Old-school travel writer David Farley ditched his beloved backpack in favor of a high-tech rollie. But it didn’t quite kick-start the ascent to the elite travel lifestyle he’d hoped.
Luggage with wheels is one of those simple ideas that makes you think: What took us so long?
The original Rollaboard suitcase with its wheels and pull-up handle was invented by airline pilot Robert Plath in 1987 and was initially the domain of flight crews, but by the mid-1990s, airport terminals had started filling up with suitcase-pulling travelers. And by the last decade—when most airlines began charging for checked baggage—the carry-on-sized Rollaboard and its predecessors had practically put wheel-less baggage on the endangered luggage list.
Rolling a carry-on certainly adds a level of convenience when you’re literally on the move. And as a travel writer, you’d think I would have adopted it several revolutions around the world ago.
But if truth be told, I quietly loathe this baggage evolution. If I had a dollar (or a euro, or a pound) for every time a luggage-pulling wayfarer weaved in front of me, thus tripping up my stride with their spinning luggage, I could afford an upgrade to business class. Instead, after recovering from my near flop to the floor, I’d grip the strap of my trusty carry-on-sized JanSport backpack a little tighter and continue to my gate.
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That JanSport backpack has crisscrossed continents and oceans so many times with me in the last decade and a half, it should have its own frequent flyer account. My insistence to continue using it makes me feel like a traveling anachronism or, at best, a counter-culture traveler, as does eschewing other ubiquitous airport sights: Neck pillows, Starbucks cups, and Daniel Patterson novels.
When I’d meet up with friends on the other side of the world, they’d take one look at the bag hanging over my left shoulder and say, ‘That’s all you brought for this two-week trip?
Of course, traveling with only a carry-on-sized backpack means I have to make a few trade-offs. If I’m gone for longer than a week—and I usually am—I have to regularly wash one of my three outfits in the hotel sink; I can only bring one, maybe two, pairs of shoes (including the pair I’m wearing); and certain things like vitamins, liquids over 3.4 ounces, and bulky coats remain at home.
But my backpack provides enough space to sustain me. In addition to a few changes of clothes, I have enough room for my MacBook Air and cord, a few choice toiletries, a notepad, a book, and even a small wireless Bluetooth speaker. The outside flaps and pockets allow me easy and quick access to my passport, flight tickets, and chewing gum. What more could I want?
But then a few months ago, a good friend gifted me a piece of high-tech roller luggage. This carry-on (or roll-on) suitcase was made of a lightweight aluminum shell and featured a built-in phone charger.
Steve Jobs famously said, “… people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” And here was this smart, shiny suitcase on wheels showing itself off to me. And I wanted it. This was not just a suitcase. This was next-level travel lifestyle. It reeked of wealth on wheels. It revealed a more stylish version of me. I imagined I’d have to start packing a small bottle of Clinique for Men ‘Broad Spectrum’ moisturizer and jeans made of Japanese denim.
And then, 20 feet from where travelers would be fighting over outlets at the airport phone-charging station, I could lounge at the gate, my suitcase feeding my iPhone with power, while I flipped through the latest issue of Monocle (which I’d have to start reading if this suitcase became my travel companion.)
Waves of cognitive dissonance began flowing through my brain as I looked over to the closet in my West Village apartment where my black backpack lay: It’s time you finally become an adult, I thought. You’re a professional and you should start looking like one. Like the first time I downloaded email onto a smartphone 10 years ago, I now looked at my new luggage and had a feeling I’d never be able to go back.
[The suitcase] revealed a more stylish version of me. I imagined I’d have to start packing a small bottle of Clinique for Men ‘Broad Spectrum’ moisturizer and jeans made of Japanese denim.
On my inaugural trip as an adult, professional-looking traveler, I rolled my smart bag with ease over the limestone-paved streets of Dubrovnik, the suitcase’s wheels keeping a steady and smooth navigation. I breezed past backpack-wielding travelers and people lugging inferior wheelies, with a condescending smirk on my face.
But after the initial excitement and feelings of suitcase superiority wore off, I had to face facts: There were a lot of inconveniences to trundling along with my silver traveling container. On my flight to Dubrovnik, for example, I was much more anxious about getting on the plane early so there’d be enough room in the overhead compartment above my seat—I feared the only space would be several rows behind me and thus I’d have to wait for everyone to deplane before I could grab my bag. With my backpack, I can slide it under the seat in front of me if necessary, or it easily squeezes into the compartment above me between the bulkier wheeled bags.
Pulling luggage is a breeze—until you have to pick it up to ascend a few flights of stairs or trudge down a street beset with ankle-busting cobblestones, as I quickly found out on that trip to Europe. With my backpack, I can stroll through the cobbled streets of Prague or the crowded dusty lanes of Varanasi, unencumbered by pulling a wheeled case, no longer feeling like I’m a rickshaw driver for my own travel possessions.
But besides the physical frustrations I encountered on my first wheeled trip, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the rolling valise changed me in ways I was not ready for. Or maybe I just didn’t like the ‘stylish, hip traveler’ I thought the luggage had turned me into.
After all, I continue to balk at the $12 cover price of Monocle and still can’t afford Japanese denim. It broadcast my presence as a certain kind of tourist in ways that my innocuous black backpack did not. The backpack gives me a sturdy sense of confidence and more flexibility. In most parts of the planet, I’ll never be mistaken for a local, but pulling that silver aluminum box behind me, I felt, ironically, like a dollar-wielding invader—far from the “adult professional” I thought I’d see myself as. The backpack makes me feel less self-conscious about my tourist status, while the roller suitcase made me feel like I was screaming it (much to the convenience of souvenir shop clerks and sidewalk restaurant barkers.)
The backpack makes me feel less self-conscious about my tourist status, while the roller suitcase made me feel like I was screaming it.
And maybe, other travelers are just starting to figure this out: Last year’s Travel Goods Association market report revealed Americans purchased a record-number 176.1 million backpacks. Which is good news: There’s less of a chance I’ll be tripped-up by a weaving luggage-wheeling traveler on my next trip.
And so, I’ve decided to take my black backpack out of retirement for my next sojourn and give up my brief stint as a luggage roller. Although I must confess that for all the realizations I had with my first roller-suitcase experience, it still wasn’t easy making the decision to revert to my old black backpack—like getting back behind the wheel of your trusty-but-unsexy Ford Taurus after taking a few spins around town in a Porsche.
But I’m adjusting. And in the meantime, does anyone want a barely-used high-end roller suitcase?