It’s no secret, I’m a planner. When it came to having a baby, I dove deep into research about birth and all the gear I would need. When we decided to pack up to travel for over a year, I became obsessed with figuring out the logistics. Where we would go, what we would bring, and the best travel bags in which to pack it all.
Fair warning: you are going to get an intimate look at the inside of my brain, and it may not be pretty. My husband seems infinitely amused by my borderline neurotic need to plan and organize. But he married me, you didn’t. Despite this, I’d still argue that a good plan (and the right bags) makes for a far more enjoyable travel experience. I’ll let you be the judge.
The best travel bags for our travel style
When it came to choosing the best travel bags, first we needed to define our travel style. As I’ve written before, we are neither backpackers, nor pure luxury tourists. We required bags that could be shlepped on our backs on occasion, but mostly prefer high quality durable rolling bags. We planned to pack lightly, but don’t consider ourselves “ultra-light packers”.
Hybrid backpack/roller bags have a bad reputation for being bad at both of their main functions. They usually have cheap, easily destroyed wheeling hardware, and this poorly done feature also takes up a ton of space so the bags tend to not hold very much.
After much research, however, I found the Eagle Creek Switchback – a beautifully designed hybrid bag that wheels like a dream, has a surprisingly generous packing capacity, and easily transforms into a full-suspension backpack that distributes weight comfortably even when fully loaded. The seams and zippers seem quite sturdy, but at the same time the bag is remarkably lightweight.
These bags are not designed as carryons, so need to be checked for flights. The only small complaint we have so far is that they will tip if the weight is not carefully distributed. But as a bonus, they have a zip off day pack, which we can use for day trips or shorter weekend trips along the way.
We decided on two for the four of us.
Carry ons – a very personal choice
The next type of bags I needed to choose were the carryons. We all have slightly different needs when it comes to this bag. My husband has a bunch of “tech” that couldn’t be checked, so he wanted something that was strong enough to carry it all. We tried a few before he settled on a bag we already had – this super stylish Timbuk2 Uptown Travel Backpack. I love this bag for its perfect compartments, but its downfall (not a problem for the Bloke) is that it’s missing a waist strap to better distribute a heavy load.
I had two main thoughts in my head when choosing bags for my kids – first, which would be the most fun and useful for them; and second, which would result in minimal whining when they were carrying them. You see, I’m not the kind of parent who’s willing to tough out the whining to get my kids to schlep a heavy bag. For me, the smaller the bag, the less they can fit in it. The less they pack, they less they whine. Win, win.
I had something different in mind for my carryon. Call me weird, but I just don’t like wearing backpacks. They feel student-y and unfashionable. And let’s face it, as a mom you got to get your style on in whatever little ways you can. So I decided to do something a bit risky and chose the smallest, lightest over the shoulder bag that fit the bare minimum that I needed to carry on a plane – the Tom Bihn Daylight Briefcase. Just for fun-sies, here’s what I fit in this 9L bag:
- A tiny clear clip on wallet for driver’s license, credit card, and cash
- This collapsible neck pillow (that I customized with a neck toggle to make it fit better while sleeping on the go)
- This ultra-lightweight but warm pashmina scarf like this one
- This lightweight black cardigan (that I promptly lost on our first flight!)
- Noise-canceling earphones
- Headphone splitters for sharing a movie on the plane
- A few emergency Rx-bars in my favorite flavors
- My 12 inch laptop with its charger and this streamline sleeve to protect it
- My e-reader for limitless books (and guidebooks) on the go – we LOVE traveling with these!
- Sunglasses in a compact case
- 1 collapsible shopping bag (in case I got snacks or something else I needed to bring along the way)
- A small pouch with a 1oz spray bottle of colloidal silver, a few ibuprofen, my travel toothbrush and some powdered toothpaste, lip balm, spare contacts and mini solution, a tiny tub of homemade deodorant, ear plugs
- Eye mask
- A pen for filling out those pesky immigration forms
- A travel pack of tissues (because I’m a mom)
- A barf bag (better safe than sorry)
- My phone and passport
The truth about packing cubes
I have always sat firmly in the camp that believed that packing cubes were one of those ridiculous things invented by luggage companies when they ran out of ideas for new products. Ridiculous. Why would you need a bag in your bag. Just no.
Then I tried them, and now I’m a packing cube evangelist. How did I ever pack before these things? All of the stuff intermingling in the suitcase ready to pop out all over the airport conveyor belt! How uncivilized. Now when we arrive at our destination, we simply remove our cubes and place them in drawers or on shelves already organized by person, shirts with shirts, undies with undies, etc.
I prefer the ones that are as lightweight as possible and have as much mesh on top as possible (for better content viewing). My favorites are no longer available, but we have a few of these, which are pretty good.
If you don’t yet use packing cubes, don’t fret. Just get them. You’re welcome.
Toiletry bags – why are they all so bad?
It’s embarrassing to admit how many different toiletry bags I ordered and then returned (thank you, Amazon). Part of the challenge is that one toiletry bag is simply not enough for a family of four traveling for over a year. And maybe it’s just me, but I was surprised by the amount of poorly designed toiletry bags out there – weird hangers, not enough space, too many compartments. Meh.
By the time the bags were all packed, I decided on five. Two of these Tom Bihn packing cubes that is double sided with a clear (non PVC) panel on both sizes for easy viewing of the contents. One for toiletries and one for our travel first aid kit. My only complaint about these bags is that the plastic material catches and almost sticks to anything it sits next to, so it’s slightly challenging to slide into a tightly packed bag.
We also packed two of these awesome Eagle Creek toiletry bags. Lightweight and spacious, with just the right amount of compartmentalization, these are a perfect toiletry bag if you don’t mind having to open them to see what’s inside.
And finally, this tiny expandable cube makes a ultra lightweight makeup bag for the small amount of cosmetics I brought.
Other bags I’m glad I packed
Believe it or not, the bag list doesn’t stop there, and I can’t think of one that I regret bringing.
Compactable shopping bags – There’s really no reason to ever leave home without these puppies. Whether picking up groceries, taking a picnic to the beach, transporting dirty laundry, or lugging home more souvenirs than you planned for, you will always be happy to have them. Pack at least one per person. We brought 6.
Lightweight backpack – I use this bag almost every day for quick day trips to the beach or town. My tiny wallet clips in easily, and it fits a ton, but compacts to nearly nothing. It doubles as a packing cube when we’re making a bigger move.
Waterproof compression sacks – I wasn’t sure we needed these, but am super glad we brought them. We have two of these to press the air out of our travel pillow and one more in case we need to keep electronics safe from water.
Pouches for odds and ends like toys, random tech cords and chargers including:
- One Snake Charmer
- A Tom Bihn organization pouch – Both sturdy with see-through sides
- Zippable pouches – Less pricy, more fun. The kids got ones from their Aunt like this coin purse and this joker. But they are great for grown up stuff too.
And last but not least… Good ol’ ziplocs – Both to protect cargo from leakables like shampoo and to keep things dry (like organic tampons) these humble plastic bags can’t be forgotten when it comes to a list of the best travel bags.