Making luggage recommendations is always difficult. No matter what I recommend there will be people who will disagree with me. So, I’ll discuss the various options and what I like or don’t like about each option and then I’ll tell you what we chose for our upcoming trip and hopefully you’ll be able to make a more informed decision based on this information and your own needs.
Carry-On vs Checked Size Luggage
Every seasoned world traveler will tell you to keep your luggage at the carry-on size, or smaller. I concur with this advice for the most part. It makes negotiating strange airports much easier, boarding buses or trains and keeping your bag near you much easier, and manhandling the bag in every possible situation much easier. Additionally, and maybe more importantly, it forces you to reduce your travel items down to essentials. When everything you take must fit into a 22 x 14 x 9” bag, you really need to focus on the word “necessary”. While it would be nice to bring the binoculars, umbrella, cribbage board, formal wear outfit and dress shoes, hair dryer, assorted teas and spices with your favorite mug, most of those items you will use rarely or can find substitutes for on the road.
The only time I would disagree is if you are planning on going to a single location and plan to stay there for a long time and you really need the extra clothing or other items along with you in order to be physically comfortable or to do your mobile job successfully.
We fall into a sort of middle ground. Because we are doing photography, writing, and updating our website while we travel, we both need to take computers, and carry good quality camera gear. These add about 15 pounds to our total weight and take up a fair amount of space. I also travel with a CPAP machine for my sleep apnea which takes up more space and adds another 3 pounds. These items fill up a lot of our carry-on luggage volume and so we have to compromise by taking less of the other stuff, like clothes and personal items. But keeping our luggage at the carry-on size is important to us for mobility sake, so we sacrifice those other items willingly.
If you are planning to take a full size checked bag weighing in at near the airline 50 lb limit, you can stop reading this article here. Your choices are a large rolling suitcase or duffel, or a large travel pack. When I was younger and stronger and could backpack with a 50 lb pack, the choice might have been less clear to me. In fact, my first trip to Europe, I carried a large MEI travel backpack with no wheels, loaded with about 50 lbs of gear, including 20 lbs of books and other garbage I didn’t really need. It was not a pleasant experience and not one I would even consider now with my hip and back problems. Nowadays, I’d only have a single option, a large rolling suitcase. If you’ve decided, as we recommend, to take a carry-on size bag, then read on…
Carry-On Wheeled Backpacks
At first blush, wheeled backpacks seem like the best option for every situation. When the roads are smooth and you have to cover a lot of ground, you use it like a wheeled backpack. When the terrain is rugged or you need to free your hands for other things, you can put it on your back like a backpack. Great…choice done! Then you start looking at the specs. Because it has all the hardware needed to be a wheeled backpack, you pay a weight and space penalty. Typically, you can add about 3-5 lbs for the handle and wheel hardware, compared to a straight backpack of similar size. Next subtract at least 300-500 cubic inches from the usable capacity of the pack area because those rails and handle need to go somewhere. Now instead of a 3.3 lb travel with 2800 cubic inches of space, you have an 6.3 to 8.3 lb pack with 2300-2500 cubic inches of space. I carry about 28 lbs of stuff with me, so assuming it would all fit into the 2300 cubic inch wheeled backpack (which it won’t), my final pack weight would be pushing 35lbs, which is too heavy for my taste. My arthritis demands that I keep the weight closer to 30 lbs. I looked a lot at the lighter weight wheeled backpacks and in the end I decided that the weight and space penalty was just too much to make them a good choice for me. Another gripe I had with the lighter wheeled backpacks I looked at is that they didn’t work as well as a regular wheeled suitcase when wheeled, nor as well as a travel pack when carried on the back. I found either the handles were more flimsy or too short, or the backpack and pack suspension weren’t as comfortable when carried. One of the most attractive wheeled backpacks I looked at was the Osprey 22 Convertible which states it has a 50L capacity which is a lot for a carry on and the weight penalty was only 3 lbs compared to the Osprey Porter 46L travel pack I was considering. I didn’t discover until later that it is a carry-on only if you remove the zip-off daypack which means I’d have to use the daypack as my personal item on flights. I don’t have a good history with zip-off daypacks. I usually end up destroying the zipper halfway through any trip rendering the zip-off feature worthless.
Wheeled Carry-On Suitcases
If you only plan to travel in fairly civilized places with paved road and sidewalks then a wheeled carry-on suitcase is a perfectly good option. It has the same weight problem as the wheeled backpack but since you never plan to put the thing on your back, weight isn’t as much of an issue unless you have to carry it like a suitcase. The reduced-space issue is still there, but you likely have a bit more space available than with the wheeled backpack because the shape of the suitcase can be more boxy than a backpack would allow, plus you don’t have to take up space with a place to hide the shoulder straps and waist belt and any suspension padding. Be sure to choose one which maxes out the carry-on size limits and has compression zips to allow you to shrink and expand it as your needs (or the airline’s needs) require it. If we are planning a trip where we know we won’t be going anywhere where we won’t be able to wheel the luggage, we are fine with taking a wheeled carry-on suitcase. If you plan to travel using funkier transportation options, like chicken buses in Central America, where you wouldn’t be comfortable being separated from your luggage, the wheeled suitcase can be a bit unwieldy and uncomfortable to have on your lap or crammed between your knees. That’s a place where a softer travel pack has a distinct advantage.
One situation where a wheeled suitcase definitely excels over a travel pack is when you are trying to appear respectable. For some reason, a person who arrives with his luggage strapped to his back just seems to immediately signal lack-of-affluence danger signals to hoteliers and others who care about that sort of thing. This can be a good or a bad thing in my opinion. You may want to seem less affluent in order to make bargaining for a cheaper room more realistic. On the other hand, if you are trying to go up market, you may want to opt for the wheeled suitcase.
Carry-On Travel BackPacks
These are basically backpacks with limited suspensions which can be zipped or stuffed away inside the pack when not in use. I’ve carried both regular backpacking packs and travel packs on trips and, believe me, being able to hide the shoulder straps and waist belt is a huge advantage when your pack has to go through luggage mangling systems at airports. The biggest advantage of a travel pack is that, if you choose wisely, you can get a lot of luggage capacity for a reasonably light and portable carry-on bag. You don’t pay the weight and space penalty for handles and wheels and hardware to support rolling the thing around. The downside is you can’t roll it…you carry it on your back. When you stop in a line, it doesn’t stop next to you, it sits on your back and it’s still just as heavy! However, it also gives you the most travel flexibility. If you have to walk up or down a bunch of steps to get to your hotel, no problem. If you have to travel over gravel or dirt roads full of muddy potholes, no problem. If you have to sit on a bus with the pack on your lap for several hours, no problem (or less problem).
Our next trip is to Guatemala and then either Mexico or Nicaragua\Costa Rica. Because it’s quite possible we’ll be traveling in situations where we won’t feel comfortable being separated from our luggage and also where we may not be able to roll our packs, and in order to get the maximum usable space out of our carry-on bags, we opted to purchase travel packs for this trip. We chose the Osprey Porter 46L packs for both of us which weigh about 3.3 lbs and have about 2800 cubic inch capacity. We bought them on-sale for 25% off at REI, so our total cost for both bags was $195. Two Osprey 22 Convertible wheeled backpacks would have cost us $460. Another advantage of travel packs is that they are usually about half the price of wheeled backpacks.