RATING: 5 stars, a One Bag, One World top pick.
A suitcase is a simple thing. It’s a hard- or soft-sided container to hold clothing and necessities for a traveler. Oh, and the travel part means this container must be portable; it must be easily moved by a human from one place to the next. Those are the basic requirements. True innovation in so simple a thing is rare, and might indeed seem impossible. Tom Bihn has done the impossible, designing a truly different piece of luggage that adapts to the varied needs of demanding modern travelers. Meet the Aeronaut.
The Aeronaut is a maximum carryon-sized (Tom Bihn Large Packing Cube so that clothing will stay tightly folded and in place. The cubes are custom designed just for the Aeronaut. Two of the 13.5” x 13.5” x 4.25” mesh and ripstop nylon zippered cubes will fill the main compartment, but you can still fit some thin or small items between, under, or next to the cubes. Any traveler will carry enough clothing to fill one cube, most will prefer two. The 13.5” x 13.5 main compartment necessitates a slightly different, squarer folding style. Traditional bags often have compartments up to 21 inches wide which more naturally accommodate folded pants and shirts or jackets. Be advised: If your clothes are quite large (46 mens/XXL and up) you may have a little trouble with this narrower compartment.three-compartment bag, but it’s divided in a different way, with a large central compartment (about 13.5” x 13.5” x 8.5) and two end pockets (each about 13.5” x 8” x 3.5”). This design has several benefits and a couple of minor drawbacks when compared with more traditional bags. The central compartment is where your folded clothing will go. It lacks hold-down straps so the Aeronaut user is strongly advised to pick up at least one
I’m quite sure there’s a “square” way to fold clothing (to fit the cubes) that will minimize wrinkles nearly as well as the more rectangular bundle approach - I just haven’t mastered it yet. If you’re a leisure traveler with less exacting needs for crisp-looking clothes, the cubes are a dream. And if you’re a roller, there are smaller cubes which fit side by side – four fill the compartment. The main compartment is accessed with an 11” x 11” hatch which zips on three sides (more on its curved corners below). It is plenty big enough to accommodate the large cubes and has a zippered compartment for small items on the inside of the flap.
The end pockets are where everything else goes. Importantly, an end pocket can hold a pair of shoes – something many bags have difficulty coping with. Tom Bihn says an end pocket will hold up to size 12 running shoes. My fairly stiff size 10 casual/dress shoes were a little bit of a tight fit, but most athletic shoes would probably fit fine. Just don’t try size 14 high tops. The end pockets may also be used for toiletries, a hair dryer or steamer, smaller clothing items like socks or underwear, dirty clothes, or personal electronics. The end pockets zip only across the top and down one side. This makes them a little tight but helps the bag hold its shape. One end pocket has a zippered slash pocket for holding boarding passes, travel documents or small guidebooks. There probably should be one of these on each end, instead of just one. The end pocket packing cubes fill the entire pocket. They’re nice since they allow you to neatly and quickly unload the entire pocket at once and get at the contents out in the open.
The Aeronaut is not designed specifcally to carry a notebook computer, but many models will fit in the main compartment, though they’d need an appropriate sleeve. Obviously, most users will use a separate case for a computer.
Here’s one suggested interior improvement: the material lining the bag should be lighter or more brightly colored to make it easer to see what’s dwelling in the deep recesses of the bag.
Two ways to convey
The Aeronaut, with the addition of the $25 Absolute Strap is wonderful shoulder bag. It rides comfortably and holds its shape very well with no tendency to bulge. It rides comfortable on the hip and the semi-stiff back of the bag keeps it from hugging your body too much, which can make for awkward carrying in too soft a bag. The compartment layout essentially constitutes a series of vertical ribs and the use of curves in the design adds additional stiffening - think Roman arch. The Aeronaut holds its shape well - full or half full - and looks smaller than it actually is. You can carry the bag by and by means of a handle that snaps around the short double straps, of course, but the two most important built-in straps are the clever low-profile pull straps on each end. They make grabbing the bag when it’s stowed a breeze – a very nice touch. If you don’t want a bag on your shoulder, never fear: the Aeronaut has nice set of padded, hideaway backpack straps which are accessed by unzipping the flat compartment on the back of the bag. It’s hard to guess they’re there when stowed; even the rings the straps clip to hide away in little slits in the side seams. Another evidence of Tom Bihn’s thoughtful design is that the Aeronaut also comes in a version (known as the Breve) for users under 5”8”. The Breve has a different backpack strap placement which makes for better fit for the small-framed. I found the Aeronaut to be moderately comfortable in backpack mode. The Tom Bihn site notes that the Aeronaut is not designed for all day backpacking comfort, and I wouldn’t recommend it for extended use on the back. But it is reasonably comfortable for short airport-to-train treks or as a change of pace from shoulder carrying.
A real construct
The Aeronaut is handmade at Tom Bihn’s Seattle factory. What difference does that make? I’m guessing a lot. When the owner/designer pays his workers a living wage, can walk through the factory and call his employees by name, can inspect the materials as they come in and the products as they go out - that has to make a huge difference in quality. And quality of construction and material is evident when you handle the Aeronaut. The primary material is ballistic nylon which is reputedly stronger than Cordura of the same weight. It is definitely a little stiffer than Cordura – not as supple but it inspires confidence. The ballistic material may be one of the reasons that the bag holds its shape and “hangs” so well. The seaming and integration of different materials and segments of the bag are also impressive. The zippers are # 10 YKK Uretek “splash-proof” type. I had reservations about them at first: the gasketing that the zipper runs in struck me as a liable to bind but I was wrong. They show no such tendency. I’ve heard of some testers subjecting the Aeronaut to several minutes in a bathroom shower with pleasantly dry results. I didn’t try it, but I buy the fact that it is highly water resistant.
My trial run with the Aeronaut consisted of packing it to the gills with a little more than my normal list of clothing and accessories. I ended up with an 18-20 pound load which included a pair of dress/casual shoes, a variety of pants, shirts, and underclothes, rain jacket, guide book, toiletries (3-1-1 baggie), hair dryer, hangers and laundry accessories, camera and charger. My normal packed weight with this type of bag is 12-15 pounds. The Aeronaut, with the aid of four packing cubes handled the load very well. My only complaints regarding accommodation are that it will not handle a large-size road atlas (flat material – up to about standard magazine size – must share space with the backpack straps in the back compartment) and the central compartment is a little narrow for traditionally folded clothing (as mentioned above). Design is an exercise in compromise, and the three-compartment layout and stowable backpack straps mean that a large, flat pocket for papers, easily accessed when the bag is carried on the shoulder, is impossible. But the end pockets are very useful, especially for shoes which fit so awkwardly in to many bags. I try not to carry extra shoes, but I love the idea of using the end pockets for dirty clothes or, say, nothing but underclothing. The use of cubes is highly advisable. They make packing and unpacking a breeze and make the bag much more functional.
Tom Bihn has been designing and building bags for over 20 years. One of the things he has apparently learned is that his customers can be an important part of the design process. The design of the Aeronaut was an interactive affair, with customers and user providing ideas and feedback on the bag’s design through Tom Bihn web forum. This process may help explain its innovative design. The Aeronaut is part of a family of cool, well-designed products, and many Tom Bihn customers pair the Aeronaut with one of the company’s briefcases, messenger bags, or backpacks for a complete travel kit with uniform feel and look.
What does it cost?
The Aeronaut’s $175 price tag seems to put it on the low end of the premium carry-on bag market, but it’s going to cost you more than $175. Why? Because it would be a shame to buy this bag without an Absolute Strap (already reviewed here) and at least two or three cubes. That will make your total price about $230-$250, which is more in line with the other USA-made bags. Is it worth it? I should say so. This is a great bag, which almost cries out “Let’s go!” Travel is a hassle these days. A bag like the Aeronaut which makes the road (and the sky) a happier place is almost priceless.
Who it’s for?
If you need to travel with a neatly folded extra suit, then the Aeronaut is not for you. But for many business travelers and most leisure travelers, the Aeronaut is a stylish, simple, and functional option. The various cubes and compartments mean the Aeronaut can adapt to different types of trips and different seasons. Obviously, it has no wheels so you’re going to carry it - on your shoulder or your back. If high mobility light travel is your style, the Aeronaut may be the bag for you.
Tidbits - The Aeronaut weighs under three pounds but the necessary addition of the Absolute Strap and a couple of packing cubes puts it closer to four pounds. The packing cubes exhibit the same quality construction as the Aeronaut. The bag is available in a fairly limited array of colors: red, green, gray, and black - the grape (purple/blue) material being unavailable for the time being. One of the end slash pocket has a nifty clip for keys.