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The Great Travel Debate: Backpack vs Suitcase. The quandary about which luggage – backpack or suitcase – is the best bag to travel with has raged for decades. As we prepared to become full-time travelers, it was something we pondered, a lot! There are pros and cons of each – which is extremely important to understand when choosing the best bag for international travel (and domestic travel as well).
Backpack vs Suitcase
Before we decided whether we would carry a suitcase or backpack for our Around the World travels, we analyzed the benefits and downsides of both styles. For our adventures, we were not just looking for the best bag for traveling Europe – we were visiting destinations worldwide. Our planned route included chaotic cities and distant islands, so we were seeking the best all-around luggage for our trip.
Wheeled Suitcase: Pros and Cons
A suitcase with wheels is a genius invention (one that only dates to the 1970s, by the way – and they have come a long way since then!). In airports around the world, we have watched sophisticated travelers – flight crews and well-dressed business travelers – walk with confident ease, their rollaboards effortlessly trailing behind them.
The advantages of traveling with a wheeled suitcase is pretty obvious: You don’t have to carry your luggage! Other reasons that travelers choose a suitcase with wheels over a backpack is that it is easy to pack. Furthermore, the contents of the luggage are more protected (especially with hard-sided suitcases). Suitcases also come in a variety of sizes – including extremely large suitcases for the travelers who pack a lot of stuff for their trip.
Want to be a savvy packer? Read our Best Packing Hacks!
Cons of Suitcase Travel
However, there are some notable shortcomings to traveling with suitcases with wheels, most of which directly relate to the suitcase having wheels. First, the wheels and handle add extra weight to your luggage.
Second – and oh-so-important – is that wheels and handles can break. This often happens when attempting to drag rollaboards over uneven sidewalks (often found in Southeast Asia) and on cobblestone streets (like the kind found in Europe).
Finally, wheeled luggage can be expensive – the highest quality rollaboards can cost a small fortune for budget travelers.
Travel Backpack: Pros and Cons
A backpack luggage bag comes with its own set of pros and cons. In recent years, luggage backpacks have been redesigned with lighter materials and innovation that far supersedes travel backpacks of the past. Yet, there are still a few disadvantages to traveling with a backpack.
Pros of Carrying a Backpack for Travel
Let’s start off on the plus side. Hands down, one of the biggest rewards of carrying a backpack is that it keeps your hands free. This is a huge advantage when you are fumbling with important documents, like passports and boarding passes, trying to buy train tickets, consulting a map and checking into your accommodations.
Another consideration is that with a backpack, it is physically attached to you, meaning you won’t absent-mindedly walk away from it and it won’t roll away from you – or worse – get snatched.
More importantly, however, is that when you carry a backpack, encountering stairs is a lot less daunting (and, trust us, there are always stairs – and often no elevators – in European countries). Wearing a backpack is also a lot easier when taking public transport.
Another great reason to use a backpack is that – unlike suitcases – they do not have strict dimensions, so you will likely be able to squeeze a large backpack into an overhead bin or tuck it away into a hostel locker with just a little push and a shove.
Downside to Backpack Luggage
On the flip side, traveling with a backpack vs a suitcase comes with a few difficulties. The biggest concern is that it must be carried…by you! While backpacks are ergonomically designed to distribute the bulk of the pack to your hips (and adjusting it properly is a must!), anyone thinking about using a backpack as luggage needs to consider if they will be comfortable carrying the weight.
For many people, packing in a backpack can be a struggle. However, that problem is easily solved with Packing Cubes (honestly, I even pack a suitcase with them!) or with a modern travel backpack that opens like a suitcase.
Read all about the Pros of Packing with Packing Cubes!
Backpack or Suitcase: Conclusion
We are Team Backpack! For us, the advantages of a backpack far outweigh wheeled luggage. With a backpack, we feel more in control of our possessions and less likely to drop or misplace important documents. Those two reasons alone give the backpack the edge.
Furthermore, with a backpack, there is no dragging luggage over rough cobblestone lanes or awkwardly hefting bags up steps. There is no question: a backpack is the best bag for European travel and we believe most destinations worldwide.
So, now you are probably wondering, What is the best backpack for traveling? It just so happens that we have an experienced opinion about that, too! To help fellow travelers choose which is the right backpack for their travels, we are highlighting the different styles…and which we think is the best.
Pro Tip: If, after weighing the pros and cons of a Backpack vs Suitcase, you have concluded that a suitcase is the travel gear that is most fitting for your vacations, keep in mind that a quality suitcase is essential! We recommend buying from one of the most reputable brands, like Tumi or Samsonite.
Types Of Backpacking Suitcases
Back in 2014, when we determined that we preferred a travel backpack vs suitcase for our adventuring, we had decisions to make regarding what type of backpacks to travel with.
I already owned a travel backpack, which I had purchased in the year 2000 for my very first European trip. Although I was tempted to upgrade to one of the newer models outfitted with more modern features, I love my backpack…and I am not ready to give it up. It was the best luggage for travel in Europe in 2000 – and I was confident it would work for our nomadic lives now.
Kris, as an extremely minimalist traveler, had been using a duffel bag for travel – so the question of Backpack or Suitcase for traveling was something he seriously considered. Once he determined he wanted a backpack over rolled luggage, he was tasked with finding the best travel backpack for our trip.
He contemplated the top characteristics of a good traveling backpack: Durable materials, lightweight construction, ample storage space, easy to carry and easy to pack.
Kris was already used to carrying a duffel bag, so the first backpack that he checked out was a backpacking duffle bag. The luggage is, essentially, a duffel bag with shoulder straps. While the latest models have stylish features – like extra pockets, storable straps and lockable zippers – they lack some of the top features of travel backpacks, like a supportive waistbelt and sleek design.
Top-Loading Adventure Backpack
The Lowe Alpine backpack that I own is a top-loading backpack that is more geared toward hiking and camping adventures than typical plane travel. In addition to the main compartment, there are 4 external and 1 internal zippered pockets – including two that are designed specifically for packing shoes. Note: the exact model I carry is no longer in production.
One of the best features of a top-loading backpack is that the bag is soundly constructed with minimal worry of ripped seams or busted zippers. I can stuff my pack to the brim – and believe me, I do! Check out my complete Packing List to see everything I fit inside my 45L pack!
However, there are serious concerns regarding this style bag. First, there is no option to lock a top-loading backpack and secure belongings. (The opening is simply cinched at the top with a pull string and covered by a hood that clips to the front of the bag). Second, even with Packing Cubes, it can sometimes be a real hassle to pack. While it is an ideal bag for hiking and camping, a Top-Loading Backpack is not best suited for other kinds of trips.
Backpack That Opens Like Suitcase
A Backpacking Suitcase is a backpack that opens like a suitcase, but fits perfectly to your back – and it is a beautiful invention! A backpack travel suitcase has shoulder and waist straps just like other good travel backpacks, but rather than top-loading contents into the bag, the entire front piece zips off…just like a suitcase.
The Backpack-Suitcase hybrid is an absolute game changer for travelers who want the convenience of suitcase-style luggage, but the benefits of a backpack. The sleek luggage is easy to pack (especially with Packing Cubes!) and has zippers that can be locked. Without question, Kris knew that a travel backpack suitcase was perfect for our travels.
Backpack Suitcase with Wheels
A hybrid backpack suitcase with wheels may appeal to some travelers – and we can certainly see why. I can roll it or carry it? Brilliant! However, there are a few problems with a wheeled backpack suitcase.
Mainly, the elements required for a rolling backpack suitcase – the handle and wheels – make carrying the backpack-suitcase combo incredibly uncomfortable. In addition to the unpleasant fit, the components that make a combination backpack suitcase rollable, also weigh it down. As the technology of wheeled backpack suitcases improves, we anticipate some of these issues being resolved. However, for the time being, we think it is better to either opt for either a backpack or wheeled luggage, but not an all-in-one.
Best Backpack for Travel: Backpack Suitcase Combination without Wheels
Choosing a backpack vs rolling luggage is not an easy decision…and, it is possibly even more challenging to determine which backpack is best for your travels.
The Best Backpack Suitcase
We analyzed dozens of suitcases and read hundreds of reviews when choosing the best backpack-suitcase combo. Due to the rise in popularity, every company that makes backpacks makes a backpack that unzips like a suitcase – which only makes it an even bigger conundrum. However, the backpack suitcase that stood out – and still stands out today – is the Osprey backpack that opens like a suitcase.
Osprey Backpack Suitcase
The backpack suitcase that Kris ultimately purchased (and is still using 9 years later) is the Men’s Farpoint 55.
I have to admit, I am a shade jealous of his backpack. Not only is it a backpack like a suitcase, but it is lighter, slimmer and more secure than my backpack. Furthermore, the Farpoint 55 model comes with a removable day pack and strap-concealing, zip-up panel. As far as a backpack-and-suitcase combo goes, the Farpoint 55 is far superior to its competitors – and the best luggage to travel with…anywhere in the world!
Looking for one for Ladies? Not to worry! Osprey makes a Fairview 55 for Women!
Packing Travel Tips
We have a few top travel tips that work for both backpack and suitcase travel! These tips will help make packing easier.
Use Packing Cubes
Packing your clothes in Packing Cubes is a must! The luggage organizers help save space and keep your luggage neat and tidy. Read our Packing Cubes travel blog post for more tips and our top recommendation for the best cubes.
We have complied a list of the Best Packing Hacks to help you pack like a pro! Regardless of whether you opt for a backpack or suitcase, keep you luggage under the weight limit and organized with our top tips!
Packing Travel Resources
Need help with your packing list? I share the details of every single item I pack in my Packing List. You can download my printable list for packing, too! Find all of our travel resources for packing on our dedicated Travel Packing blog page.
More Must Read Packing Articles: Get ready for your trip with this Ultimate Packing List, our Tips For Everyday Things To Pack, as well as what we Pack To Travel The World! Looking for that perfect travel camera? Read our article on the Best Priced Travel Cameras. Also, once you’ve decided what to pack and how to pack it, be sure to read all our latest tips on how to get Cheap Hotels, the Best Airfares and Tips To Keep the Airline From Losing Your Luggage!
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