Luggage needn’t be intelligent to do its job well. For many jet-setters, a sturdy, stylish, relatively dopey carry-on does the trick, and pricey smart bags—with over-hyped features such as digital scales, global tracking devices and assisted compression systems—often just further complicate traveling. Their ability to charge a phone comes in handy, admittedly, but with recent restrictions against smart bags, these trendy pieces might be more hassle than they’re worth.
As of January, airlines including American, Delta and Southwest have issued tighter guidelines for all types of smart luggage, citing concerns that their built-in lithium ion batteries could catch fire midflight. The bottom line: If a smart bag’s power source can’t be removed, it can’t fly.
The rulings challenged brands to create ejectable batteries that you can carry on once powered down—and led to negative press, frustrated fliers and extra costs to retrofit customers’ luggage, all of which forced brands including Bluesmart and Raden out of the smart-bag business.
“In a world where the regulatory environment is uncertain, I wouldn’t want to travel with this,” admitted Joshua Udashkin, founder and former CEO of Raden. “Why do I need a battery in a carry-on if it is just going to make my trip more annoying. I’ll just buy a Mophie [charger].”
Traditional luggage brands don’t appear eager to jump on the smart suitcase bandwagon. Instead they offer products to up the IQ of bags you already own. Tumi’s Global Locator is a sleek little device that can track a bag’s whereabouts and notify you via text or email if it gets lost. It also shrewdly shuts down when it senses takeoff, making it FAA compliant ($ 150, tumi.com).
With so much doubt around the future of these bags, you might want to lug more classically. “Luggage is already expensive and sensitive enough as it is,” said one naysayer, Brooke Schoenman, who founded Her Packing List, a women’s lifestyle site. “Adding extra smart features adds more things that can break and get damaged in transit.”
If you’ve ever angrily paid extra to check an overweight bag, waited bleakly at the luggage carousel for a suitcase that never appeared, or struggled to find an outlet while your phone battery dies, smart luggage might merit the investment despite the concerns.
Certain direct-to-consumer brands such as Away and Barracuda—both of whose bags are equipped with all-important ejectable batteries—have taken care to make the airport rigmarole less, not more, stressful. But these manufacturers aren’t just grafting on brainy gadgets to raise the prices.
“We really wanted to consider every aspect of the travel experience,” said Away co-founder Steph Korey. “How people pack, how they get to the airport, what they do when they arrive…and really dive into that.”
Smart luggage helps frequent travelers like Deloitte business analyst Emma Lichtenstein, 23, stay connected to their offices, a boon for jittery workaholics. While flying from New York to Jacksonville, Fla. each week, she uses her Away bag to fully charge her smartphone, which doubles as a Wi-Fi hot spot for her laptop. It’s nice, she said, not having to carry around another device.
James Bond-worthy add-ons include remote locking and RFID-blocking pockets to foil data thieves. Modobag, which uses a safer carbon-free titanium battery to skirt the FAA’s rules, overachieved by creating a motorized carry-on you can straddle to zip around airports faster, albeit with shades of Segway dorkiness. “It’s about being functional and fun,” said Tim Ryan, chief marketing officer for Modobag.
Bonus features aren’t all techy. “We feel really strongly about staying away from anything that is tech for tech’s sake,” said Away’s Ms. Korey. Barracuda bags come with built-in cup holders and a laptop tray that lets you create a workstation anywhere. They also easily collapse for storage once you’re back home. And G-RO bags feature large durable wheels that glide smoothly over cobble stone streets. Because dragging your obstinate, ordinary bag through Krakow’s Old Town isn’t the brightest move.
EGGHEADS ON WHEELS // THREE SMART BAGS THAT ARE MORE THAN JUST A ROLLING CHARGER
FOR SAVING SOME COIN
The affordable Away suitcase sports an easily removable battery and two USB ports for charging on the go, as well as an interior compression system to help you pack a few extra items and a TSA-approved lock. Its Japanese-designed Hinomoto 360-degree wheels won’t trip you up if you’re running to make your connection. From $ 225, awaytravel.com
FOR SMARTER STORAGE
Beyond standard smart luggage features, including a USB charger and location tracking, the Barracuda’s main attraction is its collapsible nylon shell that folds up to fit a slim hanging bag for storage when you’re not on the road. It also has a 360-degree rotating handle and a laptop tray that pulls out when you need to get some work done. $ 349, barracuda.co
FOR A RIDE TO THE GATE
Why walk from gate to gate when you can ride? This motorized carry-on can ferry most travelers up to 6 miles on a single charge. It doesn’t use a lithium battery—opting instead for a carbon-free titanium power source that tops off in only one hour—which makes it compliant with FAA rules but also much more expensive. $ 1,495, shop.modobag.com