better safe than sorry: never consider as hand luggage any bag that exceeds approximately 56x45x25cm (22x18x10in), including the handle and pockets, or you might be told at check-in that it must go in the hold. This is not a pleasant surprise when you’re travelling with a decent camera, notebook computer and a second (or third) wristwatch. A certain amount of flexibility is allowed, especially if the bag is soft rather than rigid, but you can’t go too far wrong with those dimensions. Compounding this, however, is the weight allowance. Most airlines are only concerned with the hand luggage’s dimensions, and some – such as BA – even allow a second, smaller item such as a separate computer or camera case, or lady’s handbag. Unfortunately, one of the most popular carriers has an absurd limit of 6kg (13lbs) for Economy and Premium Economy, as well as slightly smaller dimensions than the rest. The 6kg limit actually rules out a number of top quality pieces of luggage unless they’re nearly empty.
Should you decide, then, that your wanderlust would be enhanced by a better class of hand luggage, there are suppliers whose wares will transport you back to a more refined era. Merely running your hand along the edge of a bespoke attaché case won’t necessarily block your ears to the sound of a screaming brat two rows behind you, nor of the noisy revellers on their way to their personal remake of The Hangover, but you will derive both tactile and visual pleasure from it.
Your choices are, as with the best clothing and footwear, either off-the-peg or bespok . With luggage, bespoke matters less than with attire, because you are not ordering something that needs to conform to the individual peculiarities of one’s body: prêt-à-porter suffers few compromises unless you are that fastidious about the colour of the suitcase’s lining, or you simply have an aversion to anything that isn’t a one-off. When you consider the standard catalogue items from the likes of Tanner Krolle or Swaine Adeney Brigg, your first thought is likely to be, “How could they possibly improve on this?” Add to the above the deliciously retro styling of Globe-Trotter or Valextra, the hunting-inspired bags from Beretta or Holland & Holland, the metal constructs of Rimowa, Dunhill and Zero-Halliburton, the exquisite leather goods from Berluti – a perfect match for their peerless footwear – and you will find them a tonic to the many millions of black nylon roll-ons stuffed into the overheads. Shoe-quality leathers, weather-resistant canvases, secret pockets, smooth-turning wheels – allow the indulgence of R10,000 and upward for a way to savour the trappings of travel from a less-harried era.
There is, of course, another way to enhance your travelling experience, while enjoying the delights of fine luggage without subjecting it to any risks: travel by car or ship whenever the journey allows. Then you can add to your favourite Tanner Krolle attaché or Tusting wheeled hold-all the matching suitcase or two-suiter, knowing that they’re safe in the boot, or in the more gentle hands of a ship’s crew. And that they’re as far away as possible from the barbarians at OR Tambo, Heathrow, JFK, Malpensa, LAX, De Gaulle…