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One Bag Travel: My Search for the Best Carry-On Bag

*Affiliate disclosure: I may receive commissions if you buy via the links below. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

*Update September 2016: The search is over! I now use the Timbuk2 Aviator backpack. Check out why I think the Aviator is the best carry-on bag.

I like a challenge. Perhaps minimalism appeals to me so much lately simply because it is such a challenge. Remember when I told you everything I have fits in my car? Well, as of December, I was able to eliminate items and condense everything I have into the trunk of my car.

“One bag travel” is a subculture of sorts. Its members are kind of the Puritans of the travel world in that they eschew anything unnecessary to their ultimate aim (for one bag travelers, that would be to travel with, erm, one bag). They are strict with what they bring on their trips and are adamant about simplifying everything down to the bare essentials.

And now, as I prep for 3-month trip to South America, I’m going to try to pack everything into one bag. (Okay, one carry-on bag plus a “personal item,” which will either be a small backpack or purse).

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    Thus begins my quest to find the perfect carry-on bag.

    What bags am I eyeing so far?

    Timbuk2 Aviator

    Dimensions: 13.4″ Top Width x 15″ Bottom Width x 22.8″ Height x 9.4″ Depth
    Volume: 30L

    This is the one bag travel bag I use today! (January 2017 at time of writing.) I still love the Tom Bihn Aeronaut, but it was a bit too large for me. Check out my full Timbuk2 Aviator review.

    Tom Bihn Aeronaut

    Dimensions: 22″ x 14″ x 9″
    Volume: 2700 cubic in / 45 liters

    What a handsome fellow. The folks at Tom Bihn were kind enough to send me an Aeronaut (plus some packing cubes) to review on my blog. This sturdy, high-quality bag can be carried as a duffel or as a backpack. More details to come in the review!

    Tom Bihn Tri-Star

    Dimensions: 19″ x 13″ x 8″
    Volume: 2000 cubic inches / 33 liters

    I’m starting to really be drawn to the Tri-Star, which is the Tom Bihn bag that is one step down in size (33 liters) than the Aeronaut (45 liters).

    Minaal Carry-On Bag

    Dimensions: 21.65′ x 13.77′ x 7.87′
    Volume: 35 L

    This backpack was launched through the crowdfunding site Kickstarter, so it shows it already has a huge cult following. It was designed by two New Zealanders with lots of travel experience and very charming accents (seriously, just watch their Kickstarter video) who set out to create the perfect carry-on for digital nomads.

    Patagonia Transport MLC

    Dimensions: 22″ x 16″ x 9″
    Volume: 45 L

    Out of all the bags mentioned above, this one is the most budget friendly. I also appreciate that, like the Aeronaut, it has the ability to be carried as a duffel bag or as a backpack.


    What do I look for in the perfect travel bag?

    1. Versatility
      – Namely, I want the option to carry it as a backpack or duffel bag
    2. Size
      – Will it fit in the overhead bin on flights?
      – Will it be small enough for me to carry it with relative ease? I’m small, so I don’t want to be carrying something that’s 1/3 my size.
      – Will it still be large enough to fit everything I need?
    3. Durability
      – This bag will be thrown into overhead bins on flights, trains, and buses. It will endure rain, dirt, and dust. I’ll probably drop it a few times (I’m rather reckless with things I own). Will it be able to withstand the abuse?

    Bonus points

    1. Ability to safely and easily stow my laptop, camera, and camera lenses.
      – Packing a camera is so tricky! It’s oddly shaped, delicate, and it has other lenses that have to go with it. If the bag has features made specifically for securely stowing these items–even better!
    2. Looks
      – Okay, let’s not fool ourselves here. It would be nice to not look like a grungy hobo while I’m traveling. If the bag is sleek and stylish, I’ll be one happy traveler.

    Why I Hate Wheeled Bags

    Ahhh the rollaboards (wheeled bags). I would be lying if I told you I’ve never eyed them with envy at the airport as they glide effortlessly across the tile floors–while I schlep a 20-pound bag on my pathetic, wimpy shoulders. But I am still very anti-wheeled bags. I’ve had many a heated debate over them. So what’s the big deal?

    1. They’re heavy! The wheels + the extending handle add unnecessary weight.
    2. They’re a one-trick pony. Sure, it’s nice to be able to wheel through an airport–but that’s probably the only place you’ll be doing much wheeling. They also usually don’t convert to a duffel bag or backpack (but I know there are some out there that do).
    3. They also tend to be rigid, thus making it difficult to smoosh them into tight spaces.

    However, if you are able to show me a wheeled bag that is still lightweight, versatile, and able to meet the above requirements–I might yet be converted! So, surprise me. 

    **Update: Check out my review of the bag I ended up bringing with me for one bag travel for 5 months in South America! The Tom Bihn Aeronaut.

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