Carrying on: Luggage Edition

Roller bag or backpack? Hard sided or soft?  Two wheels or four?  With built in phone charger or not?  $69 or $999?

Buying a suitcase can be as simple as answering those five questions, or you can take the approach I’ve taken: spend far too many hours researching, trying suitcases, and even buying far more than I care to admit.  (In fact, every time I comment on Keith’s quest for the perfect camera bag, he reminds me that my suitcase collection rivals his camera bag collection.  Watch for his camera bag recommendations in a future post.)

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My quest began with the set of monogrammed Lands End suitcases that had zero structure or support and that I took on a German class trip in high school.  I returned home having learned valuable packing lessons: get luggage with wheels, don’t overpack, and a soft suitcase without structure or support is not a good place to pack chocolate eggs.  I continued to use those suitcases until college, when I bought the biggest suitcases I could check for free.  The problem with that strategy, I quickly learned, was that having enormous suitcases meant I could fill them, and then have to lug them around. (To this day, every time I land in Washington, D.C. and board the Metro with a carry-on, I laugh remembering trying to board it with two giant checked bags when I arrived for a semester in Washington program.)

Those two experiences taught me that for normal travel I needed a suitcase with structure and with wheels, and that wasn’t so large I couldn’t move around with it or carry it up stairs when an escalator is (inevitably) out of order.  (London, I’m looking at you.)  Those parameters, though, leave a lot of choices.  

Like Goldilocks, I’ve tried many suitcases that were not quite right; they were too heavy empty, too flimsy to stand up to those interminably long airport walkways or sprints for short connections, too small to be useful, too oddly sized, too flashy to be able to avoid attention from thieves.  After much experimentation, here are my recommendations:

For business travel where you need a suitor with multiple items:  The Tumi International Expandable Carry-On.  I have an older version of this suitcase and have used it for business trips for more than 15 years.  The chief advantages of this bag are that it is not flashy, it is built to be incredibly solid and durable, and it just doesn’t show dirt (even when compared to other black bags).  One drawback of this bag is its weight when full, but even on trips where I had to add books to the contents, I’ve been able to lift it over my head and into the bin without too much trouble.

The second drawback (and it’s a big one) is the price.  (The bag is currently $595 but I think I paid about $300 for the old version I have during a clearance sale.)  To get around that, visit a Tumi outlet store, watch for the big clearance sales they do online, check Nordstrom Rack, or wait for a sale at a department store that carries Tumi. 

The third drawback is that even an incredibly expensive and well-made suitcase can wear out eventually. That said, even with a zipper that eventually gave out, leading me to start “borrowing” Keith’s, I still think I more than got my money’s worth out of my Tumi.

For a trip on ultra-budget airlines with really small size restrictions: the Rick Steves Ravenna Rolling Case.  ($189.99 when not on sale, but see below on sales.)  For at least a decade, I used a Rick Steves bag for personal travel, beginning with the larger version (since discontinued) of the Rolling Carry-On.  ($159.99 when not on sale.)  In fact, I loved them so much that we gave them as gifts. I even bought several (now discontinued) bags in odd sizes that they used to sell at a travel store in Chicago. And after they switched to the Ravenna and its European carry-on size, I bought one and recommended it heartily.  I loved that it was well organized, thoughtfully designed with plenty of handles and pouches that made it easy to stay organized, and looked much nicer than some of the other bags at that price point. Until, that is, my zipper died.  I retired that one to serve as a suitcase for our pet (seriously), and replaced the bag.

But then the same zipper died on another family member’s bag.

And recently I realized that the same zipper was broken on my replacement bag.  Obviously not a scientific study, but three bags does seem to be an issue.  I still think it’s a great bag, especially if you’re using it for a couple of weeks each year; it’s incredibly light, will reform an over packer in just one use, and it’s smartly designed.  And if I hadn’t found my new champion, I would probably still buy another one.

Sign up for the Rick Steves emails to watch for a sale and you can usually buy his bags for 20% off or more.  In addition to the Ravenna bag, his Appenzell Day Pack backpack ($49.99 when not on sale) is a workhorse.  Before I switched to an Osprey backpack , I carried my laptop, bathroom bag, guide book, everything I needed for a flight, and a folder of flight confirmations in it. (I now use a version of the Osprey Packs Flare Backpack.)

For longer trips I also pack the Rick Steves Civita Day Pack ($24.99 when not on sale) for those trips where you might need a light backpack for a hike, day trip, or to use for the beach or hotel pool.  I pack it down into itself and it can be tucked into a corner in your suitcase or even into a pair of shoes.  It’s really, really lightweight, though – this is not a bag to use for electronics or as your primary backpack.

Even if you aren’t looking for a new suitcase or daypack, I challenge any daydreaming traveler to not find at least some additional item you “need” from Rick Steves’ online store, along with lots of great information about European travel (please note RDBD has no affiliation with Rick Steves).

For every other trip: The eBags TLS Mother Lode Mini 21” Wheeled Carry-On Duffel ($219.99 when not on sale but it’s always on sale.  We paid about $150 each for ours, but if you click on the bag image below you’ll pay even less.)  Red Dot Blue Dot readers with the link above will save 25% off and receive free shipping (no need to thank us.). I had read about and researched this bag extensively (compulsively?) before buying it (somewhat impulsively) right before we left on our 2018 round-the-world trip.  I bought it planning to carry it on, but have had to check it a few times when flying on tiny planes.

The biggest drawbacks: 

  • There’s no suitor option, though I get around that by packing dresses in Eagle Creek packing cubes and using Keith’s Tumi when I truly need to pack a suit.  

  • At least the two colors we own don’t hide dirt very well, so you may want to choose a darker color. 

  • The rubber on the handle seems to not be the most durable.  

  • I’d like a fabric handle on the side of the bag to make it easier to pull it out of a car trunk, off a closet shelf, etc.

  • Keith would like a divider between the front pocket and the main compartment.

The advantages: 

Click the bag image to be redirected to the fabulous eBags carry-on bag! Consider buying in both Red and Blue…

  • The bag has been recommended by 94% of the nearly 5,000 people who’ve reviewed it. So even if your needs are not the same as mine, you’ll likely end up really liking this bag. 

  • The Mother Lode bag holds a lot, even when not expanded.  In fact, more than once I have experimented to see whether I could fit more in another bag.  (Yes, I’m a lot of fun.)  The Ebags TLS Mother Lode holds just as much but actually more than my Tumi, more than my Rick Steves Ravenna Rolling Case, and even more than a larger, old Rick Steves bag.  The bag also expands to allow you to pack more when needed, though you may need to check it if it’s expanded, depending on the airline’s rules.      

  • The flexibility. The main bottom section of the bag has a divider that you can move around to the spot you want.  

  • It fits my favorite packing cubes (the Eagle Creek Specter Compression Cube Set) perfectly. I put two medium sized cubes, my rolled up Wallaroo sun hat (seriously, that thing is great), and my flats or a pair of sandals in the top compartment, where they are separated from the rest of the bag by a zipped, fabric divider.  (There is a zipper on the outside of the bag so you can reach into that top compartment without opening the whole bag.  The outside zipper means that, when we arrive somewhere and find our hotel room isn’t ready, I can easily reach in and grab my sun hat or anything else I need from that compartment before heading out.)  On one side of the large bottom compartment, I usually pack my New Balance Women’s Cruz Fresh Foam running shoes (which I use as walking shoes), other odds and ends (medicine bags (check out this blog post) , wet bag and dry bag, Patagonia Nano Puff (rolled into its pouch), etc.).  Then on the other side of the moveable divider, I can easily pack two more medium sized cubes.    

  • The colors. I have more than once had issues with my black Tumi bag being mistaken for someone else’s bag.  The Mother Lode comes in a bunch of different colors, so you can assign one to each person in your family and (almost) never have to worry about that.  If you’re really amazing, you could get one in red and one in blue . . . .imagine Keith’s irritation when they came and he opened his blue and I opened my…PURPLE!

  • The durability. Despite the drawbacks noted above, I’ve used my Mother Lode for a total of at least five months of travel over the last twelve months.  In that time, it’s been on and off trains, planes, buses, cars, and over so many cobblestones it’s a wonder the wheels are even still attached.  Yet, aside from some visible wear and tear, it’s still in great shape.  

 Click the image above for a great Red Dot Blue Dot deal on this bag. eBags has agreed to extend discounts to Red Dot Blue Dot readers and that image will take you right to this really capable bag.

I obviously have strong feelings on the topic of suitcases, but I’m always keeping my eyes open for others. What’s your favorite suitcase? What should I try when my Mother Lode moves on to the luggage rack in the sky/our storage room in the basement? Let us know in the comments!

And watch for Keith’s camera bag recommendations in a future post.