We’ve been back for over 18 months since our big trip. I always planned to go back and write some more on a couple topics, and I’ve gotten a decent bit of e-mail questions on many things. So, I guess it’s better late than never to go back and finish up what I planned.
I’ve been asked “how/what did you pack for that trip” as much as anything else. A lot of thought went into our packing decisions (carry-on bags, checked luggage, weight, etc.). No one reading this should be surprised to find out that I weighed everything I wanted to bring and built a spreadsheet on the weight of my stuff.
Check or Carry On
The first decision you need to make is what kind of luggage you are going to bring with you and if you are going to check bags. On a long trip like ours, in which we spent time in several different climates, you definitely need to check a bag.
On shorter trips (<1 week), we’ve pretty much quit bringing checked luggage. It has nothing to do with bag fees, as I get those waived on most airlines. Not checking luggage is just a much more convenient and efficient way of traveling.
Without checked baggage…You skip the check-in counter and go directly to your gate…There is a zero percent chance of lost luggage…You are less likely to over pack just because you have the space…Getting around airports/taxis/trains is much easier with only carry-on luggage…You completely avoid having to herd around the baggage gate and waste 30-45 minutes waiting for your bags…and so on.
Maybe you’re thinking there’s no way you could go days out of only a carry-on…I promise you that you can with proper planning and efficient packing – unless you are the highest of the high maintenance travelers. And is that something you really want to be anyway?
One thing to always be mindful of when making the decision to pack in a carry-on is the relevant airline’s restrictions. Foreign airlines are much stricter than US (especially on weight). Even US airlines are starting to actually enforce the published carry on size restrictions.
And if you need a little more convincing on the virtues of traveling light, there are sites dedicated to it. Here are a couple:
Wheeled or Backpack
For checked bags and carry-on bags, you have to make the choice of using a wheeled bag or a backpack/over the shoulder bag.
For checked luggage, the type of trip you’re taking will make a big difference. If your travel consists of going to cities and usually involves catching a cab from the airport to a hotel, wheeled luggage is probably the way to go. You lose a little bit of weight that you can check (because wheeled bags with the internal frame are heavier), but you probably do not need 50 lbs of stuff combined with a carry-on anyway.
If you’ll be taking trains and/or going more off the beaten path and staying at vacation rentals, a backpack is probably the way to go. We stayed at rentals without elevators, had to move through a train after sitting in the wrong section, had to walk over unpaved surfaces to get to our vacation rental, etc. In each of those situations, we were very happy to have a backpack. Plus, with a backpack there are a lot less things that can break and make the bag useless.
My take on carry-on baggage is different – unless you are physically unable to carry the bag, get a bag without wheels. The external frame in a carry-on bag really does add a lot of weight/size. This is especially important with domestic airlines actually enforcing the carry-on rules or on foreign airlines which frequently limit carry-ons to 15 lbs….When your wheeled bag weighs 8 lbs, you can’t put much in it at all to keep it under 15 lbs. A bag without wheels/frame will weigh 2 to 3 lbs and have much more internal space.
Plus, it is just easier getting around the airport without wheeling a bag behind you. We traveled with wheeled carry-on’s for several years, so we’ve done it both ways…At no point since we switched to the Tom Bihn carry-on bags have I wished that I had a wheeled bag. You’d have to force me to go back to a wheeled carry on.
These are the bags we used. We were very happy with all of them. We both especially love our carry-on bags. Always do your own research before making a big purchase, but these bags have served us well.
Why did I pick those bags? First, they are more “travel packs” than what you think of when you picture a backpacker. The bags are very light for the amount they hold.
They have a detachable day pack. This was actually pretty helpful when I just wanted to take a light backpack on the go for the day. The bags have good compartments, helping you stay organized.
All of the bag’s straps/chords/etc. can fully store and be self-contained within the backpack. This allows you to check the bag without fear of a strap being ripped off – many other backpacks require you to purchase a separate cover for covering your bag when checked on an airline. One last little positive is that it has a handle, so you can just carry it around for short distances.
Lastly, I can vouch that the bags are tough. Ours have been around the world twice and through more flights than most bags ever go through. They have held up very well.
I’ve also heard good things about Eagle Creek Switchback Bags. These are rolling duffell bags that have backpack straps for when you need to use it as a backpack. It sounds like a good compromise between a backpack and rolling bag.
Carry On: Tom Bihn Aeronaut – both of us.
We love these bags. They are light and extremely functional. Plus they are unbelievably tough. Our bags still look brand new. They are not cheap, but they are extremely high quality.
The Aeronauts meet the size requirements of every airline…and it actually meets it and doesn’t just fudge the dimensions – leaving you in a bind at the airport if checked. It also fits in the overhead bin of any and every regional jet you’ll fly…So no need to gate check.
At this size and weight, it has more storage capacity than any other bag.
Alyce almost always carries her bag in backpack mode. I bought the absolute shoulder strap and always use that.
Tom Bihn makes other types of bags as well, they are worth checking out. Red Oxx is another company popular with light travelers. Osprey and E-Bags also make some less expensive light travel bags.
Under the seat carry-on bag: Kata KT DL-DR Digital Rucksack
Full disclosure…I did not bring this bag on our big trip. We each only brought one carry-on bag (because of foreign airline rules), so the computer bag had to go in my carry-on and the camera bag had to go in Alyce’s carry-on. However, I always bring this with me on domestic trips and some international trips. It combines the computer and camera bag in to one back pack.
This bag has more space than you’d expect. Plus it can also double as a day bag. Overall, I’ve been very happy with it.
This is the computer bag I brought on the trip. It is tough and reasonably priced. Also you don’t have to take your laptop out at security checkpoints. I haven’t used it as much lately, as I’ve been using the combo camera/computer bag.
Travel Vest (aka the nerd vest): ScotteVest
I ended up not using this too much, and I rarely use it when travelling domestically. But, the few times I needed it on our big trip, I was very glad to have it.
I would jam pack it full of stuff when we were checking in on airlines that had strict carry-on weight restrictions. I’d wear the vest while checking in (and getting our bags weighed). Then I’d take it off and put it back in my carry-on once we were cleared…It definitely kept us out of some sticky carry-on weight situations.
Otherwise, I haven’t used it all that much. I thought it would be great for getting through security quickly – have everything in the vest and just take it off and save yourself the getting undressed routine. It turns out that it is an equally easy option to just put your wallet/keys/belt/phone/etc. in the side of your carry on bag until you get through security. Don’t know why I didn’t think of that before. Also, we usually get PreCheck now, which means you don’t have to go through the same hassle of normal security.
So those are most of the bags we used (and still use) on our trips. They are not the only options, but we’ve been happy with all of them.