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Big suitcase vs two small rolling "carry on" sized suitcases

We are going to New Zealand for almost four weeks this winter. We typically do carry on for flights to Europe, sometimes check for return. For New Zealand, I think I need an additional layer and will need hiking boots, poles, and an umbrella and rain pants, etc. No way can I get all my stuff in one rolling carry on.

I have a large suitcase (28 x 10). To me, it is REALLY large, and I only use it when I visit my kids and need to bring stuff to them. The big suitcase is old, but completely functional but weighs a lot, even empty. In terms of space, it is probably overkill, plus I can't lift it when full. Lifting it isn't a huge deal, because I will be with my husband, however I'm pretty independent and don't like looking like a pampered diva.

I thought of buying a medium sized suitcase, but I'm not sure it'd be used often. If I had 2 roll aboards, I could check one or both. (I get 2 free checked bags with Delta). Maybe I would put "essential" things like rain wear etc. on my carry on. We do connect thru LAX, but we have a 5 hour layover, so I'm feeling pretty good about my luggage making the second flight.

We have a few one night and two night stays, I'm thinking if our parking is secure, I could organize things so I would only need to bring in one suitcase into our lodging.

I'm curious what people's thoughts on this would be. Please don't tell me I should get all my stuff in one bag. I'm quite organized and an efficient packer, and its just not possible for this trip. There are things unique to this trip that require more space. For one, all prescription medications need to be in original containers.

Posted by
8367 posts

Hi, Jules. I really think that it will work either way. Nothing wrong with either choice. I’d ask yourself which seems easiest to manage to you and go with that choice.

Posted by
6788 posts

I think it's the "suitcase" word that throws me. A "suitcase" - big, box-like, awkward when full and heavy - no thanks. How about a rolling duffel bag? You check that bag, and the only times you need to lift ("carry") it are when transferring from one vehicle to another or to/from your hotel. You roll it most places. Not good for long-distance hiking across cobblestones, beach sand or jungle paths, but easy enough through airports, down hallways and along most pavement. Yeah, a bit of a slog on stairways. But sometimes you need stuff (like when going on a long trip that traverses all kinds of weather)

Planning to take TWO rolling carry-ons? Hmmm. Most airlines don't allow two of those (unless your flying business class).

Get a decent (medium-to-large) sized rolling duffel (Costco and Amazon have them, and they don't need to be expensive). Take that plus your rolling carry-on (which you can also check if you want). A smaller daypack-style personal item for time on the plane.

Yes, I try to pack light and I enjoy the freedom you have when traveling with carry-ons only, but I often (usually) check a bag for various reasons: I travel with SCUBA gear sometimes, and even when I don't, I typically have a bunch of camera/electronic gear which may take-up most or all of my carry-on allowance (or may exceed it).

If you need to check a bag, you need to check a bag. There's no shame in that (and there shouldn't be). Be smart about managing your stuff but if you have too much for a single carry-on (and many of us often do), feel no guilt about checking a bag (or two).

Posted by
16231 posts

Hi Jules—-as a small person, I would much prefer the two smaller bags over one large one. I recently traveled to visit the grandchildren with all the Christmas presents packed in my husband’s 28” “steamer trunk” as he calls it. Although it is a roller bag, it was really hard to manage (I was traveling by myself) It was bad enough just getting in into and out of the airport check-in and baggage carousel. I would not want to add shlepping it around, in and out of the car, to that.

Also, the 2 bags give you more flexibility—-including packing so that one could stay in the car at some locations. I did not even think about parking security on our New Zealand trip, but probably that is wise these days.

Did I already mention to you about cleaning your hiking boots so they are free of all soil and small stones? I just checked and that is still a requirement for NZ, as this blog (among others) confirms.

You must declare them, so keep them packed where they are easily removed for inspection. When we were there, they ran all incoming bags through a scanner, and we saw some people get caught (I imagine they were unaware of the requirements). I was really glad my husband and I were prepared for this. Now you will be too.

Posted by
5581 posts

@David, lots of great points. I would be carrying on either one 22” suitcase or checking them both. When I said carry on or roll aboard, I was referring to size, not that I would carry on 2. Between the two of us we are allowed to check 4 bags for free, but, we would do 3 at most.

I do really like the idea of carrying a small suitcase into my B&B/ inn as and leaving the other bag in the car as opposed to bringing a large bag in. That’s only if our car would be in a secure place.

@Lola, I’m smaller, as well. When I was in Seattle in October, I had the 28 inch and was by myself, too. I did have a hard time lifting it to check it, and it was a massive pain on the link even though I was able to just roll in on.

Yes, you’ve warned my about the boots, and I appreciate that because it’s so important. I’m going to scrub them with a bristled brush.

Posted by
4842 posts

Since you mention packing your hiking poles- what is the smallest size suitcase they will fit into? That may answer your question as to how big you need to have.

My 2 Cents.
Large suitcase - need to check with airline regarding size dimensions and weight. If still a green light - I think large cases are fine for 1) hauling bulky stuff or 2) shared by more than 1 person.

If not hauling bulk or packing as a family team - then, I definitely would go with a 20-21” x 14” x 9” or whatever the airline allows. If more space is needed - take a zip top tote or backpack that can fit underseat. Pack med.s in underseat bag.
Med.s don’t necessarily need to be in original containers. Pharmacy may be able to blister pack and label for you. Also, pills can transfer to small tiny zip-lock pouches and label. Liquid med.s may be an issue. Even there, airlines often make allowances for med.s. Diabetics often fly with supplies. Just check with airline regarding packing med.s.

Posted by
9562 posts

I would go with the two more manageable-sized ones. I, like you, would be able to deal with those so much better than one big one.

And if you can leave one in the car from time to time, that would be a great bonus !

How wonderful to be planning a trip to New Zealand!

Posted by
3207 posts

We have a family friend who has been a pilot for years. His family traveled a lot. He always told his family (and us) that it much better to have several smaller, more easily manageable bags, than a large difficult bag. We have heeded his suggestion ever since. I vote for two wheeled bags, and with luck, they can piggy back on top of each other, which will make them seem almost weightless (I don't mean on the handle, I mean on an add a bag strap or J hook). However, the type of manageable bags is really personal preference, but keep in mind carrying as an add a bag when deciding.

I, too, am independent and always do not want to rely on my husband to manage my bags as that's not his job.

Posted by
481 posts

If I recall your previous posts, your trip to NZ is in January-February. Since this is actually NZ’s summer, not winter, could you pack lighter?

Posted by
4600 posts

The last time I flew with my large-ish suitcase (instead of 2 smaller ones) I made a lot of interesting choices to avoid lifting that thing. Just the thought of lifting it into the trunk of an Uber made my back hurt. Instead, it was much easier to lift the case up the half step onto a bus home from the train station. And it was easier to roll one case, rather than two, through my origin and destination airports.

So, if I were on your driving trip I would pack all that extra stuff (hiking boots, poles, umbrella, etc.) in the larger suitcase that you already own, but keep that as light as you can so that you can still lift it, or leave it in the car if you don't need it.

Then I'd pack the smaller case like I normally would for a trip and bring it in to hotels.

Posted by
2267 posts

Since you mention packing your hiking poles- what is the smallest size suitcase they will fit into? That may answer your question as to how big you need to have.

This is an important factor. Those hiking poles will have to go in checked luggage anyway.

Have you considered a roll-aboard sized 'travel backpack'? Sometimes I use that as a carry-on and check my rollaboard. It can mean carrying a fair bit of weight on your shoulders, but that's not likely to be great distances. That could be easier to maneuver than two wheeled cases.

Posted by
3109 posts

I vote for taking two smaller ones.
I’m just back from the UK, and took my big suitcase as I love shopping there.
It seemed enormous compared to my usual 21 to 23 inch cases.
I think it’s 26 inches.
I only had to wheel it twice between airport, hotel and a station, but even that felt like a real burden!
Back to smaller ones again for future trips……so much easier if you can manage with less.

Posted by
5581 posts

@Renee, yes, definitely summer, but the weather varies a lot between the northern part of the north island to the southern part of the south island. I was seeing highs of 65 in Milford Sound where we will be taking an early morning boat ride. We will also be staying on a mountain pass. And then there is my husband's size 15 shoes. He often only brings one pair of shoes. This trip, he will need at least, 2 pairs.

Occasionally we've looked at the backpack style "suitcase" however, we both already bring a "largish" day pack. We both do photography, my husband with multiple lenses, filters and a tripod, additionally, our day packs will have to have everything we'll want for the 20+ hours we'll be in transit.

In my mind, I see the hiking poles fitting diagonally across a 22 inch suitcase, but I definitely should measure that.

My husband just reminded me that I am not even tall enough to carry a 28 inch suitcase up stairs. We used that suitcase for 8 years of traveling to Colorado to ski with 4 kids, and now occasionally when I schlep stuff to my kids.

I have been mentally packing the large suitcase for this trip for the last 4 months, this morning it dawned on me that multiple suitcases may be better. I appreciate all the comments and insight.

Posted by
377 posts

Before our hiking vacation last summer, my husband also envisioned our hiking poles fitting diagonally across our suitcases--they did not. Of course our bags were about 21" rather than 22", but try fitting the poles in the luggage you have soon. We ended up buying new poles that separated into 3 connected pieces (kind of like tent poles) that fit handily in the long side pockets of our bags. This length also fit inside our day packs rather than having to be secured to the outside.

Posted by
491 posts

OK I'm going to assume you are doing a road trip? In the next few months? ie summer in NZ. First off if you have any internal flights the masximum weight for carry on luggage is 7kg - that includes your presonal item - so you will be checking luggage most likely. You pay per a bag so one larger bag between you will generally be cheaper.

I'm struggling to think anywhere that I've stayed in NZ with "secure" parking except maybe downtown Auckland/Wellington. Most accommodation is low-rise and you park out the front of your unit - so it's fairly secure. But its never a locked entrance to the parking. You may also be up one floor (what you'd call 2nd floor and we call 1st floor) - and I doubt I'd leave anything in avehicle parked like that unless it was just a jacket. Never , ever leave camera gear, money, cards, passports etc etc. In fact if you are leaving a bag in the car its basically dirty laundry and you'd have to ask why are you carrying that around?

Unlike in the USA - you can carry on hiking poles on domestic flights. Almost everywhere you stay will also have a self-serve laundry either free or minimal cost. You don't need winter clothes compared to where you are from - it was about 14C in Doubtful Sound (Fiordland) when I was there a couple of years ago - I went swimming - it was lovely. Just pack a set of merino each and use it for a layer or sleeping.

If you need a hiking shoes - then I'd say your other shoes should be sandals - you should get decent weather assuming you arrive before April. It will rain - bring a lightweight rain jacket. Also make sure you have decent sun hats (not baseball caps) and in the south island you will need super strong insect repellent (can buy locally 40%DEET )

RE prescription meds - unless you are bringing it strong pain killers ie optiods or some obscure depression meds no one is going to care less what you bring in. I bring routinely come in carrying melatonin and pseudoephedrine - both banned here - and no one has ever cared. You don't even have to declare it. Do NOT bring any foodstuffs though - that's a whole different level of inspection and then will and fine you. I've spent much time waiting for custom inspections and its ALWAYS about food stuff and plant materials - you may have to show your poles and hiking boots are clean - its not about perscription drugs

Posted by
33 posts

I agree with Lissie. Also think of how big the storage area ( boot or trunk) of the car you are renting is You want everything stored out of sight when you are stopping off at viewpoints and sights. Enjoy your trip

Posted by
491 posts

I came back to add - as above - your existing bag is too fit to fit in the boot (trunk) of many rental cars in NZ

Posted by
610 posts

Consider whether or not your hiking poles will be permitted onboard the plane in your carryon.

Walgreen’s sells tiny zip-lock pouches for pills in the pill organizer section. Easy to fill at home and just label with a marker so you know what it is. Don’t need original bottle or label.
Wal-mart sells small plastic screw lid containers that look like little hockey pucks. Located in pharmacy/travel section where small products for travel are sold. Again, easy to fill at home and can be labeled with tape and/or black marker.
Pharmacies can blister pack your med.s. I have never done this. So, don’t know what this service costs.
Carry enough med.s for your trip + one week more. Keep in carry-on bag.
Liquid med.s can be placed in 3.3 oz. bottles and carried in 3-1-1 kit.
For diabetes - start a new thread here. Diabetics need to keep some forms of their insulin cold. They can advise you on how to pack insulin and syringes, etc..

Posted by
9562 posts

Everyone : Jules never said she is going to try carry-on only. She will be checking at least one bag. Just because a bag is carry-on size doesn't mean it is going to be carried on for that trip.

Posted by
5581 posts

@Sun Baked, I typically do not bring medication in original container to Europe and other places we travel. My method is to put them in ziplocks with their original label. Takes up less room than pill boxes which I wouldn’t recommend people use since they don’t have the label. New Zealand is very specific with what is allowed. They want original containers.

I don’t have diabetes.

@Lissie, thanks for the helpful information. In regards to meds, it was an example, we don’t use all that much prescription meds. I belong to. New Zealand Travel group. People have been heavily fined or had meds taken away because they didn’t follow the law. Like anything else, some in that forum have said they’ve brought meds without original containers, but I’m unwilling to risk it.

Thank you for the comment that suitcases need to fit in the truck, hadn’t thought about that.

The U.S. TSA does not allow hiking poles in carry on luggage. Like many items, some people have reported they were able to get them thru. I'm unwilling to take the chance that they'd be confiscated.

Posted by
4313 posts

I would use expandable carry-ons expanded fully.

Posted by
198 posts

We have a few one night and two night stays, I'm thinking if our
parking is secure, I could organize things so I would only need to
bring in one suitcase into our lodging.

Then two small it is. One carry-on and one checked. Have fun.

Posted by
7276 posts

Hi Jules, I would go with the two manageable sized ones instead of one you can’t lift. Even if your husband can lift the heavy one, it could do something to his back and mess up your fun trip plans. Also, it may be harder to get the large one into your vehicle. And if it’s lost during the flight, it’s a mess.

Would you like a nice backpack and a carry on to make it easier for you to handle the two pieces? I love my Cotopaxi 35L!

Posted by
5581 posts

When I posted this question, I thought perhaps folks would think it was a silly query. Like, "duh, use what works". Well, the responses have been quite helpful with issues that I hadn't considered. Thank you all for taking the time to provide your thoughts. And, I welcome any additional thoughts since I don't leave for a while yet.

I agree, Mr. E. I know some people that have had serious issues when they tried to visit a country with Sudafed or Adderall in their possession.

Posted by
4516 posts

Adding that because of the trekking pole issue, on 2 recent trips I used a larger bag that I checked, but inside the big bag I had a packed soft sided bag that I could pull out and carry into the lodging.

For flying I put my clothes in the soft bag, then around it in the big bag I put trekking poles, boots, a water bottle, the rain jacket etc. I thought I had the best of both worlds.

Posted by
31 posts

We just spent a month in New Zealand and Australia in November. I took a 25” Travelpro Maxlite spinner which seemed huge compared to my husband’s carry on bag. It was very lightweight and I stayed under the weight limit on the flights. It weighed about 42 pounds so it was a pain to lift it into the car.
If doing it again, I would take 2 smaller rolling suitcases or a rolling duffle. I did use packing cubes which helped with our 3-4 night stays.
In November, we had a variety of weather from 35 degrees in Franz Josef to 80 degrees in the Barossa Valley!! Layers were the answer. It will be warmer in January so you can probably pack lighter.

New Zealand is very casual and we were able to do laundry at several stops.
Enjoy your trip - it was our second time and New Zealand is truly one of the most beautiful places I have been (and I’ve been to over 50 countries!). And the people are friendly and so welcoming.

Posted by
610 posts

Please note that at least 6 years ago bringing any undeclared food in to the country was an issue. Not referring to fruits, vegetables, meats, etc but rather things as simple as candy bars, prepackaged nuts, food received on your arriving flight.

“Declare EVERYTHING even if it seems trivial” was the advice given to us by our New Zealand tour guide the day before we were scheduled to arrive. It’s cheaper to learn without fines that something is or is not allowed. However, things may have changed since then.

Posted by
1768 posts

Jules you are right our light rail trains are no fun with a big bag - few storage nooks so in the aisle rolling around at the train rocks this way and that.