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Erica Ho / Map Happy

Review: The Away Suitcase Disappoints Despite Measured Expectations

Sometimes it hurts to leave a really bad review.

The Away suitcase may be the single handedly the most talked about smart suitcase out there on the market at the moment. It is also single handedly the most disappointing, with the carry-on not being able to handle a single gate check-in on the first flight we took it on.

Updated: October 24, 2017Since the initial publication of this piece, Away CEO Stephanie Korey has reached out to us. Statements are provided where we think they are most relevant for clarity. These are indicated by the icon.

The first time we heard about Away was in January 2016, when a PR firm reached out to us about a luggage line started by two Warby Parker executives as a luxury-to-direct consumer luggage line. Immediately intrigued, we ended up declining to “review” it since we weren’t able to see the bag without a unit in hand.

Since then, the luggage line has had a lot of time to iron its first-year kinks—remember the first-gen iPhone?—but even though the idea is a fantastic one, ultimately, the bag suffers from poor durability and construction issues.

In fact, if there was any bag that we wanted to like more than the other bags we have reviewed in the past, it would be this one. Perhaps our expectations set us up for disappointment, or perhaps they helped calibrate it for a more realistic review of the bag. Even we’re not entirely sure.

For the record, given the number of positive reviews out there, it almost seems like we’re talking about different bags, and we aren’t knocking it solely to be the “the cool kid that won’t conform.” In fact, it would be wise to take every review, including this one, with a grain of salt.

But what we did do is test it over 31,209 miles (enough to fly around the world 1.25 times) and lived out of one exclusively for over three months. In fact, there is nothing I want to do more than not live out of this suitcase at the moment.

But first and foremost, let’s cover the basics.

For the purposes of this review, Away loaned us a three-suitcase set, valued at $695. This included The Bigger Carry-on ($245)1, The Medium ($275) and The Large ($295).

The Bigger Carry-On nestled inside The Medium and The Large.

The Medium and The Large are identical to both carry-ons, except it is extremely important to note that these don’t have smart functionality (USB charging ports), making them a simple big suitcase. To keep this review brief, we will mostly focus on the carry-on, since that’s the most distinctive piece of the set.

The manufacturer offers a 100-day trial in case it goes bad, which in our case, didn’t pass muster. Sure, there’s a built-in period to return in case you don’t like it, but is there a better way to spend your time than returning suitcases?

(In my glory days, which were accompanied by years and years of elite frequent flyer status, when I was on the road for over 100,000 miles annually, I would have said a definitive YES.)

Materials, construction, and all the incredibly important stuff that no one cares about until it breaks down.

In most reviews, this section often gets the cursory, obligatory once-over, unless… durability issues crop up so frequently that we have to spend significant time on it.

The Carry-On measures 21.7 inches x 13.7 inches x 9 inches (55.1 cm x 34.8 cm x 22.9 cm) and weighs 7 pounds (3.2 kg). The carry-ons have a capacity of 38-46L, which compared to the Muji’s old 33L, is more than capable of packing a significant amount of belongings. In fact, we’d wager the 38L is more than sufficient for most trips. 46L is for people who love to lug stuff around.

The Away bag is a hard-case suitcase constructed out of a lightweight German polycarbonate, and it was immediately apparent there might be issues from the get go. By far and large, one of the lightest suitcases we have reviewed thus far, this sacrifice in weight affects the shell’s ability to protect and withstand outside trauma.

(PCMag reported it as having a lot more “give” than what they’ve seen in other suitcases and what they would also feel comfortable with. We would concur with this assessment.)

In quick contrast, the Muji suitcase, the Away bag’s look-a-like, is .2-.5 pounds heavier and though also made out of a polycarbonate shell, has performed much better over a significantly longer period of time.

(For the record, if it wasn’t blindingly obvious, we always encourage people to go with the smaller suitcase. Not does it only force efficient packing, people forget regional jets have a limited amount of space in the overhead compartment. Plus the budget airline thing.)

Rolling, lifting, around town, in overhead bins.

So let’s talk about these wheels, since when talking about a suitcase, is what Judgment Day is all centered around. There is no point in even talking about it if we’re not even able to transport it.

Rolling it all around Tokyo.

The Away bag is adorned with four Hinomoto spinner wheels for added mobility. Don’t be fooled by the fancy name: the wheels didn’t perform exceptionally well, especially over uneven terrain and cobblestones, through streets in both New York and Hong Kong.

Compared to the Muji suitcase’s ease of use, it had us wishing for the former. This aspect becomes especially emphasized if a top-heavy bag is sitting on the case while it is being pushed around.

In fact, the Muji’s wheels are so crazy that it has a luggage lock to stop it from spinning all over the place, which is awesome when on a rolling subway or a slanted surface area.

Frankly, we’ve had better, and we’ve had worse. But we’ve definitely had better.

The luggage handle extends to 19.5 inches (49.5 cm). There is not anything particularly interesting to note except when the suitcase is packed to the brim, there can be slight difficulty in releasing or pushing the handle down. It was not a smooth experience compared to what we’ve had with other suitcases.

It also doesn’t have a bottom grip, which is extremely useful for lifting the suitcase by both sides into and from overhead compartment bins. This feature tends to be especially important when it is packed tight and there’s been a significant amount of weight that has been added.

(The side handle is a nice if completely useless element, since I don’t know a single person that grips the top and side handle to stow things away.)

So what about that “smart” element?

The Away suitcase has caused me to ask some very deep existential questions about luggage. Such as, should even suitcases be smart? What is the answer to life? What should I have for lunch?

One of the main selling points about this brand is that the Away carry-ons allows travelers to charge their gadgets and doodads on the fly. To drive this point home, Away includes a USB wall adapter and USB-B cord for charging the battery with the bag.

In short, this feature proved to be more useful than I anticipated. There is something to be said about being jet lagged, exhausted, and not having to rub two brain cells together to find an outlet or the adapter situation once arriving in a foreign country.2

In fact, over the course of a two-week long business trip that involved eight hotels in seven cities, it became increasingly handy to charge on the go so I could be fully prepped for the next work situation or meeting.

Included for charging the battery pack (but can used be for other gadgets).

But there are several unintended downsides: I could not check the bag on certain occasions. Expect a lot of confusion on international airlines, especially if you intend to check it in.

On Japan Airlines, from Tokushima to Tokyo, the staff was so confused about whether it was permissible (plus the language barrier) that they eventually ended up accepting it at the counter. However, they returned the bag to me at the gate later and asked me to carry it onboard the aircraft. This seems fairly in line with other experiences with the bag abroad.

The battery is also quite heavy, so it is definitely recommended to remove it if flying a budget airline that is super picky about carry-on baggage weight. This will apply more to budget airlines like Jetstar, Ryanair, AirAsia than it would to, say, Lufthansa, where no more than 15.4 pounds (7 kg) of baggage is allowed.

The battery pack is located right below the luggage handle. There are two USB ports for charging: the left one is 5V/1 amp and the right one is 5V/2.4 amps. In layman’s terms, the left port is the slow-ass one, the right or blue port is the one you want to use.

(Typically an iPhone charger uses 1 amp, where a tablet would require at least two amps. Like we noted once, there’s nothing wrong with charging a device at a higher amp than it was intended for; problems only occur when a device is charged at a lower amp than what it was intended for. The voltage here is less relevant to most people.)

Removed, and charging.

The removable battery pack has a capacity of 10,000 mAh, and Away includes a screwdriver for removing it, which can be done by unzipping the fabric bottom to access it.

Here’s a rough guide of how many charges the battery should be able to hold for the following devices3:

Device Battery Size Charges
iPhone 7s 2,900 3.45
Google Pixel 2,770 3.61
iPad mini 2 6,471 1.55

Given the battery’s size, the manufacturer recommends that the battery pack is charged overnight for a full eight hours. In our real-world experience, that was about the right amount of time. I did a lot of other things in that time.

(If you are wondering whether the battery can be carried on an aircraft, there should be zero issues. The battery pack clocks in at 37 Wh, which falls under TSA’s 100 Wh limit. It is fully compliant with airline regulations.)

The electronic components itself have a two-year warranty. The manufacturer has said they will offer replacement batteries and that they will keep up with the latest advancements, though the company rep offered no timeline or price point.

The only thing that is befuddling is the presence of a TSA lock on the carry-on though. In general, this has always been a question that has confused me for ages: If I’m near it, who do I need to protect it from? A $15 ham-and-cheese sandwich?

A pin is required to set the lock.

Cheekiness aside, in order to set the lock, a pin must be inserted into the small circle to set a three-number combination. However, if it’s forgotten, there is no way to reset the combination, so no brain farting is allowed. The only other option to “reset” the lock is to bring it to a physical Away location, where it will have to physically removed. (There are only two retail stores at the moment in Los Angeles and New York.)

Nesting, interior organization, and everything else.

Look, there are great things about the bag. One of Away’s most unique features is for the smaller suitcases to nest within the larger ones, like a Russian matryoshka doll. In fact, when Away sent us the set, it was all stacked inside The Large (and so deceptively light that we weren’t even sure that there were other suitcases inside!).

There are some truly amazing things about this: It is great at saving space in tiny apartments, even though the pedantic neat freak in me would have to make sure the outer shell was clean before stuffing it back in again.

On another related note, it offers travelers the opportunity to worry about the check-in fee for only one bag (at least part of the way) if they plan on buying an extra suitcase worth of souvenirs to haul back. On international flights, where one checked in bag is allowed, it might possible to save the fee on both segments of the flight.

Compression system.

Its compression system is also interesting, though took some time getting used to. It’s a flat, zippered compartment that allows someone out to “flatten out” the belongings below so that it is easier to sit on and zip up a really packed suitcase. It also offers extra storage options, but like, I guess, I just put some eyeshadow palettes in there.

Perhaps one thing we did really love about this suitcase was a hidden, detachable garment bag for dirty clothes. Glorious.

In terms of contents, I was able to squeeze in almost two weeks of clothes (one week is highly recommended), three pairs of shoes, a hairdryer, toiletries, makeup, two phones, two bottles of bourbon, two cameras (one DSLR and one instant), and enough fancy clothes for the summer wedding season. Essentially, it was like NASA in my suitcase, and we’d recommend that you pack significantly less in all situations. 

I ended up living out of the suitcase for over three months, which was about two months longer than initially anticipated, as I hauled it around from hotel to Airbnb on airport, subway, train, taxi and the street.

Now let’s talk about that durability issue.

The Away bag’s single biggest flaw is its durability. If Superman had a kryptonite, this would be the manufacturer’s equivalent. Durability issues cropped up with both The Bigger Carry-On and The Medium.

On the first transcontinental flight from New York to Los Angeles that we took, the flight was enormously full, so we did the only logical thing that made sense. We gate-checked it.

Look, I get carry-ons are designed to do exactly what it says: be carried on. Carrying on puts the least amount of stress on a bag. But occasionally, gate checks happen.

Then we noticed something once we picked it up from the luggage carousel at baggage claim: the shell had picked up multiple colors from what it seems like every suitcase it had come into contact with. There were streaks of black, blue, and red, enough to make it look like a four-year-old had been armed with a paintbrush before a responsible adult could put an end to it.

After the first gate-check.

In fact, we couldn’t get rid of the scuffs and colors no matter how hard we tried. After one flight, it looked like it had survived a war. Not an endearing quality to start off with.

This didn’t wash Away with mild soap and water, and it turns out for tough stains, the manufacturer recommends customers to clean the suitcase with Magic Eraser. I still haven’t had time to go to the trouble.

More troubling, the Fujifilm Instax Mini 8 that we left in the suitcase arrived damaged.

Isolated case? It turns out it wasn’t so. The Medium and Large Suitcases scuffed easily as well, even though they received significantly less use than the Carry-On. In fact, The Medium and The Large were primarily used to haul massive amounts of belongings back and forth to a storage unit.

That didn’t prevent two of the feet (or, what might be called hubcaps) to disappear from The Medium, with the screws left completely exposed. The only stress that had been put on the bag was carrying it down two flights of stairs, and into a storage unit where it was hauled up by elevator. It was later removed from the storage unit and into another building, both of which had elevators.

Not exactly what we expected out of such light usage: never mind checking it into cargo and being smashed in with hundreds of other suitcases.

This is not to make light of the fact that the Away suitcase offers a lifetime warranty, unlike the Muji suitcase (which we still prefer despite their crappy warranty). The warranty covers everything except for scuffs.

But here’s the real question: Is a lifetime warranty you have to use better than a limited warranty that you never have to use? In the end, it seems like these cancel each other out. Replacing and fixing luggage is like returning furniture: annoying, cumbersome, and no one wants to do it.

Comparing it against the Muji.

Stacking the two suitcases against each other (Muji left, Away right).

It would only make sense since they look alike so much, and are priced similarly, that it might be possible to mistake the two. For those not familiar with the Muji brand, it’s an established, minimalist Japanese brand equivalent which made inroads to the States about a decade ago.

In fact, the Muji suitcase was one of the first major suitcases that we reviewed for its affordability and sleek design. After over 120,000 miles plus on the road with it, it is still one of our favorite budget picks despite a serious, random dent caused by US Airways and its limited warranty. (The anger against US Airways was real!)

Here’s a quick comparison between the two bags, stacked side by side. For point of reference, we compared the Away Carry-On against Muji’s newly updated suitcase:

Bag Price Capacity Weight Length Width Height Luggage Handle
Away $225 38L 7 pounds (3.2 kg) 21.7 in (55 cm) 13.7 in (35 cm) 9 in (23 cm) 19.5 in (50 cm)
Muji $160 35L 7.7 pounds (3.5 kg) 21.3 in (54 cm) 14.6 in (37 cm) 9.3 in (23.5 cm) 15 in (38 cm)

In terms of construction and physicality, both suitcases are made of polycarbonate though there are distinct differences. The Away shell is slightly more matte, while the Muji carries a subtle sheen on the exterior. The Muji shell also seems to have about a quarter more heft, and thus more capable of protecting the contents sufficiently inside.

The luggage handle, which seems to be made out of the same material, is also slightly thicker on the Muji, lending itself to a more solid grip than the handle on its smart suitcase competitor. Blogger Ian Anderson notes that the Away seems to make up for this deficiency on handle length:

The short MUJI handle can make pulling the luggage somewhat uncomfortable for people over about 5″8′. The handle on this guy can extend significantly higher, which makes it much more comfortable to maneuver. So while the Away is harder to control while staying still, it’s much easier to control when moving.

This is a great point, since I clock in at 5’3. In fact, the Away luggage handle is about 4.5 inches higher, though this was initially harder to ascertain given the difficulty we’ve had extending the handle multiple times.

There also seems to be better mobility with the Muji. If both suitcases are fully packed, the Muji suitcase was easier to wield and navigate on the floor and across different surfaces. Not only did it perform better, it was also able to withstand rolling motion, slanted surfaces, and public transportation a lot better with its included wheel lock.

Digging deeper underneath the surface, this has a lot to do with the types of wheels both bags use. The Away bag has been outfitted with four spinner wheels compared to the Muji’s four in-line wheels. Spinner wheels typically give the best maneuverability (by the way, not always necessarily true, and there are a lot of other factors to consider like wheel protection and ball bearings), but we found that the Muji’s in-line wheels was more capable of handling rough terrain.

For better or for worse, the edge goes to Muji for better overall value.

In conclusion

If you have read this far and all 3,330 words, then you’ll know that we were majorly disappointed by Away’s current offering. However, it is still one of the cheapest “smart” offering on the market at the moment, but we’d rather still pay twice the price for something that sorry, no offense, seems to withstand the rigors of travel much better.

For a better boutique budget buy in the $100-$200 price range, the Muji is still the best bet.

3 footnotes

  1. The Carry-On is available for $225. The Bigger Carry-On felt more than sufficient for our needs, and in fact, a little over the top.
  2. Not that Japan needs adapters, since it uses the same prong configuration as the U.S.
  3. For actual charging times, we use the right USB slot.





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