Tuesday, July 9, 2013

My Obsession With Carry-on Bags

Earlier this summer, Sara and I took a wonderful trip to Ireland. We met great people, saw beautiful landscapes, and were inspired by just about everything. But I'm not going to tell you about any of that.

I am going to tell you about my obsession with finding a better bag.

Sara tells me that I have been this way for a few weeks now, that I should really get out more, and that others might benefit from knowing about my obsession (perhaps to recognize the warning signs in loved ones). "You should do something with all of that research."

Traveling With One Bag

Sara and I are are used to traveling light. We each take a single carry-on bag. I haven't checked luggage on a vacation since the last millennium. We do this because it makes travel easier and cheaper—much easier and much cheaper. (If you want to read more about the benefits of traveling light, check out: Rick Steves, One Bag, and One Bag One World.)

Our travel philosophy-style is pretty close to the one Rick Steves describes here:

My Current Bags

Most of the time I use a simple gym bag from REI. It is affordable, easy to pack, easy to stuff into overheads, and virtually indestructible.

My 40 liter gym bag from REI

However, I am beginning to notice a few problems:

  1. 40 liters is a big bag. On our last trip, this bag weighed 36 lb.—most of that weight from things I did not need. My hand hurts from carrying it.
  2. The only ways to carry this bag are by hand or by shoulder strap—good for short distances with light weight, not so good for long distances with heavy weight. 
  3. Packing a laptop or tablet is awkward (even with a protective sleeve).
  4. It is difficult to get to things in the bottom of the bag without unpacking everything.

Occasionally, I use this small backpack from Golite.

My 24 liter Golite Rush 20 backpack

This bag is very comfortable, well designed, and affordable. But it isn't ideal for traveling either:
  1. The straps are very hard on my clothes. Almost all of my shirts and jackets have rub marks. (This problem is common to all backpacks.)
  2. Sara hates this bag. I have no room for souvenirs or extras, which means Sara ends up carrying them. (Now that I remember this, maybe I should use this bag more often...)
  3. Packing my laptop is awkward.
  4. It only has one outside pocket. Even my passport stretches this pocket and is clearly visible (not good for pickpockets).
  5. It is not easy to pack. Only certain arrangements of gear work in this teardrop shaped bag. This does not guarantee the most needed items will be near the top. The shape and size of the bag, not my travel needs, determine where things end up. 

What I'm Looking For

The problem is, neither of these bags was designed for the kind of trips Sara and I usually take. Ideally, I would like a travel bag that:
  • isn't too expensive,
  • is lightweight and durable,
  • is easy to pack and keep organized,
  • has pockets for frequently needed items,
  • has a pocket or place suitable for my laptop,
  • isn't so big that I am tempted to bring things I don't need,
  • isn't so small that I can't carry some souvenirs,
  • can be carried in a variety of ways (including as a backpack),
  • and can be checked if necessary.

The Best Options I've Found So Far

Convertible Suitcase-Backpacks

Soft-sided suitcases with backpack straps that tuck away into a pocket when you are not using them. These have more flexibility on international flights—because they have no internal structure, they can be forced into a smaller 20" overhead bin (the standard for many international airlines).

1) Rick Steves' Convertible Carry-on ($100 • 41L • 21" x 14" x 9")

Other than its size (it is larger than my 40L gym bag), this bag has everything I am looking for. It is the best combination of function and price. My laptop will fit nicely in the large outer pocket. There are several useful pockets, on the outside and inside the bag. The compression straps are a nice plus—they will help if I have a small load. This bag also has a waist belt. While I'm sure this belt isn't as supportive as one on a hiking backpack, it will help distribute the weight on a long walk. I'm a little worried about the mesh on the back panel and backpack straps—this material is not kind to clothes. Still, it's worth remembering that any backpack will have this problem, regardless of material. It is hard not to like this bag.

Rick Steves' Convertible Carry-on

2) Eagle Creek Adventure Weekender Bag ($150 • 41L • 20" x 13" x 8")

This is a very close second choice. It is very similar choice to the Rick Steves bag. The main differences on the con side are (1) it is more expensive, and (2) it does not have a waist belt. On the plus side, (1) it is only 20" long (better for international flights), and (2) it does not have a mesh back. This bag might be kinder on clothes.

Eagle Creek Adventure Weekender Bag

3) Timbuk2 Wingman Duffel Bag ($150 • 35L • 22" x 14" x 7")

This is a very interesting bag. It is a little longer than the two above, which could be an issue on a few international flights if the bag is over stuffed. Most likely this soft bag will fit into place on most planes. There are external pockets for a laptop, important documents, and an expandable wet/dry pocket (for dirty clothes, shoes, etc.). This bag has less structure than the Rick Steves bag or the Eagle Creek bag—items could move around more when the bag is not fully packed.

Timbuk2 Wingman Duffel Bag

Really, really, really good bags on the more expensive side:

Both of these are great bags that might meet my needs better than the bags above. I particularly like the way these Tom Bihn bags divide the main compartment into two or three sections. This will make it easier to stay organized and to distribute the load. I also like their smaller capacity (which roughly translates into less weight and waste). However, these bags are significantly more expensive.

1) Tom Bihn Western Flyer ($210 • 26L • 18" x 12" x 7")

Tom Bihn Western Flyer

2) Tom Bihn Tristar ($280 • 33L • 19" x 13" x 8")

Tom Bihn Tristar

I found 3 good options if you are interested in a larger bag:

1) Patagonia MLC Bag ($159 • 45L • 20" x 14" x 7"). This is a popular bag with many good reviews and a relatively long history "in the field." 

2) L. L. Bean Quickload Travel Pack ($129 • 49L • 22" x 14" x 9")

3) ebags Mother Lode TLS Weekender Junior ($81 • 42L • 20" x 14" x 9")

Rolling Convertible Suitcase-Backpacks

Wheeled suitcases (with an internal structure) with backpack straps that tuck away into a pocket when you are not using them. Because they have an internal structure, these should be no longer than 20" for international flights. I only found one bag in this category.

Rick Steves' Rolling Backpack ($160 • 32L • 20" x 14" x 7")
Sara has already decided that this will be her next bag, and I am seriously considering it. I have to admit that the idea of rolling this bag through an airport is very appealing. Airport lines are getting longer and longer. Lately, this is where Sara and I have spent the most time carrying our bags. I have doubts as to whether the backpack straps are comfortable, but otherwise this seems like a good choice. The smaller capacity should keep the overall weight down, my laptop will fit in the large outer pocket, and the added structure will make it easy to pack and keep organized.

Rick Steves' Rolling Backpack


  1. Personally, I'm a HUGE fan of the convertible backpack/rollerbag model - in theory. But in practice, the one I have is really darn heavy because the roller apparatus weighs a ton and digs into my back. So, when I use it, I never really use the "backpack" formation and instead always find myself with just another rollerbag (which SUCKS on old world cobblestone). How heavy is the model you showed there? Does it work as a backpack?

    1. Hi Kris,

      The weight issue is also my primary concern. The Rick Steves roller/backpack is only 5.5 lbs, which is only a pound heavier than my current backpack, so I'm seriously considering it.

    2. Disappointed!! I had high hopes for this bag because is fits most European airlines. That is if you don't fill it too much. then its too fat!! We traveled for a month in Europe and we packed very light. The bag itself is lightweight and comfortable as a rollie and a backpack. The problem is that the interior ripped while I was packing. I didn't have time to return it so I sewed it up and went on my way. About 2 weeks in , the wheels started to bow out. My husband used our old no-brand case from Kohls and it handled beautifully the whole time. His was 21" instead of 20" and he had no problem with any airlines. Even easyjet. (the most strict)

  2. Amazing writing about carrying bag. This kind of writing always help people to choose best backpacks. Thanks for your hard work.

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  5. Hi Wes, my obsession with carry on bags led me to start a whole website about it. ;)

    We actually have a recent packing list about the Tristar. I didn't know the Tristar has been around so long.

    My website is https://onebag.travel/

    1. That's awesome! We like your website.