Backpack or messenger bag? And what sort of suitcase?
July 13, 2010 3:31 PM   Subscribe

I need two pieces of luggage for a trip to India/Singapore/Australia:
  1. A main suitcase that will go in the hold, so weight/size not so important. What features should I be looking out for? I figure wheels are a must, but what sort of wheels?
  2. A piece of hand baggage (carry-on). Here I'm torn between a rucksack/backpack and a messenger bag. What are the best brands of each, and which should I choose?

For the hand baggage I'm not intending to do much hiking, so ease of carrying is not the most important aspect. I don't imagine I'll carry a great deal (books, magazines, map, food and drink, etc.) so size isn't too important either. I'm not too keen on the nerdy/touristy "look" that comes with a backpack but I'm unsure how convenient/comfortable messenger bags are. (Though I use a satchel for work every day - I'm guessing that's pretty similar.) What are the key features I should look for in both backpacks/messenger bags?
posted by alby to Travel & Transportation (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I have loved Timbuk2 bags for a decade. As big or as small as you want, water-resistant, and (in my experience), indestructible. In that decade, I've only had two. The second came because the first was stolen. Neither showed any sign of age.

After looking at their website and being surprised by the variety, I should mention that both of mine were medium classic cordura messenger bags.
posted by supercres at 3:35 PM on July 13, 2010

Response by poster: I should have mentioned that I'm looking to buy something that'll last a while, so it doesn't need to be super cheap, but I'm not super rich either.
posted by alby at 3:40 PM on July 13, 2010

Best answer: I know it's a brand more commonly associated with middle school backpacks, but I can't say enough good things about JanSport messenger bags.

I have gone through two (two!) in nine (nine!) years, and the only reason I had to scrap the first one is because a zipper broke. I carry my bag around with me everywhere, every day, and really put it through the ringer. I lug around water, a book, snacks, and everything else I could ever possibly need (yeah, I'm the one who always has bandaids and tissues) in all the glorious pockets.

And to make it even better, they are definitely reasonably priced. Find a style you like and go for it. I really can't say enough good things about them.
posted by phunniemee at 3:47 PM on July 13, 2010

I'd definitely suggest a messenger bag instead of a backpack - the whole point of them is that you can easily swing it around, pull something out, and swing it back, without having to take it off completely like a backback.

As for brands, I've been loyal to Timbuk2 ever since I walked through a horrific downpour and came out of it with a bone-dry laptop stuffed into one of their messenger bags. But there are plenty of other excellent companies making them, and we've had several threads about it in the past.
posted by Tomorrowful at 3:54 PM on July 13, 2010

How are you going to be getting around on this trip? How long is it? How long will you be spending in each of those destinations (and are you traveling around a lot within each country)?

Are you male, or female (more relevant to the hand baggage)?

I'm a relatively frequent backpacker (as in the travel kind, not the camping kind). I go to far-flung destinations, often developing countries, for months at a time. I usually at least try to travel slowly, spending at least a few days in any one place. I also travel light.

When I spent 2 months in India a few years ago, I brought a 60 litre backpack as my main pack, as well as a large handbag as my carry-on/day pack. This worked brilliantly. The 60L pack was easy enough to carry from taxi to train station to rickshaw to hotel. It had plenty of room for everything I needed to schlep around, and more. The large handbag was perfect because it didn't look like something a tourist would carry around (helping me blend in better and not attract attention to myself), yet I could fit a book, journal, camera, water, etc. into it easily. You could probably just bring the satchel you already use, in fact.

Daypack wise, anything that doesn't look too shiny and fancy and "I'm A Rich Traveler, Please Rob Me" is probably fine. Luggage wise, if you're spending a lot of time in India, especially if you'll be traveling around the country much at all, I would go with a backpack over one of those wheelie suitcases. Sidewalks pretty much do not exist in India.

If it's a short trip and you're mostly going to be in Australia and posh parts of Singapore, whatever you would normally use for a trip of that length would probably be fine.
posted by Sara C. at 4:04 PM on July 13, 2010

You don't say what kind of trip (taxis to business meetings, five star hotels, etc. or hostels and lots of city walking)?

You're right to be concerned about the comfort of messenger bags (although they are certainly convenient). Real, flap top messenger bags are for messengers on bikes and are optimized accordingly. Their centre of gravity and relative lack of internal organization (pockets are just points of failure that let rain in to pro couriers) make them physically demanding to do significant walking with and a pain to deal with in airports/on planes, where internal organization is a time/stress saver. The other problem is that if you decide at the end of the trip to throw all your luggage in the hold and make do with, e.g. a cotton tote bag for the airport (which I sometimes do), you can't do that with many messenger bags because if you turn them upside down all your stuff falls out. This isn't an issue while you're on a bike, and I don't imagine this will be a problem in Singapore, but they seem like their swing-it-round-and-grab-your-stuff-without-dealing-with-zips convenience might be marginally more pick-pocket friendly than a backpack too.

Absolutely do not get a fashion-type "messenger" bag or a record bag with one strap unless you hate your spine or are a working DJ.

Unless you're going to business meetings, I would definitely get a backpack with two straps. There is a huge variety and you should be able to find one that doesn't look too touristy with very little trouble (e.g. dark colours, not yuppie "outdoors" brands like North Face, not prominently Nike/Adidas). If you're pushing your luck with your luggage allowance (which is sometimes the case with long trips involving Australia, where carry-on is sometimes limited to 20kg and you're taking a lot of gear), you may want to get the biggest carry-on bag you can carry on, rather than a compact day pack. Otherwise get a compact (~20-30l) backpack such as the Spire Volt (which is on sale). Doubtless there are other local options for well-made regular daypacks depending on where you are in the world. Honestly, this is by far the best option for city tourism, carry-on and travelling.

But if you're looking to spend a little money, then the last-you-a-lifetime bags are made by the messenger bag companies, and they make backpacks too (although again optimized for cycling rather than airports -- unusual shape/centre of gravity, few pockets, sometimes larger than you really want, etc.). Check out the usual suspects, but be prepared to pay (and beware of the messenger bag-style flap top, which makes them waterproof, but has the same problems as courier bags from a security point of view). Just go through the many messenger bag threads to find the names (Bailey Works, Chrome, etc.). I have the Bailey Works Citizen Pack, and when I travel with it I take an internal liner with me just in case I decide to check it.
posted by caek at 4:15 PM on July 13, 2010

Whatever you do for the daypack/carry-on, you definitely want something that closes securely. The archetypal Timbuk2 messenger would be fine, what with the velcro and latches. But I wouldn't carry something that merely folds over and has a wee bit o' velcro to it, or an open canvas tote bag, or the like.
posted by Sara C. at 4:50 PM on July 13, 2010

FWIW, Timbuk2 bags are not, in my experience, indestructible.

My 80-lb Labrador has, on a couple of occasions, gotten hold of my bag when I was away, and has chewed clean through the strap, and put a quarter-inch-long rip in the fabric of the bag's flap itself.

Although you're not likely to encounter many bored Labs on holiday in Singapore, I think it's not a bad model for the damage a malfunctioning bag-belt, escalator, or other machinery could do.
posted by FlyingMonkey at 8:48 AM on July 14, 2010

Best answer: Patagonia makes awesome messenger style bags. They expand to carry a small house, and are still comfortable. They also stand behind their products like no one else. If it breaks, they'll fix it or give you a new one.
posted by supramarginal at 8:53 PM on July 14, 2010

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