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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.

Wheeled Bags: The Dismal Downsides

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.

wheeled bag frame: the price you payUnlike 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.

13 Good Reasons to Avoid Wheeled Bags

Bags with built-in wheels are:

parts that break

The Spinner Sprint

One type of luggage puts wheels on not just two, but all four corners of the bag, using (usually smaller) wheels that not only roll, but also rotate. Such bags are commonly referred to as "spinners", because they can be spun around in a circle while remaining in one location. Apart from this entertaining feature, they add two additional reasons to avoid rolling luggage.

This latter characteristic can result in situations that range from embarassing (your bag wanders off down the aisle of a moving bus, striking a fellow passenger) to dangerous, your bag dives off the edge of a railway platform). People have also had valuables pilfered while suddenly chasing (hence the title of this section) after an unexpectedly wayward spinner bag, leaving other matters unattended.

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.

Victor Papanek

To illustrate, here's a careful comparison of two carry-on-sized bags, with the same exterior dimensions, from the same design line of the same manufacturer, the only difference being the presence or absence of built-in wheels. (These specific bags are no longer in production, but the comparison remains accurate, objective, and illustrative of the issue.)

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.

Wheels vs. World

winter wheels (photo by Lars Plougmann)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. Especially small ones. 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.

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).

stairs vs. wheelsAnd don't forget that omnipresent nemesis of rolling bags: stairs, from the fourth-floor walkup in Venice to the seemingly never-ending levels of New York City subway stations.

Have you ever heard this? “We have a full flight today and may ask some passengers to check their luggage when boarding. Thank you for your cooperation.” Guess how the gate agent decides which bags to single out for involuntary checking? Those on wheels, of course, not the ones being casually carried on the shoulders of go-light travellers who have made more carefully considered luggage choices.

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.

James May, in the Telegraph (UK)

Finally, just to reassure you that this opinion of wheeled luggage is not merely an idiosyncratic one on my part: Westways magazine conducted a survey of five other 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.

Give Up My Wheeled Bag?   Well, Maybe Not At First.

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 simply 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.

Abandoning a wheeled bag can be expected to shed some 6 pounds (3kg) of weight (possibly a little less, possibly a lot more). With a packed bag weighing 35 or more pounds (16kg+), this is unlikely to make that significant a difference, and will probably make one's journeys less comfortable (because now this heavy load must be carried, not a particularly pleasant prospect for most people). But if that same change of bags reduces your carry weight from 26 pounds (12kg) to 20 pounds (9kg), it will bring a huge improvement to your travel experiences.

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.

For Those Who “Need” Wheels

Wheels can turn a traveler into a tourist very quickly.

William Least Heat-Moon

First, a prediction: if you are inclined to disagree with any piece of advice offered on this site, it is likely to be on the topic of wheels. I understand full well that, despite what travel authorities have to say on the matter, a lot of people have convinced themselves that they need — or at least strongly prefer — wheeled bags. Such luggage is widely promoted in stores (because it is easily sold), and represents the preponderance of travel bags out there in the (developed) world today.

cobblestones, stairways, and dogsOver 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

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