luggage filter: travel backpack v.s. duffle v.s. something else?
October 22, 2018 8:22 AM   Subscribe

I am getting ready for a bunch of 3-5 day, carry-on only, smart casual trips. I'm considering upgrading/changing how I carry things. I'd love to hear what AskMeFi has to say!

I've been a believer of one bag travel for most of my adult life. I've used a 32L Timbuk2 command or something very similar as my bag to travel with for work and for pleasure for the last 15 years.

I've recently entered a new stage of life in which I can no longer comfortably carry everything in one bag on my back. I also can no longer get away with my graduate student wardrobe, now that I am not a grad student anymore, and I need to be packing dress shoes and a blazer. So I am considering upgrading my luggage! exciting!

I am drawn to the minimalism and lightweight of duffle bags, and last time I tried carrying my laptop etc in a small 15L daypack, and all the overnight stuff in a large tote, and it was somehow way more comfortable. So I am considering a smallish duffle bag (don't worry I will get a nice lookin' one).

I would love to hear from the hivemind as I've never used a duffle bag before. Do you use one? Do you no longer use one? Why or why not, what are the pros and cons from your experience? Is it inevitable that I will eventually buy a carry-on suitcase with wheels? Have you tried a bunch of different luggages and what do you like or dislike? Thank you in advance!

Oh, and for context: I'm 34f, 5'2" and on the small side, reasonable strong but have had back injuries. Dress code for my trips are mostly smart casual with one slightly dressier day. I'm very good at packing light.
posted by redwaterman to Shopping (22 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I travel extensively, refuse to ever check luggage, and exclusively use a hard carry on roller bag. I am a very light packer and live in Europe, so our carry-on bag sizes have reduced even more and I'm now using a literal child's carry-on, but previously my carryon was very similar to this. (For even smaller US carry ons, you can search for crew carryon.) The advantage is that you don't have to carry anything, which is massively less exhausting. You can also hook a handbag to the handle if you need to. Most importantly, I find it massively easier to plan and pack thoughtfully for airport security. I also think it's just a more professional, polished, tidy way to travel.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:46 AM on October 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

I bought my spouse this, and then was so jealous I ended up buying one for myself. I find that a slightly more structured bag saves a lot of headaches later on, whereas things get crumpled or broken in a duffel (partly because people with roller bags see the soft shape and assume it's okay to smash it down to fit their stuff in the overhead compartment.)
posted by BlueBlueElectricBlue at 8:48 AM on October 22, 2018 [4 favorites]

Most of the benefits of the one bag philosophy you've linked to above can be realized by carrying a smaller laptop bag and a piece of carry-on sized rolling luggage. I've done a quite a bit of lightweight backcountry backpacking, and I know the rabbit hole you can fall down when you break out the scale to weigh every item you're about to carry. There are diminishing returns to that.

Your requirements for clothing and your health are going to push you towards having more stuff, and needing a rolling bag to carry them.

Before my son was big enough to pull a rolling bag, we used a duffel bag on trips. I looked longingly at people walking past me with a wheeled bag. The only benefit I saw of a duffel bag over a wheeled bag was that the odd time we would drop off gifts, or threw out trashed shoes, and could consolidate everything into one less bag, and then the duffel bag could be packed away. This is unlikely to happen on your own.

Borrow a carry on sized rolling luggage for a trip and see what you think. One small pleasure you may find for this approach is attaching your shoulder bag or laptop bag to the outside of the rolling bag, and suddenly, you're walking between airport terminals without anything at all hanging from your or weighting you down. Your back may thank you.
posted by thenormshow at 8:50 AM on October 22, 2018 [5 favorites]

Oh man I would def go with a carry-on suitcase with wheels over a duffel. Duffels are fine for me for an overnighter but 3-5 days for business needs to be a wheelie case. I am about the same build as you.

- The constant picking up/putting down for a duffel bag doesn't work for me.
- I also carry a tote handbag and it's just super awkward to carry both. If I am stationary, I prop the tote on top of the suitcase with the handles looped through the suitcase handle. Takes up less room in waiting areas.
- And also, if I'm caught out with timeliness, it's much easier to race through an airport with a wheelie bag than a duffle.
- Things get less wrinkly in a wheelie bag, especially if I use packing cubes.
- In my tote I put liquids and electronics that I need to take out for airport security, so I don't need to open the suitcase at all.
- I find wheelie bags these days to be lighter in weight than 'professional looking' duffel bags, which tend to use heavy fabrics or leather.
posted by like_neon at 8:51 AM on October 22, 2018

Oh and if you decide to get a wheelie bag, def get a lightweight polycarbonate one with 4 wheels that swivel independently! MUCH easier for maneuvering. I would never get a fabric one anymore, polycarbonate all the way. I don't know what country you are in, but we have bought 2 John Lewis ones in a row. They have a decent guarantee and the price is very good compared to designer ones that look and perform similarly.
posted by like_neon at 8:56 AM on October 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

Oh and another plus for a wheelie case: When you are boarding a plane, it's easier to drag it behind you (or even push it in front of you if you get the swivel wheel kind) as you walk down the aisle. Duffel bags are very awkward and you end up either walking sideways or clunking it against the seats.
posted by like_neon at 8:58 AM on October 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

I stole my sister's strategy of using ziplock bags to keep things organized, and I should probably call her and thank her again. You probably already have them in your kitchen, cheap, see-through.
posted by theora55 at 9:06 AM on October 22, 2018 [4 favorites]

I use this rolling bag and love it. Its great for the airport and moving around, but I do think that if you live in a place where you have to take a lot of public transit to get to the airport, a rolling bag does get a bit tricky. I have used it to pack for week long trips, and it surprisingly fits a lot!

I also have this weekender, (in the deluxe small) and combined, I can fit in enough for 5-8 day trips. The nice thing is that the weekender has the ability to slide onto the handle of the rolling bag, and so you can move through the airport with ease, not having to carry anything on your back or shoulder.
posted by something_witty at 9:28 AM on October 22, 2018

Oh, and packing cubes! If you dont already use them.
posted by something_witty at 9:28 AM on October 22, 2018

I have been considering this backpack. (They may try to make you sign up to see it, but IIRC the sign-up page either goes away or can be closed out by hitting escape.) It's sort of a duffel backpack, and I'm interested in it because it has a separate compartment for a pair of dress shoes.

The biggest challenge for dressy traveling is jackets. I have a couple of unstructured ones - a heavy knit and a weird androgynous Eileen Fisher silk one that is masc enough for my purposes while also actually a women's jacket - and I've found that this is transformative, smart-casual-wise. I highly, highly recommend Eileen Fisher pieces for travel. They are available second-hand in a variety of venues, the brand has moved toward more contemporary silhouettes in the past few years and a loose jacket or trousers can be mixed with fitted pieces in any case. This sounds like it doesn't answer your question, but unstructured jackets have changed the way I travel because I can consider lighter, softer bags.

If you feel like spending big money, I recommend this duffel bag (they occasionally turn up used on eBay, which is how I got mine). It is technically a couple of inches bigger than carry-on limits, but it's squishy and you don't need to pack it to bursting. It is very, very light, has a shoulder strap and is absolutely unstructured, so holds a lot. I carry it with the shoulder strap and carry my briefcase/messenger thing by its handles.

Also: a duffel bag can be thrown in the wash or run through the dryer on high and a polycarb case can't. If you have any concerns about bedbugs when you travel, get a case that you can run through the dryer on high - half an hour will kill anything you've picked up. When I stay in hotels, I always wash everything when I get in the door, and anything soft that doesn't get washed and dried goes through the dryer while the former is washing.
posted by Frowner at 9:29 AM on October 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

I will also speak out in favor of the duffel! I actually find it much easier to walk with, especially on uneven ground -- I hate dragging even the best wheelie suitcase over sidewalks and cobblestones and whatnot. I also find it much easier to get into the overhead bins (plus even when the flight starts forcibly gate-checking the duffels are usually let through!). I use the Everlane Weekender with packing cubes and carry it with a tote or backpack with my laptop in it.
posted by EmilyFlew at 9:30 AM on October 22, 2018

To combine features, I once traveled with a carryon wheeled duffel bag. This was not the floppy kind of duffel, I wanted it to hold its shape so I could find things quickly, so it was made of stiffer (but not rigid) fabric. But the shape made it tippy, the curved top meant less interior space, and I had a terrible time fitting it in the overhead bin on the return flight because American Airlines looked like they'd hauled out a plane from the 60s for a transatlantic flight. On the plus side, it did have polkadots. Just get the kind the flight attendants use.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 9:31 AM on October 22, 2018

I’m a Briggs and Riley gal, so my go-to pieces for a week of business travel are the rolling cabin bag (four-wheeled variant also available) paired with either the large shopping tote or the expandable cabin bag, which is pretty similar to this Flyertalker’s philosophy.
posted by evoque at 9:51 AM on October 22, 2018

I'm 40f, 5'10 and thin, and I haven't ever been able to travel comfortably with a duffel. It's much easier on the back and shoulders to pull a rolly case. I try to buy the lightest smallest one I can so I can load it up way more.
posted by some chick at 10:00 AM on October 22, 2018

Based on my trips earlier this year, you're likely to see your wheeled carry-ons forcibly checked at the gate. Every single flight I took collected all the luggage with wheels and checked it, so we wound up at the carousel collecting our bags after the flight anyway.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:05 AM on October 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

I travel with a backpack for my carryon bag with laptops and other things I need access to in-transit and either a roller bag or duffel. The roller bag offers a little better protection for things inside it and it's nice to have the option of not carrying everything (while still being light enough that I can just carry it when I want). The duffel is handy for situations like Kirth Gerson mentioned where I anticipate that roller bags will be gate checked. I'll pack so my duffel is both small and malleable and I'll be able to squeeze it into a puddle jumper's overhead storage and sail off the plane when everyone else is stuck waiting on their checked bags.
posted by Candleman at 11:28 AM on October 22, 2018

The Le Sportsac weekender is pretty much the perfect carry-on bag - I know a lot of professional 30/40-something women who travel regularly, and most of them own this bag. Wheels/hard cases suck because they take up so much space regardless of how much stuff they contain (and people never load their wheelie bags in the overhead bin correctly). The Le Sportsac is pretty much indestructible, light, easily machine-washable, holds so much more than it looks like it should, and stuffs into much smaller spaces than it looks like it would. I have never been forced to check this bag (even while those around me with wheelies are having their bags gate-checked), and I've taken it on enough flights to have gone around the world multiple times.
posted by aiglet at 11:38 AM on October 22, 2018

I have a Tom Bihn Aeronaut 45, which has the advantage (for me) of having backpack straps that work great for managing in airports or other spaces, but having a shoulder strap when I need to look a little more polished. It's well-balanced, too.

So long as it's not overfilled, it will fit below the seat in front of me in most planes, and the 45 is big enough I've done 2 week trips with some careful planning (and sometimes minimal rounds of laundry.)

I'm short (5'1" if we're being generous), and I've found that pulling a wheeling case in crowds is really stressful for me, because my head is much closer to people getting me with an elbow when they're not paying attention. Having something on my back, a clear view, and being able to step sideways or stop suddenly is so much better for me. I am also very broadshouldered, so the size of the bag is not a problem.

Tom Bihn has smaller bags with the same backpack to shoulder strap option if you want smaller, and their stuff holds up amazingly well.
posted by jenettsilver at 12:09 PM on October 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've carried a Tortuga backpack for 4-5 years now and it looks like the day it was new. I have packed for everything from business trips to 10-day family vacations (but my sartorial requirements on vacation are modest). Top quality stuff.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 7:08 PM on October 22, 2018

I think you will be happy with any 21" polycarbonate spinner, assuming you're talking flights in the US. I like the Heys brand but have had good luck with bags at Target and (especially) Costco. I have used that size on 250,000 miles worth of flights, and only had to buy one replacement bag, after many years, when the metal zipper fractured. They weigh barely more than a duffel and are easy to tow for miles on foot (I like to walk). I have only had it checked on the oldest regional jets. One thing I have found is that by being noticeably smaller than the stated dimensions (United is 22 x 14 x 9 inches (56 x 35 x 22 cm)) you can sometimes get it on even when other roller bags are being checked. Because many people bring bags that are sold as "carry-on" that are 24 or even 25 inches in length.

For intra-Europe flights you'll want something that fits the IATA dimensions of 55 x 35 x 20 cm (or 21.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 inches). US bags tend to be 9-ish inches instead of 7.5.
posted by wnissen at 11:51 AM on October 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

The brands recommended at The Wirecutter's luggage section aren't easily available in Australia but I found the articles useful anyway for helping me work out what features would work for me (durability and weight are my deal-breakers, your mileage may vary). I'm a bit shorter than you and found a duffel bag was great for sitting on while waiting around, and easy to get in an overhead locker, but an absolute pain in the arse to carry around. I'd be nearly leaning sideways trying to stay balanced.

I now take the same amount of stuff in a two-wheeled bag that meets cabin requirements and it's much easier to manage. If I'm only going on a 3-day trip I use a daypack, although I don't know if this will be ok for your back.
posted by harriet vane at 10:43 PM on October 23, 2018

For intra-Europe flights you'll want something that fits the IATA dimensions of 55 x 35 x 20 cm (or 21.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 inches). US bags tend to be 9-ish inches instead of 7.5.

Unless you're flying Ryanair or another budget carrier, which will have their own dimensions -- 20x25x40 in this case, with no additional handbag allowed.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:50 PM on October 24, 2018

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