As a frequent traveler, I pass hundreds of suitcases a month, and I'll often ask a fellow nomad what makes her bag perfect. Of course, no such unicorn exists — one traveler's Tumi Continental, after all, is another's albatross.
Personally, I find the boxiness of a hardshell irksome, with its inability to conform both to bulky contents and to the curves of my body. My bag needs to double as a pillow for 10-hour layovers, and it has to be easy to sling on top of a ramshackle excuse for a bus, with three chickens and 20 people inside, heading up into the mountains.
My ideal travel bag is what is known as an immigration bag — and while I embrace it now, it was once a source of great childhood embarrassment.
What's an Immigration Bag?
Every few years, my parents would dig into the back of the hall closet and extract four flat black fabric squares. Placing them on the floor in the living room, they would perform magic, unzipping two zippers 360 degrees and pulling the bags up to reveal with glee how large they actually were. As a teenager, they came all the way up to my waist.
What I didn't know as a child was that these four bags were the very same bags my parents brought over during their immigration from Korea — their only bags — and that in the '70s, these bags were lovingly packed by my grandmother, who carefully folded and placed Korean traditional dresses, photo albums, Bibles, keepsakes, and even a few snacks in them.
My Not-So-Secret Immigration Bag Shame
My parents would stuff these black "immigration bags," or eemeen gabang, to the gills with toys, Levis jeans, Hershey bars, Pringles, Bugles, and bulk vitamins you couldn't get in Korea. At the airport, I'd chew my hot pink nails and twist my lime green scrunchie around my wrist, wanting to melt into the ground as the four huge, lumpy bags were awkwardly rolled toward the check-in desk, weighed, and taxed.
Once, when I complained that I was hungry and my mother reached over to extract a snack for me from the archipelago of immigration bags, I hissed at her not to unzip them and gave her teenager dagger eyes. (Poor Mom.) But when we'd arrive in Korea, our young cousins would squeal in delight, even over the broken Pringles (this was the early '90s in a still-developing nation).
In return for our food couriering, we would bring back a foodie's treasure trove from the motherland: dried ginseng, dried persimmons, various types of dried seaweed, candy, powdered tea, gochugaru, herbal medicine, the good ramen (spicy kimchi ramen), and my favorite shrimp chips, the wrapper festooned with atomically orange shrimp.
Chocolate-less, I grumpily concluded that my Korean cousins were getting the longer end of the stick, although now, of course, I know better.
Coming Around to Soft-Sided Bags
I also know that none of this cultural exchange would have even been possible without the immigration bags, since none of our other bags were as large, light, or accommodating — nor did they roll. These are the same features that now make these soft-sided duffels my very favorite bag.
Maybe it's the fear of never having enough, even if it's enough room, but when I travel, I make sure to pack at least one immigration bag — plus a few smaller bags for good measure.
3 Immigration Bags for Food-Lovers Who Can't Say No to Souvenirs
With one or more of these three bags you'll be ready to extend any trip; bring back more gifts, edible or other, than expected; or transport a large culinary vessel, like a tajine or a dol sot.
The Do-It-All: Charlie Sports Rolling Wheeled Duffel Bag, $26
I use an ALTA Expandable Duffel, purchased for $12 at a Bed-Stuy dollar store, but most of the options on Amazon are similar, such as this one from Charlie Sports.
The major benefit to a 40-inch expandable duffel is the impressive difference between complete flatness and full height. Pack it when you head to your first destination, where you can unzip one zipper for a little storage; then, open the second zipper for maximum storage at your next destination.
If you want to protect the exterior box of a present you're bringing along while traveling, such as a large kitchen appliance, the expandable duffel is also ideal for preventing scuffing with its tough synthetic fabric exterior. You might consider spraying the exterior of the immigration duffel with waterproofing spray as well.
With six wheels on the bottom, you're ready to roll to the airport, but I wouldn't recommend trying to lug a completely full, heavy immigration bag on two commuter buses and a subway, unless your lifting skills are on par with a hardened barback.
The Stylish One: LeSportSac Weekender, $204 at LeSportSac.com
How slick is the extra-large Weekender bag by LeSportSac in Black Crinkle Patent? This bag is perfect because it rolls up to a tiny size you can fasten and stuff in the corner of your suitcase or duffel, or even roll into a backpack or bike pannier.
And, as they say, on its own, this is the perfect weekend bag (when you add a padded shoulder strap). The end pockets are great for stashing receipts, gum, candy, and makeup, and the larger side pockets are made for tea, herbs, granola bars, wet bikinis, or underwear in the larger side pockets.
I've had my LeSportSacs for 10 years this year, and not a piece of nylon is out of place. They are super strong, and they're entirely machine-washable — say, ahem, for that moment a bottle of red wine broke in my white and gray one. Plus, new fun designs come out every season that let you update your style with the same reliability.
The Budget Option: IKEA Foldable Duffel Bag, $14 at Jet.com
IKEA seasonally offers duffels for sale in-store, although they're much harder to find online (plus, if you go to the store, you get to stock up on seasonal cloudberry jam, meatballs, and lingonberry juice).
Their duffels are thin and even lighter than the LeSportSac Weekender, although they are slightly smaller in size. The IKEA duffel offers the advantage of being the perfect light gym or swim bag during travel, hanging weightlessly by your side with no shape and thus not taking up space on a crowded metro in, say, Tokyo or Mexico City. (The Weekender is slightly more structured.)
I often stuff this duffel inside of my LeSportSac Weekender for weekend trips, in case I find some local bread or honey I want to bring back.
Have you heard of "immigration bags"? What's your go-to travel bag?