Road Worrier Tests The American Tourister Combimax Suitcase

I used to be one of those people who swanned into airports with a single bag and cast a judgemental glare at the people grappling enormo-luggage. Now I'm roaming around the US with a 75cm suitcase and worrying about whether I'll be over the weight limit. Welcome to life on four suitcase wheels.

Regular Lifehacker readers will know I travel incessantly. I regularly upgrade backpacks, partly because I always try and take a minimal amount of luggage when I travel domestically, and my non-stop schedule wears nearly everything out within a year or so. But I don't change my suitcases nearly so often.

I last replaced my standard carry-on suitcase back in 2009 -- and that was because the wheels literally fell off my previous bag during Lifehacker's Hand Luggage Only experiment.

On overseas trips, I generally take a larger case -- if you have to check something anyway, there's not much point in skimping. It is possible to do brief overseas trips with carry-on only -- hell, I went to New Zealand last year without any luggage of any kind last year -- but it's a nuisance if you don't want to waste time and money buying toiletries when you get there. Given that you always end up spending time going through customs, waiting for luggage doesn't seem like such a chore.

I've had the same large Travelpro suitcase since (gulp) 2004. I purchased that one because its predecessor actually fell to pieces in the back of the courtesy car taking me from San Francisco to the airport. I was grateful it didn't do that on board the plane, but annoyed that I didn't have time to hunt around for a cheap replacement and ended up in a relatively ritzy luggage store in downtown SF. But the fact I spent a little more money doubtless helps explain how the suitcase lasted so long.

Nonetheless, after a decade the Travelpro is just about done for regular travel -- the outside pockets don't work, the wheels sometimes stick, the handle is starting to jam. Risking having another suitcase fall to pieces on the road seemed silly. So when American Tourister offered me a review Combimax case, I jumped at the chance to try it out.

Welcome to four wheels

The selling point for the Combimax is that it's large (it comes in 55cm, 65cm and 75cm sizes) and has four wheels, but doesn't weight a lot (4.3kg in the largest size). As you'd expect with that weight, it's a soft-sided case, which is OK with me -- I don't usually pack stuff that needs the extra protection of a hard case.

Because I haven't purchased new luggage in so long, the four-wheel trend has so far passed me by, and to be honest as long as it has two wheels, I'm not so fussed about the other two. What I like is the increased volume. This case can hold 110 litres.

The interior is sensibly divided, with two pockets in the top of the lid, a detachable washbag case, and a large exterior pocket. It has a TSA-compliant lock (useful if you want to avoid having your lock ruined in the US by security inspections) and a handle which does go high enough for me to comfortably use it. (As a tall guy, many suitcase designs end up being too uncomfortable to drag).

I've now taken the Combimax on two separate trips to the US. During the first (for Microsoft's Build conference last month), I was very conscious of the fact that I had way too much spare space. While this meant I didn't have to pay any attention whatsoever to how I packed it, I didn't feel I was really taking advantage of it.

My current stint in the States is a lot longer -- three weeks in total. Having a large suitcase has meant I've been able to pack enough clothes to have something new to wear every single day, without messing around paying a fortune for hotel laundry or trying to hunt down a suitable laundry. I've even broken with a long-standing habit of mine and packed more than one pair of shoes. While the case is fairly full, I haven't even had to bust out all its space-saving features (there's an expander zip I haven't touched).

So are there any disadvantages? Yes. Firstly, if you take a four-wheeled suitcase on a train, there's no way to keep it standing still short of holding on to it or ramming it into a seat. That same ease of movement that lets you easily push a four-wheeler across shiny airport floors also means your suitcase will take off uncontrollably every time the train starts up. Not a dealbreaker, but annoying.

Secondly, a big case is still more hassle than a smaller case when you're not wheeling it. The case was something of a challenge to stow on the airport shuttle bus to my hotel in Los Angeles, for instance.

Thirdly, it's dangerously easy to end up well over the weight limit. In the US, the upper limit for checked luggage is generally 50 pounds (around 22.5 kilograms). My OneWorld frequent flyer status means I can generally get away with a little more -- but for one leg this trip, I was travelling as a no-status pleb on Alaska Airlines. My case weighed in at 54 pounds, and I had to hastily extract a few items and stuff them in my hand luggage to fall under the total. That said, had I been travelling with a heftier case, the problem might have been even worse.

All up, I've been very pleased with the Combimax. For any trip over a fortnight, it's going to be my choice in the future.

One final note: luggage prices have definitely improved. The RRP for the Combimax I tested is $329. I paid more than that for its predecessor 10 years ago, and that was a smaller size.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman is still happy with his decision to pack a travel kettle this time around. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


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