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In pursuit of the perfect bag

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As you travel through the airport, there are lots of opportunities to observe fellow travelers struggling with their carry-on luggage.

There are the people with overstuffed hiking backpacks. There are people with garment bags, although these are fewer and fewer. There are many people with all manner of rolling luggage.

First of all, rolling luggage looks like a thing an adult would use. Rollaboards are popular. Inevitably, you see someone struggling with one with broken wheels, or with a rollaboard that is gargantuan by the standards of the luggage sizing rack that dictates whether what you have is a bag that should be checked or can travel on the plane in the overhead bin.

But it’s important to note that US luggage allowances and EU are not the same. EU bins tend to accept 55cm X 35cm X 25cm. US ones used to accept a little larger bags, but United and American have started requiring bags that are similarly sized to those of our EU cousins, essentially 22 x 14 x 9 inches. Southwest still has a 24 x 16 x 10 limit, which is pretty generous. This gets even worse when you have people insisting on carrying bags that are already too large for the overhead bins, that have the expandable zipper, where you unzip it and it adds an extra two inches to the depth of the bag. Consumer Reports ended up measuring bags and found that you couldn’t rely on manufacturer’s measurements – frequently they’d measure interior packing dimensions, ignoring the outer dimensions including handles and wheels that will force a bag to be checked.

I’m done with the checking of the bags conversation

I don’t travel with a rollaboard if I can help it. The handles take up internal room that can be better used by things I’d actually want to travel with. Unless it’s a spinner case, the wheels are recessed, also taking up space I’d rather pack with. The spinner case isn’t a good answer, either. The wheels add to the overall height, reducing useful packing space by a few good inches. The wheels and handle are also the first choice of gate agents for tagging a bag for gate check. The bag that flies with me is the bag that can’t get lost on its way to my destination, is the bag that can’t be split open after rough handling by bag handlers. The spinner is easy for pushing through a terminal, and I understand the bag handlers like sliding them across the floor of the plane on their wheels, but that’s about it.

The rollaboard was invented in 1987 by Bob Plath, a Northwest Airlines pilot. He made the original luggage modifications in his garage to sell to other Northwest pilots. It caught on, and became the bag manufacturer Travelpro. Travelpro provided luggage for the movie Up In The Air, although it was notably all old models not available for purchase anymore, which seems like a wasted opportunity for product placement. If you’re a pilot, use a rollaboard. If you’re trying to get through without bag check, without baggage carousels, without being flagged for gate check, wheeled bags can be a crapshoot.

Like Anna Kendrick in the above clip, you probably don’t need a ton of the stuff you pack. Choosing the right bag can help you get through everything more nimbly.

A weekender bag – the classic

Do I look out of place carrying a bag on a shoulder strap? Perhaps, but I’ll never get tagged for gate check. If anything, it just means I need to pack a little lighter, more efficiently. Think back to the days before wheeled rollaboards. Men of refinement carried weekender bags, something akin to a leather duffel bag with only two handles, no shoulder strap. This is still a classic bag, but it’s given way to rollaboards and laptop backpacks. Or, they’d carry horizontal suitcases by the handle. Instead, being able to pack in one high quality bag can make all the difference.

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The classic weekender

Here’s the problem, then. Coil zippers compromise the integrity of an entire bag. They fail at the slightest provocation. They’ll skip a tooth and then open. They can be opened by poking with a ball point pen. They’ll open if you overpack slightly. For a soft side bag or garment bag, you can get away a little with this. For a hardside spinner case with the two harder clamshells held together with the coil zipper, and twice it’s happened that I’ve had a rollaboard split a zipper. Even now, Samsonite doesn’t sell a rollaboard that fits into the smaller measurements for carry-on. Between this, the inefficiencies of the handle and wheels taking valuable interior space, what are the options?

The Briggs and Riley Tri-fold compact garment bag. Nice. Easy.
The Briggs and Riley Tri-fold compact garment bag. Nice. Easy.

First of all, if you travel infrequently, don’t concern yourself with this. I travel anywhere from 24 to 105 times a year. My interests are in being able to pack in a very short amount of time, make it quickly through security, have the flexibility to rebook to alternate flights, or in some cases, trains (checked baggage makes this difficult). If you don’t travel often enough, making it through security in the minimum amount of time, stowing your bag with a minimum amount of effort, and even the whole interest in not checking a bag won’t mean anything to you. Buy a cheap suitcase, and carry on with life.

Red Oxx's new Mini Boss - international size compliant!
Red Oxx’s new Mini Boss – international size compliant!

Secondly, I never want to deal with a broken zipper, ripped seam, or broken latch in my lifetime. The YKK #10 zipper molded extra heavy separating zipper pretty much is unbreakable. Even so, I appreciate a bag that has a warranty for the life of the bag. Briggs & Riley comes with an unconditional warranty: no matter who’s at fault (you, the airline or any other party) they’ll fix it for free for as long as you own it. Red OXX has a warranty that encourages you to put it in your will for your survivors – the warranty covers it forever, unconditionally. There’s value in buying a bag with a warranty that is easy to exercise. I’ve given up on Samsonite bags for the difficulty in getting the warranty honored, after latches failed on me while traveling in China.

Some people can’t imagine anything beyond the rollaboard. There’s a place for it, although I prefer to have the usable space. We’ll discuss options you may not have considered, things that are so much more than a ‘nerd backpack’ as some might say. Just as Patrick covers Men’s Style and Everyday Carry, as we branch out Wristwatchreview.com I’m going to cover hand luggage and other products, things that should be appreciated for elevating a simple product category above fashion or mediocrity. We raise awareness of watches as functional art, and we’re going to raise awareness of other products that exemplify the best of their breed.

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