On this Web site, I mostly write about techniques, products, and ideas that I like. On this page, though, a few things that I (perhaps surprisingly to some) don't...
Wheeled Bags: A Poor Alternative.
I'm often asked about the use of bags with built-in wheels, first popularized by the Travelpro Rollaboard series, and currently the best-selling type of luggage. Originally designed (in 1989, by a Northwest Airlines pilot) for the use of airline flight crews, these bags are now heavily promoted for all types of travel. And if your journeys consist mostly of long airport & hotel corridors, or you have not yet learned to travel lightly, or you have physical limitations that reduce your ability to carry things, wheels may seem a tempting — even appropriate — solution. But there are no unmixed blessings.
Unlike traditional luggage, wheeled bags are supported from below (by the wheels). Additionally, because they rest on the ground, they need some sort of extendable handle to reach the hands of their hapless users. These requirements necessitate a fairly elaborate frame structure (a typical example of which is illustrated at right), the principal source of the many significant drawbacks to this type of luggage: much heavier than the alternatives considerably less roomy than the alternatives (due to both the bulk and the configuration of the frame) internal compartment sides often not flat, nor corners square, making packing difficult (again, because of the extra hardware) rigid construction (less able to fit in available storage spaces, where half an inch can often make the difference) less reliable (more parts to break and snag on things) uncomfortable to drag over long distances (poor wrist position) reduced suitability for efficient packing techniques (typically one large compartment, making optimal packing more difficult).
Entirely too many people assume that a bag with wheels is automatically better than one without, as if the wheels came with no consequences. But they do. To illustrate, here's a careful comparison of two carry-on-sized bags, with the same exterior dimensions, from the same design line of the same manufacturer, the only difference being the incorporation of wheels (although neither of these bags is in current production, the comparison remains valid):
Eagle Creek Solo Journey: 3200 cu.in. (52 liter) capacity; weight 3 lbs, 10 oz (1.6kg); full suspension system (internal struts, padded hip belt and shoulder straps, adjustable sternum strap); soft construction.
Eagle Creek Switchback Compact: 1850 cu. in. (30 liter, though the manufacturer curiously claimed only 26) capacity; weight 6 lbs, 5 oz (2.9kg); minimal suspension system (shoulder straps only); rigid (frame) construction. Also much more expensive.
So the mere addition of wheels to this particular (and quite typical) bag design increases the weight by 75% and decreases the carrying capacity by almost half. Further, the buyer loses a comfortable suspension system, sacrifices malleability, tolerates packing difficulties, and often spends significantly more money ... simply to get wheels that are of dubious value beyond airport/hotel corridors (i.e., in the real world)! Does the situation improve when we consider a more "vanilla" business travel bag? Hardly. One wheel-free business bag that I recommend (Red Oxx's Air Boss) weighs 3 lbs (1.36kg); the almost identically-sized Travelpro FlightPro4 19" Rollaboard (which in late 2007 was the best selling Travelpro bag in this size range) weighs 8 lbs, 13 oz (4kg), making it three times as heavy! And exterior dimensions notwithstanding, the Rollaboard (thanks to its wheels, rigid frame, and telescoping handle assembly) holds a great deal less than the Air Boss, and is more difficult to pack efficiently. I hope that the reasons underlying so many experts' dislike of wheeled luggage are now more clear. Consider this as well: few places worth visiting are conducive to rolling a bag behind you; even modern city sidewalks have curbs, cracks, congestion, and clutter (often of the unpleasant organic variety). And wheeled bags are frequently prohibited inside buses/coaches (especially the long distance versions), generally being relegated to storage compartments below ... exactly the sort of thing a lightweight traveller is trying to avoid.
Finally, just to assure you that these opinions concerning the use of wheeled luggage are not merely idiosyncratic ones on my part: Westways magazine (in its May/June 2000 issue) surveyed five travel/packing authorities, and every one of them recommended against the use of rolling bags.
For Those Who “Need” Wheels.
First, a prediction: if you are inclined to disagree with any piece of advice I offer on this site, it is likely to be on the topic of wheels. I understand full well that, despite what travel authorities have to say on the matter, a lot of people have convinced themselves that they need — or at least strongly prefer — wheeled bags. Such luggage is widely promoted in stores (because it is easily sold), and represents the preponderance of travel bags out there in the (developed) world today.
Over the years, I've received quite a few e-mails about this. Many of the writers, it is clear, have simply not truly acquired "travel with less" skills. If I had to haul around what most of these folks are carrying, I'd want a wheelbarrow as well! Travelling light doesn't magically come as a consequence of eliminating wheels: it's precisely the reverse. Many people, having reduced their loads to the point where they can abandon the wheels, are surprised to find that (the exterior dimensions of) such a bag can be a fraction of the size of what they've been dragging around.
Some wheel apologists claim to be "too old"; I'm in my mid 60s. Some blame their being "too short", or female; my wife is 5'2" (157cm), and has never owned a wheeled bag in her life. Of course, there are those who actually are infirm in some significant way, or whose trips truly require them to transport a quantity (or weight) of stuff that makes carrying it a daunting proposition.
To those folks, I say, "Certainly, use wheels when appropriate." Note that nothing in the above section decries wheels as a principle, merely the use of bags that incorporate wheels into their designs (this is, to repeat myself, a design compromise that has yet to yield results that I consider acceptable). If you truly need wheels, add a decent, lightweight, folding luggage cart: the combined weight of a top-quality business bag and such a cart is still considerably less than two thirds that of the popular Rollaboard referenced above!.
The bottom line here is evident. If you are transporting so many belongings that you require a wheeled conveyance to do so, you are not (yet?) travelling light. Possibly you are one of those hapless folks who, for perfectly valid reasons, are unable to do so. That said, I trust that you will still find much of interest — and value — here on OneBag.com.
The rules are these. If you can't lift your case, you've packed too much stuff. Pick it up, for crying out loud. Wheels have more important things to do.
James May, in the Telegraph (UK)
Expandable Bags: Another Questionable Feature
Another question I often receive relates to so-called "expandable" bags. Such bags are equipped with a wrap-around zipper that hides a panel of (generally less robust) fabric; when the zipper is opened, the panel of material is "added" to the bag, making it a bit larger in one dimension (usually the depth). As with wheels, this is a great marketing idea: pull the zipper and — voilà! — your bag gets bigger. But also as with wheels, features don't come for free: they have consequences, and I don't find those associated with this option to be worth the implied "benefit" (that of enlarging the bag to accommodate acquisitions made along the way).
As you might expect, the expansion panel and associated hardware increase the weight, complexity, & manufacturing cost of the bag, while decreasing its water resistance, durability, and (unexpanded) storage capacity. In addition, the vast majority of such bags expand to a non-carry-on size, which rather defeats the whole purpose of the exercise!.
Frankly, I don't even find the espoused benefit very appealing. I prefer to address the issue by:
not accumulating a lot of stuff as I travel initially leaving plenty of unused space in the bag to accommodate a reasonable amount of "collecting" making use of postal services on extended trips, to ship stuff home rather than continue to lug it around with me carrying an "emergency" bag that I can use to bring extra items home should I really need to (though I prefer not to do this, as it requires checking a bag).
In truth, I find this whole concept a bit amusing, as I believe the goal to be one of shrinking one's bag, not expanding it! This is, however, but one of many examples of what I term "creeping bloat" ...Creeping Bloat.
In its rush to build bags that look exactly like everyone else's, the luggage industry has, over the years, allowed some truly wonderful bags to sink into oblivion. Hardly a year goes by without some notable bag being made a little bit larger, adding an expanding section, or incorporating some other feature of dubious value, thus removing the bag from consideration here.
I used to recommend the Patagonia "MLC®" (for Maximum Legal Carry-on), as pictured at right. At the time, it measured 22 × 14 × 8", a legitimate carry-on. In 2004, however, the bag increased in size to 21 × 14.5 × 10", exceeding most airline limits, though later in the year it mysteriously decreased again, this time to 22 × 13 × 9.5" (simultaneously losing its hip belt). More recently, it has changed size yet again (it's now 22.5 × 14.5 × 8"), added some more external zippers, lost some of its rectilinearity, and switched to a lower-quality fabric. So I no longer recommend it, unless you can find one of the pre-2004 versions. This said, the MLC is still a better bag than most on the market, and would certainly suit someone who does not intend to carry it for extended periods of time (and doesn't mind the inferior fabric). Superior bags are available for less money, however.
While mentioning Patagonia, I would be remiss in not commenting on their long-since-discontinued "LBC™" (Little Brother Carry-on). With two internal compartments (the larger of which had a 3-sided zipper), hidden shoulder straps, internal tie-downs, top-quality construction & hardware, and external dimensions (19 × 14 × 8.5 inches) that few gate attendants would challenge, it was a superb bag for the true minimalist traveller. I mention it here in case you are lucky enough to come across a used one somewhere (I don't anticipate selling mine, though; in fact — in answer to another common question — this is the bag I use more frequently than any other).
Rick Steves' "Back Door Bag" is another in this category. At one time I liked and recommended this bag, which was very well made for the price. Though it lacked the high-end suspension system of the MEI bag, it was still a good budget choice. But the original bag was unfortunately discontinued, and replaced with a new "expandable" version (now called the "Convertible Carry-On", and not shown here), which I dislike for the reasons listed above. Curiously, the fact that it's now expandable makes it even more important that it have a comfortable suspension, which it doesn't. It also has too many external pockets. So I can't recommend this convertible model, though I have no doubt that it sells well.
In mid-2007, Steves brought back the (non-expanding) Back Door Bag, in a redesigned version (pictured at left, above). I have not yet had an opportunity to examine this new design to see how its construction quality compares with the bags I recommend, but at $79.95 it certainly rests at the bargain end of the price range. Again though, a maxi-sized bag lacking a full suspension system.
When this Web site was born in 1996, I recommended the "Solo Journey" pack, smallest of Eagle Creek's venerable "Journey" series. Unfortunately, the manufacturer, yielding to the same "creeping bloat" (market-driven, to be fair), "improved" the design in 1997 by adding a zippered expansion panel. This allowed the main compartment to expand by about 25%; it also increased the weight, complexity, & price of the bag, made it less waterproof & durable, and (when used) eliminated its most important feature: carry-on dimensions! The trend continued in 1999, with Eagle Creek's final version of this bag, dubbed the "Expandable Journey LC" (now discontinued); even the unexpanded size of that bag exceeded carry-on requirements for most airlines! Of course, if you can manage to find one of the original (non-expandable) Solo Journey bags, it remains an excellent choice.
For a rare foray in the opposite direction, check out Tom Bihn's "Western Flyer" bag. Most people will find it a bit small for extended travel, but it's a welcome change of direction.
Two-Piece Travel Packs: A Contestable Contrivance.
A notably popular choice for touristing and adventure travel was the pre-1999 Eagle Creek "Continental Journey" pack, shown at left. This was a two-piece modular pack: a main pack of maximum permitted carry-on size (21.5 × 14.5 × 9 inches), plus a zip-on daypack (16 × 12 × 6 inches). It weighed 4.25 pounds (1.9 kg), and came in black, blue, and evergreen (pictured here). Its suspension stowage system was particularly convenient and flexible. All in all, it was a one of the better examples of bags of this type. (Eagle Creek discontinued this particular design in 1999; its various subsequent identically-named replacements have been oversized, less efficiently designed, and/or more "backpacking"-oriented).
Bags like the Continental Journey rose to popularity in the era when two carry-ons were generally permitted by airlines (North American ones, anyway), the idea being that you separate the bags, carry them both on board, and zip them back together at your destination. Such a design works better in theory than in practice, as the addition of the (zipped-on) daypack moves the bag's centre of gravity further from your body, making it considerably less comfortable to carry for extended periods of time. And you won't find many airlines these days that will let you bring two luggage pieces aboard anyway.
Such considerations aside, however, this amount of storage capacity is simply more than one needs for extended travelling. Further, your daypack should be a lightweight convenience for you to use about town, not a bulky contrivance to carry more than a single carry-on-sized bag will allow (the type of daypack incorporated in these two-piece bags is much heavier than necessary, and the associated zippers and fastenings occupy additional space and add weight, neither of which contributes to a positive travel experience). Our efforts are better directed at reducing the size of our bags, not adding to same.
Incidentally, note that it is often possible to simply unzip the daypack and carry it inside the main pack, resulting in an overall package of proper carry-on dimensions. Daypacks of this type are too heavy and bulky to be ideal, but this is a great compromise solution for the traveller who bought such a combination, has developed improved travel skills, and is looking to downsize!
Finally, if you are using one of these bags, and are finding it uncomfortable to carry on long walking stretches, consider detaching the daypack portion and wearing that in front of you. Yes, it looks a bit weird, but it will yield a much more comfortable walk (by better balancing the load) and perhaps convince you that this type of bag is not really the best-conceived design.