Suitcase vs Backpack. This might just be one of the most hotly contested topics amongst travellers the world over, and to be honest, there’s no right or wrong answer – just whatever best suits you.
Now for me personally, up until a couple of years ago I used a backpack for all my trips, both locally and overseas, but now I switch between a backpack and a suitcase depending on which will best suit my needs for each particular trip. But then again, since I travel so frequently, I have the luxury being able to do that.
There are various things to consider when looking for the right type of bag for you. Durability, convenience, comfort, cost… and way, way more. So where do you start? Over the course of this article, I’ll give you the pros and cons of both, and help you make the right decision for what you need on your travels.
Quick Pros and Cons
Before we go into detail, it’s best to brush over a quick ‘pros and cons’ for both suitcases and backpacks, just to see if there’s a particular side you start to lean towards. Let’s start with:
• Wheels make carrying heavy weights easier – taking the weight off your back and onto the floor can make a world of difference.
• Tend to be larger or have a more square/even layout – suitcases tend to be rectangular, maximising the space that they take up, and usually allow you to fit more in.
• Solid exterior to protect valuables – unlike backpacks, many suitcases come with a sold hard-shell type exterior, to protect your valuables from damage in transit.
• Easier to access and organize – as well as being more spacious, because of the open layout, suitcases are easier to pack and organise.
• Limited mobility – although they might be great for roads and airports, they’re not so good when it comes to paths and trails
• Tend to be bulkier – because of their fixed, rigid shape, it’s usually harder to squeeze them into tighter spaces, like hostel lockers or car boots.
• Great mobility – backpacks are so versatile when it comes to where you can take them, making them good for airports, cities, and off-road terrains.
• Gives you two free hands – as they don’t need dragging along like a suitcase, backpacks give you two free hands at all times, letting you eat, drink, or use your phone on the go,
• More agile – even in places where suitcases won’t struggle, backpacks are just more agile in general, as you can walk up or downstairs, and navigate tight spaces without stopping.
• Can Change shape and size – this makes them easier to stuff into tight spaces, or allows them to expand to fit more in.
• Don’t usually have as much space – despite the fact they can stretch and expand, as they’re rarely rectangular-shaped, backpacks don’t often fit as much in as suitcases
• Harder to organize – it’s hard to keep things neat and tidy in a backpack. Although some come with many pockets, you still often have to pile things on top of each other from them to fit, rather than lay them out neatly.
It’s clear that both suitcases and backpacks have their advantages and disadvantages – where one struggles, the other seems to flourish, and vice-versa. So if the points above haven’t been enough to make up your mind, let’s go into a bit more detail…
Packing & Accessibility
The first thing you do before travelling is pack what you’re going to bring – and suitcases are better for this by a mile, no doubt about it. You can lay them on the floor or your bed, fold them open and neatly place your belongings in the way you choose. And if you pack them well enough, whatever you pack will be in exactly the same place when you open it up upon your arrival.
It’s not the same with backpacks. You often have to prioritise what’s going where depending on when you’ll need it next. This isn’t the worst thing in the world to deal with, but digging through your entire pack just to find that one item can be a pain.
Having said that, backpacks are great for having things that are easy to access on the fly. Whereas suitcases often have one main pocket, with a few small pouches on the front for documents or valuables, many backpacks have over ten different compartments for an assortment of things. So although the main pocket might end up being a messy pile of your junk, if you make use of all the extra pockets, clips and straps, you’ll be able to access things like your passport, money, earphones or water bottle in an instant.
Some people praise suitcases simply for their wheels, as gliding a four-wheeler through the smooth airport flooring can be a breeze, in comparison to having a hefty backpack weighing down your shoulders.
Having said that, some praise backpacks for their out-of-the-way design, leaving all your stuff behind you (literally), whilst giving you two hands free to sip some coffee on the go, or even just to open a door with ease.
If you’re wanting a suitcase to be comfy, you’ll need one with decent wheels – preferably four rather than just two – and with a long enough handle for you to wheel beside you without bending to the side, especially if you’re quite tall, like myself.
When it comes to backpacks, you’ll want to find one with multi-way adjustable straps. A day backpack is usually fine with just a few shoulders straps, but if you’re carrying enough for a whole trip, you’ll want with one a waist strap and a chest strap too; spreading the weight over your entire torso, rather than just your shoulders, will make all the difference.
Of course, whatever bag you go for, it isn’t just for the airport, so making sure you’ve got something with good mobility is key.
Rather than looking for something stylish or cool, think about your destination, and what you plan on doing during your trip. The cobblestone roads of Prague or York are very different to the smooth tarmac that lines many parts of Dubai or Las Vegas, and large bags aren’t a problem on a quiet street, but when rush-hour hits you might think differently.
Backpacks usually win over when it comes to mobility, purely because of their range of uses – yeah, they’re not as smooth-gliding when going through airports, but if you’re walking around packed city streets, or hiking your way up to the inconveniently situated hostel, they’re probably the best bet.
If you’re doing anything more, like large outdoor hikes, or a cycling trip, it’s best to look for one with some kind of frame inside, as this keeps the strain off your back, and stops you getting ultra-sweaty too.
Having said that, suitcases, unlike many backpacks, often come with hard, rigid shells, which can protect your goods whilst you’re on the go.
So if you’re willing to deal with the bumpy terrains you might encounter, a suitcase with decent handles and wheels might just do the job. But be cautious – if you pick something up that’s cheap and flimsy at all, you’re likely going to run into trouble somewhere down the line. A handle on the top as well as on the side helps, and bigger wheels – ones that look more like rollerblade wheels – are generally more durable.
Realistically, the choice is yours. Whether you go for something more airport-suitable that you’re willing to put up with on the walk to the hotel, or if you think you’re strong enough to have everything placed on your back, despite the strain on your shoulders – consider the destination you’re going too, and the things you plan on doing there, and make the decision yourself.
Whatever you go for, it won’t make or break your trip, it might just make things a bit harder or easier than they otherwise would’ve been.
And don’t forget, there are various hybrids between the two. Although they aren’t always on the cheap side, various companies have come out with a range of ‘backpack-suitcases’ that are the same size and shape as a carry-on suitcase, but trade plastic wheels for backpack straps, giving you the packing convenience of a suitcase, but the mobility of a backpack.
Some even sport both – backpack straps, as well as wheels and a handle – so you can switch between the two on the fly. Do some browsing online and you might find the perfect fit for you. Or you might even decide to go with a duffel bag, just to be different.
The most important thing to remember is that, whatever you choose, ignore the downsides, and embrace the advantages!
For more travel tips, make sure you check out the rest of my blog posts as well.