New in luggage: on-line and on wheels

Travelers are on a roll with easy shopping and no heavy lifting

Brenda Fritchie points to a gaping tear on her maroon and blue paisley suitcase.

"That came when I checked it," laments the Springfield, Mo., native, after landing at Boston's Logan Airport. She flies frequently and is looking to buy a bag that has stronger zippers and fabric.

More than ever, luggage designers are responding to travelers like Ms. Fritchie, who represent a changing profile of travelers rushing through airport terminals and tapping their feet anxiously at baggage claims.

They're adding wheels to anything that holds clothing, catering to the cybercrowd by moving showrooms onto dot.coms, and adopting higher quality and lightweight materials - such as ballistic nylon. Though black is still the color of choice, alternatives - such as moss green - are popping up to help travelers distinguish their totes in the sea of black luggage flooding carousels.

Probably the biggest improvement, travel experts say, is that luggage creators are finally catching up to the dominance of carry-on culture - in particular, by crafting more bags that meet airlines' stricter carry-on standards. Tumi luggage's Wheel-A-Way products, for instance, fit a world where anything smaller than 9-by-14-by-22 inches doesn't make the cut, says Dana Carpenter, senior manager of communications for Tumi. Most other brands have lines that comply, such as Samsonite's Cabin Carry-On (about $285).

Designers are also keeping pace with modern life by expanding their traditional stores to include "click and mortar" boutiques. Their Web sites let shoppers peruse for luggage by brand, price, occasion, or style.

Ebags.com - essentially an Amazon.com for luggage - sells a whole range of gear by companies like Briggs & Riley and Timberland.

For designer CarryEverythingOn.com (CEO), the only place to sell totes is online. The brand's flagship bag is a three-in-one for the quick-trip flyer that comes with an upright suitor, standard duffel, and computer case ($190). More than 300,000 laptops were stolen last year alone, and so the company insures each bag with a computer compartment for up to $1,500 if it's stolen in the first year, says Katie Quinn, president of CEO.

While they're trolling the Web, shoppers can browse Tumi's new women's collection (a niche, experts say, that has been neglected despite women's interest in more sophistication, organization, and space for longer lengths) or the brand's moss-green set - for those who want distinction. Tumi's bigger cases - wheeled garment bags - let him pack on one side and her pack on the other.

The right stuff for brief getaways is also high on designers' lists. This variety includes softer satchels or duffels, such as High Sierra's Club Gear Bag ($129) or Wheeled Duffel ($199).

And companies are hard at work on ergonomics, says Sabrina Horne, managing editor of Travelware magazine. As flying becomes more like commuting for many and families take frequent shorter leisure trips, details like sturdy wheels and handles have become vital. Are we getting lazier? "Wheels are on everything now," says Ms. Horne, from brawny backpacks by Eagle Creek for European treks to simple duffels for long weekends.

For those who want to bring home porcelain Mickey figurines from Disneyland or an "I'm a Friendly New Yorker!" mug from the Big Apple, consider buying baggage with a hard shell to protect such breakable souvenirs. Brenda Zimmerman, store manager of Travel 2000 in Boston, recommends sturdy pieces like Samsonite's EZ CART Suiter with a hard shell or Andiamo sets - made with ballistic nylon - for the heavy globetrotters.

Tumi's Ms. Carpenter says travelers should expect more weekend duffel styles in the wake of corporate America's move toward the casual, as well as cases with zippers that expand their size and use. Fancy luggage looks nice, but it's not always the most durable or practical, says Wendy Perrin, consumer editor at Conde Nast Traveler magazine. "If anyone is going to steal your luggage, it will be for the Louis Vuitton."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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