I'm traveling for work, standing outside the plane, when the flight attendant breaks the news that I’ll have to check my carry-on bag. They insist everything will be fine; I'll get it back when I land. But on this particular day, on this particular flight, I have a bad feeling.
I hand over my bag. And when I retrieve it hours later, I find that it's no longer in one piece. The bigger problem? It's not even my bag. It's a priceless prototype on loan from Bugaboo.
The company famous for posh, rugged, $1,000 strollers stolen outside espresso shops is entering the $30 billion global luggage market. The Bugaboo Boxer is a modular luggage system that's designed to keep all your bags in one place. And at $1,500 for the entire system, it isn't cheap. I recently traveled for work with a top secret prototype, its logos covered in black tape, a precaution that seemed silly until, pushing the Boxer through O’Hare, I realized that fellow travelers checked out one another’s luggage like dudes check out one another’s cars—or more aptly, like parents check out other parent’s strollers.
At its core, everything in the Boxer system sits atop a $630 luggage cart. It has a telescoping arm and four wheels that hook directly into the frame of one of two bags—a glossy polycarbonate black bag ($540) that’s small enough to carry on a plane like a roller bag or a glossy polycarbonate white bag ($460), oversized for longer trips. If you connected the cart into the white bag, you can actually then slide the black bag to hook into the front of the white one.
When you press a button on the telescoping handle, and telescope the handle out to walking position, four wheels suddenly kick out from the base of your bag. They store inside the frame kind of like a turtle for durability and easy storage, and in a satisfying bit of mechanics, the bag goes from protected to ready to roll. But here’s the kicker: You don’t pull this bag, as you do most. You push it through the airport—yes, in a sensation that feels just like pushing a stroller.
"The most important thing that we’ve learned from strollers is the power of push," says Bugaboo founder Max Barenbrug. Pulling a bag puts your wrist and arm into an uncomfortable position rotation. Add weight, and this only gets more uncomfortable in pain that can reach into your shoulder. "To push is a lot different from pulling."
I didn’t believe him on the phone. Pushing luggage? I’d seen the four-wheel roller bags and they looked as awkward as the two. But flying through multiple airports with the Bugaboo, I’m a convert. The ergonomics fit my body comfortably—just like a fancy stroller!—and the luggage rolls with an impossible smoothness. (In fact, if it’s sitting by your side, the luggage doubles as a level. On any uneven surface, it will begin to roll away without you.)
As Barenbrug explains, this chassis isn’t just key to the Bugaboo’s design. It’s also the core of the company's business plan. The aluminum chassis is the only component Bugaboo makes in-house under strict quality control. The Boxer bags may be Bugaboo-branded, but they can be developed with partners under less oversight—and with all sorts of different sizes, colors, and fabrics, too.
"[Now] if a consumer is buying an expensive suitcase, and they find the standards of the airline have changed, their purchase of this expensive case is fully a waste," says Barenbrug. "With Bugaboo, it’s not. You buy this different sized, relatively cheaper suitcase that connects to your chassis and you continue to use it."
It’s an argument that almost makes sense—except consumers don’t see the wheels of their bag, and the bag of their bag, as separate line items when buying luggage. At least not yet.
Furthermore, all of this pushing comes at a price. Especially when it’s combined with the Boxer’s other design innovations, which are smaller, and many of which have been born from market research.
Inside the Boxer’s carry-on roller bag is another bag! It’s a soft lining case that unzips and lets you essentially double your storage on a long trip, for dirty clothes, souvenirs, whatever. It’s two bags in one! Unfortunately, this lining takes up a lot of space. I had to remove it to have the room I needed for a short trip.
The Boxer also features this other, uh, thing. It’s like a neoprene Trapper Keeper that you can stick onto the telescoping part of the frame. Ideally, it’s a bug-out bag for sitting down on a plane, allowing you to snap it off to take a few magazines, and maybe a small laptop, to your seat. Again, it fits in with an impressive mechanics that I have no idea how Bugaboo engineered. Yet in practice, it’s just another component to an increasingly complicated system. It’s another piece that adds weight and seems all-too-possible to lose.
The project has been in development since 2007, during which time Bugaboo sent scouts to airports in New York and Tokyo, watching pain points. "It’s scavenger hunts," Barenbrug says. "Just observing what’s going on in airports and railway stations to see what people do, where we might find a solution to all the problems we see that consumers themselves don’t address."
Yet over time, I can’t help but wonder if Bugaboo tried to solve too many small problems to differentiate itself in the market.
Because solving all of these small problems lead to the Boxer’s biggest problem: that it’s really quite small. The core black carry-on, at least. As I power pack for my trip, I realize there’s a lot less room than I’m accustomed to in my own bag. I suspect it’s a result of the frame folding itself into the bag, along with another idea that sounded great on paper, but is functionally problematic.
The small roller bag is also quite heavy. At least 50% heavier than my normal bag, maybe more. That’s because of the extra bag inside, along with that stroller-quality cart (which probably makes up its weight when you start stacking bags onto the system).
I quickly developed a love-hate relationship with the Boxer. Love: it rolls so well. Hate: it banged my shin again somehow and fuuuuuu it hurts. Love: it’s so balanced I can just set my messenger bag on top and it won’t fall. Hate: the catch about pushing your luggage is that it’s very easy to hit people. Love: the effect of the pop-out wheels. Hate: sometimes two pop out, sometimes four. I could never figure out why. And getting them back inside takes some serious muscle that I always need to exert at inopportune times, like standing in the tight aisle of a plane.
While it’s just a hunch, I suspect that it was the frame that got the best of the baggage handler that day. Remember, dear reader? That tale of me handing off the Boxer to the nearest attendant? When I’d get it back, I’d see that the telescoping frame was missing.
How did it pop off? Did some airport moving machine hit its release mechanism? Maybe. And that would be a pretty big design flaw. Or did some baggage handler get furious when they couldn’t figure out how to get the wheels to pop back in, and rip the thing off? Maybe. And that would be a pretty big design flaw, too.
The Bugaboo Boxer is, in essence, a bit too clever for its own good. And as a result, its users may sometimes be prone to tantrums.
[All Images: via Bugaboo]