Pro Traveler Tips

For the past two decades I’ve amassed a lot of travel tips and techniques. For context, I travel a decent amount, but I’m not a business road warrior.

About half my travel is with the family, and the other half is for business. I fly about 25,000 - 50,000 miles a year (but in seat). As such it makes sense to be wise about maximizing value, time, etc

If you are short on time, here is the TL;DR (that’s too long didn’t read):

  1. Signup for Nexus or Global Entry ($50 - $100)
  2. Signup for Clear ($170)
  3. Get a Chase Sapphire Preferred or Amex Platinum Card ($450)
  4. Enroll in all the Hotel / Car programs that come with the card benefits
  5. Get noise cancelling headphones ($300)
  6. Get a 4 wheeled spinner bag ($300 - $850)
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Hard Sided Spinner Luggage - Victorinox Spectra 2.0

I bet you were asking yourself, Gee Omar, when are you going to write about luggage and suitcases? Hmm, well maybe you didn't. But anyway, we are now venturing into the world of bags and luggage, a favorite topic of mine. I'm a big fan of quality products (I'm guessing you know this). When I travel I like to be a ninja. Prepared for the horrors of what is now air travel, with the right equipment to guide my family and its belongings to any destination. Luggage is a critical factor in ensuring your stuff arrives, is under the 50lbs airline limit per bag, and is easy to maneuver.

In 2000 we saw the advent of "spinner" hard sided luggage. You'll recognize these bags as the plastic (polycarbonate) sometimes "shiny" bags that you see people pushing around at the airport (these bags are pretty popular with our friends across the Pacific Ocean).

The father of the polycarbonate bag is Rimowa, a german luxury luggage company. If money is no object, stop reading this post and just go get some Rimowa bags. But if $800 or more for a single bag sounds like a lot, keep reading.

In the quest for some new luggage to replace our 15 year old Tumi ballistic nylon bags (that weigh a lot with nothing in them) I looked at and evaluated a number of options. What I found was that the best value for the money (across features, quality, warranty, and convenience) were the Spectra 2.0 bags made by the Swiss company, Victorinox.

Also, the thing that really set me off to get these was our experience on a recent trip to Hawaii. We happened to land in what felt like a Monsoon. Our then nylon luggage was soaked when retrieved from baggage claim. Eeew.

What is it?

Victorinox Spectra 2.0 bags are "matte" polycarbonate spinners. That means they have 4 wheels which makes them rather effortless to push through the airport.

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They are ultra light, non glossy (so they don't get all scuffed up and ugly), and the "perfect size". What does that even mean? Well with the 29 inch bag, it's actually quite hard to exceed the 50lbs weight limit in the US. This is important. I'd personally rather travel with more bags that are manageable to push around and carry than "monster" bags that end up weighing more than I care to lift and manage.

The Spectra 29 Large Travel Case can be purchased at a number of retail stores for $379.00. I purchased one from Amazon and one from Zappos, for the same price. You can also find them in shopping malls that have a Victorinox store.

They come in many colors. We have black and red. The red looks more scuffed up for obvious reasons.

Why did you get it?

To summarize:

  • Wanted to consolidate to a single model of luggage for the whole family
  • Wanted spinners
  • Wanted light weight bag (the Spectra 29 is 8.8 lbs empty, giving you 41.2 lbs of luggage to store
  • Looking for great warranty with local stores to take bag too for service
  • Wanted polycarbonate bag without any bits of fabric or stuff to get ripped off by the airline
  • Easy to lift and carry to get up to our bedroom for packing and into the car to go to the airport.

How has it made your life better?

We've now traveled with these bags for a few thousand miles and to a few countries. Each time we've managed to fit all our clothing for a family of 4 into two bags. I suspect as the kids get older and they start managing their own luggage, we'll get 1-2 more of the smaller 26 inch models. But that's a few years off.

I like to think that the cost per bag, and the anticipated longevity of these bags (10 years or more) will be a solid investment.

I think my favorite thing with these bags though is how easy it is to push two of them through the airport and get in and out of elevators, escalators, cars, checkin and pickup. They are so easy to push and carry. If you need to you can also "drag" them along like a traditional wheel bag.

If you are thinking about new luggage, or perhaps it's a few years off. You should take a look at these bags (and feel free to compare to the cost/features of the  Rimowa/Tumi/Samsonite polycarbonate spinners). I find that the simplicity of these bags, coupled with the features and warranty are a great investment if you want to transition to hard sided spinners.

Are you going to keep it?

Well, we donated all our other luggage. So yes ;-).

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Trakdot - GSM location based luggage tracking

I recently returned from an overseas trip visiting Iceland and France. This involved a layover in Iceland for a few days and then a return connection on the way home (Iceland Air - which is pretty fantastic). Interesting tidbit is that Seattle to Iceland is about a 7 hour flight. That's 90 minutes longer then flying to New York. Anyway, most of you have probably experienced the "missing" or worse, "lost" bag on your trips. I was visiting my friend Jimmy a few weeks ago and he had a few of these "Trakdot" luggage tracking devices. I had seen similar devices before (on Kickstarter) but the Trakdot seemed like it his a nice sweet spot of cost and annual service ($20/year, first year free). So this post is about my experience with this device.

What is it?

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The Trackdot [Amazon - $69.95, Direct - $49.99] is a small black box that runs on two AA batteries for 48 hours. Included in my device, purchased from Amazon was 1 year of service. I don't know how much it is after that (I think $20/year) and I'm not sure it will matter (see more below). It contains a GSM SIM card allowing it to send text messages from anywhere in the world. The idea is that when ever the bag arrives at any airport, it wakes up and sends you a text message telling you where it is.

Trakdot also has an iOS and Android app that allows you to pair it via bluetooth and receive push notifications. I found the iOS app to be quite buggy. It never kept my signin info, I never got push notifications, and the Bluetooth feature is bizzare. I could not really understand how to get it to work. The idea is that if the bag is within 40 ft of your phone it will vibrate. This could be useful for example to detect of the bag is on your plane.

Why did you get it?

Well, I wanted to make sure my bags were on the plane I was on, that they made their connections etc. On the way home our 90 minute layover turned into a 30 minute layover, and it gave me piece of mind to know that when I landed at SeaTac my bag let me know it was there. Had I not received the SMS I could have immediately gone to the lost bag counter and possibly even told them where it was (maybe it went to the wrong city).

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So how did it work? Well it worked OK. I did receive an SMS before departing Seattle. However, I did not receive one upon landing in KEF airport in Iceland. I sent them a support request and didn't hear back till a few days later. And till now they don't appear to have a grip on why. When leaving KEF to CDG I did get an SMS (great, maybe there was a bug), but then when arriving in Paris at CDG I got my SMS message after retrieving my luggage from baggage claim (30 min later). So it worked, but not how I would expect.

On the return trip things fared a bit better. I did not get an SMS in KEF Iceland, despite the fact that we were on the ground for an hour.... but then I got an SMS immediately when arriving at SEA (within minutes of landing).

So, my guess is that this device works great in the United States, and is pretty spotty internationally. I am still waiting to hear back from them about this experience. Based on this alone, I could not recommend this product to anyone till these bugs are worked out.

How has it made your life better?

Well, primarily piece of mind. If this technology were more mature, and the cost were lower, I could see this being pretty standard in a few years. In fact, given that there is an opportunity for an annual service fee and a better customer relationship / insights, I could see all the big baggage companies offering this service themselves (Tumi, Rimowa, Briggs & Riley, Victorinox, and so on). In fact, this seems like a good upgrade to the Victorinox Swiss Army Bag tracker program.

However, this is still a pretty immature product category and given the issues that I experienced, they have a long way to go to stabilize the technology.

But for the price, I think it's a reasonable product and assuming the bugs get fixed, I could see owning these for all my luggage in the future.

Are you going to keep it?

Since I purchased this already (sunk cost), I plan to keep it. I wish they would move to a device that lasted longer (lithium disposable batteries, or rechargeable) as well as an iOS app that wasn't incomprehensible and SMS messages that were reliable.

Newsletter

If you are reading this post via Twitter or Facebook, I wanted to note that you can sign up for my weekly email newsletter. It contains all items posted here and is sent on Sundays. You can sign up by going to http://omarknows.com