Frequent travelers are divided into many topics, but perhaps none are as divisive as the suitcase versus backpack debate.
While once, this delineation generally followed generational lines (with older tourists and business travelers carrying suitcases and younger travelers carrying backpacks) today’s travelers are more diverse in many ways, including the type of luggage they prefer to carry. Deciding whether you should travel with a suitcase or backpack is personal. It depends on your travel style, your needs, and to some degree even the destinations you’ll be visiting. Here are some tips for choosing.
Suitcases aren’t Just for Hotels
Today, many hostel travelers check in with suitcases without raising eyebrows. International hotels are well acquainted with a luggage room filled with backpacks.
In this post, we’ll talk about some of the frequent talking points that cover the pros versus the cons of carrying a suitcase versus a large camping/hiking-type backpack.
For uneven terrain, a backpack wins every time
Suitcases are unrivaled at handling a smooth urban environment with minimal effort, but when manicured concrete ends, you may find a wheeled suitcase a significant burden when you reach cobblestones, gravel, or dirt paths.
Many travelers to Europe assume a suitcase is the right piece of luggage for traveling to this well-developed area, however cobblestone streets and stairs can have a murderous effect on the wheels of a heavy suitcase.
I’ll never forget the time I had to navigate down a massive winding stone staircase in Dubrovnik, Croatia with my suitcase. Its wheels survived, but not unscathed.
most hostels provide lockers, but these lockers are generally designed for backpacks. The size will vary and only sometimes will accommodate full-size suitcases.
Pro suitcase: security: in hostels, it can be impractical to store all of your belongings in a locker. Instead, most travelers only lock up their valuables: passport, money, and technology. Whether you carry a suitcase or backpack, a smaller bag or pouch containing these essentials can be easily moved to a hostel locker.
Pros and Cons of Backpack vs Suitcase
Rolls on Flat Surfaces
Easy to carry on uneven surfaces
durable as checked baggage
likely to be eligible as a carryon bag
easy to lock
likely to fit in hostel locker
good for travelers with limited mobility
Quiz for Deciding if a Backpack or Suitcase is Right for your Trip:
Are you an unapologetic over-packer, with no desire to reform?
Is your body uncomfortable or unable to carry a backpack on your back for a mile or more?
Would you hate the limitations of a backpack on your packing list?
Will you be traveling to a modern, well-developed destination with mostly smooth paved sidewalks and paths?
Will you be staying in mostly hotels and hostels where luggage drop/storage is available?
Do you expect that your lodging will have an elevator, or will you have to carry your luggage up stairs?
Score your quiz: Give yourself a point for each yes. If you scored less than 4 points a backpack is probably a better fit for your travel style. If you scored 4 or higher, a suitcase will probably be a better fit for your trip.
Be Flexible and Explore Options for Luggage
Although the backpack vs suitcase debate can seem like a black-and-white binary, there are plenty of options that fall somewhere in the middle. For example, my favorite Eagle Creek Suitcase features the benefits of both a suitcase and a backpack- with a zippered pocket containing comfortable padded backpack straps that are perfect for dirt roads in Argentina or cobblestones in Florence, Italy.
Similarly, a wheeled backpack is a piece of crossover luggage that offers the benefits of a suitcase when it comes to rolling it along even sidewalks and airport paths, while the backpack straps make it easy to toss on your back when off-the-beaten-path travel takes you walking a dirt path to a rustic hostel or crossing cobblestone paths on the way to your Airbnb.
Whichever type of luggage you pick, don’t forget a daypack. A small day pack is just large enough to conveniently carry a water bottle, jacket, sunglasses, umbrella, etc. With a packable backpack that packs ultra-small, like this $15 20L daypack I carry, you don’t have to fill an extra piece of luggage in order to have a daypack handing for short hikes or city exploring hands-free. Keep your packable daypack compactly stored in your suitcase (I sometimes wad mine up in a jacket pocket- so it flies free on airplanes!) until you arrive at your destination, where you can then use it for daytime adventures, hands free exploring, or even as a shopping bag or laundry bag.
Although you can spend over $50 on a lightweight packable backpack as an alternative to lugging your suitcase around, I recommend one of the cheap imported backpacks. With only a small amount invested, you can feel free to either use your lightweight backpack to bring home souvenirs or leave it behind as a way to save space in your luggage on the return trip.
Final Thoughts on the Backpack vs Suitcase Debate
As you can see, there are many pros and cons for carrying a suitcase as your primary luggage during international travel – and there are almost equally as many pros and cons for carrying a backpack on the road. While in the past, the type of luggage we were “supposed” to carry was very much prescribed by the purpose of our travels, today’s travelers can choose to carry either a backpack or a suitcase on their trip based on their own personal preference, unique needs, and travel style.
Artist, digital nomad, and highly sensitive person, Lynli started traveling full time as a digital nomad in 2018. Writer and Illustrator by day, remote-destination explorer by other-days, Lynli is passionate about pushing the boundaries of her own comfort zone, exploring the world as a female, fat, one-bag traveler, and journalling it all on WanderBig.com