Choosing luggage and packing light

By Mark Gallo
This item appears on page 49 of the December 2018 issue.

Wherever I travel, regardless of transportation mode, I try to pack light. I loathe lifting and wheeling heavy bags over and over… in and out of car trunks, up curbs and down train stairs, along rough sidewalks, etc. And I prefer not to have to paw through a lot of garments to get to what I want in my luggage.

Many seasoned travelers agree that traveling light is the only way to go. Here are my suggestions for making that possible.

Choosing luggage

Invariably, people ask the same questions when shopping for luggage: What's the maximum legal carry-on luggage size? Should I get 4-wheel luggage or 2-wheel? What are the advantages of hard-sided bags?

The maximum dimensions of carry-on luggage are set by each airline and may be subject to further restrictions depending on an aircraft's size and design. The commonly accepted maximum for domestic air travel is 22 inches tall by 14 inches wide by 9 inches deep, and it's about half an inch shorter and narrower for international carriers (i.e., 21.7"x13.8"x9").

If you are buying luggage in person, take a tape measure with you, as the luggage manufacturers' published dimensions often exceed the maximum. They will "under-measure" the full height of each bag (wheels to top handle) or the full depth and width (including outside pockets), presumably because they want to claim more packing space than what their competitors offer.

A lightweight bag should weigh under 8 pounds when empty; however, cost and engineering constraints mean there is a trade-off between light weight and heavy protection.

In the interest of saving weight, designs of some soft-sided bags do away with a front frame so that the bag is compressible. That's helpful when squeezing it into a tight overhead bin, but it offers only limited protection for the contents.

Hard-sided bags are made from ABS plastic or polycarbonate, the latter material being more durable. Typically, each bag is molded with two nearly equal halves to the shell, so packing (and unpacking) requires that you have room to lay the open bag flat and arrange your garments between the two sides.

Generally, hard-sided luggage lacks the outside pockets found on nearly all soft-sided bags, but some people prefer the greater security of built-in luggage locks and the more protective, rigid material of hard-sided luggage. I find the outside front pockets useful for packing large, flat items like folded overcoats and laptops.

Also, shiny, light-colored ABS or polycarbonate luggage will show scuff marks after a couple of trips.

Perhaps you prefer the sleeker silhouette of hard-sided and are willing to trade off some utility, but, for the reasons mentioned above, about nine out of 10 customers in our store prefer soft-sided.

Four-wheel luggage offers more ways to roll the bags: by your side, behind you or in front of you while walking down the plane aisle.

Two-wheel bags usually do better on rough surfaces like cobblestone streets, rough sidewalks and pavement. However, some people find the continuous load on their shoulders and wrists painful because the only viable option with a 2-wheel bag is to pull it behind you.

Another thing to consider is how much expansion capacity you want in your bag. Even if you pack light for your departure, you may be returning home with more than you left with.

Most carry-on bags, including some hard-sided luggage, each offer up to 2 inches of expansion through a zippered gusset around the bag's perimeter, but be forewarned this invariably pushes your bag over the carry-on dimensional limit.

Packing space is also affected by any irregularities in the luggage walls, like the space taken up by the pull-up trolley handle channel. Briggs & Riley is one of the few brands that design their bags with the pull handle on the outside to open up more space on the inside.

Manufacturers' warranties vary greatly from brand to brand. Eagle Creek and Briggs & Riley offer simple lifetime warranties on their luggage, promising free repair regardless of how the damage occurred.

In addition to the aforementioned brands, Costco's Kirkland luggage is among the top six most highly rated by Consumer Reports, based on their fall 2017 survey of 13,780 members.

Lately, there has been a lot of buzz about "smart" luggage. Smart bags contain a portable lithium-ion battery for charging mobile devices. The battery should be removable, as carriers now require that such bags, when checked, are free of this potential fire hazard.

My suggestion is if you want an extra battery backup, just carry a small mobile charger in your personal bag rather than restrict your choices to the small assortment of smart bags.

Packing light and organized

In addition to your carryon-size suitcase, choose a companion bag (the airlines call this a "personal item," i.e., purse, bag, backpack, tote or duffel) that will fit under the seat in front of you.

Go with garments that are neutral in color and compatible with each other so you can mix and match.

A good rule of thumb is to have three tops for every bottom. Think twice before taking denim jeans or thick knits, as they are heavy and bulky and take a long time to dry, should they get wet.

Don't overlook the obvious, either. Laundry options can often be found while you're on the road, so you don't need to take 14 shirts for 14 days of travel.

Pack two pairs of shoes that work with multiple looks. Guys with big feet are at a packing disadvantage, as shoes take up an enormous amount of space. They can offset this a bit by packing their socks, belts, etc., inside them.

Scarves take up little space, weigh next to nothing and can dress up your outfit or, for a woman, act as a head covering at religious sites.

If it's cold where you're going, pack a tight-knit, lightweight wool sweater and a weather-resistant jacket for layering. Long underwear (silk or synthetic but not waffle knit, which is bulky) makes a warm base layer and takes up little suitcase space.

A travel vest or jacket with multiple outside and inside pockets is really helpful throughout a trip. You don't need to load up all 22 pockets of your SCOTTeVEST to make good use of it for phone, mini-tablet, eyeglasses, boarding passes, guidebook, keys, etc., but plenty of people love the idea of finding a place to store just about every smallish thing they want.

SCOTTeVEST cleverly includes a lens-cleaning cloth on which is printed a mini "map" showing recommended pocket locations for different items.

Packing cubes and folders are really helpful in a couple of ways.

1. Rolling up your knit tops, underwear and socks and packing them into a couple of cubes minimizes wrinkles, keeps things organized and makes it easy to unpack at your destination. I just put the cubes in the hotel dresser during my stay so stuff doesn't float around in the drawer.

2. Garment folders do a good job of minimizing wrinkles in shirts and trousers and can also be used to neatly stack your garments at your destination.

Your companion bag or personal item should hold everything you need within easy reach on the plane, including comfort items, like a sleep mask, neck pillow and compression socks (to keep your feet from swelling) as well as snacks, essential meds and entertainment stuff, like your headphones (the noise-canceling types are best) or earbuds.

If you are checking a bag, make sure you put a change of socks, underwear and shirt into your carry-on in case your checked bag is lost.

My wife and I usually take antibacterial wipes onto long flights to wipe down tray tables, as there is no telling the last time the plane was disinfected (if ever).

Easy-to-forget essentials

I usually remember to take my USB charging cable but often forget the wall-charger piece because I don't use it at home. Unfortunately, some hotel rooms still don't have USB ports.

Also, a mini power strip is handy if you're traveling as a couple and wall outlets are limited.

Adapter plugs for foreign outlets are, of course, necessary in many countries. However, with our dual-voltage smartphones, tablets and cameras, voltage converters are largely superfluous these days.

Basic first aid — Band-aids and pain relievers — is cheap and easy to pack.

A double-wall insulated water bottle and insect repellent are cheap insurance for comfort in hot places.

Last, but not least, don't forget travel toilet tissue if you're going to a developing country where you may encounter squat toilets.

Mark Gallo owns CircaTerra Travel Outfitters (Santa Barbara, CA; 805/568-5402, circaterra and can be reached at