Damn The Spinner Bag!

November 19, 2018

NOW THAT SELFIE-STICK MANIA has petered out, it was only a matter of time, maybe, before some other travel trend filled the annoyance void.

I’m talking about the proliferation of four-wheeled roll-aboard bags. Not the traditional, two-wheeled bag, which the traveler tows behind. These have been around for years and we’ve gotten used to them. Sure, they’re hogs of the overhead bins, but it’s hard to argue the merits of the bags themselves: useful, unobtrusive, pedestrian-friendly. But now, over the past year or two, we’ve seen the massive spread of the four-wheeled version.

They are sometimes called “spinner” bags, as they can move easily in all directions, and the problem is the way that too many travelers use them, holding them well off to one side, sometimes at arm’s length. Every person walking like this now takes up the lateral space of two people. Airport corridors are crowded and sometimes very narrow. Add thousands of passengers into such congested spaces, each hauling their little outstretched sidecar, and you’ve created the worst kind of obstacle course.

Yes, the two-wheeled bag is towed somewhat offset, not directly behind you. But it basically follows in your shadow, and the footprint difference acts across the flow of traffic. The other day I was at terminal 4 at Kennedy Airport, which has very little pedestrian space as it is, and here came two people walking side by side, a cell phone in one hand and a spinner in the other, at full arm’s length. Add a bit of a safety margin on each end, and that was two people taking up, probably, thirteen feet of real estate in a corridor barely that wide — a human wall, basically.

The next time you’re at the airport, watch for a while. Notice what a high percentage of spinner users hold their bags way, way out there. When a person is walking like this, opposite-direction passengers are forced to maneuver around, sometimes by a wide distance. Tow-behind luggage doesn’t restrict flow this way.

I’m not sure why this had to happen. The basis behind the spinner’s design, and its subsequent popularity, I think, is that they’re easier to roll and maneuver. But if anything, they’re too easy. I received one from the Travelpro company last year as part of a promotion, and used it for a few weeks. Not only did I feel that I was in everyone’s way, but the bag was so nimble, and rolled so smoothly, that it was difficult to control, constantly veering and pulling. I felt like a little kid trying to walk an agitated pit bull.

And unlike the traditional roll-aboard, which rests upright on a plate when you’re not walking, the four-wheeled bag just keeps on rolling. If you’re on any kind of incline, or you give it the slightest nudge, you’d better be ready. I lost count of the times I reached for the handle only to find it wasn’t there — the bag having wandered ten feet away on its own.

And not for nothing, you’ve now got twice as many wheels and their associated hardware. And because they spin, they’re mounted on exposed struts rather than inset. That’s more moving parts; more things to break.

And a thirty-pound suitcase moving at four or five miles per hour generates a significant amount of momentum. I’m surprised more people aren’t flattened by these things, particularly considering how many travelers simply aren’t paying attention, yammering on their phones as they sweep down the concourse.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, the ways in which we — and our gadgets — conspire to annoy the hell out of each other?

Spinners are everywhere, and they aren’t going away. If you insist on using one, try to be considerate. Keep it close, elbow in, and make room for your fellow passengers.


Meanwhile, I wish that airline workers would stop referring to roll-aboard bags, regardless of how many wheels they have, as “roller boards.” I’ve been hearing this sloppy mispronunciation more and more. most often from flight attendants: “Ladies and gentlemen, please place your roller boards into the bins handle-first.”

My what? We picture a surf board with wheels. What you mean is ROLL-ABOARD.

Pilots, by the way, long resisted wheeled luggage on principle. The thinking was that rolling your belongings was, like, too effeminate for the macho pilot (take me for example). And so pilots would hand-haul their 40-odd pounds of clothes and flight gear through the airport, toning their tough-guy biceps and making many a chiropractor happy.

Not that you asked, but I typically go to work with two carry-ons:

The first is a roller board from Luggage Works (with two wheels, needless to say). At the moment I use the 22-inch LW with the metal frame. My gripe with LW bags is their very high empty weight. To make mine lighter I’ve retrofitted the stainless steel handle with an aluminum one. Over 95 percent of LW users are airline crewmembers, but anybody can order one. They’re attractive and durable. And expensive.

Many crewmembers use Travelpro bags instead (I’ve owned a couple over the years), but that brand is more popular with flight attendants than with pilots.

My smaller bag, hung from my roller board using a hook that I engineered myself, is an offensively overpriced Tumi briefcase that I bought about five years ago and quickly learned to hate, with its useless, miniature exterior pockets that I can barely squeeze my fingers into.

I have several patches and stickers on my roller board. My favorite is this one:

Joe Strummer

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The Things We Carry

THE SCOURGES of modern-day air travel. I can think of a few: TSA, delayed flights, garbage in your seat pocket. Screaming kids and misdirected luggage. “CNN Airport News.”

Or, how about the blizzard of cardboard placards that hotel chains insist on littering their rooms with? I spend a quarter of my life in hotel rooms, and I resent having to spend the first five minutes of every stay gathering up an armful of this diabolical detritus and heaving it into a corner where it belongs. Attention innkeepers: this is fundamentally bad business. One’s first moments in a hotel room should be relaxing. The room itself should impart a feeling of welcome; it shouldn’t put you to work.

And here’s another one: the ever-expanding collection of electronic cords, adapters, chargers and other gadgets I’m obliged to haul around with me. You know what I’m talking about. Anybody who travels regularly knows what I’m talking about — an assortment of technological tackle that seems always be getting larger and more cumbersome. It keeps us “connected.” It makes our lives easier and more productive.

That’s what they tell us, anyway.  We’re increasingly at the mercy of commercial products, both tangible and virtual, and taught to behave as if we truly need them.

Don’t get me wrong. Riding the subway out to Logan, I love being able to pop in my earbuds and catch a few cuts from the Wedding Present or the Jazz Butcher. And my MacBook Air is as essential for travel as a change of socks. But there is, or was, something to be said for that unplugged, disconnected age of not-so-long-ago. If nothing else, our carry-ons were lighter, with more room for clothes.

The photo below shows the assortment of electronic gadget and gizmos I take with me pretty much every time I hit the road, be it for work or pleasure. As recently as a decade ago I owned none of this. I didn’t even have a cell phone until 2006.

Clockwise-ish, from upper right:

— My camera. It’s a Nikon 1, now that I’ve retired my Panasonic DMC-LX3 — a decent point-and-shoot with a Leica lens and super-long battery life. The Nikon takes better photos but it’s heavier and the battery doesn’t last nearly as long, meaning I sometimes have to bring along a charger as well (not shown). The camera comes with me on all of my vacations and half or so of my work assignments.

— Power adapter for laptop.

— Ethernet cord. Useful in those (too many) hotels where Wi-Fi is weak and a wired connection runs more robustly. Hotel-supplied ethernet cords are often broken.

— USB-to-ethernet adapter (see above).

— iPhone 4. (Product unplug: Am I the only person who despises — and I mean really despises — the iPhone’s messaging keypad? Because the special function keys — caps, space bar, backspace and return — are so close to the normal character keys, I’m constantly capitalizing, spacing and backspacing when I don’t mean to. This happens in either the vertical or horizontal layout, and it’s especially annoying for those of us with fat fingers. It takes me five attempts to complete the simplest sentence.)

— USB charger for iPhone. Includes a USB-to-AC connector (optional, but a good thing to have).

— Earbuds. It’s a Klipsch set.

— 32GB flash drive. For my backup files and for transferring to and from my master computer at home.

— AC adapter set. Essential when traveling overseas.

— And in the middle of it all, my beloved MacBook Air.

All together, we’re looking at roughly five pounds of gadgetry that, for all intents and purposes, is mandatory carry-on. Sometimes it’s slightly less, other times slightly more. Not shown, for instance, is a spare battery or charger for the Nikon, or my Flip video camera. (Flip is what I used to record this footage in Egypt and Senegal.) )

Thus, the real must-have gadget is a decent case or container in which to consolidate all of this crap. For me, most of the more wiry components above fit nicely into an old business class amenities kit, which keeps them out of the way and avoids tangles. (How frustrating is it, meanwhile, that so many electronic devices require their own proprietary charging cord or adapter? Imagine if every lamp took a different kind of light bulb.)

As for the rest of my luggage… I’m something of a pro when it comes to short-notice, multi-climate packing. Here’s a tip: go with lightweight clothing. What a concept, I know, but I’m amazed by how many people travel with heavy cotton jeans — even to hot climates. I own a lot of fast-dry synthetics. They’re not stylish, but when have I ever been? On the other hand I can launder a pair of pants in the hotel bathtub and they’re dry before morning.


a version of this story orginally ran on the website Salon.


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