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Rimowa has jazzed the interior of its cases, and allows customers to custom-colour match the exterior to the shade of their car.

A cardinal rule for the frequent flier: Never check a bag. Not only is having to follow the herd down several escalators to the carousel time wasted, as luggage fees edge into the stratosphere it's increasingly a waste of money too. Since about 2008, fliers have doled out billions in fees for overweight or extra luggage to major North American airlines, from Air Canada to American Airlines. The upshot is that cramming more stuff into fewer bags has become everyone's obsession.

Design-focused e-tailer/retailers, such as New York's are retooling luggage to make it more functional and fashionable: Think colour-coded, zippered inserts to organize clothes; retro-looking luggage tags; and soaps and shampoos pressed onto dissolvable paper that take up little space and allows travellers to speed through security.

Frequent fliers are saying "meh" to mass-merchandised black vinyl and yes to fashionably light, colourful pieces engineered to be space-savers, from Tumi, Rimowa, Hartmann or Italy's Mandarina Duck.

"Everybody knows now the overweight charges can be huge, and who wants to haul around heavy luggage in the first place," says Carsten Kulcke, executive vice-president of Rimowa North America, whose polycarbonate fibre cases start at $400 and just 1.9 kilograms. "It's definitely driving business our way."

Output at the German brand's factory in Cambridge, Ont., has risen 170 per cent in a year, powered largely by word of mouth, Mr. Kulcke says. Rimowa's biggest polycarbonate piece - the Salsa Deluxe 32-inch Multiwheel - weighs 5.4 kg; by comparison, many soft-sided carry-on bags reach 4.5 kg (or nearly half of Air Canada's 10-kg carry-on limit). If that's not enough, Porsche owners can match their Rimowas to the colour of their car. Women especially are choosing oriental red, violet, gold and aquamarine hues, Mr. Kulcke says.

Another selling feature for Rimowa is the made-in-Canada stamp. In the 1990s, virtually the entire luggage industry moved its manufacturing offshore. But Rimowa kept tight rein over quality by manufacturing exclusively in Cologne, and since 2008, in Ontario - which is the only consumer-luggage factory left in North America, and one of a handful outside China or Thailand.

Designers these days are preoccupied with making luggage sturdy enough to double as a rolling workspace - a flat surface that holds a laptop and coffee mug while the owner waits at the gate. Four wheels to swivel a bag without tipping it are now the industry standard for big pieces and, in the past two years, have extended to carry-ons as well.

Carry-ons are also being redesigned as luggage-briefcase hybrids. Rimowa's Salsa Deluxe Hybrid, due to hit stores on Dec. 1, has polyester/Kevlar exterior pockets that zip and flip out 45 degrees so documents or an iPad are within easy reach.

Hard-shell luggage imposes packing discipline - it's harder to overstuff. Danielle Waters, managing director of BCD Travel-Canada, still favours her leather-accented "ballistic vinyl" soft carry-on by New Jersey-based Tumi, which squishes neatly into overhead bins, she says.

Waters, 49, has a fine-tuned packing strategy involving two carry-ons: The Tumi holds a pair of pants or a skirt and matching black jacket; flats and heels; three coloured blouses and some jewellery to spice up her neutrals; toiletries; and gym gear. Another carry-on keeps folders, an iPad, her wallet and ID, makeup, pens and notepaper.

But your choice of carry-on is irrelevant if you aren't early at the gate and miss your chance to claim space in the overhead bin. Dan Suslavich knows the full horror of what can happen next. Months ago, arriving late to his flight and forced to check his bag, the 24-year-old information technology corporate consultant from Haverhill, Mass., had his Tumi T3 stolen some time after it was tagged at the gate to be checked, but before it was delivered to the cargo hold, as security footage eventually revealed.

Mr. Suslavich spent several months, and dozens of phone calls, negotiating with Delta Airlines to settle the loss of the T3, worth about $550, plus $2,900 of camera equipment inside. If not for the negotiating power afforded by his Platinum Medallion status, he probably would have recouped just a small fraction of the value, since cameras aren't claimable under Delta's lost-luggage policy and the carry-on wasn't insured.

When he filed a police report, he was told that thieves homed in on his Tumi because it's a luxe brand. He has learned his lesson: Now, he says, "I try never to let it leave my side."