Product Review: MUJI 33L Suitcase

A couple of years ago I was having an email conversation with a few other blogger friends about packing for air travel. One guy was about to begin traveling extensively for work, and wanted to get our thoughts on how to do so effectively. Lots of good advice was shared (I still find myself re-reading the conversation every now and again), but there was one looming, unanswered question -is there a roller suitcase that is both functional and affordable without being horrendously unattractive?

We all admitted that we used those miserable puffy roller suitcases that you see everywhere, but none of us had great advice for an alternative. Sure, there are baller choices like Rimowa and Globetrotter, but along with being quite expensive, they come across as a status symbol and can make you more susceptible to theft. After that conversation, I kept my eyes out for something that would check the right boxes, and eventually discovered MUJI.

For those that aren’t familiar, MUJI is a Japanese company that focuses on simple, well-made basics – sort of like if Uniqlo and IKEA had an inexpensive, unassembled child. They have everything from housewares to clothing to kitchen appliances, and then some. Getting MUJI products online was quite difficult until earlier this year, when the company launched their online store.Their luggage is becoming quite popular, and after reading up on it I decided to grab a suitcase.

First, some quick stats on the suitcase: MUJI’s 33L is a medium-smallish carryon (as far as carryons go) and has a volume capacity of 33 liters. It has four spinner wheels, a polycarbonate shell, a TSA lock, some mesh on the inside that creates compartments and pockets, and a wheel lock switch on the back. It clocks in at a nice 7.5 lbs, due in large part to the lightweight shell. The 33L version goes for $160 +$19 shipping (although it’s currently on sale for $136 and has been for months).

At 22 inches x 14.8 inches x 9.2 inches (55 cm x 37 cm x 23 cm), it has not been a problem to carry on or stow on any flight (yet). With that said, it is a rather small suitcase – besides being a couple of inches smaller than most carryon limits, the internal layout in my opinion doesn’t fully optimize for maximum carrying space, as there is a non-removable fabric liner that eats away at the capacity. Even so, I’ve found it to be fine for trips in the 2-4 day range. Weeklong trips would be tough but doable if you’re really putting some ultralight packing principles into play.

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There are some aspects of this case that I’ve found immensely useful. For one, the wheel lock is key for 4 wheeled luggage (which, in my opinion, is far superior to the 2-wheel variety). Without it, the case can roll away at any moment, and this becomes quickly apparent on the public transit rides that often accompany air travel. The interior zippered pocket/divider is also nice, as it creates two separate packing areas and gives zippered pockets that can do the work of a dopp kit (which, like I mentioned recently, take up more space than they’re worth). I also quite like the simple TSA lock, although I don’t use it as often as I probably should (but I also never check the bag).

On top of this, the polycarbonate shell is light, durable, and reasonably attractive. The minimal design doesn’t stand out too much, which I prefer, but is easy enough to pick out at the airport (although MUJI suitcases are becoming more and more popular, making this less less true). My navy one does show scuffs quite easily, but I think this would be remedied by a lighter color (and I don’t mind beat up luggage, as long as it’s functional – it just shows that it’s getting used).

There’s one big gripe that I have with this suitcase, and it’s the handle. It’s the standard extendible kind that you see on most wheeled luggage, so no surprise there. The problem is its length, or lack thereof – it’s quite short. I measure in at a modest 5’9″, and when fully extended the handle doesn’t even make it to my hips (as seen in the top photo). What this means is that when I move with the suitcase, one of two things happens: if I drag it behind me so that two wheels are touching the ground, my heels will kick the suitcase on every step (just picture a right triangle – my legs are the vertical side and the suitcase is the hypotenuse – the short hypotenuse makes the triangle too small). If I wheel it next to me, it’s fairly comfortable but can be quite noisy (all four wheels contacting the ground make much more noise than two, especially on rough ground like sidewalks). Moreover, this side-carry position puts some strain on your arm and shoulder due to the off-center position, so it’s not great for long journeys or for moving quickly. Lastly, I’ve also found that the handle is rather loose when fully extended – this hasn’t been a problem yet, but the wobbly handle makes me nervous about the tolerances used in the manufacturing process. Granted, these are made for the Asian market and I’ve only used the smallest size, so these issues may not affect others. But if you’re looking to use this as a carryon, only the 33L will work. If you’re 6′ or taller, it will likely be uncomfortable to move this thing around.

Overall, I do think that the good outweighs the bad on this suitcase, given the approachable price, low weight, high strength, and not offensively ugly design. I do think it’s a better choice than the generic Tumi-esque stuff that most people use. With that said, another company has caught my eye in recent months – Away is the “cut-out-the-middleman” take on the luggage industry, and their offerings look to be an upgraded version of what MUJI is already doing. Their carryon includes many of the same features as this one, but also sports about 15% more carrying capacity, name-brand components and materials, and even a battery for charging electronics on the go. It’s also more expensive at $225 (with free shipping), but this link will get you $20 off if you’re interested (discount shown as you checkout), making the cost quite comparable to MUJI’s at full price. In short, MUJI is a great budget option – especially at the current sale price – but I’m curious to see if a bit more cash upfront would solve their shortcomings.

PS – bonus points to the first person to identify this carpet. Some say it’s gone forever, but they just don’t know where to look. 

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