What I wore in New Zealand: summer capsule wardrobe for 10 days out of Christchurch

Nothing, not even living through the experience, will reconcile my mind to a summer capsule wardrobe for a February trip. That’s the reality of visiting the antipodes, however, and it was quite a treat to leave the wretched winter weather of New England for a respite in New Zealand, however brief.

Even 10 days is brief when you’ve flown 9,300 miles to get there!

NZ capsule wardrobe pictorial accessories - 1I planned a wardrobe for this trip,* and then, after some reflection, cut it back further to roughly what’s shown in the first image. As I traveled with it, I realized that it was, in fact, a tiny bit larger than it needed to be. I wore all but one miniscule garment that I carried, though, and we weren’t burdened with an unmanageable amount of stuff.

NZ Hagley Park me walkingMost important of all, I had what I needed to be comfortably dressed throughout the ten day trip. I’m a traveler with joint pain and an autoimmune condition who remains bound and determined to make it to more corners of the globe. Smart packing isn’t a hobby for me, it’s a necessity.

NZ capsule wardrobe - model tunic hatThe week before we arrived, our primary destination, Christchurch, baked in 90º+ F temperatures, but we had a cooler trend and the remnants of a cyclone to deal with. What I packed would have worked for either week’s weather, so it was a solid wardrobe plan.

Whether or not you choose to carry enough to cover last week’s weather as well as the forecast temperatures is a personal choice. I’m more comfortable being over- than underprepared, especially when setting a modest pace with no special events that demand tight connections or a particularly quick turnaround between destinations. Continue reading

Roma on Riccarton Luxury Motel in Christchurch, New Zealand: everything you need, with a smile

We didn’t choose the Roma on Riccarton Luxury Motel near Christchurch‘s Hagley Park and a reasonable walk from the Central Business District. Since DH was traveling for work, his extraordinarily helpful host from a local University made our reservations.

Sometimes, collegiate sponsorship means staying in student housing that is barely adequate though students these days are getting fancier digs than I remember! Other hosts seek to thrill my illustrious spouse with “charming” accommodations in historic properties. Those are my favorite, but his nightmare. DH prefers predictable, three- to four- star chain hotels with room service offering standard American fare. If there isn’t a basic hamburger* available on the menu, he’ll come home sighing about his stay.

Getting back to the Roma on Riccarton, the most important thing a foreigner should know is that the motel designation does not carry a downmarket connotation in New Zealand like it does in America. It would be hard to take a name combining “Luxury” and “Motel” seriously back home.

NZ Motel Roma on Riccarton - street viewIn the USA, I tend to avoid motels when traveling alone or as a solo mom with children in tow. I prefer the greater security of indoor corridors and staff at a centralized front desk. It’s absolutely true that there’s a lot of convenience to unloading from the car straight through a motel room’s door. It’s also true that crime, both violent and petty, makes that same easy access doorway a risk in many places.

This time, I was staying with my husband, and the Roma on Riccarton parking lot was small, open to bustling Riccarton Road, and frequented by the cheerful owner and his wife.

I felt quite safe staying here, and we were confident enough in our surroundings to leave windows open for ventilation night and day.

NZ Motel Roma on Riccarton - doorNZ Motel Roma on Riccarton - parking lotThe entire property presented a welcoming and cheerful aspect. The central car park wasn’t overly busy, and it didn’t create any noise nuisance for us, either. The light colored, stucco exterior had an almost Mediterranean appearance, but was modernized by the extensive use of glass in large doors and windows.

Perhaps it was due to New Zealand’s strict building codes for seismic resilience, etc., but noise from other guests or the busy road simply was not an issue. If I hadn’t seen cars and people coming and going, I could’ve assumed I was alone in this motel based strictly on volume.

Though centrally located, rooms here are very quiet.

Motel comfort and amenities


Most vital to any lodging’s rating, in my opinion, is a comfortable bed of reasonable size. We found that at the Roma on Riccarton. Our room—of the standard, Executive Studio, not spa bath type—had a large (queen?) bed made up with crisp white linens.

Continue reading

Barcelona 2017: One week family stay at Hotel Catalonia Ramblas

Attempting to wrangle every thought I’ve entertained about a week long trip to Europe would result in my posting about it after weeks if not months passed. Instead, I’ll try to focus rather narrowly on little slices of the journey. Knowing my propensity to go on and on and on, this might also keep my posts to a digestible length for the digital age.

Home away from home: Hotel Catalonia Ramblas

We didn’t choose our Barcelona hotel. It was selected by the organizers of the conference where my husband was speaking. Sometimes, these choices are a disappointment, but something to put up with graciously. After all, I’m tagging along at little to no cost for lodging in an expensive city.

Hotel Catalonia Ramblas was not one of those disappointments. We were incredibly comfortable there as a family of three.*

Barcelona Ramblas hotel bed - 1Often, location is the single biggest factor in how a hotel stacks up. Hotel Catalonia Ramblas is in a prime location just two blocks from the heart of Barcelona, the Plaça de Catalunya. Leading downhill toward the Mediterranean from the Plaça is the famous La Rambla pedestrian thoroughfare.

It’s hard to beat a hotel location this close to two of the must visit sites in a city.

This is also a major shopping district. The grande dame of Spanish department stores, El Corte Inglés, is an imposing presence across the street. Which street? With more than one location near the Plaça, you can take your pick of all clothing to the south or housewares and toys, etc., to the northeast.

You’ll find anything you might need within an easy walk of Hotel Catalonia Ramblas, including access to public transportation and the starting point for popular tours.

I saw internationally recognizable brands as well as shops with a Catalan flavor everywhere along the Carrer de Pelai, home of Hotel Catalonia Ramblas.

My bank has an agreement to waive fees with a group of other large, international financial institutions, and the ATM I needed to avoid paying fees was mere blocks away.

Location? Check!

Two’s company; three’s a crowd?

We had what I believe was a standard room (i.e, not a suite), albeit perhaps an oversized one since it included a sofa bed for our son at one end. I know there are suites with private pools(!) available in this hotel, but I didn’t investigate any other room types.

Refer to the first paragraph: I was in residence as a beggar, not a chooser.

Barcelona hotel entrance corridor - 1One entered our room from the public hallway into a short corridor with doors at both ends; the bathroom entrance opened from this corridor to one side.

Barcelona hotel bathroom glass door - 1The bathroom employed a frosted glass door, but the presence of the additional wooden door between the private hallway and the sleeping space meant no early morning light pollution when one family member rose early to go to work while his spouse and child lazed about for hours’ more sleep!

I dare you. Just ask my opinion of glass walls in double hotel rooms. These rooms are designed to be shared by more than one person who might have very different schedules. My thoughts aren’t positive.

Entering the bedroom from the hall, the closet separated the bathroom from the sleeping space. This no doubt added some sound insulation. I found it easy to sleep through DH’s early morning routine.

One section of the closet had shelves, including a pull out with electric kettle and instant coffee/tea things; the other two thirds offered standard hanging space. Three thick blankets and an extra pillow were at hand in the closet, proving themselves very useful as we experienced a rare run of freezing days during our week in Spain.

You might notice from my photos facing toward the closet that the pulls on the closet doors could serve as makeshift hooks; I kept our light and dark laundry bags there so my family knew where to put soiled clothes.

The main bed(s) were two oversized singles pushed together in the European fashion. I didn’t bring a tape measure, but I’d judge that each of these was closer to an American double/full size (54″ wide) than our twin (36“) beds.

Continue reading

Barcelona 2017: From Boston to Spain on SWISS… with a Business Class upgrade win

Attempting to wrangle every thought I’ve entertained about a week long trip to Europe would result in my posting about it after weeks if not months passed. Instead, I’ll try to focus rather narrowly on little slices of the journey. Knowing my propensity to go on and on and on, this might also keep my posts to a digestible length for the digital age.

Travel day 1: Transatlantic red eye

Anyone who’s flown within a decade or so is aware that conditions in Economy Class are cramped and uncomfortable, even for short, daytime flights. Getting to Europe from the USA means losing hours as you jump ahead six to nine time zones, and most flights depart at bedtime with a morning arrival.

Full disclosure: I had never successfully employed the “correct” procedure of sleeping on the plane, toughing it out upon arrival, and staying awake all of the first day in Europe. Before this trip, I had always tumbled into a desperate sleep upon reaching my hotel.

Even as a teen—my first visit to London was led by my high school theatre teacher between 11th and 12th grade—I found jet lag really difficult, and staying awake after a night flight really, really hard.

Barcelona Ramblas hotel bed - 1

Heaven is a big, soft bed after an overnight flight in Economy

I’ve never been particularly good at sleeping in a seat. Now that I have a chronic condition that includes regularly experiencing fairly significant pain, I was downright worried about the seven hour flight to Zurich (ZRH), where we would change planes for our ultimate destination: Barcelona (BCN), Spain.

First, I was afraid my hip arthritis would go into overdrive from all the sitting,* like it did on two domestic cross country flights this summer. Second, I feared I would sleep poorly, if at all, and thus experience increased pain triggered by fatigue. A double whammy, and one that tripled my anxiety in the weeks leading up to the journey.

You can’t fly direct from Boston to Barcelona. I had the freedom to select** our flights, and I opted for a transfer in Zurich with SWISS International Airlines.

I’d read excellent reports about conditions in Zurich airport on FlyerTalk. I always go looking for the opinions of frequent flyers in the FlyerTalk forums when I book airline tickets that include an unfamiliar layover location.

Transfers can be beastly in the world’s largest, busiest airports. I will pay extra to have a quicker, cleaner, or smoother trip through customs and passport control.

My husband did not appreciate the fact that we flew outbound on SWISS with a return on parent airline Lufthansa. They are code share partners, but not the same airline. This made reserving seats more complicated. He had a little angst about having to view his flights on two different websites/airline apps.

After all was said and done, however, DH was pretty happy with the flights I selected. He has even declared Munich (MUC) his favorite world airport. He’d rather stay home, but, if he must have a layover, he’d like to have it in München. He loves the relaxation area with its chaise longues.

Booking airline tickets

Every time my husband has an international business trip, I check airfares to see if I can tag along. Usually, it is prohibitively expensive for an extra ticket, and the second one must be paid for on our own dime.

Sometimes, he’s booking too close to the dates of travel for the best price. DH also tends to make the shortest possible trip (no Saturday night stays, typically flying on peak weekdays) and is unwilling to adjust his schedule or take a less convenient flight to lower the fare into “bring the family” territory.

That’s his right: he’s a busy man, and he doesn’t enjoy travel. He’s going to go where the conference or university is, give his brilliant talk, eat room service, and get back ASAP to our family home and the people that he loves. I wouldn’t want him to change!

Admittedly, though, I’m sometimes a bit jealous when he makes several international trips in a year, complains about them, and doesn’t even get out of his hotel room to tell me what the city of Such&such was like. Or try the famous insert food here. Or see the renowned site right across the street from his hotel. Sigh.

This time, however, all the stars aligned. DH was invited to a great conference in Barcelona, a world class destination by any standard.

The dates fell just after Thanksgiving, so I knew I’d have family in town to watch my kids if I wanted to join him on an adults only trip.

It was a four day conference, a little longer than some, making the transatlantic flight worthwhile even for a jet lag lightweight like myself.

I booked his ticket, then checked prices for my own itinerary if I went with him. For myself, I looked at a return flight on the weekend instead of his preference, Thursday. It wasn’t pricing out in the thousands; the economy fare was under $500. I booked it immediately.

And then I started thinking… At this price, we can afford a family trip to Europe!

I’d paid for the kids’ passports to take them to Iceland years before, but we’ve hardly used them since. Apologies to Canada, but our passport cards are sufficient to visit you by land or sea.

Checking in with my teen, he shocked me by stating his preference to skip Spain. I nudged him a little, but, in the end, decided to respect his wish to stay at home. He’s kind of like his dad—a homebody—and he’s very much entered into the teen period of finding his own way by rejecting, sometimes reflexively, his parents’ priorities.

If he were studying Spanish, I might’ve insisted, but DS1 would remain with his grandparents post-Thanksgiving.

My little guy was a different story. When we travel, he is my most frequent social companion in the evening. On cruises, he’ll accompany me to formal dinners so his dad can enjoy room service in sweatpants. DS2 has danced in shipboard discos, and sipped virgin mocktails in swanky piano bars. He keeps a full wardrobe of bow ties for such occasions.

Son with mocktail in shipboard bar - 1

DS2 aboard our favorite ship, Crystal Serenity, at (rainy) sunset in Alaska.

When I described Spain’s culture of frequent socializing in bars and restaurants, with families dining together into what we consider the wee hours, he was all in. He didn’t object to missing a week of school, either, especially not in the land that introduced chocolate to Europe.

I had to call to book his ticket separately because DS2 is a minor. The website wouldn’t allow me to make the reservation as it looked like a case of a child traveling alone. We traveled with three different ticket locator numbers and e-tickets. This worked out to my advantage as our departure date neared.

SWISS Upgrade Bargain bid for Business Class

SWISS offers a program called “SWISS Upgrade Bargain” in which, if invited by the airline, one can place a bid in an amount of one’s choice within an airline-delimited range to be upgraded from Economy to Business Class. In my case, the price range allowed began at roughly CHF 780 up to an amount more than business class would’ve cost if purchased outright for my ticket. I always check the fare for a better seat, even when I doubt I can afford it!

This no doubt fills the Business Class cabin while providing some revenue for the airline as opposed to their offering those seats to frequent fliers as a courtesy.

In an interesting twist, of the three of us, only I received an email from SWISS offering me the option to bid for an upgrade. The program rules state that children under 18 aren’t eligible, so my son’s case makes sense, but I am less clear on why DH, with his more expensive ticket, didn’t get the offer. There’s some possibility, he admits, that an airline email went into his spam folder.

At any rate, we had to keep one parent in Economy with our minor child. I suggested we make a relatively low bid and see what happened. If we didn’t get it, we would fly in uncomfortable solidarity in Coach. If we won the bid, I would offer the seat to my husband if I boarded the plane feeling well, but take it myself if I already had pain before we left home.

I didn’t quite forget that I’d placed the bid—I think I offered CHF 810, or about 30 francs more than the minimum possible offer—but I considered it an extreme long shot. Theories online as to how the odds of acceptance are calculated include the notion that one’s initial fare added to the bid might be the determining factor, and my ticket was cheap.

Two or three days before our trip, I got the email: my bid was accepted. I couldn’t reserve a specific seat of my choice under this scheme, but had no qualms about taking whatever SWISS offered. I believed that any lie-flat, Business Class seat was going to be superior to my carefully researched thank you SeatGuru Economy Class window seat.

This should come as no surprise: it was wildly superior. Continue reading

Luggage brands & bag styles I’m traveling with regularly in 2017

Here’s my recent luggage use pattern:

Rolo, when carried, ends up crammed inside Tom Bihn or Red Oxx, however. It has been used as a carry-on in conjunction with a Tom Bihn Aeronaut 45, a Red Oxx Small Aviator Bag, and even a Tom Bihn Shop Bag.

I haven’t posted about the brand before, but my one set of wheeled luggage is Sherpani. We need to talk about them, too.

Yes, I’m on the record railing against wheeled rollaboard bags here and in real life, but my Sherpani wheels are on a larger, checked-luggage sized suitcase. I never lift them over my head, and I don’t try to carry them on. Large wheeled bags are the best for trips involving a lot of stuff.

It is possible that I bought my Sherpani wheeled suitcase primarily because it came in a really fetching brown and purple color scheme. Highly unusual for luggage carousel spotting! Coordinated with clothes I wore frequently for travel! The presence of cute little daisies in charming spots could also have been a factor.

The more similar your trips, and the more similar your needs during travel, the less likely it is that you need a variety of pieces of luggage. If, on the other hand, you sometimes fly carry on only in basic economy, but other times enjoy extended voyages with extensive wardrobe requirements, you might appreciate having a range of bags that can exactly suit the given style of travel.

If I didn’t have the budget or the storage space for all four types of luggage, I would rank their order of importance to me exactly as I introduced them above:

  1. Ultra-lightweight carry on,
  2. sturdy (check-able) duffle in a size that could be carried on,
  3. specialized bag (for organization),
  4. specialized bag (for extra long trips with more specific requirements.)

For someone who flies rarely or has the strength to find all carry on luggage of trivial weight, I would prioritize item #2 above all else in most cases. A sturdy rectangular bag is by far the most versatile option available.

Some people can make do with everyday items (shopping bags or school day packs) in lieu of travel gear; some people are willing to spend more on luggage than they do on the trip itself. Most of us fall somewhere in between.

A good brand will only produce bags of high quality, but that won’t matter if you buy the wrong bag for your needs.

Red Oxx Big Bull Roll-Up carry on bag keeps family travel organized

I’ve mentioned my Rolo hanging carry-on bag in a few contexts (Amtrak travel, summer camp.) I discovered it—and the Red Oxx Big Bull Roll-Up luggage that I’m reviewing now—during the same internet search for a new piece of kit that would help keep my family organized on a long trip.

Red Oxx Big Bull Roll-up Rolo hanging bag

Red Oxx Big Bull Roll-Up ($285) next to Rolo bag ($50), both empty

My summer road trip proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that this style of bag works really well for my family. DS1 stated that the Rolo made managing his things at summer camp easier. I appreciated the design at every brief overnight hotel stop.

Thus convinced, I bit the bullet and ordered the Red Oxx bag upon returning home. We’re going camping this summer, and I can definitely use a roll-it-out-and-see-it-all bag for each boy.

I got the Rolo bag first because it lists for $50 compared to the Big Bull Roll-Up’s $285 price. I could buy one Rolo bag for each family member (plus 1.7 extra) for the price of one Red Oxx Big Bull. But would I want to? Continue reading

Packing for summer camp so a messy boy can keep it together

Say you have a son of middle school age. He’s smart, funny, and fascinating, but keeping his things organized isn’t his strong suit. Let’s call it a struggle.

How do you help a kid like this enjoy his first week away from home, and ensure that his belongings make it back with him?

Two things made our summer camp packing successful: a carefully conceived plan, and straightforward access to what he needed when he needed it with hanging organizers that provided great visibility and a primary suitcase with strategic compartments.

Rolo in bathroom - 1

Rolo bag: one solid solution for summer camp organization

First, I checked in with my son. Did he have any thoughts on how he wanted his stuff to be packed? Did he want to do this job? Did he want or need help?

Response: mostly crickets. He was happy to let me plan, and he agreed to cooperate with whatever system I devised.

Using a packing list

I adapted the camp packing list by cross-checking it with my usual travel list for DS. I also reprinted it in a format that I thought my child could reference more easily when he re-packed to come home.

The major improvements I made to the generic camp list were specifying garment colors (e.g., he knew to look for dark blue fabric if he wanted pants) and item location within the bag‘s various pockets.

DS’s jobs included:

  • check that everything he wanted to bring was listed
  • select items from his wardrobe that reflected personal expression (graphic tees, mostly)
  • carry the clothing from his wardrobe to where I was packing
  • try on everything I asked him to (he just keeps growing!) without complaint so I could confirm fit and appropriateness of individual items
  • pay attention to the walk-through I gave him about where he could find each type of stuff (information I also added to the packing list)

One large suitcase with strategic compartments

My first decision was to try to get everything into one large rolling duffel bag. Arriving at camp is fairly chaotic. Having only one item to keep track of would be best.

I opted for a bag with a flat bottom compartment beneath the more voluminous main section. All of his sheets and blankets (three warm ones suggested for northern Minnesota) could be compressed into the base of the bag. I made sure DS understood that he could unzip this one compartment and make his bed completely.

The boy can live in the same stinky outfit for a week if he wants to, but his parents can’t bear the idea that he might lie awake shivering every night for that long.

Providing trivially easy access to his bedding, his bug spray, and his toothbrush was my top priority.

Don’t sweat the small stuff: organize it!

Toiletries were organized in a large hanging kit bag made by Eagle Creek.

Eagle Creek kit toiletries - 1In addition to hygiene items, I opted to pack his flashlight, extra batteries, and pencils in this case. I thought he was more likely to find them here than to rummage through the exterior pockets of his large bag. Also, a boy his age doesn’t need many toiletries.

Small items are much easier to find against the Eagle Creek kit’s neon green and grey interior than in the duffel’s black nylon depths.

After those basics of health and hygiene, my next mission was to ensure he changed at least his socks and underwear every day. It’s camp. He can (and should) get dirty. My parenting job here was to help him understand the limits of how dirty (within socially acceptable limits), and how to keep track of it for himself in the woods.

Visibility and easy access to key items of clothing

Solution: our Rolo bag.

I’ve written about the Rolo bag before, specifically, for use in the limited confines of an Amtrak train sleeper compartment.

Camp has a couple of similarities. Space is limited with kids filling bunk beds in small cabins. Stuff spilling out onto the floor can be easily lost, though it will be obscured by others’ possessions instead of mechanical equipment at camp.

Rolo rolled - 1

The Rolo bag isn’t large. Packed and rolled, it will fit within my usual carry on travel bag, a Tom Bihn Aeronaut 45.

I used the Rolo as an interior organizer within the big duffel. Trousers in my son’s size don’t fit efficiently, but it was ideal for separating socks and underwear (the two narrow bottom sections) from t-shirts (middle) and camp-appropriate insect repellent/UV blocking shirts (top section.)

Once his cabin was assigned and found, DS only needed to unzip the duffel, take out and unroll the Rolo bag, and hang it in the locker-sized cubby assigned to him. He could easily find fresh next-to-the-body clothes each day. Visible through the mesh fronts of the pockets, he also had a reminder of the most important items to change.

Packing cubes keep clean clothes at the ready

I used packing cubes for the rest of his things: trousers and shorts, warm layers, accessories. He never took out his swimwear or “dress up” outfit, but he did wear the rest of his clean pants. He found his rainwear when he needed it.

From a mother’s perspective, the way that we planned and packed worked very well.

After camp, I asked my son how this system worked for him.

Putting plans to the test in the field

It turned out that his bunk was reassigned an hour after I’d dropped him off. I had helped him make his bed and unpack in the first room, so he had to re-pack everything. He didn’t find it hard to get his things back into the duffel and moved across the campus on his own.

That was a great test of how well we packed, if annoying for my son.

My son felt the Rolo bag was the single most helpful item for keeping him organized. He would prefer to have all of his clothing packed using this (or similar) bags next time he’s on his own.

Since I also really like the way the Rolo bag packs, I’ve ordered a similar Red Oxx product to expand our hanging/rolling packing options in the future. The Red Oxx Big Bull Roll-up looks like it will excel at organizing smaller items, but I expect it to create a larger roll at a heavier weight due to the Red Oxx philosophy of seriously overbuilt products.

I’m looking forward to testing the Big Bull Roll-up, comparing it to the Rolo bag, and reviewing it here in the next few weeks.

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.