Which type of luggage you choose depends on your destination and style of travel. For some trips, a backpack offers greater convenience. Sometimes a suitcase is the better option. This backpack vs suitcase pros and cons list is designed to help you decide which type of luggage is better suited for your trip.
- Both hands are free- This is the biggest benefit in my opinion. While wearing a backpack, you can use both hands to carry other gear, use your phone, eat, drink, pay for stuff, etc. all while on the go. It’s really convenient being able to use both hands anytime instead of having to stop and set down your suitcase when you need to do something.
- Backpacks allow you to move over uneven terrain more easily- You can literally hike over mountains and ford rivers while wearing your backpack. You can also easily walk up and down stairs. Roller suitcases only function properly on smooth floors. Even on normal sidewalks, they have trouble rolling. Mine flips over if it hits a tiny crack. It’s incredibly annoying. Forget about cobblestone streets.
- Backpacks are healthier to carry- A good backpack distributes the weight over your hips, back, and shoulders. If properly fitted, a quality hiking backpack allows you to safely walk for miles and miles without injury. Suitcases, on the other hand, just use a single handle that doesn’t distribute the weight. You’re also carrying all of the weight on one side of your body which puts unhealthy pressure on your back and hips. It’s much easier to injure your back.
- You can walk further with a backpack- While traveling, I often walk many miles while wearing my backpack. The suspension system technology is surprisingly comfortable makes walking around easy and comfortable. Long walks aren’t really possible with a suitcase.
- Backpacks are more durable- Most people use hiking backpacks for travel. These are designed to be used outdoors, left in the rain, and carried for miles at a time through rugged terrain. They are incredibly durable and will most likely outlast a suitcase of the same quality. I still travel with the same backpack that I bought for my first trip abroad. I’ve been using it for 8 years and it’s still going strong.
- Backpacks are more secure- Your belongings are attached to your body when you wear a backpack. You don’t have to worry about someone grabbing your suitcase and running away with it when you set it down.
- Backpacks are lighter- Because they are meant to be carried, manufacturers use lightweight materials to keep the weight as low as possible. Backpacks also don’t have rigid frames, wheels, or collapsing handles that add weight. An ultralight backpack weighs less than 2 pounds (around a kilo). This makes carrying your stuff easier and more efficient.
- You can carry more stuff on airplanes with a backpack- Because backpacks are lighter than suitcases, you can pack more without going over the airline weight limit. This is particularly important if you travel with only a carry-on. For more info on traveling light, check out my ultralight travel packing list.
- You can strap large items outside of your backpack- Most modern backpacks have straps on the outside that allow you to attach your jacket, water bottle, boots, etc. This greatly increases the volume of gear that you can carry. For example, I always travel with a tent. I usually strap it to the outside of my backpack because it’s so bulky. Suitcases are pretty much limited to the interior volume. They are not expandable and you can’t really strap stuff to the outside.
- Backpacks can save you money- Oftentimes when I travel, I walk from the bus or train station to my hotel or hostel. Sometimes the distance may be up to a few miles. Having a backpack makes this easy. In many cities, it would be impractical or impossible to drag or carry a suitcase that distance because of the conditions of the sidewalks. In this case, you have to spend money and take a taxi, bus, or metro. Walking is free.
- Backpacks have multiple uses- My travel backpack is a hiking backpack. Specifically, I have the Osprey Talon 44. When I’m not traveling, I use the same backpack to go camping and hiking. Sometimes I use it as a gym bag. Suitcases don’t give you that option. You’re probably not going to use your suitcase outside of a vacation.
- Backpacks are waterproof or water-resistant- As I mentioned, most travelers choose a hiking backpack for their travel backpack. These are designed to be used in the rain and snow. Many hiking backpacks include a built-in waterproof rain cover. These keep your gear dry, no matter the weather conditions. Suitcases usually aren’t designed to be used in wet conditions. They leak.
- If you stay in hostels, you’ll blend in more- In every hostel, you’ll notice that 99% of guests use backpacks. You might even get made fun of by some elitist backpacker for using a suitcase.
- Backpacks look cooler- If you’re the kind of person that cares about looks, backpacks are a bit more stylish these days. Backpacks also make you look a bit more adventurous. Of course, this is just a personal opinion.
- Backpacks are harder to pack and unpack- This is true for two reasons. First, backpacks have an odd shape. Kind of like a tube. This makes packing certain items a bit awkward. It’s difficult to efficiently utilize the space. Second, backpacks have a relatively small opening at the top for packing gear. There is one way in and one way out. If you want to access something at the bottom, you may have to remove everything above it first. This makes organization a bit challenging. To make traveling with a backpack easier, I recommend you look for a model with an opening at the bottom. Some travel backpacks have zippers all the way around so they open like a suitcase.
- Your clothes wrinkle easier in a backpack- Because of the odd shape of backpacks, you can’t really fold clothes flat and lay them in. You have to get a bit creative when packing. The best solution is to roll your clothes. This helps to avoid wrinkles and allows you to fit more in the space that you have.
- Backpacks don’t roll- Most suitcases these days have wheels so you don’t have to carry the full weight of your luggage. This makes walking around airports and train stations a breeze. If you travel with a backpack, you always have to carry it on your back. There are a few backpacks available with wheels but options are limited.
- Backpacks can damage your clothes- With the straps constantly rubbing on your shoulders and the backpack sitting on your back, fragile fabrics wear out faster. I’ve noticed pilling on some of my shirts where my backpack rests. You don’t want to wear your Sunday best while traveling with your backpack.
- Backpacks can cause injury- You can injure your back, shoulders, neck, and hips if you overpack or wear a backpack that doesn’t fit properly. Your body can only carry so much weight. As a rule of thumb, your backpack shouldn’t weigh more than about 20% of your body weight. Any more and you risk injury. If you have a bad back to begin with, you’ll want to be particularly careful not to overpack.
- Travel backpacks are generally more expensive- A decent travel backpack costs over $100. They are tough to find used. You can buy a nice suitcase for half that. If you visit a thrift store, you can pick up a quality suitcase for much less. Of course, on the luxury end, suitcases are far more expensive than any backpack.
- Backpacks don’t offer much protection for your belongings- Because backpacks are soft-sided, your stuff can get banged up if you don’t pack carefully. This is a problem when checking your bag for a flight. Baggage handlers toss bags around without any consideration for the contents. Suitcases at least have a bit of form. Most are built with rigid sides which help shield your belongings from damage. Of course, you can overcome this problem by only pack carry-on. That way, you’re the only person who handles your bag.
- Backpack straps get caught on things as you walk- This is a rare annoyance that is particularly common when boarding airplanes. While walking down the aisle, a strap always seems to get caught on one of the armrests. Suitcases are usually smooth on the outside and don’t get caught up as easily.
- Backpacks can look out of place- If you are traveling somewhere high end, most travelers will be using a suitcase. Airports are the same way. Most travelers carry a suitcase. You may look out of place if you travel with a backpack. Some people care about looks and some don’t.
- Suitcases allow you to more easily access your clothes and gear- Suitcases fold open like a book, allowing you to easily see all of your clothes and gear inside. Because of the wide opening, you can easily access everything that you have. This also makes organization easier.
- Suitcases roll- Pretty much all modern suitcases have 2-4 wheels on the bottom which allow you to roll your bag over a smooth surface. This makes moving your bag through an airport or train station incredibly easy and efficient. You don’t have to carry the full weight on your back as you do with a backpack.
- The shape of a suitcase makes packing easier- Suitcases are shaped like rectangles. Most items we travel with are shaped like rectangles. For example, folded clothing, books, tablets, toiletry bags, etc. Packing these inside of a suitcase is much more efficient than packing them in a cylindrical backpack. There’s less wasted space inside.
- Your clothes stay wrinkle-free in a suitcase- Because you can pack your clothes folded flat, they are less likely to develop wrinkles while in transit. You can pack your suit and dress clothes without worry. This is important if you are traveling for business or somewhere where you need to dress well. You may have to do a bit of ironing at your destination, but not nearly as much as if you had traveled with a backpack.
- Suitcases protect your belongings better than backpacks- Most suitcases are equipped with some type of rigid plastic around the edges. This protects your gear from damage from drops or over compression. As we all know, airline baggage handlers are particularly hard on luggage. Backpacks, being soft, just don’t offer the same protection. Your gear can easily suffer damage from a drop.
- Suitcases don’t cause injury- Because you are rolling the weight behind you rather than carrying it on your back, you are less likely to injure yourself. Rolling a suitcase requires very little effort. Backpacks can be hard on the back, shoulders, and hips. Particularly if you carry too much weight or wear an improperly fitted pack. If you have a bad back, stick with a suitcase for travel.
- Suitcases don’t wear out your clothes- Because there are no shoulder straps rubbing on your body like there are with a backpack, your clothes last longer. I’ve worn out a few t-shirts by wearing my heavy backpack over them. The backs of the shirts tend to wear thin or pill.
- Suitcases are generally cheaper than backpacks- Pretty much everyone has an old suitcase lying around. If you don’t, you can pick up a decent one at a thrift store for next to nothing. If you wish to buy new, you can get a decent suitcase for around half of what you’d spend on a travel backpack of the same quality. Of course, with luxury suitcases, the sky is the limit in terms of price.
- Suitcases are more convenient if you fly often- If you pack a carry-on suitcase, you don’t have to worry about straps getting caught as you walk through the aisle. Airplane overhead bins are designed to accommodate roller suitcases.
- Suitcases blend in more easily- The vast majority of travelers use suitcases. This applies to both business and vacation travelers. Just look around an airport and you’ll see that 90% of passengers are carrying a suitcase. If you don’t want to stick out, you may prefer a suitcase. The only exception is backpackers. If you go to a hostel, almost everyone travels with a backpack.
- You only have one free hand while carrying a suitcase- This is the biggest drawback in my opinion. One hand is always occupied by carrying or rolling your suitcase. If you need to do something that requires both hands, you’ll have to stop walking and set down your suitcase to do it. For example, maybe you need to pay for your bus ticket or eat something and need both hands. Backpacks allow you to do these things without setting down your bag or stopping.
- Walking over uneven terrain is more difficult- Roller suitcases don’t do well on ground that isn’t perfectly smooth. While walking on a gravel path or cobblestone street, for example, you’ll have to pick up your bag and carry it. You have to carry them up and down stairs. With a backpack, you can tackle any terrain. You could even climb a mountain.
- Suitcases are less secure- Occasionally, you have to set down your suitcase. You could fall victim to a snatch and grab crime during this time. Backpacks are always attached to your body with the straps. Of course, you could still be robbed but the criminal would have to act in a more violent manner to get a backpack off of your back.
- Suitcases are less durable- They are designed to be used for the occasional vacation. Not long term use. Backpacks, on the other hand, are designed to be used for months on end in rugged conditions. Of course, a good suitcase lasts many years. Probably not as long as a backpack of the same quality though.
- Suitcases are less healthy to carry- In situations where you can’t roll your suitcase and have to carry it, you can tweak your back if you’re not careful. Carrying all of that weight on one side of your body is strenuous and unnatural. Backpacks are designed to disburse the weight of your gear between your hips and shoulders. This way, you’re not carrying too much weight on one particular joint.
- You can’t walk as far with a suitcase- Because suitcases are awkward to carry, you simply can’t walk as far with one unless you can roll it. I’ve walked for miles and miles with my backpack without any issues. I wouldn’t want to carry a suitcase more than a few hundred feet.
- Suitcases are heavier- Wheels, rigid sides, and handles add weight. Because they are designed to be rolled, manufacturers don’t put as much effort into cutting weight from the suitcase. Most modern backpacks are incredibly lightweight. You can buy ultralight backpacks that weigh less than 2 pounds.
- You can’t carry as much stuff on an airplane with a suitcase– Because of baggage weight limits on flights (usually around 10 kilos or 22 lbs for carry-on), the suitcase itself takes up a significant portion of your luggage allowance. This means you can’t carry as much clothing and gear without going over the weight limit. The same is true if you decide to check your suitcase where the allowance is usually around 23 kilos or 50 lbs. Backpacks, being more lightweight, allow you to carry a bit more gear.
- You can only carry what fits inside your suitcase- Suitcases are generally flat on the outside. There are no straps or pockets to attach extra gear. Backpacks, on the other hand, allow you to strap large items to the outside. This comes in handy when your bag is full and you need to carry more gear. For example, if my bag is already full and I buy a bulky souvenir, I can just take out a large item and strap it to the outside. Now I have more room in my backpack. I usually take out my tent and strap it to the side of my bag when I need to carry food while hiking. This just isn’t an option with a suitcase.
- Traveling with a suitcase costs more money- I like to cut expenses by walking from the bus or train station to my accommodation. This could be a several mile walk through varied terrain. Carrying a suitcase that distance would be exhausting. I’d probably end up taking a cab or bus. With my backpack, I don’t even think about walking a few miles. Avoiding taxi fare saves a significant chunk of money over the course of a long trip.
- Suitcases only have one use- You’ll only use your suitcase when traveling. You’re not going to take it hiking or to the gym like you could with your backpack.
- Suitcases aren’t ideal in the rain- Most aren’t water-resistant. If you get caught in the rain, your gear may get wet. Most travel backpacks are water-resistant.
- You’ll stick out when staying in hostels- The vast majority of people staying in hostels carry backpacks. If you’re the one person who uses a suitcase, you’ll stick out. Some people prefer to blend in.
- Suitcases don’t look as cool- This depends on your style and personal preference. I think backpacks look better. They look adventurous. Some people care about looks and some couldn’t care less.
Backpack Vs. Suitcase: My Choice
I have traveled with both types of luggage in the past but pretty much always prefer traveling with my backpack. The biggest benefit for me is having the ability to walk with it. I’ve been known to walk up to 20 miles in a day while traveling. I just couldn’t do that with a suitcase.
Being able to strap additional gear to the bag also comes in handy. Sometimes I like to carry a couple of days worth of food and water. I can easily fill the outside pockets and strap a plastic bag on somewhere to achieve this.
What is the Best Size Backpack for Travel?
I find 40-50 liter backpacks to be the most versatile. They are small enough that you can take them as a carry-on on most flights. They accommodate enough gear for any length of trip. I’ve traveled for 6 months with my 44-liter pack. The backpack size that you choose really depends on:
- Your style of travel- Are you going to stay in hotels or hostels every night or are you going to camp? Do you need to pack nice clothes for going? The more gear you need, the larger pack you’ll require.
- The length of your trip- Are you going on a 2 year sabbatical or a 1 week vacation? For long trips, you may want to pack some additional gear for luxury. You can do without some items on short vacations.
- The climate of your destination- You’ll need more space for warm clothes if you’re traveling to Siberia in January than if you’re traveling to Havana*.
- What kind of packer you are- Are you a minimalist or do you like to bring some comfort items? Do you like to carry luxury items like a pillow and hairdryer?
- How many electronics you pack- These days, most travelers bring a laptop, camera, and their phone as well accessories and chargers. This stuff all takes up space. If you can make do with just a smartphone, you can choose a smaller backpack.
- Carry-on vs checked bag- 40-50 liters is the maximum size you can get away with a carry-on. Any larger and you’ll have to check it most of the time. To help you decide, check out my guide to checked vs carry-on luggage.
After considering the above points, you can start searching for the perfect backpack for your trip. If you find that you need to carry a lot of gear, you can go for a 60+ liter pack. Just know that you’ll need to check it for most flights. If you can pack light, look for something in the 30 liter range. Most travelers find 40-50 liter packs to be ideal.
What is the Best Size Suitcase for Travel?
When it comes to suitcases, sizes are fairly standardized. Manufacturers build their suitcases to meet the airline requirements. Really, you just have to decide between carry-on size and checked size.
Carry-on sized suitcases
These are divided into two categories. The size number refers to the height of the suitcase in inches.
- 18-20 inch- This is the international standard size. They measure 18, 19, or 20” x 14” x 9”. If you’re looking for a suitcase that is permitted on pretty much all airlines, go with an 18 inch or 48 cm model.
- 20-22 inch- These are standard US sized carry-on sizes. They measure 20, 21,or 22” x 14” x 9”. These are permitted on almost all domestic flights in the US.
Most airlines allow carry-on sized bags to weigh up to 10 kilos or 22 pounds. Sometimes the weight limit is significantly less. Before your flight, be sure to check the size and weight limits of carry-on sized bags just to be sure.
Checked size suitcases
The standard checked size bag limit is 62 linear inches or 158 cm. The most common size for a checked suitcase is 27” x 21” x 14”. The most common weight limit is 50 pounds or 23 kilos.
Of course, some airlines have tighter restrictions. Be sure to check the limits before your flight so you don’t get an unpleasant surprise at the airport with an oversize or overweight bag charge. These can quickly add up to hundreds of dollars.
For more info, check out this useful guide on suitcase sizes from Worldtraveler.com.
My Travel Backpack
I bought the Osprey Talon 44 Hiking Backpack on Amazon in preparation for my first solo trip in 2011. I have since traveled with the same backpack to over 50 countries on 6 continents. Needless to say, I am beyond thrilled with its performance and durability. The bag has seen a lot of abuse and has held up well. It has ridden on the top of countless African buses and been thrown around by dozens of airline baggage handlers. So far the only damage is a couple of stains.
In my bag, I am able to carry full camping gear as well as my laptop, camera, and plenty of clothes. I have used this backpack for overnighters as well as multi-month trips. It’s also my hiking backpack while I’m home. For more info on the Osprey Talon 44, check out my full review here.
Other Travel Backpack Recommendations
This budget-friendly travel backpack features a laptop sleeve and includes a rain cover. It has a large opening to make accessing your gear a bit easier. The thing I like about this backpack is the fact that it looks more inconspicuous than most hiking backpacks. When you see it, you don’t automatically think ‘backpacker’. It’s a bit easier to blend in.
This is kind of a suitcase/backpack hybrid. It’s the best of both worlds. It features a large suitcase-like opening, exterior straps for attaching extra gear, and handles so you can carry it like a suitcase. The bag is carry-on friendly with most airlines.
This is a great backpack for those who need a bit more volume. The bag features adjustable straps, a raincover, and plenty of exterior straps for attaching and organizing gear. This would be a great bag for those planning to do a lot of hiking and camping during their travels. It’s large enough to accommodate a full camping setup.
Travel Tip: Carry a small fordable backpack inside your larger travel backpack or suitcase to use as a day pack. When you arrive at your destination, you’ll want a way to carry around snacks, sunglasses, water, sunblock, etc. while you’re out and about sightseeing. You don’t want to carry around your large backpack for this purpose.
I like the Outlander Packable Travel Backpack. It’s durable, folds down small, and has multiple pockets for organizing gear. You can also use this bag as your carry-on if you have to check your big backpack or suitcase for whatever reason.
Backpack Vs. Suitcase: Final Thoughts
The backpack vs suitcase decision really comes down the type of travel that you do. If you fly to your destination and stay in the same hotel or resort for the duration of your trip, a suitcase is probably the most convenient option. If you plan to move around from place to place during your trip, a backpack will better suit you. For long trips, backpacks are usually the better choice.
Personal preference is also a consideration. If you always travel with a backpack, there is really no reason to switch. If you’re just not comfortable with a backpack, stick with your suitcase.
Where do you stand on the backpack vs suitcase debate? Share your experience in the comments below!
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