Background: Until recently, and for several years, I used an MEI Voyageur for all of my carry-on travel. I love the MEI's backpack harness and hip belt, but don't like that it's one compartment and has no real shaping (ergo, it flops around like a duffel bag). I decided to try the RedOxx SkyTrain and the Bihn Aeronaut to see whether one of them would be an overall better solution.
Impressions: At a high level, these bags are similar. Multi-compartment, backpack-optional, and in the same ballpark in terms of volume. They're VERY well-constructed, with many thoughtful design features and top-notch materials/stitching, and either should hold up for many years of traveling, if not a lifetime.
Testing: To test the two bags, I put together all the things I'd pack for a 2-week trip (which assumes having some capability to launder things at the destination). This worked out to just about 20 lbs of stuff, and doesn't include things I normally carry on my person, like electronic doodads and what goes in the "personal item". I also had a Bihn Absolute Strap which I used with both bags. I used bundle-packing with both bags, and also tried packing cubes with the Aeronaut.
Findings: Both bags were able to accommodate my 2-week trip stuff, with a little volume left over. The bags are similar weight-wise, and so each packed bag tipped the scale at just under 20 lbs. Because of the SkyTrain design, bundle packing was easier than with the Aeronaut (which critically lacks cinch straps and has a harder entry to negotiate with a large bundle). Because of the inherent nature of the Cordura used on the SkyTrain, it was more prone to bulge and sag than the Aeronaut (I didn't try packing the bags to the gills, though, which could have evened out the results). I also preferred the main carrying handle on the SkyTrain, which was more comfortable.
However, in the end, I chose the Aeronaut for a couple of important reasons. First, I found the backpack straps on the SkyTrain not to work as well as the Aeronauts. They were more uncomfortable with 20 lbs of weight, and they also were treated (like the shoulder pad on the Absolute Strap) with a tacky finish that made going to/from backpack mode very difficult, as the straps would "grab" onto my shirt/jacket fabric and not easily ease into/out of shoulder position. I also found the end-compartments on the Aeronaut to be more versatile than the full-length compartments on the SkyTrain, and the grab-handles on the ends well-designed for overhead bins and general carrying, and staying out of the way when not needed.
A couple of Aeronaut caveats: This bag is ideally packed using packing cubes. Unlike with bundle packing, however, cubes are more prone to cause wrinkling, so you need to prepare by choosing appropriate clothing, using tricks like folding with dry cleaner bags, or "unwrinkling" at your destination. The other caveat is that while this bag has a lot of useful volume, it may be a little too big for some uses. For instance, European airlines have pretty strict size/weight restrictions that a slightly smaller bag would make easier to meet. Word is that Bihn may be designing a more svelte version of the Aeronaut (and larger than their Western Flyer), which could solve this potential issue for some travelers (pending how it works in the real world).
Finally, you won't go far wrong with either bag, and which one will make your happier really depends on your own traveling style and needs. Business travelers who travel light and cannot tolerate wrinkling (and seldom/never carry the bag backpack-style) may prefer a SkyTrain or Air Boss, while casual/adventure travelers may prefer an Aeronaut.
As a fan of both Red Oxx and Tom Bihn I think it's great you try to compare these two products. I wonder if the SkyTrain and the Western Flyer might not be a more apples to apples comparison. But even then I think you are dealing with two different sizes and thus not a fair comparison. I think your summary statement is correct in that a major difference is the bundle method vs packing cubes and wrinkles may be the deciding factor for anyone.
I am not sure why Tom Bihn doesn't go right at the Air Boss market and make something like the Sky Train but larger. I like my Aeronaut but on my last trip I had to iron a few shirts out of the packing cubes because the wrinkles were just too horrible to ignore. It was then I started to think about the Air Boss and SkyTrain.
I also appreciate your notes on the backpack straps for the SkyTrain. I often look at the straps used by Red Oxx and wonder why they are so old school. I've asked them about it and they seem to think they're just fine with respect to comfort. I always assumed that if the old basic strap was just as comfortable as the new ergo design you see in most straps today that we would see everyone using that old design.
Matt M: The "competition" would have been much closer if Red Oxx had supplied the Sky Train with contoured backpack straps and left off the tacky surface, both of which significantly detracted from its utility. Likewise, if the Aeronaut had an option for internal, adjustable stay straps to keep bundle-wrapped cargo in place, it would give customers the choice they should have (IMHO). While the Aeronaut's "hatch" is not as easy for getting bundles into the pack as the Sky Train's wide-open "mouth", it can be done, but without stay straps bundle wrapping won't maintain its form (which in turn prevents wrinkling).
As I said, I suspected the comfort of the straps on the Sky Train was going to be an issue just based on looks alone and you seem to have confirmed that. I did email Red Oxx a while ago and asked them why they didn't go for the contoured straps and the reply was something along the lines that it wasn't really necessary or they didn't really provide any extra comfort. It's too bad really because I want to like the Sky Train but one reason I didn't go for the Air Boss was because I don't like the comfort issue of having a heavy bag on one shoulder. But I have to admit that while I will easily torture myself to great pain during exercise, I am a big wimp when it comes to carrying bags.
If Tom Bihn decides to keep his straps and go for a larger version of the Western Flyer (to match the Sky Train or Air Boss capacity), I think he'd have a good number of customers.
I recently purchased a SkyTrain, and I have to say I had no trouble with the backpack straps at all. I actually liked the "cushy" surface of them a lot, and didn't have any of the "rolling" that some people have reported.
I suspect that to contour the straps would add material, and therefore weight to the bag. I find that if I pack correctly (ie, keep the weight down) the SkyTrain's straps are perfectly fine.
Bumped to the top; Brad, will you still be reviewing the Sky Train? I'm in a quandary- Western Flyer or Sky Train (or the new Tumi bag you showed on the front page!); you are the High Priest of the One-bag Order, and your impressions are very valuable...
Thanks in advance,
Vic - I promise to try in the next two weeks - may lump it in with the backpack version of the Western Flyer.
Brad, that would be terrific, and spot on for the pieces I'm trying to decide between.
Thanks for the time you invest in these reviews- they are very much appreciated!
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@Matt M: I'm hoping that the Tom Bihn TriStar is exactly what the doctor ordered!
Brad, Thanks for posting the teaser of the Tristar- it looks very interesting! When will you be posting the comparison of the Western Flyer and Skytrain discussed in earlier posts?
As always, thanks in advance for the time you invest in these evaluations- your followers appreciate it!
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