Luggage Lessons

If you plan to travel continuously, but wish to bring your entire walk-in closet with you…read on.

Travel is going to change you, but you don’t know that yet as you consider how to pack all of those clothes. If you are contemplating full time travel, then you will need to bring both summer and winter clothes. If you started with a walk-in closet but ended up with two medium-sized suitcases … each … then we think you did really well.

There are tons of suitcase reviews on the web so there is no value in discussing what we think makes a good suitcase. Instead we think the review by “Wirecutter” covers it really well.

For checked luggage we opted for soft-sided suitcases by Travelpro and have been happy with that decision.

Choosing the Size

We have learned a lot about suitcases in these past two years, specifically the size, weight and quantity of suitcases you might want to use. If you are hoping to travel for a few weeks or a couple of months you may get everything you need into one suitcase. Full-time travel is different and as you get older your needs expand. We entertained ourselves by watching a number of videos of the “younger generation” packing everything they needed into one smallish backpack. It reminded us of the day the young family arrived down the street; the husband with a shiny new sports car and a pregnant wife. We knew that the sports car was going to be history in nine months just as we knew one small backpack wasn’t going to work for us.

We read a blog where the author suggested you simply purchase what you need when you arrive. Well, yes, many of the products you are familiar with are probably available in Europe but not all of them and not in every city. You will also find that the sizes and fit of clothes can be quite different. Still, there are many things that can be purchased along the way so pack with that in mind.

We decided that two medium-large suitcases and one small backpack … each … would work perfectly. After-all, doesn’t the backpack leave you two free hands to wheel your luggage through the airport? Well, that didn’t turn out quite as good as we expected.

After just six months we concluded that we simply could not travel with more than one large suitcase. For one, it is too wieldy trying to load four suitcases onto a train, no less trying to find space to put them. If you are flying everywhere the ‎baggage fees quickly become a huge deterrent. And good luck finding a taxi that can accommodate that much luggage. But the problem still remains: you need a winter coat for the Christmas markets in Colmar in December but not to explore the Alhambra in Granada in July.

Our compromise has turned out to be a fiscally good solution with some benefits. We rented a small storage unit and keep out-of-season clothing there. One suitcase remains and one suitcase comes with us. We offset the cost of the storage by saving on baggage fees and break even once we exceed six one-way flights (for two people); something we have done for each of the last two years. Having a space to hold the treasures we find along the way has been an added bonus.

Kraków, Poland

Our backpacks were history at the same time we booked the storage unit. As practical as a backpack is, carrying one around the airport or train station while waiting for transportation was an annoyance for us. We donated them and purchased two carry-on suitcases; one hard-sided suitcase with four wheels and one laptop case with two wheels. We didn’t do any research before buying these but we needed two carry-on bags and these were priced very attractively. Traveling with these two carry-on bags has given us some insight into the different designs.

As nice as it is to have a purpose built suitcase for the laptop this is the one purchase we regretted after just a couple of trips. The two wheel design significantly limits the maneuverability of the bag and the fact that the telescoping handle doesn’t lock in any position is very frustrating.

As for the hard-sided suitcase, the four wheels are very maneuverable and the telescopic handle locks in either of two positions making this suitcase easy to travel with. All hard-sided suitcases come in a ‘clam shell’ design that limits how you can pack them and the durability of a hard-sided suitcase also comes into question, but as a carry-on we don’t expect either of these issues becoming a problem.

Travel adds color to the tapestry of our lives and there are hundreds of ways to travel, from planes to trains, cars to caravans, buses to bicycles, cruises to camels. If the conveyance of your travel is the needle and the thread it pulls the experience, then the color of that thread is the emotions imparted.

For example, have you ever been lost in your rental car, in the middle of the night, ending up in some farmer’s field, while trying to find your hotel?

Apocalypse Tapestry, Château d’Angers, France

Foregoing camels and bicycles here are some of the challenges with luggage we have encountered.

Traveling by Car

When traveling by car the size and weight of your suitcase(s) are less of an issue until you want to fly somewhere, or take the train; something we frequently do. Choosing luggage that offers flexibility allows for more choices in the ways that you can travel.

Traveling by Plane

Baggage fees and weight restrictions have become a revenue source for airlines and a way to manipulate the many online travel sites. These fees and restrictions have been a moving target these last few years and seem to be different for each airline. When we fly we select the economy fare that allows us to reserve seats together and depending on the length of the flight, we select the fare that comes with a little extra leg room.

While we have used different carriers at different times, our experience has been that the economy fare allows for at least one checked bag, of specific dimensions, per person, with a weight not to exceed 20 kg (44 lbs) or 23 kg (50 lbs) depending on different factors. You are also allowed one 10kg (22 lbs) carry-on and one personal item but these allowances vary depending on the airline.

Our medium-sized suitcases have come in under the size requirements of every airline we have traveled on to date, including the more notorious ones, never incurring additional fees for being over-sized.

Even so, our advice is to carefully read the terms of your ticket every time to make certain the allowance for a checked bag is clearly explained to avoid the increased fees of checking a bag at the airport.

Traveling by Train

Traveling by train is more varied. Many websites state that they limit travelers to one suitcase of 23 kg (50 lbs) or less but in reality the policy is more directed to available space than weight. Since you are solely responsible for getting your suitcase(s) on and off the train and onto the luggage racks, when they exist, how heavy a suitcase you travel with is your problem entirely.

On some trains there are no luggage areas other than the overhead racks which can accommodate a small carry-on bag but certainly not a larger suitcase. And on the metro there are neither. In these cases you must find somewhere to put your suitcases that does not block the aisle or other seats. There are usually open areas near the doorway or areas reserved for wheelchairs, baby strollers or bicycles where you can place your larger bags as long as these spaces remain available.

When your luggage is not secured by a luggage rack we highly recommend you lay your bag on its side and not leave it on its wheels. We have witnessed many wheeled suitcases break free, colliding with other travelers as it is chased down by its owner.

Luckily most trains do have luggage storage but it is never more than barely enough and sometimes the available storage rack is on the second level of the passenger car. It is up to you to drag your suitcase up the very narrow staircase to store it properly. We have also experienced trains where the available storage is overhead in a very sturdy structure where you must lift and place even your larger suitcases. Later passengers to our car were not impressed that we managed to get both of our larger bags into the overhead storage taking up more than our share of the minimal space. And if you are connecting to other trains you will get all sorts of unwanted exercise.

Of course exceptions are numerous depending on a variety of factors but the point is, especially when traveling by train, weight restrictions and the number of suitcases you travel with become more self-imposed rules than enforced.

Since we truly enjoy traveling by train we deemed it necessary to downsize even further. Today we travel with the same medium-sized suitcases but we keep the weight around 18 kg (40 lb) and 8 kg (17 lb) for the carry-on. We now have extra room for lightweight purchases and the taxi drivers don’t grimace when they load our bags.

Packing Cubes

We didn’t start out as fans of packing cubes. There weren’t any issues we were having with packing a suitcase that we felt packing cubes might solve, but then we each received a set as gifts and gave them a try. Wow! No turning back.

Packing cubes are not just convenient to keep similar things together but they also allow you to pack your suitcase in different ways. We recommend a set that has four cubes that are all the same size and then one or two that are smaller. Something like four medium sized ones (13.75” x 9.75” x 4”) and a small (11″ x 6.75″ x 4″) one.

This allows you to put the four medium sized cubes along the bottom of your suitcase to keep the center of gravity low keeping the suitcase more stable. When packed full of clothes the four cubes together are a little more than 16 inches (41 cm) wide and our suitcase is 18″ (46 cm) wide so it all fits perfectly. You stack them lengthwise so that they protrude above the edge of the suitcase by 1.75 inches (4.5 cm) maximizing the room in your suitcase. Since they are full of squishy things the bit that is protruding will squish down when you close your suitcase keeping everything nice and snug.

And since the cubes are only 9.75 inches (25 cm) wide you might be surprised to see that you have now packed the majority of your clothes into your suitcase leaving lots of space for the things that are more bulky.

You may think you could purchase an even smaller suitcase but we would advise against that. When everything you carry with you must fit into one suitcase, packing too tightly would be a mistake.

Looking back, the suitcase size we chose has been right for the type of travel we do. We have found that it fits everywhere, including every taxi we have taken. Each of us packing two bags was a challenge, but storing one bag has been a good solution for us. Traveling with one medium-sized suitcase each, while keeping the weight in check, is working out great.

With the right-sized suitcase and the right packing cubes, traveling has become easier. Do remember when you pack, to keep a little extra room in the suitcase for any treasures you purchase along the way.

“He who would travel happily must travel light.” Antoine de St. Exupery

Cheers from these travelers,

Ted and Julia

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