Friday, November 13, 2009

World's Best Suitcase

Buy a Backpack Not a Suitcase

If you're taking a big international trip, bag the suitcase and go with a backpack. Your arms, shoulders, and back will thank you.

The first time I shopped for a travel backpack, I didn't do much homework. I went to a local super store that catered to outdoor enthusiasts. Inside, it was the size of a national park. The floor was a herringbone maze of aisles displaying gizmos with digital readouts and clothes with more pockets than a four-piece luggage set.

I tracked down a salesman who had just traveled through Southeast Asia. As he leaned against a rack of overpriced travel pants, he raved about the cheap massages in Bangkok. He raved about the cheap massages in Koh Samui. He raved about the cheap massages in Phuket. He seemed a little too knowledgeable about the subject, so I avoided shaking his hand.

I tried on a few packs and settled on a man's large. The clerk loaded it with 30 pounds of weight, and I took it for a 15-minute spin. I tried running as if being chased by South African street thugs. I tried moving my hands around as if I were fending off frisky Bangkok masseuses offering multi-visit specials. I tried balancing on one leg for no reason at all.

It was good spending the time because the bag jabbed me just about everywhere. The clerk recommended I try a medium that was available at another store. Between finding the clerk, listening to his tales, and realizing that this model didn't fit, I'd wasted nearly two hours and still didn't have a pack.

I learned about backpacks the hard way, but you don't have to. Here's the world's shortest guide to buying a backpack for long-term travel.

Key Things to Look for:

- Price
Expect to pay about $200. You may find an off-season deal or lower price on a store brand, but this is no place to skimp.

- Size
Look for something 40 to 60 liters -- about 2400 to 3700 cubic inches-- the smaller the better. Smaller size means you'll bring less and be more comfortable lugging the bag around. If you're a 120-pound woman, a fully loaded 60-liter bag maybe more than you want to deal with. In hiking lingo, you are looking for a weekend pack, two- to four- day pack, or rucksack -- you don't want an expedition pack, which is fine for climbing Mount Everest, but not for stuffing into the overhead bin of Boeing 747. Remember, you'll only be carrying a few days worth of clothes because you'll be washing them regularly. More packing tips  More packing tips

- Limited access
You don't want a lot of compartments that are easily accessible from the outside. In many countries, anyone with a backpack is a good target for petty theft. If someone can reach into your bag while you're wearing it, they will.

- Comfort
A fully loaded pack can jab you in several places, most notably your lower back and inner shoulders. Lower back pain is a no-no. After trying on several packs, I got the back right, but still had some rubbing on my inner shoulders. I was able to live with it.

- Style
Avoid flashing colors and logos that imply, "I'm a rich tourist, please mug me." Also, the bag will likely include more straps than a strait-jacket. Fear not, these compression straps are relatively easy to figure out and serve to squish down all your belongings in the bag so they don't flop around while you're racing through an airport or bus terminal.

The Shopping Process:

1) Go to decent general purpose outdoor gear store like REI

REI or EMS that carries multiple brands.

2) Find a salesperson who will put a couple of different packs on you. Sizes are not standard across brands, so you may need a medium in a Northface but a large in an Osprey.

3) The salesperson should load the pack up with about 30 pounds of weight and let you tromp around the store.

4) Ask about the return policy and, as always, pay with a credit card.
5) Take the bag home and load it with your gear and walk around the neighborhood for an hour or so to see how if feels. On my trip, I knew I would be biking 10 miles with the pack, so I loaded it up and road around with it.

6) If you don't already have some kind of large, puncture-resistant bag to cover the pack, buy a pack cover. They're a total rip off at $25 or so, but they will help keep your bag clean and dry.

What I Bought: Pros and Cons

I bought a 60-liter, 3700 cubic inch Osprey Aether pack for $199 in a drab green.

- Indestructible
- Relatively comfortable
- I could cram a lot of stuff in and on it.

- Too big (Because I went windsurfing on my recent trip, I had to bring bulky gear, such as a harness belt, rubber booties, rash-guard shirt.)
- Some pinching in the shoulders

For more information than you'd ever want on backpacks, check out:

- Goxplore
Designed for hikers, this site includes useful information for normal travelers, such as how to pack your pack.

- Outdoorhighadventure

The information is provided by REI, which carries much of the same gear as EMS.

- Wikipedia This article discusses terminology, history, and other details.


News and Tips


1) State Dept Travel Alerts and Warnings

- Guinea, Cote d'Ivoire, Philippines, Congo, Mali, Kenya. more

- India: security concerns continue. more

- China may quarantine arriving passengers exhibiting flu-like symptoms. more

2) Speed Through Airport Security

- Dress like a mensch: if you look like a grubby backpacker and have a one-way ticket to Pakistan, expect hassles. Look clean cut, and pass on through.
- Liquids: Put liquids in small travel containers. Then put them in all in clear plastic bag. Kits with containers and a bag available at places like Walgreens.
- Travel weekdays before 9:00 a.m., instead of Sundays (non-stop amateur hour) more

3) Get Your Belongings Onboard: Gadgets, Clothing
- Weigh belongings with a handheld luggage scale: $32
- Wear a hoodie with pockets, built-in neck pillow, and light shield: $100 (a little much, aye?)
- Wear a vest with 22 pockets: also $100. 

4) Keep Your Home Safe While Traveling
- Don't blab on Facebook or Twitter that you're leaving for six months.
- Do blab to the local police.
- Get a light timer to turn lights on and off. (I bought a cheapie from Sears)
- Stop your mail or have someone pick it up.
- Unplug your TV, PC, and other appliances that draw power when "off." (protects against power spikes, saves on electric bills.) more

5) Travel Insurance: Latest Advice
- Shop around and don't buy from a travel agent.
- Find out whether your health insurance covers you overseas.
- Places to shop:  Travel insurance comparison sites
* US Travel Insurance Association
* Squaremouth
* Insuremytrip
- Some recommended brands: Access America, CSA Travel Protection, and Travel Guard. (I bought a Travel Guard policy for a long trip. Never used it, but it appeared to be comprehensive.) more

6) Decent Around-the-World Fare: $2000 to $2300 includes taxes, may be other fees.
NYC to Southeast Asia to Middle East to Europe to NYC (Three continents). It's through AirTreks, so be sure to ask which airlines they use and get all fees in writing. Expires 11/30/09.  I got quotes from them once, pretty quick, only hitch was they used some small carriers, one of which bailed before I could buy ticket. Worth getting a quote from them and seeing if your travel agent can beat it. more

7) Detritus, Flotsam, Jetsam

- Another good reason not to smuggle heroin in Southeast Asia: A 20-year old Brit almost faced firing squad for drug smuggling in Laos. Now, she's in a U.K. prison -- and just had a child. Congrats!

- Another good reason to bring your bags onboard: Luggage theft by baggage handlers. more

- Train from Bangkok's international airport  (Suvarnabhumi ) to downtown to open in early 2010. Bus and taxi service to the airport can be unpredictable due to traffic. more