Some people care about bags; obsession is a better word. (See the Bags subforum of the Every Day Carry Forums for evidence.) How are the straps attached? Is that 1050 denier, or 1600? Makers like Crumpler, Ortlieb and Maxpedition inspire impressive brand-loyalty, but probably no bag maker has customers more enthusiastic than Tom Bihn's. (There really is a Tom Bihn, too -- he's been designing travel bags since he was a kid; now he has a factory with "all the cool toys" to experiment with designs and materials.) When I started looking for a protective case for my MacBook Pro, I discovered that a few of my coworkers were part of the Bihn Army, and after some Tupperware-style evangelism I was convinced to buy a few items from the Bihn line-up: a backpack (used); then a messenger bag (new); then a mid-sized briefcase, used, which is now my portable filing cabinet. (Take this bias for what you will; I stuck with my previous messenger bag for more than a decade.) For a just-completed trip to Israel, which I couldn't quite make in true one-bag travel fashion, I brought along one of the newest Bihn Bags — the Checkpoint Flyer — and found it to be worth its (considerable) price. Read on for my review.
The Checkpoint Flyer was one of the earliest bags released (perhaps the first) to take advantage of one TSA effort to slightly reduce the hassle of getting through airport security in the era of picayune and fickle rules about everything from nail clippers to shoes to shampoo. The TSA program, by outlining certain requirements, lets travelers skirt one annoying consequence of traveling with a laptop: instead of removing a laptop at the security line and putting it into a bin to be scanned, a passenger with a bag meeting certain requirements (essentially, it must provide an x-ray viewing window free of obstructions such as metal zippers) can send it through without first removing the laptop. I've seen at least one laptop dropped and damaged by a passenger who was trying to put it into a bin, which has to be infuriating. There's still plenty of security theater to go around, but anything that keeps computers in padded carriers until necessary and as long as practical is a good thing. If we're lucky, checkpoint friendly may become the norm instead of a novelty; that may be the closest to friendly you'll find at a TSA counter.
Bihn bags are made by the waterfront in Seattle, Washington, on an bright, quiet, surprisingly small factory floor. Tom Bihn himself, when time allows, is happy to show visitors the small factory and tiny showroom, open one day each week so locals and dedicated Bihnophiles can actually try the various bags on for size. (Otherwise, the company is essentially a catalog store, taking orders by phone and online.) I visited the factory to pick up an all-black Flyer for review; front panels in bright red or silver are also available, and I grudgingly admit these look fine, but my personal taste in luggage holds black to be the One True Bag Color. Even before Seattle was slammed by weeks of paralyzing snow, the Bihn factory was rushing to fill holiday orders, and had run short of shoulder straps, so I needed to supply my own from a different bag. The Checkpoint Flyer has a briefcase-style handle, but a shoulder strap is up to the buyer to choose (and purchase); this enhances choice, but it also pushes a $220 bag to just under $250, shipping inclusive but before taxes, if you include the most basic factory-supplied strap. It's slightly more for the shoulder-gripping Absolute shoulder strap ($30), one of which I cannibalized from a different bag. Bihn points out reasonably that many purchasers already own a bag with an appropriate strap, so he'd rather not force them to buy another, but I wish the "real" (and most obvious) price instead included a strap, and users who already have one could choose a discounted price by eliminating it from the package.
Clever design (and a few gripes):
Bags that meet the TSA's specs for going through airport scanners are allowed to fit any of three categories: a sleeve or pouch style; a bi-fold (clamshell); or a three-part folder. The Flyer is of the three-part variety, comprising a semi-rigid laptop shell of closed-cell foam, a main compartment suitable for papers, or clothes, power adapters, etc, and a thinner outer section with two pockets big enough for things like plane snacks, paperback books, and small electronic items. In normal use (that is, when not going through an airport X-ray machine) the laptop compartment is snugged between the other two sections; the laptop section also has a briefcase-style handle, which slips through an opening in the junction of the outermost sections, to be grasped at the same time as the handle on the main compartment. The laptop shell is also removable (making the bag much slimmer), and replaceable with a different size shell; one shell is included in the price of the bag. Mine's sized to hold a 15.4" last-generation PowerBook Pro.
With two Fastex buckles released, the bag's compartments lay flat: the laptop container at one end, followed by the main compartment and then the outermost layer. For the crucial security line process that it's built for, that means a traveler puts the bag on the scanner's conveyor belt, looses the buckles, and unfolds the bag like a garment carrier. Reassembly is just as simple and nearly as fast, but requires a warning: carrying by the handles works fine even without the Fastex buckles refastened -- not so with the shoulder strap, because the laptop container is liable to slip down and dangle in the fashion of a Jacob's ladder. Yes, I did this, and Yes, it was embarrassing.
The materials facing the outside world are 500 denier Cordura, and 1050 denier ballistic nylon; a lighter-weight fabric called Dyneema (still very strong) lines the inside compartment and its pockets. For ease of finding the small items that shift during flight, I'd prefer this was in the bright yellow ("Solar") version of Dyneema that is used for some Bihn products (or in red), but a white-grid-on-grey isn't bad.
The main compartment — not the laptop shell — is well sized to hold a medium-sized packing cube. I bought some cheap ones from eBags; though I'm new to the concept, I am a convert: for me at least, the value of a packing cube as an inner, organizing layer far exceeds its price.
There are pockets everywhere. The two outside pockets (which are not symmetrical; my little mind was briefly bothered) are probably where cellphones, MP3 players, snacks and keys will end up for most people. The back of the bag (the part closest to the user when carrying it) features a two-pocket design that Tom Bihn told me he's especially pleased with, and which will show up in more Bihn products in the future. There's a wide open-topped pocket to the left, big enough for magazines or small file folders (a good place to stash reading material for the security line or the flight). For slipping over a rolling case's handle, there's also a slot ordinarily closed by a zipper. Unzip, slip over, and roll away -- but lose the use of the pocket as a pocket. To the right, there's a smaller open-topped pocket, intended for maps, boarding passes, etc. Open pockets are convenient, but I'll admit always make me long for snaps, velcro, zippers, toggles, or some other way to close them unless their contents are actually poking out the top. The convenience is nice, though, and the sizes are well chosen; just bear in mind that these pockets *aren't* meant for documents like passports, where loss by pickpocketing could be a trip-wrecking nightmare rather than just a bother.
My gripes are small, but I did develop a few peeves. The biggest of these: I craved a different spot to attach the shoulder strap. There are exactly two attachment points, both on the top edge of the bag, facing the outer pockets. I'd like to see a matching set of these on the other side of that same edge. I'm no bag designer, and perhaps having the attachment points where they are is structurally or functionally important; if that's not the case, I think the bag would ride more comfortably if the strap attached on the inner (body-side) edge rather than the outer. I'd also like to see a zipper (or even snaps) for the big flap pocket on the back; I was afraid to put anything more valuable than a magazine in here for long, especially when I used the bag as a shopping tote in a crowded market. There are two tiny external pockets on each side, where some bags have an expandable mesh to hold things like a bottle of water. These edge pockets on the Checkpoint Flyer are seemingly indestructible -- but I'm not sure what they're for, since they're too small for even the slim water bottles I've tried, and too shallow to carry a flashlight. If they were a tad bigger or more expandable, they'd do a lot toward making this a better every-day, do-everything bag as well as a superb travel briefcase. (To be fair, that's how I used it anyhow, with water bottle stashed inside.)
Some pictures of the Flyer make it resemble a bundle of presents stacked not-quite evenly, with middle and outer compartments riding up and out a bit (one reason I wish the shoulder strap met the bag on closer to the body); I find that unless the bag is stuffed very full, it doesn't look quite that bulgy. Looking slimmer can prove useful, especially when a bag is perhaps on the threshold between small (as in "a small personal item") and not-so-small; ever-tighter airline restrictions favor a bag that looks slender enough not to draw attention to itself. For that reason, and because I knew I'd be carrying a backpack travel bag as well, I tried at first to pack mine so that it looked like a conventional computer case. In the end, I chose to be at least a bit cruel to both bag and back, but even with the bag comfortably stuffed, had zero problems getting it onto any of my flights (full-sized jets, some fully booked, but none fancy enough to have computers taking up the foot room) or under the seat in front of me.
People vary in what they "need" for travel; I enjoy pointing out this guy, who eschews bags altogether — I can't match him by a long shot: my modest goal is to generally not check any luggage. I took notes on what I carried in the Checkpoint Flyer (this leaves out the stuff in my eBags Weekender backpack), because "one change of clothing" or "toiletry kit" can mean considerably different things to different people. (Skip ahead if you hate detailed packing lists.)
In the main compartment, I was able to stuff the following without straining the zipper: 1) eBags medium packing cube, holding, bundle-wrapped: khakis (size 34/32), 1 pair cotton boxer shorts, 2 pairs of cotton ankle socks, one cotton t-shirt, and 1 button-up oxford shirt 2) baggie with a small assortment of toiletries: 2 toothbrushes; 2.7 oz toothpaste container; 2 oz small lexan bottle, full of Dr. Bronner's soap; 2.7 oz. stick deodorant; 2oz bottle of shampoo; toenail clipper 3) zippered pouch (thrift-store find) containing an extendable ethernet cord; AC adapter and cord for Eee laptop; 2 USB keys; lexan spoon; gum; and a few odds and ends. 4) travel document pouch containing passport; extra gum; boarding passes (three flights each way); 1-page travel manifest, printed in minuscule characters which are readable for me; and some cash.
In the smaller outside pocket, I stashed Sony noise canceling headphones (in their pouch); a 1 oz. container (plastic cylinder) with a few aspirin; and a 3 oz plastic cylinder of almonds. In the other, slightly larger pocket, I had a small trip journal (approx. 3x5"); compact camera wrapped in a hiking sock (replaced by a small LowePro case toward the end of my trip); 3 pens, 1 mechanical pencil; batteries in a flat pack which can hold 8 AAs; my house key (on built-in key strap); and a Zebra AA headlamp. I put a few business cards in one of the small flat zippered pockets, and nothing in the other.
In the large open pocket on the back, I kept a bit of reading material (a few paperbacks for the plane); and a few scraps of paper for note-taking. The smaller open pocket next to this I usually kept empty, except while actually waiting in lines to board a plane or a bus, at which point it's the most convenient place for boarding passes and schedules.
In the center (laptop) compartment, rather than the MacBook Pro, I had an Eee 10" laptop, running Ubuntu Linux 8.10. The MacBook Pro-sized space is much bigger than the Eee, so I also squeezed in a neoprene sleeve. I went with this because my Eee has a more powerful battery than my Mac, gets better wireless reception, and is quite a bit lighter and handier.
For three weeks, I used the bag daily, to carry a notebook, map, pen and pencil, cell phone, guidebook (sometimes two), and usually either a fleece or a light jacket; with those few things, the inherent volume of the pockets and compartments meant that it looked about the same as it would have empty. I did not remove the laptop compartment (an oversight -- this would have actually made it slimmer and lighter), and in this state the Checkpoint Flyer is a bit stiff compared to a courier bag, but still quite comfortable. On several days, it turned into an impromptu market bag, too, and easily held more than 20 pounds of groceries (cheap, delicious oranges, bread, pastry and olives were all tempting), although I had to keep the main compartment unzipped to hold that much.
In a pinch, though, the fabric and seams seem content to carry anything you can coax the zipper around. For a two-night weekend trip to see Petra, I stuffed in books (a thin hardback and two thin paperbacks), travel documents and money, travel journal, 2 pens, 1 pencil, a small digital camera, AA batteries and a case for them, headphones in a case, tiny MP3 player, cell phone, house keys, toiletries, headlamp, and enough clothing for the trip (scarf, 2 t-shirts, 2 oxford shorts, 2 pairs of boxer shorts, 2 pairs of socks, 1 pair of clean pants) along with some snacks (2 huge oranges, a handful of candy, 100 grams of pistachios and pine nuts, 100 grams of dried fruit). Here, too, I left the laptop case attached, but used it as a storage spot for socks and underwear, while my laptop was safe in Jerusalem. While in Petra itself, the bag started out with my water bottle, camera, scarf, hat, gloves, more snacks, and travel documents. Over the course of the day, I squeezed in my jacket and a few postcards, too -- this made the main compartment bulge, but only slightly.
The big question, though, is how it actually worked out in the airport. The answer is a happy "As expected, with caveats." Flying from Seattle, the Flyer was fantastic; with my bomb-free shoes and thoroughly dead belt in a plastic bin, I unfastened the buckles and laid the Checkpoint Flyer out on the X-ray machine conveyor belt. Not a blink from the personnel here, either; the "checkpoint-friendly" campaign seems to have trickled through. On the other side of the inspection line, I refolded and refastened the bag, and that was that.
However, "checkpoint friendly" is not a universal language. On transferring planes in Madrid, I was asked to remove my laptop and place it in a bin by itself. And on leaving Israel, I got the attention from Ben Gurion Airport's security forces that I'd been warned about as a young(ish) male traveling solo with no checked baggage. Both my backpack and the Checkpoint Flyer were put under several kinds of electronic scrutiny, my passport was given a very close eye, and I was given a several-minute exit interview by three different people, before I even reached the check-in line for my flight. (Where did I stay? With whom, spelled how, and how did I know them? Was I absolutely certain that no one had given me a package to carry, not even a small one? Is this really all my luggage, for a multi-week trip? What was my business in Israel, precisely?) At this stage, my laptop was opened and run through an X-ray machine, as were my backpack and the otherwise packed Flyer. After ticketing and an exit stamp on my passport, I went through another set of machines, where there was a several-minute inspection of my bags, and again there was no option to keep the laptop in the bag. Perhaps one day! In the meantime, US domestic travelers can revel in one small nicety.
Oh, and the Checkpoint Flyer handles rain like you'd expect from a bag out of Seattle. For reasons that do not here bear examination, I ended up taking a very long walk through empty parts of Haifa for much of one Saturday night, during which time it mostly alternated between drizzle and downpour. Even for someone used to living in Seattle, this was a wet night to walk. And though the Checkpoint Flyer was in no way protected from the rain, all it did in that ongoing rain was get very wet -- on the outside. The fabric is tight enough that most of the water just rolled off; none of the paper, food, or clothing I had stuffed in there at the time saw a drop of rain, and after an hour or so in my hotel room I couldn't tell it had ever been wet. So I had zero worries about walking in milder rain over the weeks that followed.
The Checkpoint Flyer is not the most comfortable shoulder bag I've ever carried, even with the Absolute shoulder strap -- but it is the most comfortable bag I've found with its degree of protection and travel convenience. Based on an admittedly small sample set, it also the most comfortable bag I know that can be considered a briefcase, and the only checkpoint-friendly bag with an interchangeable laptop case. Soft messenger bags like my Super Ego -- which so far wins my personal "most comfortable" award -- can't be considered in the same category without adding some sort of substantial laptop sleeve or shell. These shells exist (for most Bihn bags, you can order a carrier called a "Brain Cell" to fill this role), but for plane travel they suffer in comparison because of their bulk, and because most such holders don't allow for in-bag airport inspection (when that's an option at all).
Still, you could have a Hershey bar every day for a year for the price of a Checkpoint Flyer. There are (low-end, but credible) laptops that cost less than this bag. Meanwhile, there are now a rash of cheaper "checkpoint friendly" bags from quite a few vendors, and more are on the way: I've seen one clamshell design on sale for less than $20, delivered. Does that mean the Bihn bag is overpriced? My opinion: pricey here does not mean overpriced. The quality and flexbility of the Checkpoint Flyer make it the current king carry-on laptop bags, and I suspect that most of the ones bought now will still be in use in 2019.