Backpack vs Suitcase – Which One Should You Choose?
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? Backpack or suitcase. Well, let’s break it down.
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.
A backpack can give you freedom in places where the suitcase will fail. Cobbled streets, stairs and unpaved roads
Backpack vs Suitcase – The Pros and Cons of a Backpack
Reasons to choose a backpack
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 them. 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 (with this ultimate packing list) or Asia (with this perfect SE Asia packing list) 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.
Why you shouldn’t choose a backpack
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 store fragile souvenirs.
Backpack or suitcase – Small suitcase is perfect for a short trip
Backpack vs Suitcase – The Pros and Cons of a Suitcase
Reasons to choose a suitcase
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
Why you shouldn’t choose a suitcase
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 of whether 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.
Packing a suitcase seems easier – Backpack vs Suitcase
Which one to choose? 5 Things to consider
Different things work for different people and different types 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:
1. The type of travel
Are you travelling on 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.
2. The type of destination – Is it developed or not?
It is something many forget to think about when it comes to backpack vs suitcase decisions. 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 or Japan.
Europe is a developed continent, 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.
I’d highly recommend a backpack for travelling in Africa, and this packing list for Africa is ideal for any adventure.
3. Your 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 Travel Resources Page is where you can find the best websites for booking cheap flights, accommodation and activities.
4. 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 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 on a backpack then trust me, there are some amazing carry on bags that 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?
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.
5. 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, and 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.
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.
Don’t Forget to Pack Travel Insurance
Make sure you get travel insurance before hitting the road. Trust us, it’s one of those things you don’t want to leave home without. We recommend either World Nomads or SafetyWing, depending on the type of traveller you are.
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So are you a backpack or a suitcase traveller? Let us know in the comments below.
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A coffee lover, history junkie, former tour guide, and endless optimist. The mastermind of logistics and chief navigator for Very Hungry Nomads, two women on an adventure to visit EVERY country in the world. Marty is a social butterfly who describes her life as “just livin’ the dream".