Including a Kindle for ultralight carry on travel: when is the weight justified?

To travel with the Kindle, or without the Kindle? That is my question before each trip.

Much of my travel kit is so definitive, it’s hard for me to remember a time when I carried anything different.

For over a decade, I’ve had a silk sleeping bag liner or “sleep sack” (dubbed by our family as “the sleestak” because that’s funnier) with me on every flight. It doubles as a blanket, protects me from chemical-laden hotel bedding, and acts as a neck pillow or cushioned armrest while rolled up.

I could go on and on about other items in my carefully curated collection of travel gear. Most pieces serve multiple purposes. Many of them delight me because they remind me of adventures past. I know what I need, why I need it, and (usually) where to pack it with very little contemplation.

When it comes to my Kindle, however, I’m weighing its inclusion before every trip.

Kindle - 1The truth is, I never need to bring the Kindle. I have a smartphone and a tablet, both of which include the Kindle app. Unlike the dark ages of my youth, I never need to carry a stack of paperbacks (it took four for a cross country flight) these days to ensure having entertainment for hours of airline isolation.

I often do bring one codex in spite of the weight of paper and ink. I like to read a physical book. Books, however, don’t often work best for my physical limitations.

The reason I read on a Kindle is mundane. I have arthritis in my hands and wrists. There is no less taxing way to hold a library in my hands than my Kindle Voyage.* Continue reading

Capsule wardrobe for Hilton Head Island, under-seat carry on size

This won’t be as pretty as the Polyvore sets you’ll see on fashion-oriented blogs. I’m not a photographer or a fashionista. In spite of this, I want to post a capsule wardrobe as I packed it in an under-seat size carry on bag for a recent (early March) family trip to Hilton Head, SC.

Amtrak luggage on cart redacted

Train carry on luggage at Savannah, GA Amtrak station. For two travelers, we had three Tom Bihn bags: an Aeronaut45 (with our train compartment friendly Rolo inside for organization), Western Flyer, and a large Shop Bag full of snacks and bottled water.

Compact capsule wardrobe saves precious vacation time

Packing lists and capsule wardrobes—which is just a fancy way of describing a simplified wardrobe that can be mixed and matched to create many combinations— help me enjoy my trips more. My stress is reduced, I don’t waste precious vacation time deciding what to wear, and I can present myself the way I prefer to be seen when I’m meeting new people.

Rarely do I see a travel wardrobe capsule that reflects the reality of someone like me. Items of clothing on my petite yet plump and short-waisted body look nothing like the stock catalog photos on Polyvore. More importantly, my priorities begin with function before moving on to the more enjoyable considerations of color and form.

Dressing appropriately while maintaining health & function

I have an autoimmune condition that involves widespread joint pain. I suffer particularly from foot problems. My wardrobe is constrained by the limiting factors of shoes that accommodate bulky rigid orthotics and clothes that don’t squeeze or pinch even when inflamed joints swell.

My symptoms flare when I’m tired. Travel, no matter how wonderful, comes with physical and sometimes mental stress. Traveling light is one way to reduce symptoms from my condition: I’m less likely to wear myself out, physically, with a lighter weight bag.

And yet! I’m a colorful person who enjoys attractive clothes. I don’t obsess over fashion, but I accessorize daily. When time is ample, I willingly spend some of it on my appearance. I rarely wear black, which I find both boring and depressing, and my neutrals are often dark red or dark plum instead of sedate grey, navy, or taupe. I express myself sartorially.

Wardrobe and sleepwear

Every stitch of clothing (minus my raincoat) for five days with 40 degree (F) temperature variations in the forecast. It was COLD when we left; STEAMY arriving in Savannah.

Wardrobe considerations—climate and events

Our trip was for four nights and five days. We flew to Savannah, stayed three nights in a Villa at Sea Pines Resort, then DS1 and I rode the train (Amtrak, overnight) back home. We left and returned to temperatures in the 40’s; it was 60-79°F in Georgia and South Carolina. Because DH was traveling for work, we needed dressy clothes suitable for socializing with professional colleagues in a resort environment.

With a rental car and apartment style accommodations, I could have easily packed everything plus the kitchen sink. Aside from enjoying the planning exercise of creating a packing list for this trip, I wanted to travel light on Amtrak. There was no baggage car on our Northeast Regional train after connecting in New York City. The train’s carry on restrictions are much more generous than found on airplanes, but handling luggage remains one of my least favorite aspects of travel.

I used my smaller travel pack for this trip, a Tom Bihn Western Flyer. Even fully packed, I can typically manage this bag myself. It’s better when I don’t bring a laptop, which I didn’t need for this quick getaway.

Packing lists — never forget a vital item

Here’s my clothing packing list, adapted from this one at LadyLightTravel.com:

Packing List for Hilton Head

Outerwear

teal raincoatFor early spring travel, outerwear choice is pretty critical. We had occasional light rain in the forecast. Even a week or two earlier, I would have gone with my purple, lightweight down coat, but water resistance is my bottom line in spring. All five pockets on this coat zip securely closed—a travel essential!

  • Teal Duluth Trading soft shell coat (thin gloves, not shown, in a pocket)
  • Purple down vest
  • Purple thin knit cap (not shown, in coat pocket)
  • Teal waterproof sneakers
  • Grey Propet Women’s Travelactiv Mary Jane (dressiest shoe I could consider)

 

Ahnu shoes sneakers

Ahnu Sugarpine shoe rainbow! Podiatrist approved, and colorful enough for me. Front row: airier mesh; Back row: waterproof styles.

I had to make sure everything I brought worked with my comfortable, supportive Ahnu Sugarpine sneakers in teal. These are my go to shoes for reducing the likelihood of crippling pain from too much walking. I opted for the waterproof pair that coordinates nicely with my raincoat and capsule color scheme of teal-magenta-grey.

Bottoms

I started my fashion choices by selecting the bottoms. As a fairly modest dresser, there are some pants I won’t wear with more revealing tops. I wanted the freedom to remove layers as necessary in case the temperature was hotter than forecast while still literally covering my bum.Bottoms1

To layer underneath on the colder, northern ends of the trip, I had pieces ranging from long johns, to silk pettipants, to pantyhose (which violate the comfort doctrine, but I do wear them as needed to add discreet warmth when dressed formally.)

I’m counting my soft, stretchy Angelrox Goddess dress as “bottoms” because it layers well and stands in for a skirt. These dresses (I also own a full-length Goddess Gown) are body conscious so I usually wear a wrap or otherwise layer on top. Tight is not my style. The Goddess dresses are so soft and so comfortable, though, I can forget to be self-conscious about the snug fit. Wearing one, I feel as glamorous as an old time movie star with the comfort of pajamas!

Tops

This is where I cut back from my usual policy of having one or two extras, just in case. The weather was forecast to be moderate enough, and I knew I could go shopping if necessary. I usually do bring more pieces than this, but I absolutely did not need additional tops to wear fresh, interesting outfits every day.

  • Grey cotton/spandex Duluth Trading No-Yank Tank (not shown)
  • White ExOfficio crinkle kimono tunic
  • Floral sheer silk poncho
  • Magenta faux twinset (sheer silk turtleneck & cotton/nylon cardigan)

Accessories

This is where the magic happens! Wow, no, not really that exciting, but… this is where a bunch of clothing pieces that I like turn into full-fledged outfits like those I wear at home when my full closet is available.

I don’t bother with makeup very often, and my hairstyle is almost as minimal as wash-comb-go, but I didn’t realize how much my accessories matter to my sense of being “fully dressed” until after our home was burglarized a few years ago. Mostly, I was grateful that we weren’t at home or hurt and that nothing more than “stuff” had been stolen, but every morning for weeks, I would turn to the shelf in my bedroom where my costume jewelry had been and feel my heart sink at the empty space dusted with police fingerprint powder.

The thieves took most of my deceased grandmother’s costume jewelry and a little velvet box full of Post-it sized love notes my husband left me every Sunday morning before his karate class during our first few years of marriage. It’s ironic that they missed our hidden safe where my few expensive pieces of “real” jewelry  were hidden, but they stole slips of paper many times more valuable to me and lots of $20 jewelry that gave me joy but probably earned them virtually no cash.

  • Pashmina in grey/magenta/teal
  • Scarf in teal/white rayon
  • Angelrox teal “sleeves” (arm warmers or fingerless gloves)
  • Earrings (silver dangles)
  • Earrings (colorful stone dangles by Shayla Lynn Jewelry)
  • Necklace (silver with moonstone by Shayla Lynn Jewelry)

Unmentionables

Here I am mentioning the unmentionable, but I have to specify these details for completeness if you’re wondering how a capsule wardrobe really packs into a case as small as the Western Flyer.

  • Floral silk caftan
  • White rayon tank/tunic for sleeping (also works as a top in hot weather)
  • 5 pair underpants
  • 2 brassieres
  • 7 pair socks (one wool, 2 thin ankle socks, 4 no show footies)

These don’t factor into the wardrobe as far as style goes, though I’ll admit to a touch of smugness that my travel caftan color coordinates in teal blue.

Underwear and socks pack so small, I do usually bring enough to avoid hand-washing because I don’t enjoy it. I could get by with two pairs of each by sink washing every night, but I’ve never felt the weight loss was worth the time spent from my vacation day.

Remember that the outfit you wear on travel day doesn’t go into the carry on. Here’s what I wore onto the plane along with my water resistant teal jacket.travel outfit

Everything else

This is where I confess to everything else I stuff into my carry on bag… except there isn’t very much. First of all, my full confession includes the fact that I prefer to carry my everyday purse (a Tom Bihn medium Cafe Bag) aboard as a personal item. I don’t have to cram all my daily distractors into my Western Flyer!

I have a Tom Bihn Packing Cube Shoulder Bag that is always packed with my carry on comfort kit. This is where my inflatable neck pillow, silk sleep sack (we call it the sleestak, a la “Land of the Lost”), ear plugs, eye mask, and lip balm live. During a flight, it is big enough to temporarily house my Kindle or iPad, too, if it is easier to reach than my purse.

Aside from the Packing Cube Shoulder Bag, my Tom Bihn 3D Clear Organizer Cube 3-1-1 toiletry kit, and my electric toothbrush, I stash a water bottle in the front pocket of my Western Flyer, and I always carry at least a small personal PackTowl with the water. I’ve read my Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy! Also, my little guy is prone to motion sickness. And playground swings are often wet. A towel always comes in handy for moms as well as hitchhikers.

Putting it all together

When you’ve packed it all, the Western Flyer looks like this.

It zips closed without a fight. The Western Flyer isn’t over packed, and the bag weighs in at 9 lbs (just over 4 kg.)

Direct comparison of Red Oxx Sky Train and Tom Bihn Aeronaut travel packs to carry on

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!

Luggage travel pack Red Oxx Tri Fold Shave Kit diaper bag

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.Table comparison Tom Bihn Red Oxx

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.

Compare Aeronaut 45 and Western Flyer side

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.

Compare Aeronaut 45 and Western Flyer smaller inside larger

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…3-1-1 bag clear packing cube

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 assault inspection.

Western Flyer with 3-1-1 bag out for inspection by TSA

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.