TOM BIHN WESTERN FLYER: Review summary – Unique, less-than-maximum-size two-compartment carry-on bag with built-in sling strap. Handmade in the USA. System design approach: packing cubes available, may be fitted with the highly-regarded Tom Bihn Brain Cell computer sleeve/bag. Versatile, may double as briefcase or everyday bag. High points: Perfect size for the ultra-light traveler or for anyone as an overnighter, adaptable to a variety of needs, low profile/high utility. Reserved good looks.
RATING: 4.5 stars, a One Bag, One World top pick.
I’m convinced that iconoclastic bag man Tom Bihn does things differently just because he can. And different is good in this case. The Western Flyer rises from the pack of bulging, cookie-cutter, maximum-legal-size carryons and heavy, over-padded, too-many-pockets laptop bags — and just sails away. Its compact profile means you can slice through the thickest crowds and navigate the narrowest aisles, then slot your bag in the slightest places. This is light travel.
The Western Flyer is really different so it needs a full introduction. The basic shape is that of a traditional rectangular suitcase, divided into two equally-sized zippered interior compartments. At 18” x 12” x 7” it is well below the maximum carryon size of any airline I know of (Even the tiny Embraer 145 regional jet’s overhead compartments swallow the Western Flyer, and it may fit under some airline seats). The TB website lists the weight at 2.53 pounds but my luggage scale read barely over two pounds – very light indeed.
Each interior compartment is about 3.5” deep zips around three sides. Though of the same depth, the interior compartments differ significantly. Here’s how: The rear compartment has buckles (on the center wall) that will attach many of Tom Bihn’s Brain Cell armored-yet-compact computer sleeves. And they’re not just sleeves; they may be carried by a shoulder strap as stand-alone cases, adding utility for the traveler. Using an unpadded bag like the Flyer with a well-padded, removable sleeve like the Brain Cell makes for a flexible, multi-purpose solution. (We tested the Brain Cell for the 15.4” MacBook Pro), The rear compartment has semi-rigid foam padding on the outside wall. This adds structure and cushions the back when the bag is carried sling style (more on that below). The opposite compartment has a lightweight zippered nylon panel that turns it into two compartments. You can’t open the compartment like a book with the nylon panel zipped but it does give you two nice vertical sections which you can use for a pair of shoes (but maybe not bulky hiking boots), hair care stuff or toiletries, or bulky clothing items like a sweater or raincoat. The only minor hitch I experienced with the Flyer involved this panel. I hurriedly tried to zip it and boogered it up - finally freed it. This is probably normal for lightweight zippers; they just take a little more care.
The bag holds its shape and stands up nicely. This was especially convenient in our tiny London hotel room. With the long top side unzipped I could work out of the bag (which was standing against a wall) without lying if flat on the bed and opening it up. This may sound insignificant, but if you’ve ever stayed in one of those micro rooms you’ll understand.
The bag’s three front exterior pockets seem to have been specially designed to meet the challenges of the 21st century airport experience. The open pocket with the scalloped opening is ideal for tucking boarding passes or guidebooks into. It has no closure so you must be careful of what you put in it if you are carrying the bag on your back or in crowds. The other two pockets are zippered. The smaller one is ideal for a phone, wallet, car keys, or small electronics that you want to keep handy. The larger pocket is perfect for a one-quart 3-1-1 liquid carry-on baggy. These pockets aren’t deep – so they can get tight – but that very tightness helps prevent bulging.
How does it pack?
The Flyer is incredibly versatile and I can imagine lots of uses for it, but let’s examine how it packs when used primarily as a suitcase. The two main compartments lack hold-down straps, but this is not as big a deal in a small case which will typically be tightly packed. Tom Bihn has introduced three zippered packing cubes just for the Flyer. There’s a full-size cube made of 200 denier nylon ripstop fabric and mesh which will fill an entire interior compartment, and two half-size cubes – one of fabric/mesh and one all-fabric. The half cubes are useful for holding shoes or extra clothing when the front compartment is divided by the zippered panel. I’ve found bundle packing techniques work about equally well at reducing wrinkles whether you use a bag with hold-downs or cubes. The Flyer is just large enough to use a slightly modified version of the best bundle packing method. If you wear XL-sized clothing the Flyer may not be large enough for bundle packing but for most of us some careful folding will result in reasonably presentable duds.
Carrying on regardless
There are three ways to carry the Western Flyer. There’s the old-school top handle which is nicely padded and easy on the hand. There are D-rings for attaching a shoulder strap. And I wouldn’t dream of purchasing a Flyer without the Tom Bihn Absolute Strap which is – hands down – the most comfortable shoulder strap available. The third way is the sling strap which folds and stows in a zippered compartment in the rear of the bag. The sling strap is an example of Tom Bihn’s non-traditional approach. Why the sling and why not backpack straps? Well, the sling is quick to attach and looks may have a slightly less scruffy, slightly more sophisticated look than a traditional backpack. The sling has another benefit: You can quickly pull the case around to the front of your body and access the front pockets – a nice benefit. Getting a traditional backpack off your shoulders can be a cumbersome operation. Also, the sling (which must go over the right shoulder) keeps your other shoulder available for a purse, briefcase, or computer bag. I’ve found that using a shoulder strap on top of a backpack strap is a pain. The sling solves this problem.
Is the sling strap comfortable? It depends on how heavily you’ve packed the bag. Under 15 pounds isn’t bad; over 15 pounds gets a little uncomfortable. The sling material is padded but still can cut into your collar bone or shoulder. Varying the length of the strap from time to time helps. It would be nice - but probably not cost-effective – to make the sling strap from the same stretchy material as the Absolute Strap.
NOTE - Something I didn’t originally notice is that, while the sling is meant to go over the right shoulder, it also works passably well as a shoulder strap on the left shoulder. This may help shift the burden if carrying a heavily-loaded bag. Just remember the sling isn’t tacky like the Absolute Strap, so it’s more likely to slip off when used on the left shoulder. In sling mode it can’t slip off - provided you stay upright!
I prefer the shoulder strap to the sling, but the sling is great for airplane boarding since it narrows your profile and makes that long shuffle back to economy easier. Again, I wouldn’t purchase it without the shoulder strap. Most travelers will use both methods – shoulder and sling – at one time or another. The sling strap folds and tucks neatly away in its own zipped pocket and the buckle on the bottom of the case disappears into a hidden fold. Another nifty point is an elastic pocket on the sling for a cell phone – nice touch.
Stealthy and speedy
The sling strap is part of what makes the Flyer so agile. The slim profile is another. To be honest, most soft-sided bags will bulge about two to three inches in width when fully packed. Since the Flyer starts at seven inches it bulges to more than nine. Maximum-size carryons often bulge to 11 or 12 inches. The bag’s 18” x 12” x 7” dimensions mean that, whether you carry on the hip or the back, the Flyer doesn’t add significantly to your width. This means less bumping and quicker transit. In London, the Flyer was a perfect for crowded Underground trains and escalators.
The slender Flyer looks more like a briefcase than a lumpy pack or suitcase. This means that if you arrive in a city before hotel check-in time and have a few hours to kill you can take your luggage with you for sightseeing or shopping without looking like a pack mule or a lost tourist.
How many uses might the Western Flyer have? That’s hard to say. It can be a primary one-bag solution for the ultra-light traveler, an overnighter for anyone, a highly-protective laptop bag with the addition of a Brain Cell, or a jump bag to keep packed with essentials for spur-of-the-moment, unexpected trips. Technicians might find it to be a good catch-all bag for tools, parts, and cables. Beauty queens might fill it with their coiffure kit. And some folks might make it an everyday briefcase or book bag.
The Flyer will hold enough clothes for a long trip for those who launder as they go. I found the Flyer to be fully adequate for a four-night trip to London in the dead of winter – which required bulkier clothing than I’d normally carry. The bottom line is this: If you often have much room to spare in your maximum-sized carryon the Flyer will probably work for you. Even if you often fill up a max-size bag, switching to a smaller bag may be just the thing you need to make you carry less. And you’re unlikely to regret carrying less.
I’ve resolved not to travel regularly with a laptop until I can get one in the three-pound range. Mating a slender Vaio or wispy MacBook Air with the Flyer would be an incredible combo that would allow you to travel with a computer and several days worth of clothing at under 15 pounds in one bag. That’s an enticing idea.
Tom Bihn’s handmade bags are neatly finished and don’t look overbuilt even though they are. Heavy, hidden, well-turned seams are the norm. The look is modern without being flashy, cool without being trendy or cheap. The USA-made 1050 ballistic nylon has a nice stiffness which helps the bag hold its shape, and it has high abrasion resistance. The zippers are a gasketed waterproof-type. While not as silky smooth as regular heavy-duty zippers they make the bag virtually rainproof. What would you expect from a bag that hails from Seattle? And an excellent warranty means the bag might last as long as you will.
The Western Flyer is available direct from the Tom Bihn factory store for $150. The $25 Absolute Strap is a must, and I guarantee you’ll use it on another bag when you’re not using the Flyer – it’s that good. A packing cube or two at about $15 each is also a good idea, so the total cost of a well-equipped Western Flyer is about $200. This isn’t cheap, but it may be a good investment for the serious traveler. It’s hard to put a price on the time and aggravation a well-chosen bag may save.
Did I mention?
- The WF is available in only three colors: crimson, steel (gray), and black.
- The zip-divided compartment is excellent for shoes (might not be adequate for a large pair of hiking boots though).
- With a Brain cell in the rear compartment, about half of that section’s capacity is lost.
However, there’s still plenty of room for computer stuff or printed material. You can also stow some flat stuff in the rear pocket that stows the sling strap.
- The front zippered pockets have o-rings for attaching TB’s key snaps and small pouches.
- The ends of the case sport low-profile padded handles that make it easy to retrieve the case from luggage compartments.