What do you look for when you’re shopping for luggage? Do you use different luggage depending on the trip, or do you have your single, go-to best friend that travels with you no matter the journey?
We’ve already seen the “Backpack vs. Rolling Luggage” debate numerous times, so we’re going to avoid all that as we pound on our own luggage and its positives and negatives.
Frankly, we’re rolling luggage people. Our backs don’t take too kindly to backpacks – especially heavy ones for everything we own. That’s just us and just how we are. We also travel slowly – or more precisely, live in places for several months at a time – and haven’t really ever needed to run across a muddy road in the middle of Cambodia to catch the last bus to nowhere. However, when looking for new luggage before we set off on our location-independent lifestyle, there were a few things we wanted.
One of these things – which can also be cause for controversy in travel circles – was backpack straps. People like to say that you’ll never use them, that they just take up precious space in an already small suitcase, that they’re not comfortable, etc. The list goes on.
As we travel with a dog, we need to be able to carry some things with us:
1) One main bag for each of us, carry-on size.
2) One bag for all of our technology.
3) One dog crate, and one dog.
The duffel there was an exception for a train ride, and the art hidden in that plastic bag was a transport favor for a friend. Forget DHL or UPS when you have JLT. Nah’mean? The coffee? The coffee is always with us.
We love saving our backs, but must use them occasionally because we only have so many hands, and the dog is all kinds of lazy when helping with the luggage. That guy is incorrigible. Not to mention that a lot of airlines only allow the dog to come along as cargo, so the dog crate is a requirement.
Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that we have to have rolling suitcases with backpack straps. And the problem there is that the selection is limited – which I guess helps you narrow things down – but more importantly, most suitcases in this niche group are ugly as sin. We used to have larger bags from High Sierra, but I honestly felt like we were being sent off to snowboarding camp the one time we used them.
No, I do not want a rolling suitcase with backpack straps that’s trying to look like I just climbed K2. No, I do not want to look like a fifth grader whose mom is saving his back.
Not our idea of fun, ever.
And that’s how we landed at Thule. Primarily known for their luggage racks and all that, they have a wide range of suitcases, bags, and backpacks. We already knew they make quality goods, and they’re Swedish, which means bonus points by default.
Before I get into it about how we found our bags and the ups and downs of that adventure, let’s get into some specifications, love, and criticism.
The 38L version of this bag is carry-on friendly, which not only means we can take them on board if we want to, but that we’re restricting ourselves to 38L each. I quite like that idea, as I’ve become a minimalist and don’t see why I or anyone else should be trucking around 50-100 liters worth of gear.
The quality is top-notch, as you’d expect from Thule, with a classy fabric weave throughout the suitcase and some nice, reinforced seams. We’re told this bag is at least water-resistant, and even read an account of a guy letting his kids shower these bags with water from a garden hose. We’re fortunate not to have experienced any liquid disasters, so we’ll just take their word for it.
We can attest that the bags hold up very well. We checked them on multiple flights, and they still look brand new with zero scratches. We don’t think we’ve owned a single suitcase that hasn’t come through baggage claim looking like it’s already a few years old.
I have no great experience with knowing what bags weigh, but Thule says ours chimes in at 3.5 kg (7.7 lbs). It feels crazy light when it’s empty, and each piece of the suitcase feels like it was made to save some precious weight both when using it and when trying to fit into the stingy airline parameters that exist these days.
After going through countless rollers of varying quality over the years, it’s refreshing to see one that has a tough and lightweight handle, with a proper grip to boot. It’s very sturdy and is made of lightweight aluminum, as are the feet on the bottom.
The carry handles on the top and side are also very rugged, and we never feel that a seam will break, leaving us embarrassed and flustered in the middle of an airport walkway.
The zippers are nice and durable, with loops for locking them up and rubber coating to protect them from breaking and make it easier for your clumsy hands to open and close all the doodads around the bag.
Not only that, but Thule used large wheels that are set into the bottom of the bag, allowing for better travel over bumps and curbs, and leaving it less prone to getting caught up in gravel.
Before we go inside the bag, let’s talk about the features on the outside. The first trait is one that gets major points from us and other users of this type of bag: Instead of putting the backpack straps on the same side as the telescoping handle – which is not only uncomfortable but leads to other fun things like getting dirt and other nonsense all over your clothes – Thule made an apparently groundbreaking decision to put the straps on the other side of the bag. They also added gusseting or whatever you call it to be sure that, not only would you not be too uncomfortable, but you also wouldn’t smash your belongings that can be stored on the outside zipper pocket of the bag. Including your laptop. Nice one, guys.
The straps are also adjustable, and easily clip onto loops on the sides of the bag after you take them out of their dedicated pocket. The only downside we noticed here is that there aren’t chest straps (waist straps are probably unnecessary). We could have bought them as Thule accessories at the store, but didn’t think it was that big of an issue.
The main pocket on the outside of the bag has two sections that run almost its full length. The first is for documents and whatever else you want to keep handy. The other is a padded laptop sleeve, complete with a Velcro strap for safe keeping. As we carry our laptops in our tech bag, we’ve only used these pockets for documents, stickers, etc.
Now, we have an issue. There is a pocket on the side of the bag. This pocket is apparently for glasses (or whatever else you can fit in there). It opens in a half-circle, and has a hard liner which is not removable. The first problem I have with this is that it instantly takes away precious space inside the main compartment of the bag. The second problem is that the pocket is just too small.
As much of a contradiction as that is, if you’re going to make a glasses pocket, make it big enough for a hard glasses case. It’s fine and dandy to think people can just put their glasses in there, but most people want to bring a case with them. Not only that, but if you throw your glasses in the pocket without a case, you can’t put anything else in there. All I can envision are a lighter, or keys, or my mini-Leatherman scratching my lenses all to hell. Give me the option, or don’t give me the pocket at all. At the very least, make the hard liner removable.
This product photo shows a tiny baby’s sunglasses. And all of the scratches have apparently been photoshopped away.
Now, let’s jump in this thing and see what’s lurking in the interior. The first thing of note is a mesh pocket on the inside flap of the bag. This can be used for a variety of things (obviously). It’s not huge, but you can cram a lot of items in there.
The main compartment is mostly open space, and has a zipper on the liner in case you need to get into the inner-workings of the bag. There are two adjustable straps to hold all your gear in place. And this is where things start to go a little awry.
First off, as is the deal with a lot of bags, the telescoping handle on the outside eats up room on the inside of the bag in order to keep things svelte on the outside. The same goes for the set-in wheels. And of course, the glasses pocket on the outside has its hard interior, also taking up space on the inside. Needless to say, this doesn’t leave a lot of ‘solid box’ room inside the product.
All of these things cause a problem for me. As much as I love this bag, there’s not a whole lot of available room for packing cubes or over-organized packing.
We both ended up stuffing a lot of our little items – underwear, socks, etc. – into the grooves between the telescoping handle. The top end of the bag is too shallow, so only flatter or more smashable things could be put there.
I also have US size 12 feet (EU 46), and they’re not giving me a lot of options as to where I can put my shoes (despite their product pictures). And I only pack one pair of shoes! I ended up putting them at the bottom, somewhat disconcerted by the fact that they were resting on the handle tubing instead of the back of the bag.
The product photo below couldn’t even make the packing job look efficient.
While there’s only so many things a designer can do to get all of these features into one small package, we really feel like they could have done better – especially when it comes to using this bag for more than a couple of days. On the one hand, we wish we had bags with more of a ‘cube’ of room, which lets us decide what goes where. On the other hand, the backpack straps and quality really sealed the deal for us.
As a full-time traveler, would I buy this bag again? Yes. Only because it has backpack straps. So, if there’s a better bag out there, I have no qualms about ditching this one. We love Thule products as a whole, their quality, and their overall design and thought that goes into (most of) what they produce. But the things that are most important – in this case, packability and most efficient use of those 38L – got left behind when it came to this bag.
If you’re interested, we’d certainly recommend you check out this bag in person before you go dropping a couple hundred on it. We did, in fact, see them in person before we purchased them. Unfortunately, the downsides didn’t really make themselves glaringly obvious to us until we started packing.
Now, I have a few words of wisdom before you go Thule shopping.
Are you in the US? If so, the best place to get this bag is Zappos was Zappos and is now Amazon. Zappos is actually where we saw it for the first time when we were scouring the internet for new luggage.
Are you in Europe? If so, the best prices on these bags seem to be in the Netherlands and at the Thule Concept Store in Berlin.
Note: Watch your price. I can’t stress that enough. When we bought them, they were vastly more expensive at the Apple stores in Europe than they were at the Thule Concept Store in Berlin. Not only that, but as of this writing, I noticed that it’s nearly US $100 more expensive right now on Zappos.com and Apple.com vs. Amazon.com. Prices obviously vary; but that’s a 30% difference, so watch your wallet!
As of right now, this is where I see the best prices:
Thule Concept Store in Berlin: These people were extremely nice. They only had a display model the first time we went, and we had to wait for restocks before we could purchase our bags. The manager (I think) was very helpful, and offered to call us when new bags showed up. They also answered emails in a timely manner. We eventually got our bags, and high-fived on our way back home.
Thule Sales Service: In a word – terrible. Not a single person at Thule answered multiple (and polite) questions via Twitter or Facebook. This was the case with both Thule North America (Twitter / Facebook) and Thule Berlin (Twitter / Facebook), in both English and German. It was frustrating and disappointing. Frankly, the only reason these pages seem to exist is so that Thule fans can kiss their behinds. I was and still am unimpressed. If you have questions or problems with Thule, don’t even bother contacting them via these methods. On social media, they are completely clueless when it comes to anything other than kissing ass back and forth about whatever great new roof rack you bought for your SUV.
That may sound a bit crass, but it also goes to show how valuable customer and sales service is when you’re trying to solve an issue. And more importantly, when you’re trying to give a company your hard-earned money.
You can find more pictures, all technical specs, and more info about Thule retailers at the product page on their website. Here’s the display video by Zappos:
Note: All opinions here are our own. Absolutely nothing was provided by Thule or anyone else. We purchased these bags on our own accord, with our own money, and no one asked us to write this review.
Do you have experience with this bag, or with Thule? What kind of luggage do you use, or how do you feel about these combo bags? Let us know your thoughts in the comments – we’d love to hear from you!
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