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How my beloved aluminum Tumi carry-on turned against me

Sept. 13, 2021
11 min read
2021 Tumi Suitcases 01
How my beloved aluminum Tumi carry-on turned against me
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Editor's Note

In his role as editor-in-chief of TPG sister site <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener" data-schema-attribute="">Roadshow</a>, Tim Stevens frequently travels to events throughout the United States and to vehicle manufacturers in Europe and beyond. These adventures can be especially exhausting, and, as Tim experienced, even the most celebrated suitcases can struggle to keep up. We asked Tim to share his story with TPG's readers: below, "The day my Tumi died."

Packing each year for the Pebble Beach Concours requires extra time.

For most of my three- or four-day work excursions, give me 10 minutes or so and I’ll have my suitcase ready to go. For Pebble? I often spend an hour or more agonizing over outfits.

The Sunday Concours is the highlight of the annual Monterey pilgrimage and often the most formal gathering I go to every year, but it's just one of a week's worth of automotive events ranging from casual-cool to cocktail-smart.

And so you can imagine my horror when I arrived in Monterey only to find that my clothes were hopelessly locked inside my suitcase.

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My beloved Tumi 19 Degree Aluminum suitcase had failed me. A latch was jammed, turning my heavy, rugged, hard-sided spinner into a wheeled vault.

As I kicked and pried and swore and tried my damndest to crack the thing open, I felt myself slipping closer to one of two very unpleasant options: attend all the week's glorious events in my traveling pants or make a hasty, expensive purchase of some ill-fitting menswear.

Let's rewind a bit to how this Tumi came into my possession in the first place. It was 2018 and I was in the midst of another busy travel year -- about 40 trips and 180,000 miles logged, 160 days away from home.

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Most of these were short hops, a night or two in some international destination with a day of travel on either end. My travel had ramped up from nil to this level over the course of just a few years, so I was still experimenting to find the right combination of rollers and duffels.

For the shorter trips, I was using a military-surplus canvas bag I'd waxed. It was basic but bulletproof and perfect -- so long as I was packing light. When I started adding camera equipment and enough clothing for the better part of a week, I switched to a roller for the sake of my back. This is where I struggled. I had a trusty Samsonite but after more than a decade of service, it was slowly coming to pieces and needed to be put to pasture.

My most successful roller was a Copilot from Timbuk2. Its aluminum frame and skateboard wheels were more than up to the task, but it wasn't perfect. For one thing, it was a little too big for the overhead bins on commuter planes. And, I confess I wasn't a huge fan of the blue and silver design. (The current model is available in far more demure colors.) For these reasons, while the Timbuk2 bag was great, I never looked forward to using it.

It was time for me to invest in a suitcase that was the perfect size for small overheads, was durable enough to survive my schedule and that looked and felt premium enough that I'd actually look forward to using it. Is that last part vain? Sure, but when you spend as much time as I do walking from one terminal to another, it isn't wrong to want a suitcase that suits your style.

I'd admired many travelers' Rimowa rollers for years. I loved the way the matte aluminum actually seemed to get better with age. On one extended layover at Lisbon Airport (LIS), I spent nearly an hour in the Rimowa store and nearly took the plunge. But I struggled with the notion of dropping $1,200 for my chosen bag -- even if it was tax-free. I went home with my duffle over my shoulder.

Thus began the painful research process. I read a few very pointed critiques of Rimowa that gave the impression they're not as durable as they're made out to be. Given the cost, that swayed my decision away. I looked at all the usual suspects -- Briggs & Riley, eBags, etc. -- but none really spoke to me.

And then I saw a woman gliding along the McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW) with a perfectly sized roller with a striking, angled imprint. It was in too-bright aluminum and the style was a bit much, but I was immediately taken by it. A little searching revealed it was the (then relatively new) 19 Degree Aluminum bag from Tumi and that I could also get it in a far more subtle anodized black. Early reports were positive, but then I saw the price: $995. More than five times the cost of any bag I'd ever purchased. Cheaper than the Rimowa, but I just couldn't do it.

(Photo by Tim Stevens/Roadshow)

And then I spotted Tumi bags listed in the MileagePlus store, and I knew it would be mine. If you read TPG's mileage valuations, you know it's almost always better to spend your points on travel rather than items. But, points don't accrue interest, they're often devalued and I had a way bigger bank than I knew what to do with. I spent 144,000 miles to get the black 19 Degree Aluminum Tumi in 22-inch International size. That’s the equivalent of about $1,800 today.

First impressions of the bag were how heavy the damned thing was, a whopping 11 pounds. But it was remarkably rigid, with dual latches that popped open with rifle-like precision. The comfortable handles featured a damping mechanism, so they didn't snap back when released. I was impressed, but my true love was sealed the very first time I took it abroad. I'd loaded my new case with a few days worth of clothes plus my camera equipment and the usual chargers and accessories. My new Tumi was a great companion on the way out, fitting perfectly in the overhead of every airplane.

On the way back, at Rome Fiumicino Airport (FCO), a security guard pulled me out of line and said I couldn't carry my bag on. In broken English, he told me the bag was too big. I'd have to check it. I insisted it was not too big and that I'd carried it on the way here. He didn't care. He pointed to one of the bag check templates, those aluminum boxes that dictate the maximum allowable size.

I'd seen these things at every airport I'd ever rolled through but had never been called upon to actually use one. I thought I was screwed. The box was impossibly small, but I dutifully hefted my Tumi, lined it up, and released the handle. The suitcase slid down inside like a precision-machined instrument. I swear if it was 2 millimeters greater in any direction, it would not have made it. Even the guard was visibly impressed. He cocked a thumb over his shoulder and I was on my way, filled with a newfound admiration for my suitcase.

Fast-forward to 2021 and that suitcase, now battle-scarred from frequent use and covered with stickers from most of the race tracks it's taken me to around the world, was the bane of my existence. I could get the top latch open without issue, but the bottom one was impossibly stuck. The suitcase was so rigid that I couldn't pry it open, couldn't get access to much of anything inside. I spun the numbers on the combination lock helplessly. The latch wouldn't budge.

(Photo by Tim Stevens/Roadshow)

I hadn't treated the thing any differently than I had the hundreds of other times I'd used it. I hadn't checked it, hadn't dropped it. It had been a normal flight, but here I was, set to meet with the CEO of Lamborghini in less than 90 minutes at a formal event, and yet the only clothes I had were my traveling pants.

I called Tumi customer support. They'd closed at 5 p.m. ET. I called the two closest Tumi stores, both more than 80 miles away. The first was no help, saying that even if I brought the suitcase in, they'd have to mail it out for repair. The second said something to the effect of those latches "being finicky" but also could not offer any repair. They suggested I call the hotel front desk and ask for the "engineering department."

I called the front desk and they were apologetic but no help. They suggested I take the suitcase to the airport, where perhaps the TSA could use their magic key to spring the busted latch.

By now, my time was up. I had to get to the event, even though I wasn't dressed for it. One of the folks from the Lamborghini/Extension PR events team kindly offered to run the suitcase to Monterey Regional Airport (MRY) to see if they could get it open, and I went off to the event.

Ninety minutes later, I got bad news via text: With no more outbound flights for the day, the security staffers had gone home. My suitcase was still sealed. It was too late to go shopping for the following day's events. It was time for plan B. I started looking for hardware stores. I would go out at 6 a.m. and buy a hammer and a prybar. I didn't care if I had to destroy my suitcase. I was going to get my clothes out.

Then I got another text that lifted a weight from my shoulders. My case was open. How? "A tire iron," I was told. Apparently, with a little leverage, they were able to depress the latch release, springing the lock. The latch still worked, barely, but it was extremely reluctant. I didn't dare close it again.

The next day, Tumi support finally replied to the inquiries I'd submitted the night before. I received an automated message telling me to ship my suitcase to a repair center in Georgia. On my dime, of course. The best part? The form letter had this guidance: "Please be sure to remove any personal property from your product." The tone-deaf response just made me all the more sure I'd never want to use this suitcase again.

That afternoon, my phone started ringing. I was at an event called "The Quail," renowned for its beautiful cars, beautiful people and overwhelmed cell networks. I was in the middle of an interview, so I ignored the call. My phone buzzed again. I checked it, thinking maybe there was an emergency. Nope, it was Tumi support. Suddenly they wanted to take this a little more seriously.

I called back when I was able and spoke with a kind customer service agent who, in a complete contrast to the unhelpful form responses I'd received thus far, actually wanted to help. Sadly, the best she could do for me was to identify a matching suitcase at a Tumi store that was two hours away. If I could get there, she said, they'd swap my broken case out for a new one.

With everything going on at Monterey Car Week, it can be hard to find time to sleep. Carving out time for a four-hour road trip? Not going to happen. I'd have to at least get myself home with my case and figure it out after things settled down.

On Monday morning, I packed everything up as carefully as I could, triple-checked to ensure I hadn't forgotten anything, then jammed my suitcase shut. I managed to get the latch to engage, then headed to the airport, praying nobody would ask me to open it again.

(Photo by Tim Stevens/Roadshow)

When I got home, I consigned my suitcase to the corner for a couple of days, then took a pipe wrench and managed to spring the latch again. Tumi called later that week and shipped me a new suitcase, along with a return label to send my stricken one back.

In the end, the company did the right thing.

Despite its betrayal, I confess I'm sad to see my old case go. Those stickers hold a lot of good memories. Its scratches and dents do, too.

I suppose I can reproduce the decals on the new one, but the big question is whether I'll ever trust it. The Tumi 19 Degree International Aluminum still fits my needs to a tee. I'll give it another shot -- assuming I can find a way to fit a tire iron in my other bag.

Featured image by (Photo by Tim Stevens/Roadshow)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.