The holiday travel season upon us, which means dragging our bags out and packing for flights, trains, or road trips. Sure normal luggage gets the job done, but “smart” luggage can weigh itself, skip through TSA checkpoints, and warn you if it’s getting lost. I decided to give some a try.
This week’s showdown will be a little interesting because it doesn’t compare two specific products as it compares two categories of product based on the features they offer, and whether you should invest in or jump at those features—and the added complexity they represent. Here are our contenders:
- Regular, Standard Luggage: You probably already own a suitcase, or a rolling bag, or any other piece of luggage that you pack up when it’s time to travel and carry with you on a plane, toss in the back of a car, or wheel around from place to place. The best luggage is well made, affordable for its durability, and most of us balance cost and quality versus how often we actually travel when it comes to deciding how much to spend. Depending on the size and type, you run the gamut in price, from high-end designer gear to department-store budget buys, but in general the good stuff gets the job done, carries your stuff safely, and doesn’t bankrupt you in the process.
- “Smart” Luggage: Smart luggage, like the types of bags that companies like Bluesmart, Raden, Away, and others make, generally have a few things in common: They all have apps that connect to your luggage via Bluetooth, they all have features like proximity alarms and distance indicators, they can all weigh themselves, and some of them can even charge your gadgets or help you stay connected on the go. The folks at Raden sent me one of their A22 Carry smart suitcases, and when I had the opportunity to take a business trip from New York to Miami, I decided to take it along for the ride. My thoughts here will be related to that suitcase particularly, but generalized to the category.
I’ll give you a quick bottom line up front: Some of the features that smart suitcases offer are really really useful. The issue is that right now most of the companies that make smart luggage do so as part of a brand play—as in, they want to be the “Apple of suitcases,” or the “Uber for luggage,” and they want you to have a perception of a modern, sophisticated lifestyle that comes along with using their products. That’s fine—there’s nothing wrong with that—but it’s also worth keeping in mind that at the end of the day your luggage’s primary job is to hold your stuff safely while you move from point a to point b. You’ll have to decide whether the features—and the sophistication—are worth the price tag to you.
Is Luggage Something that Needs to Be “Disrupted?”
As with many industries that get “disrupted” in the name of making money by reinventing an existing product by putting “smart” on the label and a chip somewhere inside, you have to ask yourself whether luggage is even something you need to have upended and improved. A good, quality suitcase or carry-all can fit anywhere from a few days’ worth to two weeks’ worth of clothing right there under the seat in front of you, and you can find them easily. We’ve even shared baggage handlers’ tips for buying the best luggage, and to be fair, none of your favorite rolling luggage picks are of the smart variety. Similarly, pilots and flight attendants don’t buy this stuff. So who is it for, exactly?
For many of us, including frequent, regular travelers, the added complexity—and added cost—of smart suitcases just doesn’t make sense. If you’ve never thought that you needed your suitcase to be a charging station, or to weigh itself and warn you if you’re over your airline’s carry-on limit, or even notify you when it’s getting too far away from you for comfort, then you probably don’t need a smart suitcase.
However, if any of those things made you raise an eyebrow and think “huh, that might be kind of neat,” then read on. Some of them can come in handy, even if you don’t expect them to.
Smart Luggage Can Offer Useful Features, At a Premium Price
Most smart luggage options come in both checked bag and carry-on sizes, and add three big features that make them worth considering:
- TSA-Approved Battery Packs to Charge Your Devices: Almost every “smart luggage” option I looked at, including the Raden that I traveled with, have the option to charge your devices on the go, especially useful while you’re scurrying from an airport to an Uber, or between gates at the airport because your flight has changed. The best ones charge by plugging a charging cable into your bag (the Raden has a pair of USB ports right next to the handle for this, and even includes a cable) or let you remove the battery pack entirely and carry it around while your bag is in your hotel room or sitting in the compartment above you on your flight. The removable nature is also useful, because even though all of these companies have TSA-approved batteries, bags, and locks, individual screeners may still be curious what they’re looking at inside your bag.
- A Companion App for Flight Information, Proximity, and More: Not every manufacturer includes this, but the Raden that I tested had a companion app that you could add flight information to, keep track of your gate and departure time with, view TSA wait times through, and even see the weather at your destination airport. Similarly, the same app would tell me how far the bag was from me at any time, and even give me a general direction, via Bluetooth, which was marginally useful. If someone steals my bag, I’m probably not going to use Bluetooth to hunt it down, and if it’s a carry-on, I should have it in sight at all times. If it’s a checked bag, well, it’s going to be in the hold under me, and I suppose it’s useful then if you’re waiting at baggage claim or scared your bag didn’t make your flight.
- Weight Sensors: While not all smart luggage manufacturers include this, they should. The bag I traveled with had a weight sensor, which was especially useful since I was flying with a carry-on. Let the sensor calibrate itself while the bag is empty, then pick up the bag when it’s packed full and the sensor will tell you how much it weighs. This is especially useful if you’re worried your carry on will be too heavy to go onboard with you, or if you’re checking a bag and you’re worried it’s over your airline’s weight limit. This is the kind of thing I definitely would like to see on more than just “smart” luggage.
All of these features were fun to use, and surprisingly useful. I sat at my gate charging my phone from my bag directly, and I didn’t have to use the battery pack I had in my backpack at all. Of course, it’s a marginal convenience since I had an external pack anyway, but it’s nice to just plug a cable into my phone while I wait, without having to unearth yet another thing while I waited for my flight.
The companion app was fun, but obviously not a necessity—we’ve all been able to travel in the past just fine without apps for our bags, and while Raden’s app tries to be useful and adds some actually helpful features, it wasn’t anything I couldn’t have found elsewhere or lived without. The weight sensor however, was surprisingly useful. Since I was carrying my bag on, I didn’t have to weigh, but if I were flying overseas, it would be great to know how heavy my stuff was before I had to put it on a scale at the airport and have someone ask me to rebalance my bags.
Other manufacturers either already to or plan to add features like a tiny screen to replace airline barcode tags, proximity alarms that go off when you tap a button on your screen in case you’re lost or can’t see your bag at the baggage claim, or bags with locks that will only unlock if someone has a TSA key or you use the app to unlock them. (That latter bit actually sounds like a bad idea.)
The real bottom line though is that all of these features, even the helpful ones, represent an additional cost. Depending on the bag, you’re looking at hundreds of extra dollars. Normal, simple carry-on bags that’ll fit in an overhead usually run around $100 or so, depending on the make and brand. The Raden I carried on the other hand is closer to $300. The larger version, the Check, is $400. The set with both the Carry (sized for carry-ons and overheads) and the Check (sized for checked luggage) is $600. If your jaw just dropped, I can’t blame you.
Traveling with Smart Luggage Has Practical Benefits, but Also Drawbacks
So those features are all helpful and interesting, but you also have to consider the actual travel experience as well. Personally, my trip with the A22 Carry was great. The bag kept my phone juiced up while I waited for boarding, or waited for an Uber to pick me up. While the fact that the app was iOS only was annoying (Android coming by the end of the month, reportedly,) I used my iPad when I wanted to check the weight of my bag, play with the proximity detection, or check the battery level.
But I did run into the one issue you’re probably expecting: a slightly confused TSA screener. On the way home, one screener who ran my bag through the x-ray machine set it aside for “additional screening.” I waited for that screening, which consisted of them opening my bag, running several swabs of testing paper around the battery compartment, opening it to see what it really was, and eventually sending me on my way. Now, this could have been my fault—I packed my charging cables in tight loops near the battery (so it must have looked like a black box with coiled wire around it to an x-ray machine)—and no one gave me a hard time about it (the screeners who talked to me were super nice and understanding when I explained it was just a battery pack.)
Of course, not everyone has had a similar experience. Natt Garun famously wrote at TheNextWeb about how her smart luggage nearly got her kicked off of a flight, or at least almost had her miss one. I had no desire to repeat that experience, even though I was using a completely different smart suitcase. Bottom line, I didn’t have a serious problem, but you should be aware—this is a frontier, and while TSA knows about these bags, approved their design and construction, and shouldn’t be surprised when they see them, policy is one thing, and individuals working the endless line of holiday travelers are another. Be kind, be patient, get to the airport early, and know your rights.
The Verdict: The Tech Is Here and Useful, but the Price Tag Isn’t For Everyone
So where does that leave us? Well, this smart tech is here, and it’s not going away. You don’t have to buy into the bleeding edge, lifestyle-brand plays like Bluesmart and Raden are offering, of course, but if you like the features those bags offer and you have the money to drop on them, by all means, go for it. Of course, you could pick and choose some of those features by adding a Bluetooth tracker like a Tile tracker to your bag and an external, removable battery pack to your carry-on you can charge with while you’re sitting at the gate. Even so, it’s nice to have all those useful features neatly integrated into a sturdy, well-built suitcase like the Raden I traveled with.
That said, if you’re not thrilled by the price tag, no one can blame you. $300 is a lot of money for a carry-on bag, even if it’s a hard-shelled, four-wheeled, smart suitcase. I like the Raden I tested a lot, but at home I still have a standard carry-on that I’ll probably continue to toss around the backs of cars, and freely kick around without fearing for my investment. The great thing though is that almost every company like this releases their high-end, luxury models first, and then they’ll introduce budget-friendly versions in the future, or other manufacturers will introduce more affordable products with maybe one or two of the best features that you can afford. Keep an eye out for that.
In the interim, I can happily say I loved my experience—and I’m willing to bet you’d like it too if you had one to try. Keep that in mind when you’re shopping for luggage before your next big holiday trip, but don’t use “smart” as an excuse to blow your budget.