Backpack vs Suitcase. The ultimate question and a topic that has been dividing travellers since the time of the hippie trail. And I say, travellers, because let’s face it, most tourists will choose a suitcase. So which one is better? Or to be more precise, which one should you choose on your next trip? Well, let’s break it down.

I am a backpack person. I admit it. BUT my carry-on 40-litre backpack is perfect for the type of travelling I am currently doing – trying to visit every country in the world.

I used to rock a carry on suitcase from Samsonite for years when working as a tour guide in Europe and loved it. But let’s have a look at the pros and cons of choosing a backpack or a suitcase.

Backpack vs suitcase - Backpacking

A backpack can give you freedom in places where suitcase will fail. Cobbled streets, stairs and unpaved roads

Backpack Vs Suitcase – The Pros and Cons of a Backpack

Pros

  • Easy to carry anywhere, giving you near-limitless mobility. Stairs or uneven terrain is not a problem. You can run to trains, jump on buses, and fling yourself into the back of a taxi without having to get to the trunk.
  • Backpacks tend to be more lightweight than suitcases, so they’re easier to keep within the allowed carry on limit.
  • Because you need to carry your bag, you are more likely to pack or keep just the essential stuff. Call it a minimalist style by default – this is definitely a pro.
  • You can compress your backpack by making it smaller. Most backpacks these days have inside and outside straps to compress it. So when you’re wearing all your warm clothes, you’ll end up with a smaller bag. Something that is impossible to do with a suitcase.
  • If you have decided to pack up your life and set off on a longer journey –  a backpack seems to fit the image. Backpacking around Europe or Asia seems kinda pretentious with a wheelie suitcase. Why is that? Well, it usually has to do with the type of travel and the destination, but more about that further below.

Cons

  • You will have to carry your stuff on your back. This one is obvious and all pro-suitcase users.
  • It can be more difficult to pack as opposed to the suitcase. But with the right type of backpack (not top loader) and better packing skills, you are all set.
  • It might not be suitable for people with back problems.
  • As backpacks have a softshell, your belongings will get squashed and might be not the best place to story fragile souvenirs.
Backpack vs Suitcase - Suitcase at the airport

Many now travel with a carry on suitcase – perfect for a short trip

Backpack Vs Suitcase – The Pros and Cons of a Suitcase

Pros

  • The number one reason to choose a suitcase – wheeling a suitcase is a lot easier than carrying a backpack, especially at airports.
  • Hard-shell suitcases seem to provide more protection and can take some beating when on the road
  • It’s easy to organize your clothes and can be easier to pack in, especially when compared with a top-loading backpack
  • Many hard shell suitcases are now waterproof

Cons

  • Wheeling your suitcase is great until you come across cobblestones, steps, dirt, uneven terrain or travel to less developed places.
  • Crowds and wheeling a suitcase don’t go together either. You will most likely run over someone’s toes and if your suitcase is bigger you might struggle to get it through aisles of buses or trains.
  • If you use public transport in any major city, the lack of elevators or lifts means you will have to carry your suitcase a lot.
  • As a suitcase can’t be squashed to a smaller size like a backpack, you are stuck with the size regardless if it’s full or not. Many travellers seem to have a much bigger suitcase (just in case I need more space) which can make it really impractical.
  • Some, especially the cheaper suitcases are heavy on their own. What’s the point of trying to pack into a carry one, when your suitcase alone is 2kg.
Backpack vs Suitcase - Packing a suitcase

Packing a suitcase seems easier

Which one to choose?

Different things work for different people and different type of travellers. Some prefer the suitcase on wheels, some prefer the backpack. But when it comes to choosing one for your next trip consider the following:

The type of travel

Are you travelling for holiday and staying in a resort for a week and most likely taking a uber or taxi from the airport? Then a suitcase might be the better option for you.

Are you travelling long-term or perhaps moving around countries and cities and relying on public transport? Then the backpack might be a better option.

The type of destination –  developed or not?

It is something many forget to think about. Where are you heading to? A developed destination might have a better infrastructure in place to get around easily with a suitcase, such as a trip to the USA, Canada of Japan.

Europe is a developed place, but don’t forget there are many stairs and many cobbled streets. Heading to Africa, Nepal or Peru? You might be better off with a backpack.

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Budget

Your budget will also determine the way you travel. In a nutshell, budget travellers are usually better off with a backpack as it suits the budget traveller style.

From public transport, walking to your hostel/guesthouse and carrying clothes that don’t necessarily need to be wrinkle free. If you are more of a flashpacker or have a bit of cash, you will most likely use taxis to get to your accommodation and might stay in hotels and larger places for your suitcase to fold out open.

– Our Resources Page is where you can find the best websites for booking cheap flights, accommodation and activities.

Most importantly the SIZE does matter!

Regardless of whether you choose a backpack or suitcase, the majority of people will pack too much and buy a bigger suitcase or bag that they need!

I have been travelling with an Osprey 40 Litre carry on a backpack (8-10kg) and I am travelling for two years so trust me, less is more. But in my earlier days of travelling, I used a big clunky suitcase or a big oversize 65L bag too.

If you decide for a backpack then trust me, there are some amazing carry on bags which will fit everything you need! It will make your life easier when travelling and even save you money when flying as you won’t need to check it in.

As for women, you should never get anything bigger than 55L size – otherwise is simply way too much to carry. What exactly do you pack to travel with just a carry on will be revealed in my next blog! But unless you are carrying camping gear with you, a carry on is all you need.

If a suitcase is more your style, I also recommend getting a smaller suitcase opposed to getting a large one that you only fill half way. Trust me, big suitcases are so impractical!

The key is to pack everything neatly and compress it into your suitcase. It will be easier to carry should you need to run up a few stairs and ultimately you can keep it within a legal carry on size so you don’t need to check it in.

Backpack vs Suitcase? It’s up to you. But get a smaller one and pack less.

Quality matters

You should spend the extra money on a quality bag or suitcase. Yes, I know it sounds like a lot of money to buy quality brands such as Samsonite, Northface or Osprey, but it’s worth it in the long run.

You’re not just buying it for your next trip or a few weeks, you will use it again and again. I had suitcases with snapped wheels, broken zips and heavy frames. Fail. I had backpacks that were uncomfortable, weak and the zip broke in a few weeks in the middle of my trip. Another fail.

So trust me to invest in a good bag, you will get your money back in longevity.

I eventually got a decent suitcase from Samsonite which lasted a decade. My new Osprey 40L backpack is also destined to see me travel through 100 countries.

The ultimate tip before you set off – pack what you need in your bag and try to live out of it for two weeks. Leave the stuff you didn’t wear or need. Easy.

The most important thing to pack with you on any trip is travel insurance. I use World Nomads Travel Insurance and I’d highly recommend their comprehensive policies to all travellers, no matter the destination.