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Feb 06 2012

Zuca Sport Pro Review

There is no such thing as a perfect travel bag, because travel has a tendency to throw a curve ball at you. Sometimes those curve balls are 9th inning of the 7th game of the World series kind of curve balls and you just don’t know how you are going to deal with it. A travel bag should always be a part of the solution, not part of the problem!

My current practice on this is to slim down, and carry it on with me whenever possible. This is not just because I am painfully frugal when it comes to checked bag fees (which I am) but because there are only two kinds of air travelers. Those that have had an airline lose their luggage and those that are about to suffer through lost luggage. It is really just a matter of time if you travel with any consistency, so you may as well start planning for it because it will happen at the worst possible time.

To do so, I work really hard to keep a limit on the amount of stuff I fly with to maintain a reasonable weight. I read somewhere that a good rule of thumb is to carry no more than 10 percent of your total body weight and I can tell you with confidence that 20 pounds is a painful load when you have 18 minutes to catch a connecting flight at opposite ends of a large airport.

I have avoided wheeled suitcases in the past because of the tradeoffs in space and weight that you have to accept in this kind of bag. When I was explaining how smart I was to my flight attendant sister, she just rolled her eyes and said, “You should look at a Zuca.”

Well, when somebody who flies 4-5 days out of the week states something with that level of confidence, even I am smart enough to go do some real research.

The Specs:

Aluminum alloy frame that is light, super strong and rated to safely support 300 pounds

41″ telescoping handle

Removable, hand washable, replaceable insert bag made from heavy-duty ballistic nylon and coated with water-resistant polyurethane

4″ polyurethane recessed wheels

Length (10″) + width (14″) + height (20″) = 44″ Total, within FAA requirements

Weight: 9.3 lbs.

Overview

The approach for the Zuca is a bit of a departure from the norm. It is actually a nylon bag nested inside of an aircraft grade aluminum exoskeleton. The nylon bag section is attached to the frame via zippers and velcro and can be completely removed from the frame to be washed. Of course, the first thing I did was to take it off and I struggled a little bit before getting it reattached correctly.

This approach makes the bag very light, considering its strength. It is rated to support 300 pounds, although there is a nod and a wink on their website that it will hold more than that.

I believe it. Much to my wife’s amusement I stood on the Zuca and it did not whine or whimper a bit while sustaining my 200 pounds with equanimity.

The frame also gives it sort of a Formula 1, modern look which drew several appraising looks as I wheeled my way down the concourse.

That skeleton is what keeps it’s structure stable and protects your bags contents. The Zuca also ships with ballistic nylon cover to wrap the package for a little extra protection should your bag be sentenced to the belly of the plane.

For me, this is not a big plus because it is never my plan to check a bag and I am not willing to carry it “just in case”. It is included at no extra charge so if it works for you it is in the box.

The front of the bag opens with a “c” shaped zipper to show a big open area with a touch over 1700 cubic inches of storage space.

The inside wall of the front door into the inside features a couple of mesh pockets and a zippered “wet” compartment to tuck used gym clothes or damp swimming trunks away from dry clothes inside.

Each side of the Zuca has an open slash pocket and a zippered pocket that runs the length of the side and one side has small drop pocket perfect for business cards. The back has a place for a luggage tag protected by a Velcro sealed flap.

The telescoping handle extends to a full 41 inches with a reassuring “thunk” making it a great length to get a comfortable angle when rolling the Zuca.

Speaking of rolling, the wheels on this bag rock. 4 inches of pure rollabilitation that are torn directly off a pair of competitive in line skates. Put simply: daddy likes. They roll smoothly and quietly over the roughest of terrain.

Direct from the X games!

One of the first things that will jump out at you about the Zuca is its orientation. The bag is rotated 90 degrees from nearly every roller bag I have ever seen. This means the front side is on the narrowest side of the bag. Because of this it rolls down the aisle of any aircraft with aplomb.

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As you can see from the picture above, the Zuca is scaled to fit in the standard US luggage sizer for carrying on board. With regional jets starting to trend toward a 18Lx14Wx7D overhead max you will still be gate checking the Zuca when you fly on one of the smaller Embraer or Canadair jets.

The bag weighs about 9 pounds unloaded but the top and bottom handle and its compact size make it pretty easy to maneuver into an overhead where it will snugly take its place.

Top of the Zuca, showing on handle

Handle at the bottom of the back side

Handle on the bottom

Tucked in the overhead

Goodies Inside!

One of the really nice things about the Zuca is that it comes outfitted with a full range of packing cubes (5 in various sizes plus a regulation size clear toiletries bag.

The Zuca and its packing cubes

If you have not used packing cubes before it is time you started! They help organize you and protect your clothes from snagging or being damaged inside of a bag. They also function as sort of dresser drawers when you arrive making it easy to pull the contents of your bag out with very little effort. My own personal system on longer trips is to keep different kinds of clothing in each cube, but some people favor doing an outfit per cube.

Because the Zuca is a slightly odd shape they also push you into packing in a way that suits its shape. Since the Zuca’s packing cubes are slightly different sizes they tend to favor breaking things down by type of clothing. On a recent five-day trip that I took I broke pants into one of the two largest cubes, 5 polos into another, socks and underwear in a third and my workout clothes in a fourth.

I initially put a second pair of shoes in one of the packing cubes. They are not well scaled for my shoes ( I wear an American size 8.5) and I ended up leaving that cube at home and putting the shoes in upside down at the top of the Zuca.

The cubes are well made with a small bit of color coding to help you distinguish between them when they are packed in and partial mesh tops to aid you seeing inside of them. They also feature a handle to make it easier to extract them from the bag.
One of the cubes is sized to be on the bottom where the bag gives up some depth because of the wheels, but the rest are similar in size, only varying in depth.

Everything packed up in the cubes well for me with the exception of pants. Zuca includes a packing suggestions document that has some good tips about how to pack in the bag based around bundle packing techniques. There are even diagrams for some of the more difficult pieces like coats, pants and shirts. Rolling clothes can maximize space and keeps them from wrinkling, particularly if you are rolling around a small bundle starter like a rolled pair of socks.

The issue for me on the pants was that they suggest folding them in half lengthwise to get the waistband to around 10 inches and then rolling them from the knees. Unfortunately, I am a bit portly and my 38 inch waistbands would have to be folded over twice before rolling. This caused them to wrinkle a bit more than I would have hoped.

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Also included is a clear quart sized “3-1-1” bag for wet toiletries storage. This is actually one of the best of these I have ever used as it is very flat so it tucks away nicely.

There is a net bag at the top of the Zuca that they suggest you use to store the toiletries bag. It has an elastic mouth but no real seal so it makes it fairly easy to get your wet toiletries out at security.

Given how flat this pouch is I actually found it more efficient to put it in one of the zippered side pockets which made it even easier to do the security hokey pokey!

Real World

I used the Zuca on a 5 day trade show trip and found it to be a really pleasant experience. It packs a bit differently than the way I am used to, but it has its charms.

My favorite trick is chair mode. Because the Zuca is so solid and has a flat top it makes a great chair. There is a lot of pleasure in rolling up to a gate, slotting into the boarding line and taking a seat. It earned me several envious stares and had me at the front of my boarding zone every time!

If you are a “one bag” flyer carrying a laptop you may struggle with the Zuca a bit. There is not a secure place inside the bag to store a laptop. Also, if you are looking for a maximum carry on, you do give up some internal storage because of the solid external frame.

If however you are currently using a roller bag but looking to slim down a bit the Zuca is an excellent choice. Adding it to a personal item like a purse or laptop bag or their laptop back pack gives you a very flexible combination.

Conclusions

The Zuca is tough as nails and definitely qualifies as the best rolling chair I have ever used. Its vaguely high school locker shape may make you think through your packing approach, but the included packing cubes will keep you on track.

At just below $300 the Zuca is not cheap but quality seldom is. What is easy to forget are the extras that are included with it. The full set of packing cubes could easily run $50-60 and the cover is included. I also can’t think of any other bag that I would feel good about sitting on!

The Zuca is a great bag for a road warrior who struggles with carrying weight because of shoulder or back issues.

Zuca Pro. $285 as reviewed
320 South Milpitas Blvd.
Milpitas, CA 95035
Phone (408) 377.9822
Fax (408) 626.8911
Toll Free (800) 799.6548

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