As the new travel year gets into gear, here's a pick of top fundamentals for those on the go. We've tested a variety of versions of five "must-have" products, and come up with some winners. Herewith, our choice for the best luggage wheels, the most comfortable neck pillow, a perfect carry-on shoulder bag, a great travel kit and an ideal little padlock for securing zippered compartments (prices do not including shipping and handling):
Most travelers have a love-hate relationship with luggage wheels. They're a hassle to schlep around or to stuff into airplane storage areas, and can be difficult to open and dismantle--invariably when you're in a hurry. On the other hand, they're a blessing on those long airport corridors and can save big bucks on accumulated bellhop tips. The perfect luggage cart--sturdy, able to withstand heavy loads and pint-size when collapsed--has yet to be invented.
But the Kart-a-Bag, which the family-run Remin Co. has been fine-tuning for 27 years, grades out as the very best of a burgeoning lot. These wheels are certainly not cheap, costing upward of $75, when the least-expensive wheels on the market can be had for under $20. But if you're a frequent traveler, you'll find the Kart-a-Bag well worth the higher price.
Foremost of its attributes is its assembly and disassembly. The wheels' telescoping handle opens up via a squeeze mechanism, about one-third of the way up from the base. To extend, you squeeze a double bar across the width, while pulling up on the top section of the handle. When fully extended, the curtain-rod-like aluminum parts lock in place. The same squeeze motion is used to collapse the handle. The base folds upward and is held in place by elastic cords.
The Kart-a-Bag comes in a dozen sizes and weights. Balancing sturdiness and compactness, my top choice is the Concorde III, a 7 1/2-pound model that accommodates a 175-pound load and collapses down to 18 3/4 inches high by 13 inches wide by 4 3/4 inches deep.
\o7 Remin Kart-a-Bag Concorde III is about $90 at luggage stores or from the manufacturer; (800) 423-9328. The Concorde II (about $80) has smaller wheels and lacks the Concorde III's steel stair-curb slides\f7 . During 34 hours of continuous flying recently, I sampled a slew of travel pillows designed to make snoozing on plane, train or car rides easier on the neck and shoulders. Some were fleece-covered, one had a snazzy tartan print, another plumped up with a hand pump. The simplest of the bunch--one I had actually been using for years--won, well, head down.
The Original Neckrest by Lewis N. Clark, a Chicago travel accessories supplier, is an ultra-lightweight inflatable pillow that fits easily around the neck, providing support on three sides. The plastic is covered with a suede-like material for a soft feel, and the neck rest comes with a storage pouch.
\o7 The Original Neckrest by Lewis N. Clark (item No. IF391) is $6.85, or two for $12, from Magellan's; (800) 962-4943. Or, for a store in your area, contact L.C. Industries; (800) 621-8083. \f7 Over the years, I've tried dozens of carry-on shoulder bags that provided varying amounts and allotments of space. Each had its pluses and minuses--this one was too bulky, that one had flimsy zippers. But now I've found my perfect bag. Land's End has introduced its Under-Seat Shoulder Bag with an amazing amount of space, yet which fits under most airplane seats and in overhead storage bins.
Made of heavy-duty cotton canvas with extra strong zippers and leather supports at stress points, the bag has six zippered sections, ranging from a huge 15- by 10- by 11-inch main compartment that unzips on the top of the bag for easy access, to a slim outside pocket ideal for a book, airline tickets and other documents. Two cargo sections flanking the main compartment are each big enough for a pair of men's shoes and a change of socks, or about 50 rolls of boxed film. A large compartment at the front of the bag easily accommodates my full-size camera, three lenses and a flash. That leaves a zippered pocket on the back of the bag empty for last-minute stashes.
The zippers all have pulls at each end with large metal rings, so each compartment can be secured with a padlock (not included). One of the end pockets also has an inside key ring. The bag comes with double canvas handles with leather padding, a detachable shoulder strap and a leather luggage tag.
\o7 Under-Seat Shoulder Bag (item No. 2072-7236) is $94 from Land's End; (800) 356-4444. Available in black, navy, burgundy, tan, hunter green or dark olive. Optional monogramming is an additional $5. \f7 There's something enticing about a well-stocked travel kit. It's ready to go anywhere and solve all manner of problems--from dirty hair to a sore throat, an unraveled seam or a stubbed toe. This kit from Outdoor Research is so well-equipped, it's likely to gain fans even among the most fiercely independent packers.