What To Pack It In
Wheeled Bags (A Disputation)
This Web site is mostly about techniques, products, and ideas that I recommend. On this and the next page, though, you'll find a few things that I — perhaps surprisingly to some — don't.
I'm often asked about the use of bags with built-in wheels, first popularized by the Travelpro Rollaboard series, and currently the best-selling type of luggage. Originally designed (in 1987, by Robert Plath, a Northwest Airlines 747 pilot) for the use of airline flight crews, these bags are now heavily promoted for all types of travel. And if your journeys consist mostly of long airport & hotel corridors, or you have not yet learned to travel lightly, or you have physical limitations that reduce your ability to carry things, wheels may seem a tempting — even appropriate — solution. But there are no unmixed blessings.
Unlike traditional luggage, wheeled bags are supported from below (by the wheels). And because they rest on the ground, they need an extendable handle to reach the hands of their hapless users. These requirements necessitate the addition of a fairly elaborate frame structure (a typical example of which is illustrated here), the principal source of the many significant drawbacks to this type of luggage.
10 Good Reasons to Avoid Wheeled Bags
Bags with built-in wheels are:
- much heavier than the alternatives
- considerably less roomy than the alternatives (due to both the bulk and the configuration of the frame)
- poorly shaped (inside surfaces often not flat, nor corners square — again, because of the extra hardware), making packing less efficient
- less collapsible for storing away when not in use
- rigidly constructed (less able to fit in available storage spaces, such as lockers and overhead bins, where half an inch can often make the difference)
- uncomfortable to drag over long distances (poor wrist position)
- less suitable for efficient packing techniques (due to constraints imposed by the frame on bag access and compartmentalization options)
- awkward (listing, tipping, falling, running over toes, navigating turns with minds of their own, and keeping their attendants tethered in place — and often blocking others' passage — on escalators)
- prohibited on buses, trams, and other public transportation in many parts of the world
- less reliable (many more parts to break, snag on things, and otherwise malfunction)
And as if all that weren't enough, they're reportedly noisy and destructive as well!
A Tale of Two Bags
Entirely too many people assume that a bag with wheels is automatically better than one without, as if the wheels came with no consequences.
But they do.
Convenience is the enemy of excellence.
- Eagle Creek Solo Journey: 3200 cu.in. (52 liter) capacity; weight 3 lbs, 10 oz (1.6kg); full suspension system (internal struts, padded hip belt and shoulder straps, adjustable sternum strap); soft construction.
- Eagle Creek Switchback Compact: 1850 cu. in. (30 liter, though the manufacturer curiously claimed only 26) capacity; weight 6 lbs, 5 oz (2.9kg); minimal suspension system (basic shoulder straps only); rigid (frame) construction. And much more expensive.
So merely adding wheels to this (pretty typical) bag design increases the weight by 75% and decreases the carrying capacity by almost half. Further, the buyer loses a comfortable suspension system, sacrifices malleability, tolerates packing difficulties, reduces reliability, and spends significantly more money … all in a quest to add wheels that are of limited value beyond airport/hotel corridors (i.e., in the real world)!
Does the situation improve when we consider a more traditional business travel bag? Hardly. One wheel-free business bag that I recommend (Red Oxx's Air Boss) weighs 3 lbs (1.36kg); the similarly-sized Travelpro Crew 9 22" Rollaboard (the best selling Travelpro bag in 2014) weighs 9 lbs, 4 oz (4.20kg), making it over three times as heavy! And exterior dimensions notwithstanding, the Rollaboard (thanks to its wheels, rigid frame, and telescoping handle assembly) holds considerably less than the Air Boss, and is more difficult to pack efficiently.
Consider this as well: few places worth visiting are conducive to rolling a bag behind you; even modern city sidewalks have curbs, cracks, congestion, and clutter (often of the unpleasant organic variety).
And wheeled bags are frequently prohibited inside buses/coaches (especially the long distance versions), generally being relegated to storage compartments below … exactly the sort of thing a lightweight traveller is trying to avoid.
Wheels are a fine invention, but there is a reason they needed inventing, and did not just evolve in the visible natural world: in order to be useful, they require that we modify our habitat to accommodate them. Once you leave that paved path, and encounter the rough, wet, muddy, boggy, rocky, sandy, icy, snowy, steep, or fissured terrains that make up most of the planet, you will find wheels to be far more a liability than a liberation.
Finally, just to assure you that this opinion of wheeled luggage is not merely an idiosyncratic one on my part: Westways magazine (in its May/June 2000 issue) surveyed five travel/packing authorities, and every one of them recommended against the use of rolling bags. I hope that the above explanation has made the reasons underlying so many experts' dislike of wheeled luggage more clear.
The rules are these. If you can't lift your case, you've packed too much stuff. Pick it up, for crying out loud. Wheels have more important things to do.
Elsewhere on this site I have noted that the acquisition of a top-notch bag will not in and of itself turn someone into a light traveller. In this particular instance, it may even decrease one's travel comfort: attempting to become a go-light traveller by converting from a wheeled bag to one that you carry is rarely a good strategy, and almost always leads to dissatisfaction … and relapse!
For an emerging go-light traveller, the first order of business should be learning to carry less stuff, by developing and refining a personal packing list (and yes, constructing a written list is a requirement for a truly successful outcome: trust me on this). Then, striving to find the most lightweight version of each and every item on that list. Having managed those steps successfully, most people will find themselves able to travel indefinitely with less than 20 pounds (9kg) of packed items. At this point (and likely not before), one can rationally expect a carefully-chosen bag to have a dramatic effect on travel success.
So don't think of going wheel-less as the way to travel lightly; rather, think of it as a reward for learning to do so. And remember that the advice and recommendations offered on this site are directed primarily toward helping you achieve that goal.
Wheels can turn a traveler into a tourist very quickly.
Over the years, I've received quite a few e-mails about this. Many of the writers, it is clear, have simply not acquired real "travel with less" skills. If I had to haul around what most of these folks are carrying, I'd want a trailer as well!
And travelling lightly doesn't magically come as a consequence of eliminating wheels: it's precisely the reverse. Many people, having reduced their loads to the point where they can abandon the wheels, are surprised to find that the weight of a wheel-less bag can be a fraction of what they've been dragging around.
Some wheel apologists claim to be "too old"; I'm in my 70s. Some blame their being "too short", or female; my wife is 5'2" (157cm), and has never owned a wheeled bag in her life.
Of course, there are those who actually are infirm in some significant way, or whose trips truly require them to transport an amount of stuff that makes carrying it a daunting proposition.
To such folks, I say, "Certainly, use wheels when appropriate." I don't decry wheels as a principle, merely the use of bags that incorporate wheels into their designs (this is, to repeat myself, a compromise that has yet to yield acceptable results). If you truly need wheels, add a decent, lightweight, folding luggage cart: the combined weight of a top-quality business bag and such a cart is still considerably less than two thirds that of the popular Rollaboard referenced above!
The bottom line here is evident. If you are transporting so many belongings that you require a wheeled conveyance to do so, you are not (yet?) travelling light. Possibly you are one of those hapless folks who, for perfectly valid reasons, are unable to do so. That said, I hope that you will still find much of interest — and value — here on OneBag.com.
Want to read some other opinions? Don't miss the TraveLetters page!