Sunday, March 11, 2012

Review of the Lowepro Pro Roller Lite 250 AW

Martin Schuster, a member of my Antarctic crew, using the Super Trekker AW II to carry a large broadcast camera around a penguin rookery. 
The Lowepro Pro Roller 250 AW Lite
I’ve been a huge fan of Lowepro products over my 30-year career. I’ve used their bags for everything, undoubtedly over and beyond what their engineers and designers intended them for.

I used a Super Trekker AW II to carry around my Hollywood-sized Sony HDCAMs for four expeditions in Antarctica.  I’ve always carried the bulk of my camera gear using their superb camera backpacks (the Nature Trekker AW II backpack was one of my favorites), and I’ve used their waterproof Dryzone packs for numerous trips through the Grand Canyon and river expeditions. Their Pro Roller series of rolling airline cases have been my constant companions through years of air travel.

I have to constantly keep familiar with the details of airline travel and what a photographer can or cannot bring on a plane these days. On my most recent trip, to Australia and Indonesia, I was flying Qantas Airlines to South Australia, and I therefore realized that I had to be sure that all my carryon bags would fit Qantas’ restrictions.

Qantas Airlines is known for being extremely strict about forcing passengers to adhere to their size and weight restrictions for carryon bags. I have not flown Qantas Airlines in many years, and the last time I flew with them, the flight attendants gave me a tremendous amount of trouble since I was carrying a long 500mm f4 lens in its own box, along with a backpack and another case. I’ve learned by talking with other travelers that Qantas remains as bad as ever about charging for excess bags or too many carry-ons.

For this trip, therefore, I started packing a full two weeks before leaving. In fact, packing my carry-ons within their limits was on my mind for several weeks. I was careful to make sure that my carryon gear would fit within all of Qantas’ restrictions. I was fortunate to browse through the North American Nature Photography Association’s (NANPA) newsletter and read a news item that Lowepro had just come out with a new Pro Roller Lite AW series. These looked perfect for my upcoming trip. After carefully studying Qantas’ restrictions on carry-on bags, I traded in my old, largish carryon bag for a new Lowepro Pro Roller Lite 250 AW. It was the best thing I did to plan for my entire trip.

Lowepro hit a home run with their newest line of rolling cases for air travel. I used a Pro Roller Lite 250 AW for my recent trip to Indonesia and Australia. It was the perfect fit for my travels and numerous connections in various airports.

The Pro Roller Lite 205 AW is a rolling case that contains Lowepro’s usual fabulous set of padded dividers, which let you organize, pad, and separate all your gear. Unlike earlier Pro Rollers, this model has the padded dividers within the case itself, rather than in a separate bag that fits within the rolling case. I prefer this, as space is at an absolute premium when traveling by air today. I used the dividers to separate, pad, and divide my larger and heavier items.

Whenever I travel, I pack a change of clothes in my carryon bag, a DSLR body, a wide zoom lens, and a long zoom lens. I always pack some energy bars and my favorite, a pack of Pepperidge Farm Geneva cookies, in case I arrive somewhere and there is nowhere to eat – or if I am suck on a plane for 12 hours with no food. In this case, I also packed some heavy underwater photography gear and scuba gear in my carryon so that I would not be charged excess baggage fees. Lastly, I packed my usual complement of electronic and computer cables, my 15” Macbook Pro, laptop power adapter, and iPad. All of this fit in the Lowepro Pro Roller! I could barely lift the case, but that was not a problem. If I needed to lift the case into an airplane overhead compartment, I just took out my computer and iPad. When making my mile-long walks from airplane to customs counters – I put my laptop and iPad in one of the inner or outer pockets of the Pro Roller, and the wheels took all the weight off.

I was astounded at how easy packing the Pro Roller was, and this is because the padded dividers can be so easily set up and changed to accommodate different items. I was also pleasantly surprised at how easy having this carryon made my trip. The various pockets, both inside and outside, are well thought out, so that I could quickly put in or take out a laptop, for instance. There is a flexible, mesh outer pocket that I found was perfect for sliding a MacBook Pro or iPad into; and two smaller, zippered pockets on the outside and inside flap of the Pro Roller were perfect for my passport and assorted customs papers.

If I had anything critical to say about the Pro Roller Lite 250 AW, it would be that the telescoping handle seems a bit flimsy. It does move around a bit, but I have a feeling that this is something that Lowepro planned – the handle will allow you to put a heavy second bag on top of it and while it does seem flimsy – it is likely not all delicate as it held up just fine through all my travels. Having four, rather than two wheels on the bottom would make those mile-long treks through airports a bit easier. As it is, if I put a second bag on top of the Pro Roller and walked a long distance, the weight of the second bag on the handle became significant. Having a dedicated second bag designed to fit the top of the Pro Roller in a fashion that minimizes the weight on my arm would be a welcome touch, and it would make a perfect bag even better.

By the way, my flights to Qantas went without a hitch. The flight attendants did not hassle me about the size of my carryon bag, and the Pro Roller fit easily in the overhead compartment. Small things like this make a huge difference in relieving the stress of airline travel.

This Lowepro Pro Roller Lite 250 AW will be my constant traveling companion for years to come. It is a perfect fit for me and my travels, and it should be a perfect solution for most traveling photographers.


Marcus said...

I'm curious: how did you get by the 7kg weight restriction for carry on bags with all that stuff in there?!

It's no problem finding bags that are within the size limit - my problem is working out how to carry more than the 7kg limit. So many of these bags weigh 3 or 4 kg empty that it can be very hard to deal with.

Norbert Wu said...

First, it is indeed hard to find a carry-on bag that is within the size limits for airlines, and which also don't weigh a lot. This is why I like the Lowepro Pro Roller so much.

In 30 years of traveling around the world, I have only had my carry-on bag measured once or twice, by Qantas and Delta. The agent at the gate gave me a hassle but ultimately allowed me to bring my carry-on on the plane after seeing that the carry-on contained expensive camera gear. However, I have brought on other carry-on bags that were too large to fit in the overhead compartments or under the seat, and these situations are always a huge hassle. I've found that in recent years, airline staff don't seem to care about the size of carry-on bags, probably because they are overwhelmed. Of course, it is the airline's fault that passengers are bringing on huge and heavy carry-on bags.

In 30 years of air travel, I've only had my carry-on bags weighed twice -- once by Qantas, and once by Continental Airlines, both times over 15 years ago. However, I keep hearing stories about folks getting charged for their carry-on bags weighing too much. I've generally not worried about this much, but I do always pack a photographer's vest that has a lot of pockets. In a pinch, I will pull this vest out and fill it with as much heavy gear from my carry-on as possible. A company called Scottevest makes vests that have dozens of pockets, and which are ideal for doing this sort of thing.

Marcus said...

Thanks for the heads up on the vests - they look awesome and one is on the way!

I was recently forced by Air NZ to check in a Think Tank Airport International full of gear or miss my flight because they weighed it at check in even though I tad them it was carry on.

Norbert Wu said...

So Marcus -- when Air NZ made you check in your carry-on, did they charge you any baggage fees for doing so? I've heard of airlines asking passengers to check in larger carry-on bags, but they don't seem to be charging passengers to do so.

Marcus said...


Yes they did. Their current policy on international flights is NZ$75 for one extra bag. After that it starts getting offensively expensive!

The next bag costs NZ$250 (+ the NZ$75 for bag 1) and each bag on top of that is NZ$275 per bag.

Max weight per bag is 23Kg. Each bag over 23kg but under 32kg attracts a further NZ$75 overweight charge. Bags over 32Kg must go as cargo.

Norbert Wu said...

Hi Marcus: Your situation is interesting. I have a few last questions. Air New Zealand has had a reputation for being picky, but this sounds terrible and I want to make sure that I understand all the details.

First, when you checked in for your flight, did you check in for a flight leaving a US airport, or did you leave from an airport outside of the US, such as Auckland? I assume this was a round trip international flight, so I'd like to know the originating airport as well as the airport where you got hassled for your carry-on.

Second question -- when you checked in, did you already have checked bags? For instance, on my recent trip, I left from the US. I had three checked bags at 50 lb each, and I carried on a backpack and the Lowepro rolling case. I had been upgraded by United Airlines to business class to Sydney, so I was not hassled.

If you can give me those same kinds of details, I can possibly suggest ways for you to avoid these baggage fees in the future. I can't promise anything. One thing you might look into is United Airlines' Premier Baggage program (whoops, just checked and they are no longer offering it). I have a Chase Continental Airlines Presidential Plus Mastercard, which costs $395 per year, but gives me two free checked bags on Continental and United Airlines (Air New Zealand is a Star Alliance partner with United and shares some benefits but not all). This credit card also gives a full United Club membership. I do know that Star Alliance partners with United Airlines often don't honor the benefits that I'd expect, being a United frequent flyer (which I was for years, but let expire the last two years).

Marcus said...

Hi Norbert

That particular flight was international to Asia from Wellington. I've had the same thing on internal flights in NZ as well.

Post-9/11 I choose not to fly into or through the US as I object to being treated like a potential criminal on arrival rather than as a paying guest.

Yes I was actually at check in. The attendant weighed my check in bags and then asked me to put the TT roller on the scales. I explained that I was not checking it but she insisted it was weighed so it got weighed and came in around 15Kg.

I had a long conversation with them about the contents and the value thereof and they agreed to hand-carry and top-stow the bag but still would not let it get carried on by me.

Air NZ's frequent flyer program offers none of those benefits unless you hit the upper tiers which would be a very expensive exercise if you have to pay for all your own flights, and I generally pay for most of them.

Business Class allows two carry on bags, but when a return economy flight to London is $2500 and a Business ticket on the same flight is $11,000 that is a bit too much!

Norbert Wu said...

Hi Marcus: I am sad to agree that arriving in the US makes one feel like a criminal. I am a US citizen and live in the US, and I don't like flying within the US. Flying into the US from overseas is even worse. Flying into LAX from a long trip overseas is a bad experience, as you have to walk from the plane to customs and are treated poorly by the LAX airport staff. They are there mainly to make life hard for travelers, I kid you not! LAX and Miami airports - the worst.

I also agree with you about the ridiculous difference in cost between coach and full fare biz class. Too bad an airline has not been successful (or tried) simply doubling the price of a coach ticket and providing larger seats and better service. I'd go for that. I do know some travelers just buy two coach class seats on flights that are together. They then get two seats to spread out in, and they get double the baggage allowance than if they purchased just one seat (of course, but I feel compelled to point that out since airlines' policies so often don't make sense).

I hope that the Scottevest helps a bit in your traveling.

Marcus said...

Air NZ have Sky Couch - 3 adjoining seats that become a bed of sorts - in economy.

Not sure if you get extra luggage though!

Marcus said...

Hi Norbert

Hope all well.

Just wanted to let you know that I have bought a Scottevest on your recommendation and reviewed it here! You get a namecheck too!

Norbert Wu said...

Hi Marcus -- nice review of the Scottevest. Thanks for the mention and glad you are happy with something that I recommended. BEst, Norb