If I counted all the hours I’ve spent standing around airport luggage carousels waiting for my bag to finally appear, I’d probably end up with enough time for a week’s vacation. But those days may be over: as of this month, I’ve started travelling with a carry-on.
For the past few years I’ve noticed more and more people showing up at the airport with only one of those little knee-high rolling suitcases and a purse or day bag. Then they just carry all their gear onto the plane: no checked bag, no carousels, and no chance of lost luggage when your bag is in the bin above your head. At first it looked funny, but a while ago, as I was dragging my ancient soft-sided bag through yet another airport line, it suddenly dawned on me that these people were right.
For one thing, checking and retrieving your luggage is a pain — hell, just finding the baggage area in some airports is a 10-minute search. Second, airlines are getting stingier about how much you can bring on board. Some charge $25 or more for even one checked bag, with steep fees if it`s overweight. Why not pack light, carry your luggage aboard and walk straight out of the airport when you arrive?
Looking at carry-ons
So a while ago, I started looking at luggage. I did a little research, and after comparing quite a few models, I was the proud owner of a 20-inch, hard-sided, Kenneth Cole Reaction carry-on spinner. Here it is, at right. It comes in a soft-sided version, too. Others make very similar cases, including Samsonite.
If you’re as uninitiated as I am, these cases are called spinners because unlike many bigger models, they have four wheels (or sets of wheels) that spin freely so you can move the bag in any direction, even when it’s standing upright. And 20 inches is the maximum size airlines will let you carry onto a plane, so this size is called a carry-on.
Soft-sided cases are more popular, according to the sales girl, because people like to put their travel documents in the outside pockets. But I travel with photo gear and electronics, so the idea of a hard case made my eyes light up. In a pinch, I could put a lens or some other equipment inside and it would have some protection, even if I checked the bag.
I also liked the fact that this bag is light, and it has both top and side handles so it can be carried like a regular suitcase when the ground gets rough. It also has corner bumpers to handle hard knocks, and the wheel units can be replaced if they wear out. And like most of the bags I saw, it carries a 10-year warranty — though the value of that is hard to judge until you actually try to collect.
Still, one nagging question lingered: would all the stuff I pack for a decent-length trip fit inside this pint-sized case? I’d be carrying my shoulder bag, too, but that would still leave more than this thing looked able to hold.
Let’s try it out
There was only one way to find out. I carried my new carry-on home and decided to do a test pack. If it handled a full load of clothes and travel gear, it would stay. If not, it was going back. Here’s how it went:
As you can see, the bag has a pretty handy interior layout. There are several separate compartments and pouches for things like shoes and toiletries — and some others for mysterious purposes I still haven’t figured out. But with the case wide open, it looked bigger than I’d imagined: call it inner bigness.
I usually put my pants on the bottom, so two pairs formed the base for the first side. I had to fold them in three rather than two, but that wasn’t a big problem.
Add seven days’ worth of socks and underwear and the first side was comfortably full.
The second, zippered side was for my upper half. I packed a sweater, five t-shirts, a polo shirt and two long-sleeved shirts. Everything fit, and I didn’t have to fold my shirts so many times they’d look like corduroy when they came out.
Now for the shoes, which fit neatly into the supplied pouches. My toiletries went into the zippered, plasticized pouch on top. The other miscellaneous stuff I carry — granola bars, vitamins, electrical cords and chargers, etc. — slid into the cracks around my clothes, as usual.
I was done! Would the case close? No problem. It snapped shut without summoning all my friends to come and sit on it. In fact, I could have put more stuff inside — my snorkel gear and sandals, for example — without any problem. After that, there was the expansion zipper, which would balloon the case another two inches.
I didn’t add a suit jacket to the mix, since I usually don’t travel with one. But a later try-out showed that one would fit comfortably if folded in two.
So, there it is: a tiny-looking, 20-inch spinner will carry all the gear I usually take on even a fairly long trip, assuming that I’m carrying my camera gear in a shoulder bag. But nothing’s perfect — there are some worries.
One is the airport security gauntlet, with its restrictions on bringing sharp objects, liquids and gels onto the plane. But I don’t think that’s going to be a big problem. They’ve recently loosened the rules on things like nail clippers and small scissors: in fact, I carried my toiletry bag on board during a recent trip to Europe. However, I left my toothpaste and shampoo in my checked bag — and that’s another worry.
But that’s not such a big an obstacle, either. Toothpaste and shampoo come in 100-ml tubes or bottles, which are allowed on board. If you really need bigger ones, you can buy them at your destination (or use the hotel shampoo, like I do). Another strategy is to use toothpaste tablets, recommended by my colleague The Travelling Fool. As for things like bug spray, I’ll have to check that out.
Of course, toiletries are more of an issue for female travellers: if you’re attached to a particular shampoo, skin cream or such that doesn’t come in small bottles, you might have to get creative. And let’s face it, there are some people who will never leave home with anything smaller than one of those giant cargo cases that give baggage handlers back spasms.
For me, though, the spinner looks like the future of travel, at least if I’m going somewhere other than the jungle — for those trips, I’ll still be lugging my old nylon bag with the hidden backpack straps. But I’m looking forward to travelling with my carry-on: all I have to do now is book a trip and carry on.
(To see the results of my experiment, read about my first trip travelling with a carry-on suitcase.)