At the International Travel Goods Show, held this month in Las Vegas, I saw the future of travel. We will always know the whereabouts of our checked luggage. We will sleep as comfortably on planes as kittens in a basket. And we will never again experience the horror of watching our gadgets power down with no outlets in sight.
Fortunately, we don't have to wait long for this futuristic world. At most, till June.
"Manufacturers are innovating to keep up with the changing traveller," said Michele Marini Pittenger, president of the Travel Goods Association, which organises the annual event. "Luggage is increasingly lightweight, carry-on [makers] are considering the needs of the connected mobile user and security is going higher tech."
More than 300 exhibitors, including nearly 100 from abroad, filled the convention hall for the largest show in the event's 70-year history. The expo featured big fish (Samsonite, Briggs & Riley, Eagle Creek) and little minnows (Walter + Ray, YaY Novelty, Dandy Nomad) and one singing mermaid, Céline Dion, who unveiled a new collection from European luggage designer Bugatti.
I spent two days roaming 15,000 square metres of space, searching for trends and sampling products that can help improve the travel experience - or, at the very least, dull the pain of the middle seat. Here is what tomorrow holds:
Hard-side luggage falls in and out of favour as often as clogs. This year, the carapace is back in vogue, but with some embellishments. You will see exterior pockets (check out Delsey or Lojel), USB charging ports and a backlash to black, with bold colors, nubby textures and artful designs (see Heys). It luggage, for one, stops the people-mover with its statement bags, such as Grillz, a black or white skull image with a gold tooth, or Smooch, a spray of red lips. Travellers planning to visit Scandinavia in the winter should consider the Crate Reflex by Sweden-based Epic. The pink, gray and blue pieces reflect light and shimmer like the Milky Way on a cloudless night.
If our phones can juggle multiple tasks, so should our luggage. Visionair has two models working double time as a drink cart or an entertainment center. The Beverage Pal contains a cup holder and the Podpal incorporates a stand for a tablet. Delay-lay, which is in the prototype phase, comes with a sleeping pad that you can inflate with the luggage handle and detach for a quick nap in a quiet corner of the airport. During waking moments, JetKids' BedBox, winner of TGA's Product Innovation Award, is a wheeled suitcase that kids can ride like a miniature pony. Once aboard the plane, it converts into a Murphy-like bed suitable for drowsy youngsters up to seven-years-old.
The brainiest luggage, or maybe the most boastful, is Planet Traveller's Space Case 1. During a demonstration, Hontus chief executive and product architect Haroon Sheikh showed a small audience how you can pop the lock with the press of a fingerprint (via a biometric scanner) or through an app on your phone; how you can weigh the bag with an app, avoiding back strain; how you can charge your electronics on a power bank with two external USB ports and a USB charging port in the front pocket; how you can hold a dance party with its bluetooth speakers and chat with friends through its speakerphone. And how you can indulge your helicopter-parent tendencies: A texting alert system lets you know when your bag has arrived on the carousel or if a stranger has absconded with it. In addition, a GPS system tracks your bag's journey, an especially important feature if your paths happen to diverge during, say, your connection in Dubai or London.
For many luggage makers, the jangle of security accoutrements drowns out the jingle of the other bells and whistles.
"Chargers are standard and scales are nice to have," said a representative with Aerolite, "but security is the biggest issue facing luggage."
In March, the US Department of Homeland Security announced its electronics ban on planes departing from 10 airports in eight countries, including Turkey and Egypt. Travellers now fret over packing expensive gear (computers, cameras) in their checked bags. Another concern: strangers sneaking illicit items into luggage. In countries with extreme drug laws, such as Malaysia and Thailand, or living under an embargo, such as Cuba, rogue individuals might try to tuck contraband into your bags, turning the innocent vacationer into an unknowing mule.
The Aerolite employee explained how thieves won't typically waste time fiddling with the lock but will simply cut the zipper. To foil villains, the London company introduced an anti-tamper zipper with a double layer of metal.
Another set of safety issues arises beyond the airport doors. Certain cities are known for their bag-nabbers and -slashers. Lewis N. Clark's response to the "purse piñata" issue: the Secura anti-theft collection. The Chicago firm places Magnaloft, a cut-resistant fabric used in firemen's uniforms, in vulnerable areas such as the bottom of the bag. (Choose from five styles.) A stainless-steel cable runs through the shoulder strap, which also comes with a lock so you can wrap the fortified strip around an immobile object while you dine at a French cafe or people-watch in an Italian piazza. "We want the industrial hardware to create a visual deterrent," said Jen Panattoni, director of business development. Other Keep Out measures include locking zippers and material that shields your personal digital information from snoops by blocking radio-frequency identification (RFID).
Here's a familiar scenario: You plan to engage in an activity - swimming, volleyball, beach-napping - that pulls your eyes away from your belongings. Short of nailing the bag to a street lamp, what can you do? Travelon has created a pouch called the LockDown (available in June) that you can secure around a sturdy object without fear of it becoming the next victim in a slasher movie.
Airlines' stringent luggage policies are the knee in the back of the latest trend: bags that comply with the personal-item guidelines but perform like a larger carry-on. (The one destined for the overhead bin.) Mia Toro's companion bag, for instance, has a spacious storage area with bifurcated compartments, an outer sleeve for devices and a USB charging port. You could easily pack a long weekend's worth of items inside, with room for several (flat) souvenirs. Once on board, simply roll the bag into its parking spot by your feet.
The Fly InTransit Travel Bag was born under slight duress. Walter + Ray founder Tania Rodrigues travelled frequently for her family's mannequin business and was desperate for a carry-on with the multi-functionality of a Swiss Army knife. A quick dissection of her solution reveals an insulated food bag, a pocket for backup outfits, a pouch for cords, a clear TSA-friendly insert, a carabiner for water bottles and an RFID-protected enclosure for IDs. "There are so many features," she joked, "it gives me a headache."
The Adjustable Bag knows our habits well (or, at least, mine): Pack with a light touch, shop with a heavy hand and hope that you can squeeze it all in. The nylon bag expands and shrinks with your shopping and tossing habits. In its resting state, it is no bigger than a blob of bread dough. Uncinch the side ties a wee bit for the small version, a bit more for the medium and way out for the larger. (In company vernacular, grow from Overnight to Weekend to Travel.) In addition, with the versatile strap system, wear it as a tote, a cross-body or a backpack, depending on your mood or the stuffing inside. The bag, which received $340,000 in Kickstarter funding, will be available by the end of June.
At the ticket counter, do you treat your checked luggage as if it is going off to war and you'll never see it again? LugLoc, a GPS tracking device, calms the nerves of overprotective (or maybe just frequently burned) travellers. Place the gadget in the interior, download the app and follow your bag's journey. The map displays its location in real time, so you can see if it's freezing in Anchorage, sweating it out in Bangkok or waiting for you like a good bag at Washington Dulles.
The inelegant approach to securing your bag is to mummify it in plastic wrap. A more fashionable solution is to dress it in a Dandy Nomad cover. The French company celebrates the continents with its emblematic designs. There's an Eiffel Tower against a blue checkerboard for Europe; an Aboriginal-inspired pattern with a kangaroo for Australia; and an ethnic print honouring elephants and the Masai for Africa.
MotoArt Studio co-founder Dave Hall started with furniture built out of retired planes before moving onto his next creation, PlaneTags. The artist uses fuselage skin, with the original paint finish, for the body of the ID tag. He also includes the serial and tail numbers of each plane, which you can search online to learn about your tag's previous life. The company offers nearly 20 aircraft, including the B-26 Marauder, the F-86 Sabre and Virgin Airlines's "Lady Penelope" Boeing 747, and unveils a new one each month.
At least two dozen exhibitors showcased neck pillows. In the New Products Pavilion alone, I saw Cloudz's cool gel and bamboo microbead pillow, Sutton Home Fashions' gel-memory foam pillow, Travel Pal's auto-inflating pillow, Cardiff Wings (like a car's sun visor that attaches to the seat) and, because all cheeks deserve extra padding, Airopedic's self-inflating portable seat.
Cabeau won last year's Buzz Award for the Evolution Cool, whose packaging reads like a gear list for an extreme-sports sleeper: air-circulation vents; moisture-wicking material. Some of the more ambitious aids could double as playground equipment for monkeys. Consider the Lapnap, which is basically a U-shaped pillow on a metal easel. Creator Andrew Comley said it was good for people who sleep face down. "It stretches out your back and relieves pressure on the spine," he said of his product, which he launched the week before the event. The FaceCradle, which is shaped like a plush toilet seat, accommodates travellers who switch around positions from side to front to face plant. One of my favorite discoveries in this category was Travel Heads, due to its low embarrassment grade. The thick wedge of memory foam rests on your shoulder like an overstuffed parrot and catches your head when gravity calls. Passengers in the aisle seat can secure the pillow with a strap worn seatbelt-style. It is a much better version of my ball-up-my-coat approach.
Yes, economy class is dehumanising, but you can still beautify your space. Don't fulminate, decorate!
Craig Rabin invented the Air Hook so passengers can "better utilize their existing airline seat space." The contraption, which hooks over the seat back tray, contains a beverage holder that fits any airline cup or soda can and a perch for electronics measuring up to 8 1/2 inches tall. A bungee cord secures the gadget, in case the person in the forward seat flings an arm into your movie theatre.
The TAB Messenger Seatback Organizer, by Walter + Ray, is the tool belt of airplane pouches. The slender bag, which features multiple compartments, attaches to the seat pocket or the tray table legs, for easy in-flight dipping. Once you land, flip the magnetic flap over the main body, slide on the cross-body strap and wear your "organiser" off the plane. The company's BendyMan turns your public seat into a private viewing room. The blue or green fella, who is also a flashlight (what bright eyes you have, BendyMan), holds smaller electronics in his lap. Set him on your tray or hang him on the seat back - he's flexible enough for both. If you are stuck in the middle seat, placing tacks on the arm rest is not very neighbourly. Walter + Ray's ArmPillow is a kinder, gentler way of saying, "Mine!" The plush log of memory foam soothes tired limbs - it also doubles as lumbar support - and asserts your territory against invaders from the aisle and window.
The majority of airlines no longer hand out blankets, and even if they did, you might want to wear a hazmat suit underneath. The Tucker Travel Cover combines the coverage of a blanket with the snuggly-ness of baby bunting. Wrap the flannel fabric around your back, pull on the hood (with removable neck pillow) and slip your arms inside the elastic pouch - and enjoy microbe-free slumber.
Smartphones and water go as well together as cabernet and white pants. (Unless you are drinking from GSI Outdoors's Glacier Stainless Nesting Red Wine Glass.) The WaterSeals Magnetic Waterproof Pouch by Lewis N. Clark doesn't just protect valuables; it turns your gadget into an amphibious creature. You can submerge the pocket to up to 30 metres (two bands of magnetic seals keep the liquid out) and still access the screen to snap photos of the sea life or text your snorkelmate with a shark alert. Of course, dry (and hard) land can be equally detrimental to your phone. American Jewel, creator of scented bags, safeguards smaller electronics from broken bones with its Rockin Candy Phone Flashers. The cases, which are made of stretchy material, rely on four corner balls to absorb the brunt of the tumble. LED lights on the tips flash with any slight-to-abrupt movement, a sign that your phone is going to be A-OK.
Many environments - Beijing on a red-alert day, a smoky bar in Istanbul, a flowering arboretum in Memphis - stress the lungs. DetoxAir uses a HEPA-rated filter to turn bad air (smoke, exhaust, dust, pollen) into daisy-fresh breath. The product fits in your mouth like a scuba regulator, but without the Darth Vader sound effects.
The water bottle, so brittle and tall, can be onerous when empty. You can't tuck it in your back pocket between refillings. HydraPak solves the portable problem with Stash, a flexible container that collapses to the size of a hockey puck. When you are ready to replenish, squeeze the tabs, untwist the bottom and pull up the BPA- and PVC-free midsection. Then fill the litre with your liquid of choice.
You don't want to be one of those tourists, do you? Running around in a clear garbage bag because you didn't check the weather forecast that morning? Always be prepared - and chic - with a poncho by Reisenthel, a German family-run company. The outergear folds into its own breast pocket and, at the first drop of rain, expands into a hooded cape. The eye-popping designs - polka dots, starfish, stripes - will bring sunshine to any cloudy day.
And now, a moment of silence for all of those sunglasses that lost an arm or cracked a lens after you hastily stuffed them in a coat pocket or overpacked tote. Popticals, which won this year's Buzz Award, solves the unwieldy specs issue with its optical transformers. With a few clicks and slides, the sporty sunglasses fold up into a palm-size object, housed in a case that is as small as a change purse.
Tooletries, of Australia, civilises tiny bathrooms (think cruise ship cabins or shared bed-and-breakfast facilities) with its toiletry holders. The silicon organisers grip onto mirrors, tiles and glass, and don't leave any trace of their presence post-removal. The Amazing Mighty Toothbrush Holder holds up to nine kilos and compartmentalises oral implements, razors and rings. The koala- and kangaroo-shaped containers remind kids that brushing can be fun, even when they are thwacking their elbows against the shower stall.
All travellers should throw a spare bag into their luggage - the nesting-doll approach to travel. YaYbag hits all the marks for a backup carrier: It is water resistant, carries up to 25 kilos and can be stored like a fruit roll-up secured by an elastic band. Sunchea Phou, a Cambodian refugee who lives in Seattle, adorns her totes with more than 180 prints, including birds and flowers. In addition, 20 per cent of the company's profits go to charity, so you are bag-nesting for a cause.