- Buyer's Guide
23 Reasons Why You Should Try ‘One Bag’ Travel
You’ve read the articles and the blogs before. You’ve heard all these frequent travelers and explorers singing from mountain tops about the idea. But you still haven’t made the jump over to one bag travel. Listen, I was in the same boat… lugging 60-100 liters of gear (mostly clothes) on trips that were anywhere from 7-90 days of travel, like a damn tourist. I’d see folks carrying 30 liters and my ignorance-based hubris made me dismiss this one bag travel idea entirely. That’s insane, even stupid. How could they do it? These individuals, despite their deep travel experience, they just had to be missing out on basic creature comforts by not bringing all the stuff I was bringing. Then I finally listened (reluctantly, I might add). I gave it a try on a quick 5-day trip. And I’ve never looked back since. Each trip, despite being even longer in duration, I find I’m bringing less and less. And here’s a list of 23 reasons why you should give it a try, too.
#1. It’s FREE. This is a super easy and obvious one. If you figure it costs $30-$50 per EACH LEG of the trip you plan to take (at least 2 legs on a round trip flight, but could be 8+ legs if you’re doing a multi-city trip). As a quick example, let’s say you fly 12 times each year. That’s $40 x 24 (don’t forget, each leg), with a total of $960. The more you travel, the more it adds up. Over the years of my travels, I’ve personally saved thousands of dollars… if not tens of thousands of dollars.
#2. Checked bags can get lost. Yes, your luggage can go missing forever… leaving you with absolutely nothing once you arrive at your destination. I’ve had it happen. You might get lucky and get it back in 2 days. Or maybe 2 weeks. Or you may never see it again… ever.
#3. Checked bags can be stolen or have important items stolen from them. Remember, the folks down below have the keys to those required TSA locks and they’re allowed to open your luggage behind closed doors for any reason they choose. If theft does unfortunately happen, the airlines very likely won’t claim responsibility for the airport’s baggage handler thieves.
#4. Unfortunately, some travel destinations aren’t safe and that’s just a sad reality. For me, those are the destinations that I love traveling to. Regardless, with additional luggage, you become a much easier target for thieves who prey on tourists. Whether they’re after your bags or your wallet, you’ve now become low hanging fruit. At least one of your hands/arms is constantly in use and there’s no way you can outrun a sprinting thief while dragging some rolling luggage behind you.
#5. Luggage can get damaged or destroyed. Smashed latches, broken roller wheels, snapped trolley handles, zippers destroyed, and/or the bag’s fabric shredded which spills the contents all over the baggage carousel. Even though your bag might be completely useless upon arrival, the airline claims zero responsibility for these damages. Go read the fine print, this is unfortunately 100% true. Just because you care about your luggage and its contents, doesn’t mean anyone else does.
#6. Traveling to a densely populated city like Manila, Tokyo, Shanghai, New York City, or Mumbai? Be aware that you’re not going to be able to board a subway/train between the hours of 6am-8am or 4pm-6pm. You’ve seen the YouTube videos of the professional “Pushers” (押し屋 oshiya). It’s just not going to happen. And beyond those hours… *if* you are able to squeeze in tightly among the locals, your presence will not be welcomed.
#7. There will be many other private and public places that you simply physically cannot fit. Starving for a quick bite at a ramen shop after you’ve just flown 14 hours, before you deal with checking into your hotel across town? The shop owner may politely tell you that you cannot enter… not because they’re being rude… but because you simply cannot fit inside with your luggage. Try staying in a capsule hotel (which I absolutely love doing) and the front desk will send you rolling your bag back onto the street, because you and your bag just can’t fit inside your coffin-sized sleeping quarters. Sure, trying to get your pack down to 20 liters is going to be tough at first and that will take some time and practice. Anything above 50 liters is where all your problems are going to start. Even for 3-6 weeks of international travel, we’d recommend capping your bag to 40 liters, absolute maximum. 30 liters is much better. 25 liters or less? Well now you’ve entered the halls of legends.
#8. Speed. Waiting for bags at the luggage carousel often puts you back of the line at customs on international flights. Suddenly there are hundreds of people deboarding the plane. Breezing by those folks patiently waiting at baggage claim puts you at the front of that exodus, which can mean the difference between a 10-minute wait and a 90-minute wait. Plus, in general, you’re faster getting to where you want to go. If two people of equal fitness take the same means to get from Point A to Point B, the person carrying 50L less and with only one bag will arrive first.
#9. Luggage limits your options for transport. We’ve already talked about subways/trains at rush hour, which are a no go. But now you’ve only got 1-2 travel options versus dozens of other travel options (which frankly, are way cooler and much more fun). I like the freedom of hopping trains, subways, gondolas, scooters, bicycles, motor bikes, trikes (photo below, in The Philippines), buses, hitchhiking, or just walking. You’ve basically limited your options to a private taxi and maybe one other form of public transportation if you can fit (and if it’s not rush hour).
#10. You can enjoy going off the beaten path, which is always where the most interesting things are always found while traveling. Staying on the main roads is boring and touristy. Getting down narrow alleyways, backstreets, cobblestone sidewalks, up flights of tight staircases, across rickety wooden bridges over creeks in a village, through city parks, down nature trails/pathways, and the like is much easier with a bag on your back. Note: The root word lug (“to carry or drag a heavy or bulky object with great effort”) is in the word luggage (meaning “inconveniently heavy baggage”).
#11. Bag lockers. Finding small lockers at train and bus stations can be much easier with a small bag. I found this helpful when travel delays occurred and I could lock up my small pack and wander around vs sadly sitting next to my luggage and waiting as the world goes by.
#12. Smaller bags mean less (but better) stuff. For me, it forces me to be diligent with my gear and clothing choices. So I’ve found things like a good black cashmere sweater are infinitely packable, exceptionally warm as a layer, and can quickly get tossed over a t-shirt to dress up a situation. One item, multiple uses. You start to choose quality items versus disposable items. As Dieter Rams says, “Less, but better”.
#13. You have everything with you when you want it, it never leaves your side. But if you so choose to leave your larger one bag behind at your Airbnb, you can bust out your packable daypack (packed down to the size of a baseball) and walk around with 5-20L of necessities on your back, effortlessly exploring your destination.
#14. Having one bag makes quick trips and spontaneous moves easier. Luggage is an anchor and constantly reminds you that you cannot do this or that… without first having to figure out how to go get your stuff where it’s currently being stored and then where to leave your stuff while you’re getting to and/or while you’re at the next spot. “Several times I’ve taken my one bag with me to an office or friend’s house just in case a plan to go elsewhere comes up and I have everything with me.”
#15. We already covered the careless luggage handlers destroying your bags, but you can break your own stuff too. Even if you’re being extra careful, roller wheels break while you’re using them. This quickly converts your boat anchor luggage to an even more useless boat anchor. Ever try finding a spinner wheel for a specific model of Samsonite rolling luggage that was made in 2003 while you’re out in the rural fishing provinces of The Philippines? Good luck.
#16. Flying standby! You can’t fly standby with checked luggage. Not to mention, you’re screwed if any other unexpected mechanical issues happen with your plane. If you have luggage under the plane while they work on it for 6 hours (which would make you miss your next important flight connection), you can’t walk over to the ticket counter and ask to be on the next flight out in 20 minutes. One bag? You’re already on the jetbridge, boarding your next flight. “I once had a mechanical out of Saigon and jumped a China Air Flight via Taipei back to SFO. I arrived only 4 hours later than originally planned. My co-worker with the suitcase was another 20 hours behind me and had 2X the number of stops to get home. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had a plane issue and gotten rebooked immediately on another plane or carrier simply because no one had to figure out my checked luggage issue.”
#17. In circumstances where there’s only ONE SEAT left in a taxi or on a bus (luggage areas are filled to the brim) and they’re looking for someone to jump in and fill it… well now you can hop right in, leaving those 30 folks with large luggage to stand in line while you depart for your adventure. They’ll turn you away with luggage.
#18. Physics. It weighs less so you will be less exhausted. Even if the luggage is on buttery smooth rolling wheels; there are still curbs, there are still cobblestones, and there are always laws of physics. You’re still technically using more energy because there is additional weight that you don’t need with you. While traveling, you’re already going to be expending more energy than normal, so why waste even more?
Work = Force * Distance. With one bag, the joules of energy you expend (your W) will be lower than someone with larger/heavier luggage. That’s not just a theory, it’s a law.
#19. Do you want to be *that guy* that slows your entire group of friends or colleagues down because now they have to wait on you and change their plans for you to go get your luggage and figure out where to stash it? They’re ready to go, while you start begging for time and performing mental mathematics to figure out the most efficient way to cross a foreign city that you’ve only been in for 2 hours.
#20. Generally speaking, 99.9% of seasoned travelers will talk about the benefits of traveling with either one bag or traveling with less. And they’re not wrong. You’ll never meet someone who has traveled to 30+ countries who is bragging about how they’ve added more gear to their packing list after each trip they’ve taken. It’s all about carrying less and carrying better.
#21. Nothing screams tourist louder than wheeling luggage down the street. Being a tourist means that you’re getting overcharged for things, that you’re getting deceived, that you’re getting sold unnecessary junk souvenirs, that you’re not being invited to someone’s family home for dinner, that you’re just visiting a place and don’t belong, that your taxi drivers are taking you the (very) long way, that you’re getting the scam $900 tea ceremony the moment you get off the airplane, and that you’re staying at and don’t leave Sandals resort for your whole trip. Take some time to process that. No matter how kind and beautiful the humans and culture of the place you’re visiting are… it happens. How do you feel when 15 tourists instantly stop on the sidewalk in front of you while you’re trying simply to walk? How about when all 15 tourists all have their own roller wheel luggage bags, now making the path an impenetrable wall of polyester, plastic, yelling, and point and shoot cameras?
Be a traveler, not a tourist.
#22. It’s a fun new challenge and practice that requires thinking and problem solving versus just adding more and more stuff carelessly (90% of which you won’t use anyway).
#23. It will make your travel experience better. Because of all of the reasons above combined… simply put, you will enjoy your trip more. Period.
Editor’s Note (July 2022): This article just came up and I took a little revisit down 2019’s memory lane. After having a read, I wanted to add in one last bit! Yes, one bag travel might seem daunting. When I first was exposed to the concept, it sounded damn near impossible to me. But remember, I’m no brain surgeon genius. I’m just a regular guy and I don’t have a very much money either. Like any big change, it requires making yourself a plan with little steps and of course… some practice. But most importantly… you too, CAN do one bag travel!
Special thanks to Mtn Lab for the contributions to this list and who helped inspire me to sit down and finally write this article! This all happened via a casual conversation in a post on our Facebook group, Carryology Classified. Join up to read, lurk, and/or take part in the fun.