Luggage: weighing in on the carry-on only debate

As I started consolidating and packing up in preparation for my departure from New Zealand, I was reminded of the carry-on vs checked luggage debate. It’s a hot topic in the travel blog community and everyone has their own preference.

Before the start of my round-the-world trip, I was a firm proponent of checking bags. Why would I want to lug my bag all around the airport when I could pass it off at check-in and really relax while waiting for my flight? It’s particularly frustrating to lug a bag when traveling solo cause it has to be lugged into every bathroom when en route. Duty free shopping is also a lot more comfortable without a large pack on your back.

Admittedly, I’ve been lucky that my checked bags have never been lost, stolen or delayed on a flight. *knock on wood* Aside from that, the main passenger complaint is that checked bags take too long to roll out on the carousel. I find more often than not this wait time is small. Interestingly, it seems slower in big first world airports than in others.

When researching packing light before I left home, I found everyone saying a big benefit of packing light is that you can carry-on your luggage. You can carry it on planes, buses and trains and always have it right by your side. Even with an appropriately small pack, it can still be a big fight with a bus driver to bring it on with you and I feel that it’s just not worth the fight. But, again, I’ve never had my bag stolen from under a bus. *knock on wood* In the spirit of being extra safe given that my whole life is in my bag on this trip, I left Canada with a carry-on backpack only.


My well loved Minaal backpack.

It was immediately clear that a backpack was a mistake given that I was dealing with sciatica when I left Canada and carrying weight on my back was exactly what I shouldn’t be doing. I’m pretty stubborn though and I persevered by carrying my pack in my hands instead of on my back as much as possible for the first five months. It took a few days after each flight for my back to recover from the transport. Finally when opportunity knocked to get a cheap rolly case in Vietnam, I gave in (thanks Frank!).


My back-saving rolly case

Now I’m traveling with just my rolly case which is basically the same dimensions as my original backpack – still counts as travelling light! It’s still quite easy to get around with in buses, taxis and when walking. In theory I could carry it on a flight but given that the case itself weighs quite a bit the full weight is over most airline carry-on limits. This means I’m back to accepting checking a bag on every flight. Although it is the best decision for the health of my back, I’m also just happy to once again leave my bag in the hands of the airline so I can relax and enjoy my flight. There’s something so satisfying about sitting down by the gate with only my purse and I feel much more secure and stress free while waiting to board.

Asia: the miracle of bus travel in a foreign land

Purchasing a ticket for inter-city bus travel in Asia can feel a lot like throwing yourself at the mercy of a petulant god.

When purchasing a ticket, the newbie traveler will ask about the basics: “Will there be a bathroom on the bus?” and “At what time will we arrive?”. The savvy traveler knows what nuisances await and asks: “Will we need to change buses?” and “Will there be any food/bathroom breaks?”. The seasoned traveler doesn’t bother asking questions at all. They know that a petulant god has whims and needs beyond reasonable expectations.


Sometimes a bus station is just a street corner.

Once you’ve purchased your ticket, you may be delighted to find that your bus takes two hours longer than expected to actually hit the road cause it’s arranged door to door service for locals, you may find that your tourist only bus careens through small villages with someone hanging out the open door loudly advertising hop-on, hop-off services for locals or you may find that your overnight bus drops you off at what doesn’t really look like your destination at 4am. In most countries your assigned seat means nothing – it’s usually more of a free for all. Once you’ve purchased your ticket, you are at the mercy of someone else’s whims and timetable. Keep in mind when booking that your local travel agent may have limited information to work with and he knows that it doesn’t really matter what he promises – he’ll never see you again anyway! When thinking of the pick-ups, transfers, rest stops, wait times, flat tires, checkpoints and language barriers, I sometimes marvel that both I and my luggage have arrived on time to our expected destination.


Nepal buses have exciting features such as ABS, individual seats and non-stop music! I didn't see any fridge or martinis.

Although I have had some very interesting experiences on buses, it’s not all bad. I’ve learned that each country has a certain level of consistency. Once I’ve got a taste for a country, I can figure out what contingency planning is required for each ride. Most importantly I’ve learned to be prepared and then let go. Ride the wave of uncertainty and remember the most important rule of the road: take advantage of every bathroom break!


Overnight bus sleeper seats in Vietnam.

Here’s some highlights of my experience by country in South East Asia.

Thailand: luck of the draw- some fancy double decker buses and some sketchy old ones

Malaysia: luxury! Seats like lazy boy recliners and seats are only three across so single travelers aren’t nuzzling elbows with strangers

Cambodia: typically old buses and booking a VIP bus doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get one

Vietnam: an impressive breed of sleeper buses where each person gets an individual leather pod seat that reclines quite far but not quite flat (see picture)

Myanmar: bad, often windy roads, older buses, nothing special for overnight and at times, driving that makes me prefer blissful ignorance to windows (except for the beautiful scenery, of course)