Online research can only tell you so much when deciding which purchase will suit your needs best. Here’s a case where I bought multiple best-in-class options to do a head-to-head comparison.
I tried two
Actually, I tried more than two bags in this category so dear to the one-bagger’s* heart. Not only have I tried more than two, I own more than two of these versatile bags. Luggage junkies need no excuse, but different sizes and different styles work better for different trips.
Travel packs are basically backpacks, but adapted for modern sub/urban travel with the addition of hiding places for the straps and buckles. They also often open along the long edge, like a book, as opposed to a top-loading hiking backpack or a modern school pack that opens along the sides and top. Once the backpack straps are tucked away, the travel pack looks a lot like a typical rectilinear suitcase: harder to carry, but sleeker, more professional looking, and less likely to become entangled in storage bins or x-ray equipment.
My first travel pack was an inexpensive, no name bag purchased at a discount or received as a store give-away around 1990. No thought went into its acquisition! That bag was a revelation, changed the way I carry on my stuff forever after, and I used it until it literally fell apart sometime around 2012. You don’t have to buy the best, highest quality travel pack up front to get a good feel for whether this style of bag is right for you!
The best photo I’ve got of my original travel pack
Essentially, I had a maximum legal carry on size rectilinear bag—boring black—with hide away backpack straps. Aside from the main compartment, it had a shallow (≈1 inch) front pocket containing a few cheap attempts at internal organization covering the full long dimension of the bag and going about 2/3 of the way up the short front side. It was constructed of a single layer of moderately durable material—probably middle-of-the-road nylon—and weighed very little for its size. I learned to use Ziploc bags or packing cubes for interior organization, and I loved the versatility of that bag. The connection between the backpack straps and the bag wore out first, but the corners were also wearing thin when I retired the bag.
Key features of a good travel pack:
Rectilinear shape (no wasted space due to curves)
Meets carry on requirements for airlines you fly
Backpack straps that can be removed or hidden
Having gotten so much from that first travel pack, I knew spending more for a higher quality bag of this type was a worthwhile investment. A $300 bag that lasts for twenty years works out to $15 per year.
I would have settled for a simpler bag similar to my old one for around $40 (sold by discounter Campmor at the time) if I hadn’t found features that made the more expensive bag more appealing. These including water-resistance, superior construction/durability (functional) and pretty colors (aesthetic preference, plus easier to find in a sea of common black bags.) I’ve also discovered that a sternum strap and a waist belt are requirements for my comfort; not everyone agrees on these features, but most people who’ve worn a heavy backpack will be familiar with their utility.
My two strongest contenders were the Red Oxx Sky Train and the Tom Bihn Aeronaut (now Aeronaut45 as they added a second, smaller version.) You can see what I thought I would choose in my 2011 review of an iPad-compatible shoulder bag. Both of these brands produce top quality products with carefully thought out features geared toward frequent travelers who prefer to travel light.
One glance at my two current travel packs, and you’ll immediately note my preference because each brand has such a distinctive aesthetic. My bags of choice are the Tom Bihn Aeronaut and a Western Flyer I bought about a year later. The Aeronaut or Sky Train would be “maximum legal carry on” size bags for typical US domestic flights on larger planes as of this writing (2017); a Western Flyer will fit under the seat in front of you, or fit easily in the overhead bins on smaller, regional jets that require gate checking typical roll-aboard wheelie bags.
Black 400d Halcyon Western Flyer sitting on grey 400d Halcyon Aeronaut45
Weight turned out to the primary factor for my choice of bag.
I do own several Red Oxx accessories and two bags, but they are simply too over-built, and therefore too heavy, for a woman my size with my habits. Our Red Oxx bags are used more often for family trips and land-based travel because they weigh a lot for their size (compared to other non-wheeled bags; wheelie bags are always heavier.) I’m not hard enough on my equipment to warrant that level of construction at that cost in weight.
Beyond the fixed constraint of the bags’ weights, a few other design decisions “weighed” in Tom Bihn’s favor.
I prefer the quieter, lighter weight plastic buckles on Bihn bags to the heavier, noisier metal hardware used by Red Oxx. I freely admit that plastic will likely fail before metal, but I’d be shocked if that happened within the usable life of my suitcases. My oldest Tom Bihn pieces have been in use for four years, and the only blemish on any of them is a spot of ink from a leaky fountain pen.
It’s worth mention here that I consistently choose Tom Bihn’s least durable, lightest weight Dyneema/Halcyon outer material to save precious ounces. Less durable than bulletproof turns out to be sufficient for my needs.
I prefer having my travel bag open along the short-long-short sides, like a book. The Red Oxx Sky Train opens along the long-short-long sides, like a steno notepad or a typical school backpack. The Western Flyer opens in my preferred configuration.
The Aeronaut is a totally different beast, packing somewhat more like a duffel bag with three sections. The large, square, center compartment of the Aeronaut is large enough that my ladies size Medium/Large clothing can stack, neatly folded, inside without wrinkling.
Western Flyer stored inside center compartment of Aeronaut45. Observe that my yellow Red Oxx Travel Tray fits perfectly in the top flap pocket.
Another issue I’ve found with every “wearable” Red Oxx bag I’ve tried so far is overall size. I’m not a tall woman, and I have a short torso to boot. I felt dwarfed by the Sky Train… and the C-Ruck backpack… and the Rock Hopper sling bag when I tried that, too. Red Oxx fit models probably aren’t petite women. I think they might test fit on Navy Seals. These bags are big! My Aeronaut is also longer (between the top of the backpack straps and the waist belt) than it should be to fit my torso, but it doesn’t feel ridiculously so.
Tom Bihn’s other frequent feature is a little D ring sewn into most pockets on most bags. They also sell matching straps—like colorful leashes—to attach accessories to these rings. Any bag with a loop can be tethered inside your Bihn bag. You don’t have to purchase the company’s admittedly expensive organizers and pouches. If you’re a luggage addict, you will probably want to, though. Red Oxx does offer a nifty Pin Mount Key Clip that lets you add similar functionality to any bag, though you have to pierce the bag’s fabric to attach it. I used one on my everyday purse before I traded that for a Tom Bihn Café Bag…
The most obvious problem solved by tethering your interior organizers to your bag is the 3-1-1 liquids pouch you need to present to TSA screeners at the airport. You can pull the bag out of your main carry on but leave it attached. You won’t forget it after clearing security; at worst, you’ll leave it dangling outside your bag as you stagger, shoe-less and half dressed to the post-security benches to pull yourself together after your
Yellow Tom Bihn 3-1-1 bag tethered to Western Flyer
There are many detailed, photo- or video-enhanced reviews of these popular bags on the Internet, but I didn’t find any directly comparing the two head-to-head. I’m sorry that I didn’t take photos of the SkyTrain before I returned it, but I made these purchases years before I created this blog.
Find reviews of Tom Bihn bags here or register and ask questions in the popular Tom Bihn forums here.
Reviews of Red Oxx products can be found here.
Let me know if I helped you compare these two bags, or ask away if you have other questions about their differences that I haven’t answered yet.
*One bag travellers aim to pack everything into a single, carry-on sized piece of luggage. Visit Doug Dyment’s onebag.com to learn more.