What's the best luggage for rail travel?

Long distance rail adventurer Matthew Woodward puts various types of luggage to the test to decide which is the best for train travel

6 mins

There is, of course, no such thing as the perfect bag for train travel. Everything is a compromise. Over the last three years I have made a few good luggage choices and a couple of pretty bad ones. As a result I have been back to the drawing board twice and now think I have the ideal solution. 

Hopefully my experience can help you find the best solution for your own big rail trip.

Don't become a pack animal

For my first Trans-Mongolian journey I chose to carry a simple but strong duffle bag (90 litres) and an airline-style carry-on bag. Once I realised I needed to carry some food, I added another small duffle (42 litres) that could be stacked on top of my wheelie carry on bag.

I made two big mistakes. Firstly, I packed far too much stuff to carry alone and had to get occasional help from porters (Tip: in China if you pay a porter you get to jump the queue and board first). Secondly, having to wear it as a backpack proved physically very challenging and I even got stuck a few times in cramped carriage corridors. I know many overlanders swear by rucksacks, but I'm not convinced this is the best solution for rail travel.

Discover the joy of wheels

I put my duffle bags away and purchased one of the new generation of light, hard-sided cases with wheels. I must have spent a couple of hours in the shop trying them all out, and the sales assistant surely marked me down as a luggage fetishist. I ended up with a spinner-style case (81 litres) – 75x53x28 cm. 

I got used to arriving in much better shape than with the cargo bags the previous year. My shiny silver case looked enormous and there were times when it was difficult to stow away. The critical dimension is the height when it is on its side, and at 28cm it still slipped under my seat most of the time. But its size was at times a positive – I used it as a bedside table and even a seat on several occasions.

Less is more

For my third adventure I stuck with the hard-sided spinner, but instead of a day bag I used a fairly specialist, camera-style messenger bag. This became my mobile office and was very comfortable to carry with me at all times. I kept all my valuables in it too. It has a padded back, which meant it could also act as an extra pillow at night.

Consider going 'hybrid'

I'm off on another big trip later this year and once more I'm reconsidering what bag to take. I'm sold on wheels, but concerned that on a busy train my spinner bag is just too big to store. 

My latest solution is a wheeled bag that is made of durable but soft nylon that can be packed down. It only has 2 wheels, but that keeps the shell simple and means it can be packed almost flat if it has to squeeze in somewhere. 

I have chosen a large one (77x40x38 cm) and although it can hold 121 litres, it can be compressed with its integrated straps to the size of what you are actually carrying. I have added to this a very small backpack for things I need on the move, and ditched my wheeled carry on bag. I will once again be taking my trusty camera bag as my mobile office.

A final word on security...

Hard sided bags can often have a small advantage when it comes to security, but you really need to look for either integrated combination locks or zippers big enough to take a simple padlock. Some sort of point that you can lock your bag to the luggage rack with – using a wire or bicycle lock – might be an advantage too. 

At the end of the day, however, if someone is determined to get into a bag there is not much that will stop them. The best single piece of advice is to keep your luggage in your own compartment and always within sight.

Matthew Woodward has recently returned from his third Trans-Siberian rail adventure, now having covered over 50,000 km on the train from his home in Edinburgh, reaching Shanghai, Singapore and Tokyo. His blog can be found at Toad's Travel Adventures.

Image: Luggage (Shutterstock)

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