Make everything as simple as possible … but no simpler.

Albert Einstein

What To Pack It In

Dual-Purpose Travel Bags

Somewhere between the packing/organizational efficiency of a top-drawer business bag and the carrying comfort of a suspension-system-equipped leisure bag lie the dual-purpose offerings. Such bags offer features from both categories: multiple compartments designed for optimal packing, coupled with a carrying system that distributes the weight across both shoulders.

Travellers often find themselves occupying the same middle ground. Leisure travellers might well wish for a more compartmentalized organization than is typically found in bags with high-end suspension systems. And ultra-practical business travellers (who are not put off by occasionally exhibiting what some might consider an "un-businesslike" appearance) might seek luggage that offers the option of being carried on their backs (i.e., like a backpack). The latter can also be appealing to those who find themselves — for whatever reason — incapable of carrying a bag on one shoulder for extended periods of time.

Make no mistake: dual-purpose bags are compromise solutions. They gain weight and lose storage space in order to add backpack straps and the panels that conceal them when not in use. They lose the sophistication and comfort of a full suspension system (with padded hip belt, sternum strap, supporting struts, etc.) in order to provide more compartmentalization. They will never be as optimal as bags designed for one or the other specific purpose. You can't eat double bacon cheeseburgers with fries and stay thin. But for those who don't travel enough to warrant owning both types of bag, or for those whose trips contain elements of both usages, they may well be ideal.

Fortunately, there are a few products that fill this niche admirably.

Recommended Dual-Purpose Bags

The Red Oxx "Sky Train", a quintessential dual-purpose bag, comes from a company reknowned for its "take no prisoners" approach to rugged bag construction.

Red Oxx Sky TrainPictured at left, the Sky Train measures 20×13×9" (51×33×23cm), allowing it to be overpacked a bit and still fit within carry-on requirements, and weighs 3.1 pounds (1.4kg). Its rectilinear design includes two main compartments (3"/8cm and 6"/18cm deep,both with storm-flap-protected wrap-around zippers, plus tie-downs in the larger main section), an outside full-length zippered pocket,Red Oxx Sky Train and an internal 9×12" (23×30cm) floating pocket for loose items. Handy grab handles on the top and one end ease stowing the bag in tight places (like overhead compartments), and are comfortable for hand carrying when desired. The backpack straps (shown at right), along with their attachment points, slip out of the way behind a zippered panel when not in use. Construction is 1000 denier urethane-coated Cordura nylon fabric, with #10 YKK chain zippers throughout, and bomb-proof D-rings for the shoulder and backpack straps (included is the stellar "Claw" strap and a heavy-duty luggage tag). All seams are double-stitched and bound with #92 bonded SolarMax nylon thread. The discreet use of inter-compartment closed-cell foam padding (in the rear and interior panels) gives the bag some structure for packing purposes, without compromising flexibility. The Sky Train, available in twelve different colours, sells for USD$255.

Full disclosure: I provided some consulting advice to the manufacturer of the Sky Train, though I received no compensation for this, nor do I obtain any monetary benefit from the sale of the bags. I did get a free Sky Train, however. Actually, lots of companies send me bags for review, though few of them ever show up on these pages.

The earliest entry in this category was the Tough Traveler "Tri-Zip #4032". Its manufacturer may be best known for its legendary "child carriers", but also makes a considerable variety of bags, all of which feature commendable craftsmanship.

Tough Traveler Tri-ZipThe Tri-Zip, pictured at left, also measures 20×13×9" (51×33×23cm), well within the usual carry-on limitation, and weighs 3.5 pounds (1.59kg). It features a strict rectilinear design, Cordura construction, three main full-length packing compartments Tough Traveler Tri-Zip(4.25"/11cm, 2.75"/7cm, and 2"/5cm deep, the largest and smallest of which have wrap-around zippers that allow them to be opened flat, with tie-down straps in the big compartment, and two inside sleeve pockets in the small one) plus an outside zippered front pocket for convenient access, (removable) aluminum stays for backpacking support, full inter-section padding (also removable, should you wish to increase storage space, but great for laptop protection and to provide some structure to the bag for packing purposes), and more. Plus, of course, hidden backpack straps (shown exposed for use on the right). When I saw this bag for the first time, I could think of only one potential improvement (a change in the design of the internal tie-down straps), which they immediately implemented. Tough Traveler sells this bag, in ten colour choices, for USD$275.

From the tiny California company that makes what I consider the best leisure bag comes the MEI "Executive Overniter". And while I find neither the spelling nor the connotation of "overniter" appealing, there is no denying that much of what makes the company's leisure bag so successful can also be found here.

MEI Executive OverniterThe Executive Overniter, pictured at left, is the largest of my recommended dual-purpose bags, at a maximum carry-on size of 21×14×10" (53×36×25cm), and weighing 4.1 pounds (1.88kg). This is another strict rectilinear design, constructed of 1000-denier Cordura (with 420-denier packcloth lining), divided into three full-length packing compartments MEI Executive Overniter(5.5"/14cm, 3"/8cm, and 1.5"/4cm deep, all with wrap-around YKK zippers that allow them to be opened flat), plus two outside zippered front pockets: a full-width one and a smaller one for tickets, passports, and such. Both sides of the largest section are padded (which provide a bit of structure to such a large bag), and the narrowest section includes small, flat compartments for various loose items (I am not a fan of such forced organizational "features", but here they are at least done with restraint); the bag also features external compression straps (an important attribute in a large, fairly unstructured bag), a comfortable rubber handle (for "suitcase" mode), and fabric grab straps at both ends (to ease handling in cramped storage locations). The company's "mountain equipment" heritage becomes evident when one examines its well-padded suspension system (shown deployed at the right): this is an extremely comfortable design that sports a sternum strap and proper hip belt (unpadded, but the line must be drawn somewhere), though no internal stays. MEI sells this bag, in ten colour choices, for a surprisingly affordable USD$195.

P.S. As with any maximum-sized, soft-sided bag, it is very easy to overpack an Executive Overniter such that it exceeds carry-on limits. The external compression straps will help to avoid this, but not eliminate the concern. So conduct yourself accordingly.

So which of the above bags is "best"? As you might expect, there is no unequivocallly correct answer: it depends on your individual needs. Each of these bags offers features lacking in the others. Each has drawbacks. None is "perfect", because that's impossible. Each prospective buyer needs to consider which features are personally most important (there will always be trade-offs), and then choose the bag that best satisfies those criteria. Is bombproof construction most important? Then you'll probably like the "Sky Train". Looking for the most structured "business-like" bag? Consider the "Tri-zip". Care more about carry volume, and backpack comfort? Hard to beat the "Executive Overniter". Remember that all of these bags are compromises, designed — to the extent possible — to be all things to all people. If you're looking for a dedicated business or leisure bag, you can definitely do better.

But if you're adamant, for whatever reason, that you can only have one bag, then I would at least start my search with the "Executive Overniter". It's less businesslike, less convenient, less robust, and significantly heavier (but roomier) than the Red Oxx "Air Boss"; it's less flexible, less comfortable (for backpacking), less secure, and considerably more expensive than the MEI "Voyageur"; but if you are constrained in some way to owning a single travel bag, this might very well be the one to choose.