5 Tips for Choosing the Best Travel Bag

“I’ve been to almost as
many places as my luggage!
— Bob Hope

I feel like Pavlov’s dog when James pulls our backpacks out of the closet. I start drooling because I know there’s a treat just around the corner.

We’ve been traveling for a gazillion years. To say that we’re “seasoned travelers” is, well, just being polite. Living out of a suitcase is second nature to us – whether we’re on a 9 month RTW or a quick jaunt to London.

One of the questions we’re always asked is, “How do you pack all your stuff for a trip?”

Easy. We use the KISS principleKeep It Super Simple.

Over the years we’ve traveled with every type of luggage imaginable – from good ol’ Samsonite hardsides and Army duffle bags, to Rick Steves backpacks and real backpacks. And we’ve learned 5 things:

1. Pick the right bag for your trip.
If you’re going trekking in Nepal or hiking the Appalachian Trail you’re going to need a serious backpack. For a fortnight in Dublin … not so much. And for a weekend in Florida – even less – because those cheap tickets you bought will only allow you to stuff a small bag under the seat!

2. Travel extremely light.
You need to be able to take care of your own bag with no help from others. Whether you’re lifting it into the overhead bin on a plane, or tossing it on top of the bus in Kenya, make sure you can do it all by yourself.

3. Plan to carry on.
Choose a bag that fits the carry-on requirements of all the airlines you plan to use. Then the airline won’t lose your luggage, and the small size will be self-limiting. You can only cram so much into it, so you’ll have to think very carefully about the items you choose. It’s like portion control for luggage.

4. Require your bag to work harder than you.
You have enough to think about when you’re traveling – new languages, currencies, and terrain. You need a bag that does its job without giving you grief. If it’s a backpack it needs a great waist belt to distribute the load. And a wheeled bag needs good wheels and an adjustable length handle to tag along easily behind you.

5. Make friends with your bag.
For the next weeks or months your bag is going to be your best friend … or worst enemy. We’ve learned to do trial runs before any trip – especially if we’re working with a new bag. We not only do trial packing, we try living out of the bag for a week so that we can work out the kinks while we’re on familiar turf instead of struggling on foreign soil.

So you may be wondering what we use. Our go-to choice is a small rolling backpack. Talk about versatile! Effortless to roll through airports and city streets – and just as easy to convert to a backpack for cobblestones and stairs.

For our most recent RTW (Round-the-World Trip) we used High Sierra rolling backpacks. “How small is small?” you may ask. Their dimensions are 20″ x 13.5″ x 8” (that’s 51cm x 34cm x 20cm) which meets all major airlines size restrictions for carry-on luggage.

The next obvious question is “What do we pack in them?” We’ll save that for later.

So what are your favorite travel bags? We’d love to know.

Just remember, as James says,

“A rolling backpack gathers no moss.”

Terri & James

Last updated July 30, 2018

Photo Credit: 1. Sachi Gahan 

Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

42 thoughts

  1. I remember my first solo trip abroad where my backpack weighed well over 20kgs, contained the kitchen sink and I was doubled over in attempts to carry the damn thing. Oh how my packing has changed since then! Because of back problems I’m all about the wheels these days. I’ll manage carry-on size for <4 days international but a few days more domestic, otherwise I'm a check-in luggage traveller.

    1. Fi, I suspect that for most of us, a bad bag experience was the catalyst for downsizing. I think the last heavy bag I carried must have been in the 20 kilo range as well (Oh my aching back – never again!!). Over the years, we honed our luggage to carry on only. We love the simplicity and the flexibility of having our gear right there with us. ~James

  2. Ahhh one of our favorite topics to dwell on… as we are almost always living out of a suitcase. I like your choices…I had a beloved small on wheels case that had the same amount if clothes for a weekend or a year but it finally looked so grimy I replaced it- made the mistake of going slightly bigger … now it’s just harder to find stuff haha. Ben lives the Tortuga backpack but Ajax it has no wheels.
    Good tips you guys!!

    1. Peta, I can tell from your comment that you and Ben are like we are. It’s pretty amusing how, for frequent travelers, luggage is such an personal decision. Terri and I have similar bags, but each is slightly different based on personal preferences. And we each have totally different methods for packing, which gets re-evaluated and refined after every trip with a tweak here or there. We are forever looking for smaller, lighter, more multi-purpose gear to make our bags lighter, simpler, and more useful. This is sounding more and more like we should start a baggage competition – maybe the Luggage Olympics. 🙂 ~James

    1. Carol, as you probably already knew when you planned your trip, October is the perfect time to visit London. The weather is pleasantly cool, the leaves in Hyde Park are starting to turn, and there are no extremes in weather – which makes for easy packin’. Have a great trip. ~James

  3. You guys have redefined the words “packing light”! Wow! It’s hard to believe you can travel so extensively with such little, but quite manageable packs. We’re still lugging too much, and we know it. I’m keeping you in mind for my next trip! My arms aren’t getting any stronger.

    1. Rusha, for me, the “packing” part of packing light is easy. The hard part was making the decision to take less when I travel. How many outfits do I actually need? If the weather turns and I need a sweater, why can’t I just buy one? And, the list goes on and on. One thing I can say for certain is that traveling light is liberating, and you’ll never go back. ~James

  4. Great advice. We’ve made traveling light our lifestyle. Once you get used to it, it is surprising what you thought you couldn’t live without is now something you’d never dream of bringing. The same holds true for living in Waldo, so much stuff you don’t need.

    1. Laura your phrase “thought you couldn’t live without is now something you’d never dream of bringing” is right on the mark. And we found that once we started downsizing, the process was contagious. Actually, I think that generally, it’s human nature to fill whatver space you have: big house = lots of stuff., etc. ~James

  5. I traveled for a decade with a convertible Eagle Creek backpack (the straps zipped out of the way for flights). I had previously tried a Rick Steves’ backpack but the hip belt was essentially useless. Now I travel with an Eagle Creek two-wheeler (I am not convinced that those little wheels on the four-wheelers are tough enough). However, I have not gone for the hybrid backpack with wheels because I don’t want the extra weight. I also check the two wheeler, even though it is only 22in and weighs in at 10-11 kilos, as I don’t want to have trek through airports with it.

    1. Kathy, we felt exactly the same about the Rick Steves bag. Now, we would hope that our bags aren’t heavy enough to need a hip belt. As I said to someone else, for experienced travelers, baggage is a very personal choice, and is re-evaluated and changed as travel habits (and physical capibilities) change. We always carry on because we like the flexibility in case something changes or goes wrong. We love our little two-wheelers that convert to backpacks when the pavement turns to cobblestones or potholes. ~James

  6. Great advice, coincidentally we just purchased the High Sierrra!
    Since you mention it, I assume you were happy??

    1. Monica, I love my HS Freewheeler, and in fact, I’m on my third one. We’ve carried them on a couple of 6-9 month RTWs and they get lots of rough treatment. And FYI, on one of my trips one of the wheels got a bit wobbly (too many cobblestones), but luckily, didn’t come off. When I returned to the US, I applied to HS for a replacement and they sent me a new bag. So, make sure you keep your receipts for warranty. Happy Trails with your new bag. With enough time, it will get to be like an old friend. 🙂 ~James

  7. I’m with you guys. I use a lightweight carry-on roller bag, but I do also carry a day pack which holds things I need on the plane (so I don’t have to get into the overhead) and doubles as my beach bag or day hike bag or whatever bag. Of course on super long treks I have to change this up to a bigger duffel that can hold hiking equipment and can still be carried on my back, but a trip like that is the ONLY time I will check a bag!

    1. Lexie, we carry a collapsible daypack as well, which we pop in and out of our rollers as needed. Once we reach our destination, we use it all the time for daytrips, trips to the market, ipads, etc. I also have a supertiny-lightweight collapasible backpack that fits in my pocket for unexpected stuff when we aren’t carrying the regular collapsible backpack. One of the great things about having a set of gear that you know and use regularly is how much easier it makes packing. You just pull out exactly what you need and head out. ~James

  8. One of my absolutely favourite topics. We are dedicated carry on travelers and agree with all of your tips. Other than epic hiking or outdoor adventures we would say it is possible. We have Patagonia packs that open like a suitcase. They don’t have rollers like yours but maybe down the road we will go to that. So much less stressful having just what you need and not the kitchen sink.

    1. Sue, our travels don’t involve outdoor adventures like you and Dave, so our luggage needs are fairly predictable. We fell in love with our roller backpacks on our first RTW, which took us from the smooth, paved streets of Europe to the hard-packed dirt alleys of Southeast Asia. And anytime we couldn’t roll, we’d whip out the backpack straps and away we’d go. As you say, having just what you need makes it so much easier, and smaller, simpler bags make everything more accessible as well. ~James

  9. Great tips James. I am learning the “travel light” mantra and have managed to cut down on luggage a huge amount, but there is still room for improvement. I like your carry-on back pack😄

    1. Gilda, for me, my efforts at traveling lighter came in a series of baby steps over a period of time. Change takes adjustment, and it’s better taken in small bites. But, not to worry. You’ll look around an airport someday at some poor traveler struggling with a bulky-too, heavy piece of luggage, and think, Oh Man! that used to be me. And BTW, these rolling backpacks are the bomb! ~James

  10. What a great idea—to live out of your luggage while at home to see whether it works.

    I have “auditioned” my clothes before packing to see how they will work with different temperatures (Will those light pants be warm enough if I wear long underwear under them—how far can I comfortably walk in those sandals?), but I never thought to pack, and then wear the clothes for a week. I’m going to give it a try.

    1. Hi Shelley, So glad you liked the tip. We learned the lesson on our first RTW when we both experienced serious wardrobe malfunctions early in the trip. It left us scrambling to buy some new clothes in Southeast Asia. Not a pretty sight! 🙂 Good luck with your experiment. Let us know how it goes. Are you heading out soon?~Terri

      1. We leave on Sept 19. Nothing as exciting or as challenging as around the world. We are only packing for three weeks in Northern Italy.

      1. Well….we all get the message soon enough! It takes a few go rounds to truly understand you don’t need everything. I still like clothing choices when I travel so I could never pack as efficiently as you! However, I improve with each excursion…and the peer pressure of my ‘travel girls’!

    1. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. Packing is one of those things lots of travelers don’t think much about, but the right kind of bag and the right amount of stuff can make a big difference. ~James

  11. The small high sierra backpacks are my favorite ‘go to’ bag. I’ve recently noticed that many of the airlines are offering low price tickets that don’t allow even one carry on. For those an extra layer of clothing and a decent size purse are the fallback.

    1. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. I really love my HS bag, and it works perfectly for me. You’re right about some of those really low cost fares and charges for bags. They also charge extra for seat reservations. We really prefer to keep our bags with us, so we pay the extra fare which normally includes a carry on bag and a seat reservation. I’m a tall guy, and I like to know where I’ll be sitting, particularly on long flights. ~James

  12. Amazing tips for choosing the right & best travel bag. In addition to this, water proof bags if it is small or big which save our clothes important paper likes passports or others ID proof.

    1. Thanks for the comment Tania and for dropping by the blog. Water proof bags are a good idea, particularly in wet parts of the world like Singapore. We use compression bags, or in the case of smaller things, regular food storage bags. Also, we take along a large, regular trash bag to slip over the entire suitcase in case we get caught in a downpour. We don’t use it often, but when you need it, you need it. ~James

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