For years I traveled with a wheeled duffel bag made by Club Glove – the golf travel bag folks. I liked the robust construction of the bag, and it was generally easy to pull around airports and parking garages. In the back of my mind, though, I had some nagging misgivings about it. It was heavy – 8 lbs. completely empty – but put a 7 lb. laptop in it, and suddenly you’re pulling 15 lbs. around and that’s without clothing, toiletries, and other items. Every time I hoisted it into an aircraft overhead compartment, I’d inwardly think “there must be a better way.” Plus…  as a duffel it basically had one compartment and that was oddly shaped, making packing a bit difficult.

Then one day I stumbled across Doug Dyment’s One Bag website. The case he made for one bag travel was so compelling, I immediately began adopting that approach, first utilizing a backpack. I’ve tried several bags more suited to one bag travel since then, including the subject of this review, the Rick Steves Classic Back Door bag.

Before we take a close look at the Steves Classic, let’s take a moment to visit the reasoning behind traveling with one bag. The case for one bag travel is gaining momentum – with airlines now charging fees for checked bags – sometimes for your first checked bag, in fact – more and more travelers are opting this liberating, exciting approach to packing and travel.

Why go the “one bag” route?

One bag travelers do just what the term implies – travel with just one bag which is always carried on. The result?

  • No airline fees for checked luggage
  • No fear of lost luggage
  • Greater security – your bag is with you all the time!
  • Easier, faster check-in
  • No standing around in baggage claim waiting for your luggage to show up (ever done this at O’Hare??)
  • No bellman tips
  • Greater peace of mind

What popular type of bag is bad for one bag travel… and perhaps just plain bad?

There are a myriad of choices available to the traveler who wishes to go the one bag route. You may currently be using a wheeled bag like I used to do, but they have some serious drawbacks:

  • They’re heavy – the frame, handle and wheels add weight; many weigh 7 to 9 lbs. completely empty
  • They’re rigid – making them harder to fit into overhead compartments
  • Their usable storage space is usually less, due to the nature of their construction
  • They’re a pain to drag – or carry – up and down stairs, or to pull over uneven surfaces
  • They’re more complicated, with more (moving) parts to wear and fail

A lightweight alternative!

As a result of these issues, many one bag advocates have opted for soft sided, lightweight bags. Lacking wheels, frames and collapsible handles, they’re lightweight – usually between 2 and 4 lbs. Because they’re soft sided, they’re much easier to stuff into overhead compartments. And most have multiple compartments, making it easier to separate your items including your TSA liquids bag.

There are a few essentials that this type of bag must have:

  • It must meet airline carry-on requirements – typically, the height + width + length of the bag cannot exceed 45″
  • It needs to have comfortable handles and shoulder straps for schlepping through airports
  • To withstand the rigors of travel, its construction needs to be of high quality
  • For efficient packing, it must be rectilinear in shape

And frankly, there’s a requirement that the one bag traveler must meet him- or herself:  you must learn how to travel light – bringing only what is essential. This requires the use of a packing checklist, but more importantly you need to determine what you’ll need and when, and bring nothing more.

Lightweight bags for one bag business travel range from the $200+ uber tough, marvelously overbuilt Red Oxx Air Boss (my personal favorite) to $29 duffel bags. Falling somewhere in the middle is the Rick Steves Classic Back Door bag (“Back Door” being a reference to Steves’s “Europe Through the Back Door” books and shows.) The Steves bag is priced at $79.95, definitely placing it in the bargain end of the spectrum.

Impressions and Comments

First, this is a very lightweight bag. The Steves website doesn’t list a specific weight, simply saying that it’s less than 3 lbs.; it feels as though it’s closer to 2 lbs.  The material it’s made of also isn’t listed, but on the Kiva Designs website (the apparent manufacturer of the Steves bags) the (similar) Convertible bag is listed as being made of 900 denier polyester. 900 denier is reasonably tough and should stand up to regular use quite well. In order to save weight, interior panels are made of much lighter material, and seem adequate.

One thing that I was immediately impressed by is that in spite of its relatively low price, the bag is certainly fully featured; a few notable features:

  • Two carry handles, nicely padded – one on the long side, one on the top
  • Curved, air mesh-lined backpack straps are hidden in a zippered pocket on the back of the bag; they’re fully adjustable and when both are used, the load is quite comfortable. When I used one, the bag would slide to the side quite a bit and tended to want to slip off my shoulder. Use both
  • The outside wall of the compartment that those straps store in is padded for maximum comfort when you use the bag in the backpack configuration
  • The main compartment has tie-down straps to keep your clothing from shifting about
  • Compression straps on the outside of the bag help keep the load compact and close to your back
  • The mesh bottle holder on one side is rather large, with a toggle cinch to keep your bottle secure
  • Although not mentioned anywhere on the Steves site, there’s a document pouch which clips to a loop inside the main compartment. Inside the pouch were 2 cinch-up mesh bags for storing small items
  • There are 3 zippered compartments on the outside – a shallow one perfect for your TSA liquids bag, a deeper one for excess clothing, magazines, and the like, and a large pocket that’d be capable of holding a padfolio, folders, or even a laptop (if you can tolerate the weight)
  • The zipper on the main compartment is 3 sided, making packing that compartment easy. That particular zipper is protected by a storm flap
  • If you were using the bag in the suitcase mode (carrying with one of the handles, vs. using the backpack straps) you could put a magazine or two in the backpack strap compartment
  • Finally, a very basic point – the bag measures 9″ x 14″ x 21″, meaning that it meets almost all carry-on size requirements
  • There is, by the way, no provision for a shoulder strap. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. Get a quality strap like the Tom Bihn TerraGrip, clip it to the compression straps on the long side of the bag, and it’ll work just fine. I tried it with the “Claw” strap from my Air Boss and it worked – the Claw is the same as the Terra Grip but with more robust hardware (Red Oxx sells this version as a stand alone item, if you’re interested.)

A few quick photos before some final thoughts; an overall view of the bag:



The shoulder straps deployed:

The quite large mesh bottle holder; you can see the toggle-tight cinch:

The document pouch and mesh bags which aren’t mentioned on the Steves website:

Final Thoughts

This is a lot of bag for the money. It is fully featured but yet very lightweight. Although I think it’d suffer if you were traveling week in and week out, 30-40 weeks a year, it represents a excellent compromise between construction quality, features, and price. I think the bag is perfectly suited to the occasional traveler or student. If you’re a road warrior who’s on the go a lot, I’d look more toward the Air Boss, which lacks a few of the frills of the Steves Classic but which is virtually indestructible.

An interesting point: for what it’s worth, the Steves website somehow makes the bag look cheaper than it is in person; perhaps it’s the color bag they chose to feature. In person, no one’s going to mistake this for a $200+ bag, but it won’t be an embarrassment, either.

Bottom line: if you travel occasionally and want to go the “one bag” route, this is an excellent alternative. Visit the Rick Steves website listing for this product by CLICKING HERE.

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8 Comments on Review: Rick Steves Classic Back Door bag – full featured, lightweight “one bag” option

  1. Michael W. says:

    I just wrote a review on the Rick Steves Alpenzall traveler’s daypack on the Steves site (this bag is like a shrunken down version of the Classic you just reviewed).

    I know just how much time it took for me to edit and re-edit my tiny review over there (a lot of time!).

    So I don’t see how you can possibly crank out the superbly written articles on this website day after day AND have a day job! I don’t know if the casual reader who stumbles across this blog realizes you “do it all yourself” and how hard that is! Major props for a blog review/article worthy of a Conde Nast travel magazine!

    Your point about the bag looking better in person than on the website hits the mark – I think Kiva, the manufacturer, is really pushing Rick to sell the more expensive Convertible which has a useless “expansion” feature (useless because then it has to travel as checked luggage). The profit margins on this bag must be squeezed to the bone, and Steves must insist they make this one because it adheres most closely to his travel philosophy. In that respect, it’s good to see an entrepreneur stay close to his roots (cheap travel, although Steves has plenty of dough now and doesn’t need to pinch pennies any more).

    I have a RedOxx Gator on order. I am planning on using the Steves Alpenzall and Gator as cabin luggage on my next SE Asia trip – I’m just going to bit the bullet and pack my jiu jitsu gi (uniform) in checked luggage, and carry a spare change of clothing, bathroom stuff, mouthpieces and protective gear (all the stuff I wouldn’t want to be separated from) in my carryon bags.

    “One bag” is admittedly the way to go for extensive in-country training and busing through Europe and Asia, or if, like you, the traveler is a frequent business traveler on a tight schedule trying to squeeze as much “dead time” out of the system as possible (and can’t afford to ever have lost luggage). But for me, honestly, after a 20 hour flight to Thailand, waiting 15 minutes for my bag at the carousel isn’t such a big deal, and since I’m just staying one location in country, lost luggage shouldn’t be a complete disaster.

    You implied that RedOxx is expensive gear. In absolute terms it may be, but I think they deliver great value for the money. If you go to a travel store and look at the medium to high end luggage pieces there, suddenly RedOxx looks like a relative bargain.

    I suspect the main difference between the RedOxx carryon and the Steves is that you can probably carry both forever if you are packing clothing and carrying it on, the RedOxx has the edge if you have to carry sharp-edged three ring binders, and the Steves simply isn’t designed for more than occasional, emergency “check-through.” As an owner of one, I don’t think the Classic is robust enough to use regularly as checked luggage (although it is plenty robust for “back dooring” it through Europe, it’s intended purpose). In short, the Steves bag is probably aimed at budget student travelers who aren’t lugging laptops (although that could be changing) or heavy binders. The RedOxx is designed for…well you can finish that better than me, I’m just getting my toes wet in the RedOxx line.

    [Reply]

  2. Kevin says:

    Michael –

    Thanks for your kind comments – I really appreciate it. I work on the blog at night, usually spending from 6 until about 10 working on it, at times to my wife’s dismay… but she remains very supportive. Ethically, I just can’t work on the blog – in any fashion – at work. I’ll check stats perhaps once a day, and might approve a comment, but that’s it. So it’s nights and weekends, but it’s fun, and a real challenge – some posts take hours and hours – and rewarding when readers comment and say something encouraging… so, thank you.

    Your comments on the Classic are spot on. I can’t imagine checking that bag often if ever – I don’t think it’d hold up well at all. But stowed on board, used by a student or someone who doesn’t travel a lot but wants to go the one bag route – I think it’s absolutely fine and in fact a very solid value.

    And I agree totally about Red Oxx. If I implied their products are expensive without mentioning value, my bad. I’m in love with their stuff. And frankly – the Air Boss is the kind of bag other travelers notice in the airport… it’s got quality written all over it. Occasionally someone will ask me about it, wondering who makes it, where I got it, and so forth.

    In any event, thanks again for your kind comments and your support of Practical Hacks.

    Kevin

    [Reply]

  3. Dave Zollner says:

    I purchased two of the travel bags last fall. My wife and I used them exclusively for a three week trip to the UK, Scotland and Ireland. They worked great and we basically used Rick’s packing list. My glitch was that one side of the double zipper failed. The main zipper has double zipper slides so I was able to use the second one to get home. Then, the other side failed. Now I am trying to get some resolution to to busted bag through RS customer service folks. They sent me to the manufacturer who sent me back to RS. I called RS customer service and they were supposed to get back to me. Nothing has happened and it is now six weeks later. I am sending off another email. So far I am not impressed with the customer service. I like the bag and understand that sometimes stuff fails but supporting the product is key to a good product.
    dz

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Dave,

    Thanks for sharing. Surprised you’ve had this much trouble; let us know if you’re able to resolve it. FWIW, I emailed Steves about a PR sample and they never responded. Good luck!

    [Reply]

  4. Michael W. says:

    Full circle:

    After owning a Steves Classic, setting it aside to use the Appenzell, upsizing to a Patagonia MLC and Outdoor Products Carryon Essentials (OPEC), and acquiring the latest GoLite TraveLite – I’ve returned to the Steves Classic.

    WHY?!!??

    1. Lightweight. 2 pounds.

    2. Largest volume. 44 linear inches. Truly maximum legal carryon size as measured by the most liberal published US standards (may need to be compressed, using the built-in compression straps, for other regions).

    3. Exterior compression straps to manage the large volume. The straps connect BELOW the area that the exterior panels need for their storage, so you can compress your main compartment load without trashing the usability of exterior compartments. DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE IMPORTANCE AND UTILITY OF COMPRESSION STRAPS. They let this bag serve for small, medium, and large packing duties without inviting clothing to shift around, which would otherwise happen in a lightly packed bag.

    3. Cheap (but excellent!) matching packing cubes – Rick Steves’ own packing cube set will exactly fill the bottom half of the main compartment. (Order these separately). To get cubes in exact sizes for any other luggage, it’s off to Tom Bihn at MUCH higher prices.

    4. Included o-ring document/small items pouch in the main compartment. Extra on the Bihns. Included “dirty laundry” lightweight mesh pouches.

    5. Foam pad on back is perfect – not too thick, comfortable on the back, but stiff enough to give this otherwise unpadded bag the structure it needs. (This is something sorely lacking on the OPEC.)

    6. The full-height slot on the front panel is perfect for stowing a jacket – even a fat one. It DOES have panels vertically to give it some “natural” depth – it- doesn’t have to “rob” from the interior.

    7. One gusseted “why did I buy that paperback” lower compartment; one non-gusseted odds-and-ends pouch.

    8. 3/4 height shoe panel in main compartment.

    9. Interior tie-down straps.

    While the exterior compartments won’t substitute for a personal bag – there is no pen or key holder, no netbook compartment – the fact that the exterior compartments can swallow up a scarf or cap, gloves and other items means the personal bag can be smaller.

    Full circle. I’m thinking the Classic and the Gator (ok, maybe a Patagonia Lightwire Brief) for my trip in January.

    BTW, this particular lighting bulb – how valuable the compression straps are! – didn’t go on until I gave away my black Classic. I had to order another one, in Slate, and in that color it looks MUCH classier than in black – a rare time when black isn’t the color of choice.

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  5. Bob Adams says:

    Hi Michael,

    I agree with what you say regarding compression straps, but I think the way Steves has implemented them is wrong.

    Why didnt they extend them to just above the main compartments zipper?

    Packing this bag and then compressing the pack via the straps, as they currently are, just adds to the strain on the zipper whereas if they where above the zip line they could compress without the fear of busting the zip.

    The ebags weekender implements the compression straps correctly imho.

    do you agree or am I missing something here?

    cheers Bob

    [Reply]

  6. SoCalGal says:

    I just saw this review while googling for Rick Steves classic bag. I have 2 sons. One is a sea captain living in San Francisco but working in Brazil. The other is an engineer working in Germany but traveling and playing everywhere. I first gave them RS classic bags when they were 15 and 17 for a European trip over 15 years ago. They STILL have them! And they refuse to give them up. I have offered to buy them new ones, at least. But those bags hang in there year after year. I think there are some loose seams, broken clips, and sticky zippers but the boys just love the sheer utility of these bags. Rick Steves is a true traveler and his designs show it. I have, meanwhile ‘upgraded’ to a Tom Bihn TriStar, which I hated. Packed, it was just one big ball with limited space, although the workmanship was very good. Finally, I found what I wanted in the ebags weekender. Nice organization, but not so much that you are forced to pack their way. Bright orange interior to always see everything, even in less than bright hotel corners and lightweight. I also appreciated the nice colors and “nearly” free pricing with sales and coupons. That luggage has proven itself to be a real value. However, the boys still won’t part with their 15 year old RS bags. Thank you for letting me chime in.

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Thanks for your comment!

    [Reply]

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