Packing: Choosing a Bag 7


The first item in a packing list, whether it’s a trip to China or a trip to Grandma’s, is choosing a bag to bring. I typically travel for 4-9 weeks at a time, am constantly on the go and travel to many different climates. For my lifestyle as a tour guide, being light on my feet is essential. Choosing the right bag can make a huge impact on my comfort and flexibility.

The first constraint is keeping things sized to fit airline carry on rules. This is the golden rule of travel for me. ALWAYS carry your bags on the plane. Nothing can ruin a trip more than a lost bag. Believe me, I’ve seen it. Travelers who’ve checked their bags usually get them, but for the people who don’t (and let me tell you, it’s more common than you think) it means being distracted and concerned about tracking your stuff down when you should be enjoying what you traveled to see. The frustration isn’t worth it. Carry your bags on the plane. It will increase your chances of a snag-free trip dramatically.

That means that you are starting your packing tasks with some constraints. Every airline has different restrictions on size and weight. Following airline carry on rules can be tricky as they are all different. Most U.S. based airlines have very generous carry-on policies. They usually allow a suitcase of about 22″ x 14″ x 9″ along with a “personal item” which amounts to a purse or smaller day bag. The weight of the bag usually doesn’t matter, although officially they cap the weight around 22 lbs.

Europe has different airline carry on rules, however, so it’s a good idea to check with your airline. Lufthansa has a very inflexible 8 kilo weight limit, they actually weigh your bag before you are allowed to take the bag on the plane. I’ve almost had my bag confiscated because I bought water in the airport and put it in the bag…which they weighed a second time right before I got on the plane.

Budget airlines play games with carry-on bags to make it pretty hard to meet the requirements. Easy Jet and Ryanair weigh and measure every bag. When I’ve been slightly over weight on these airlines, I’ve just headed to the bathroom and put on as many pieces of clothing as I could until the weight met the restriction.

The bottom line is this, before choosing a bag, check the rules on each airline you plan to travel with and pack with the tightest restriction in mind. It’s actually a good thing. It keeps you committed to packing light.

Backpack or Rolling Bag?

Without hesitation, I highly recommend a backpack for travel. Backpacks keep you light on your feet, which comes in very handy when you are trying to catch trains or planes. They are much easier to carry up steep stairs. They tend to fit into airline carry-on standards better because there’s no handle or wheels. No problem with toppling over when waking on cobblestone streets. They help you travel like a stealthy ninja rather than an obnoxious tourist with a clacking bag rolling behind them. And most importantly, they weigh much less from the beginning. The frame of a wheeled bag is heavy, no matter who made it. A backpack will always be the packing light choice.

I realize many people can’t carry a backpack. If you do choose a rolling bag, be very careful. It’s so easy to over pack a rolling bag. Since it rolls, the weight may not seem to matter, but it does. You still have to be able to lift it over your head in the plane, carry it up stairs, and right it when it falls over. The airline weight restrictions are the same whether it’s a backpack or roller, so you’ll likely be able to bring more in a backpack.

My Bags

I have two bags that I suggest, from different companies. Which you choose will also depend on how demanding you are on your luggage.

For the casual traveler, gone for a month a year, I think my employer makes a darn good bag for a good price. I have the rolling bag from Rick Steves in my arsenal and it has performed well, most recently for my son on a two week trip to Europe.


It’s relatively lightweight, has nice features such as deep pockets and it rolls smoothly. At $160, it’s a good value. You can find it at ricksteves.com.

My go-to backpack is from Tom Bihn, a local bag designer. All bags are handmade in their Seattle store. They are extremely durable and have superb features, but they come at a price. Most bags are between $200-$300. They have a system in place with little loops where you can hook on small sacks and lanyards to organize things. All of their travel bags and day bags have these loops, so accessories are interchangeable.


My bag is the TriStar, their mid-sized carry-on. I picked it because it fits European airline carry on rules. I’ve been living out of this bag for about four years now, and I still adore it. My only gripe with it is that the fabric is so durable that it is a little heavier than I’d like. They have recently come out with this bag in a lighter material. I love to buy it but at about $300, it is hard to justify. I can tell you this is a good bag, it’s been really put through its paces and, despite my efforts to destroy it, it still looks almost new. I’ve never had any problems.

In my next post, I’ll give you a tour of my TriStar and how I set it up for packing.


About sarahinitalia@yahoo.com

Sarah Murdoch is a tour guide and guidebook writer for Rick Steves Europe. Her blog, Adventures with Sarah, focuses on packing tips, travel stories and advice for planning the best trip possible.


7 thoughts on “Packing: Choosing a Bag

  • Rochelle

    I am interested in purchasing the Tri-Star from Tom Bihn. I noticed that you don’t use the Tom Bihn cubes. Could you post a video of you packing your cubes and then putting them in the bag? I watched your packing video on youtube, but that was a rolling bag and you were unpacking it. I am interested to see how you use your packing cubes and which compartments you have found to be the perfect fit for the cubes. Thanks!

    • Rochelle

      I forgot to include that I already have eBags packing cubes so I don’t want to buy new ones.

  • Wanda

    What do you think of the purses with rfid safety to protect from credit card scammers? Is it necessary to further protect your credit cards (raid sleeves) in the money belt?

  • Melinda

    Sarah, I’m glad to see you use Tom Bihn, I love his bags. I have an Aeronaut, the larger on that I’m planning on taking to Italy for the Venice, Florence and Rome tour, with 4 extra day. I’m new to packing light, but I thought this was a good place to start. I’m going the first week of September and I’m worried about the temperature. It seems that the three places have different weather. Thanks for all your tips, on how to pack light and right, they are invaluable. Happy and Safe Travels!

  • Annette St-Pierre

    Am curious how you use the outside zippered compartments on your bags. Perhaps because you aren’t checking them, you are afraid that whatever is placed into those pockets will disappear into “sticky fingers.” I have the Rick Steves bag and do check it. Have only put into those pockets things I don’t care if I will ever see again.

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