Space is shrinking on a plane — here’s what to do about it

Does anyone really believe that airlines are installing bigger overhead bins so you can drag your regulation-size carry-on bag on the plane?

Not me. I’ve heard about the so-called Space Bin 737, which promises to increase capacity by up to 50 percent, coming soon to a plane near you. If you’ve been watching this business for as long as I have, you can smell a stunt by an industry addicted to baggage fees.

Remember the ill-fated “Cabin OK” standard by the International Air Transport Association, which would have effectively shrunk carry-on sizes even further? How quickly people forget that some airlines, including Avianca, Azul, Caribbean, Cathay Pacific, China Eastern, China Southern, Emirates, Lufthansa and Qatar Airways, had signed on before the trade organization shelved its plan.

“Travelers are slowly getting the ‘pack light’ message,” says Susan Foster, author of Smart Packing for Today’s Traveler. “The main reason, of course, is the price of checking bags. This has forced frugal travelers to rethink luggage. The only answer is smaller and lighter bags.”

To find out the actual trajectory of luggage size, don’t watch the airlines. Instead, pivot to the luggage manufacturers. They’re rolling out luggage designed to fit into the smallest spaces, including tiny overheads or even under your economy class seat. And talk to passengers, who will confirm: Small is big.

Isha Edwards, a frequent traveler based in Atlanta, is hooked on a carry-on made by Briggs & Riley. It’s not your typical rollaboard. It expects a dearth of interior space and reduced itself to about half the size of a conventional carry-on (13 x 15.5 x 9 inches). But the Baseline Rolling Cabin Bag ($349) is full-featured, made with rip-resistant nylon and an interlocking system in case you need to attach another bag.

“It’s one of the few lightweight pieces I’ve added to my collection that has ample, useful space throughout,” says Edwards, a brand marketing consultant.

Another new bag that’s made for a small world is Eagle Creek’s EC Adventure Pop Top Carry-On ($235). It starts at about the same size as the Briggs (14 x 13.75 x 9 inches) but extends to a full-size carry-on, if necessary. Eagle Creek also makes my favorite luggage cubes (see below), which easily fit into this bag to further optimize the space.

If you’re attending a more formal occasion such as a wedding or a job interview, you’ll want to check out the Skyroll garment bag ($149), which lets you pack suits and formal dresses without folding them. Skyroll is developing a new lightweight overnight bag on Kickstarter, which promises a more compact bag with the same rollable qualities of its full-featured rollaboard.

You don’t have to go small to save space. Genius Pack’s 22-inch spinner ($258) uses something called laundry compression technology to fit all your items into small spaces. This applies mostly to your dirty laundry, which you’d keep in the secluded compartment that rolls up neatly along the side. The genius part of the standard-size carry-on (it measures 22 x 14 x 9 inches) is the handy packing list on the inside and compartments dedicated for chargers, socks and undergarments.

The most maneuverable and versatile space-saving bag I tested came from Victorinox, of Swiss Army fame. Its Werks Traveler 5.0 WT 20 Dual-Caster ($279), a 20-inch spinner, offers some features for business travelers, such as a garment bag, and a “pack more” divider that lets you squish even more of your belongings into this 20 x 14 x 9-inch piece of luggage.

Oddly, the airlines and luggage manufacturers are doing us a huge favor by encouraging us to downsize. After all, most travel takes place by car in America, and if you think those overhead bins are tight, you should try a car trunk. Even our Honda Odyssey seems to have taken a page from the low-cost airlines, leaving us with less space than our last car, a Honda Accord.

Ah, but it did manage to squeeze an extra row of seats into the car. Can’t think of a better time to downsize my baggage.

Space-saving tips for travelers

Cube it. Luggage cubes such as Eagle Creek’s Pack-It Cubes ($38) or Travelwise’s Packing Cube System ($29) allow you to compress lots of clothes into a compact space, which can easily be packed into a smaller bag.

Vacuum pack it. You’d be surprised how much air is between the clothes in your carry-on. A vacuum packing technology such as Pack Mate’s Compression Bag (pricing varies) can create even more space, although your clothes may be a little wrinkly.

Roll it. Instead of folding your clothes and pushing them into the bag, fold and then roll. Even without a cube or vacuum pack, you’ll fit more in your luggage.

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