Travelling with a carry-on suitcase: the verdict is in

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A few weeks ago, I gave you a preview of my new carry-on suitcase, the one that transformed me from a suitcase-checking, carousel-haunting commoner to a free-wheeling traveller who’d never have to worry about lost luggage again. All that was left was to actually use it. Well, I did, and here’s how it went.

With temperatures plunging into brass monkey territory here in Toronto, I needed some Mexican sunshine. And booking on short notice, I found myself flying to Puerto Vallarta on WestJet airline, with connecting flights in both directions. That’s pretty much the opposite of my ideal flight experience, but I was going to Mexico any way I could.

And on the good side, these flights would give me a good opportunity to try out my new carry-on skills. Right away, there was one advantage to travelling with a carry-on suitcase: there was no way the airline could lose my luggage between flights. I had a couple of hours leeway on the way down, but strange things can always happen.

Arriving at the airport, I had a moment of concern. At the entrance to the WestJet counter stood the airline’s carry-on tester, a little wire basket you could lower your bag into. If it fit, you could carry it on. And looking at the little basket, it was obvious my carry-on wouldn’t fit if I jumped up and down on it.

But not to worry: no one else’s carry-on would fit either, and no one was even approaching the basket. And when I checked in and told the airline rep I was taking both my bags on the plane, she smiled cheerfully and wished me a pleasant flight.

I felt guilty as I stashed the suitcase, my overstuffed shoulder bag and my coat into the plane’s overhead compartment — and guiltier a minute later when the flight attendants asked anyone travelling with a carry-on to put one of their bags under the seat in front of them. But by then I was trapped into a window seat alongside a couple of big Calgarians, so it was easier to live with my guilt than make them both move and dig out my shoulder bag.

In Calgary, I breezed off the plane and into the departure lounge with the greatest of ease. I had a couple of hours to kill, lots of time to wander the concourse and look around. But I soon found that wherever I went, I now had to take all my belongings with me: restaurants, seating areas, even the washroom. Good thing the carry-on was small enough to fit into a cubicle.

On the second flight, I was a model citizen and tucked my shoulder bag under the seat in front. But with WestJet’s skin-tight seating plan, there was no room left to put my feet. I spent the next few hours trying to fit them around the sides of my bag.

In Puerto Vallarta, having the wheeled bag made it easy to get around the airport, and helped when I changed hotels (although those little wheels weren’t made for cobblestone streets). And as I added a few things to take home, the expansion zipper saved me from having to use pressure tactics to get the case closed.

The internal compartments were good for organizing things, too — though it would have been better if the toiletries pouch were detachable so I could have taken it into the bathroom.

On the way home, with a slightly fatter bag and a five-hour (you heard that right) layover in Calgary, I swallowed my pride and checked the carry-on. With five hours to get my bag to the next plane, there was really no excuse for the airline to foul up. And in the meantime, my suitcase was their problem, not mine.

So, the verdict? Flying carry-on felt a little strange, and it had its problems, especially when you’re flying a budget airline and stuck with long layovers. But at the same time, wheeling the bag around was easier than lugging my nylon suitcase when I had to cover a distance of ground or make my way across an airport.

As for my concerns about carrying on liquids and gels, I had no problem finding 100-ml toothpaste and shampoos. And as for sunscreen, I bought some in PV.

Looking back later …

After another year of travel, I’d say the carry-on suitcase works well when I’m flying direct to a major airport for a city vacation. On a trip to Beijing where I stayed in the city, it was ideal — and I carried on in both directions.

But on trips that go to rugged places that don’t offer good sidewalks — Belize, for example — I’ve still travelled with my old nylon suitcase, the one with the hidden straps that can turn it into a backpack. Much easier to tote over rough ground.

Oh, one other thing I’ve discovered: if you’re riding the subway with a four-wheeled carry-on suitcase, keep one hand on it. If the train stops suddenly, it may carry on without you.

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

17 Comments

  1. I was packing for Cuba last night & was trying to make due with just a carry-on. I thought, I’m only going for a week, how much stuff do I need? But the problem is, I am a photographer & have a lot of camera gear, plus my laptop to backup my photos every night. My valuables (& must haves if my luggage gets lost) take up the majority of my carry on. There was only room for two changes of clothes. So now I have to check a half empty suitcase.

    It would be so much easier to pack, if I didn’t have to worry about the airline losing my luggage (which has happened) and there were no silly liquid rules.
    Rhonda @ Travel? Yes Please! recently posted…Dachstein Ice Cave- Photo SeriesMy Profile

    • Thanks for your input, Rhonda. It’s true those airline rules make everything harder for travellers, especially those like us who carry lots of photo gear. I’m experimenting with smaller camera equipment that takes less room and makes travelling a lot easier — you can read about it here: http://travellingboomer.com/travelling-cameras-the-verdict-is-in. But when I want to take nature shots, I’m still packing the SLR and the big lens, and it gets awkward. I guess I have fewer valuables than you, but I don’t trust them to the airlines either — wherever I go, they go.

  2. Do carry on only 98% of time.

    Helps greatly to buy one with soft sides. Mine is canvas. Those wheels you mentioned make it harder to fit one onbroad. After sitting on a plane so long, good to welcome a bit of light exercise.

    Along with the carry on, I use a daypack for electronics & other valuables. Everything together weighs under 9kg/20#.

    So hard to convince people to travel this way, but it’s so liberating.

    All the best.

    • Thanks for your comment, Don — even though you only travel this way 98% of the time (lol). I think soft-sided cases are more popular, and probably easier to wedge into overhead compartments. As noted in my original piece, I chose hard-sided in case I wanted to put some photo gear inside.

      I think the key to your success is keeping everything to 9 kilograms — that requires discipline we should all have, but most of us don’t. One key factor people may not think of is the weight of the bag itself. I considered some of the Swiss carry-ons (from the company that makes the famous knife) and they must have weighed more than 9 kilos before you even put anything in them. The one I chose was super-light but still pretty strong.

  3. I recently traveled to Australia and New Zealand for 2 months with just carry on. I also brought a dslr with 2 lenses and a laptop which were in a separate bag that fit under the seat. It worked fine on the way there but on the way home I flew Air New Zealand and they were really strict about weight. Other airlines allow 10 kg but they’re only 7 kg. VERY annoying. It was freeing to travel without checked baggage. On the way there it offered the ability to switch to an earlier flight out of London, something I couldn’t have done had I checked the bag. I’m with you on the flight home though. By that point I didn’t really care how long it took my bag to get there and I still had my camera equipment on me 🙂

    • Thanks for your input, Jodi. It still seems to me there are times when the carry-on is ideal and times when it isn’t. Probably its best quality is the ability to make a tight connection as you did in London. I think the airlines you fly with make a difference, too. On my Westjet flight I happened to get some really tight seating, so putting the shoulder bag under the seat was uncomfortable. I didn’t realize Air NZ was so strict on weight. Too bad — one of my favourite airlines.

  4. For anything less than 3 weeks I always travel with hand luggage only.
    The biggest inconveniences for me is having to buy all my toiletries when I arrive, and not being able to carry my trusty pocket knife. That aside, I love not having to do baggage checking or reclamation and it’s a real pleasure knowing that my baggage isn’t going missing.
    You do have to be careful with the allowances too. Some seem to limit based on weight and others by size.

  5. Thanks for reviewing on Carry on luggage. It will really help me. It would be so much easier to pack as i m travelling soon, if I didn’t have to worry about the airline losing my luggage (which has happened earlier) rest all is good.
    Eliza Dolkar recently posted…IT Luggage ReviewsMy Profile

    • Thanks for looking, Eliza. I’ve travelled carry-on several times with that suitcase and it’s worked out fine. I find I can pack everything I really need. And if I want to bring home a bottle of wine, as happened on my last trip, I can always opt to check it in.

  6. One of my favourite items I always carry is my pocket knife (a Spyderco Paramilitary 2). But sometimes I also carry a multi-tool, it saved me many times in different situations.

    • Thanks for commenting, Eric. But things like that are a problem when you fly carry-on; anything that resembles a weapon is a no-go for carrying on the plane. If the security screeners find it, you could end up leaving it behind or putting it in a checked bag.

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